HERE COMES THE HAMMER: Frankenstein and His Many, MANY Monsters

by Jake on October 25, 2012

The Quartermass ExperimentAfter the classic monster era died out in the late 1940′s, horror movies underwent a drastic change in tone. 19th Century supernatural horrors were shunted aside to make way for 20th Century scientific horrors. The influence of Cold War fears led to movies about space invaders, while the legacy of Hiroshima spawned monsters that were the result of radiation. While this was not necessarily a bad thing, here at the Quiet Room, we rather like the old monsters, in case you hadn’t noticed. So this is the first in a series of articles dealing with the resurrection of the classic monsters by a little English film company called Hammer Films.

In this mid-1950′s time period, Hammer had been in existence for over two decades and while they had made a lot of films, real success had eluded them. Most of their movies had been big screen adaptations of television and radio scripts. It was one of these, ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, another take on aliens and science gone wrong, that began a lucrative trade in horror for the studio which lasted almost 20 years.

Around this time, a script for a new Frankenstein movie was in the works. Now, the original Mary Shelley novel was in the public domain, but Universal Studios had copyrighted their take on the Monster’s appearance and they jealously guarded their financial property. So the idea of another Frankenstein film brought with it certain pitfalls that had to be avoided.

Truth be told, the original script wasn’t particularly good. Also, it was essentially a pastiche on ‘Son of Frankenstein’. While extensive rewrites would be necessary – in fact, eventually an entire new story was developed – the Hammer execs saw a great deal of potential in a new take on the Frankenstein tale. They decided to film the movie in color – their first ever color horror film.

This was the birth of the Hammer Horror style. The formula was very simple and amazingly effective:

  1. Pick a classic monster.
  2. Write a new version of the story.
  3. Film it in color.
  4. Pile on the blood and gore.
  5. Also, heaving lady bosoms.

An unwritten part of the formula might be to cast Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee, preferably both, but this was not always the case, while the other elements were pretty much a constant, as was the 19th Century setting.

Curse of FrankensteinNow, ‘piling on the blood and gore’ was a bit different in 1957! England had a VERY strict film censor board. But by the standards of the period, ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ was a gruesome film, indeed.

Great care was taken to avoid the look and style of the Universal movies, which was actually a boon to the final product, making it stand out and giving audiences something new and fresh.

The film stars the late, great Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein, with whom you may be familiar. Cushing was a familiar face on British television, but Hammer catapulted his film career. In the Hammer Frankenstein series, Victor is not a very nice person. He’s arrogant, driven and willing to do whatever it takes – including murder – to carry on with his experiments. It is difficult to understand why his fiancée Elizabeth is so fond of him, but apparently, she doesn’t know him as well as she thinks. For example, she doesn’t realize that Victor has been known to play a few rounds of footsie with the attractive housekeeper!

Frankenstein's MonsterThe part of the Monster is played by Christopher Lee, who was virtually unknown at the time and chosen largely for his height. While the Monster is a mute simpleton in this film, much like the Universal version (but entirely unlike the novel), his makeup is completely different and rather bizarre.

The story, while certainly an original take on the material, is nevertheless pretty much the usual: Victor makes Monster, Monster terrorizes the countryside, people die, yadda, yadda, yadda. The film starts with Victor in prison, awaiting execution (he is blamed for the Monster’s crimes, as no one knows the Monster existed) and telling his story to a priest. In the end, he is led to his fate. It is never entirely clear if the story is true or if it was all in Victor’s head (Hint: it was true).

The movie was an instant success. It is still considered the best of the Hammer horrors and rightfully looked on as a classic. Naturally, this meant a sequel was inevitable. Unlike the Universal Frankenfilms which focused on the Monster, the Hammer series was all about Victor, who would create something different in each sequel – always with deadly results.

1958′s ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ shows us that Victor was able to pull a switcheroo and get out of being executed. Years later, he is operating under an alias. His new hobby is brain transplants. He helps out Karl, a deformed hunchback, by putting his brain into a healthy body. This does not end well.

While Victor Frankenstein is never shown to be a particularly upstanding sort of chap, his character is a bit more sympathetic in this one. But that all goes away for the remainder of the series.

Hammer’s success with Frankenstein (and Dracula, which we’ll discuss in another article) led Universal to reconsider their attitude toward their monsters. The Universal folks realized that there was money to be made and decided they wanted in. They subsequently made a deal that allowed Hammer the rights to the Universal library while Universal would handle US distribution of the movies.

The Evil of FrankensteinPerhaps because of this, ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ (1964) is oddly unlike the first two films. It is much more of a Universal style movie. Even the continuity bears little resemblance to anything in the previous entries.

Essentially, Victor Frankenstein and his assistant, Hans (Victor has a new sidekick in each film; an inordinate number of them are named Hans!) return to Victor’s hometown, find the body of the original Monster and revive it. By ‘original Monster’, I do not mean that Christopher Lee returned. This Monster looks absolutely nothing like the one in ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ and his creation scene is entirely different. This Monster looks mostly like some really odd take on the Universal version of the Monster, which matches everything else about this film. A hypnotist gains control of the big guy, people die, you know the drill.

This movie was not as well-received as the first two – straying from the formula was not a recipe for success – so from then on, the rest of the series was more in keeping with the originals.

In 1967′s ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’, the not so good Doctor is now experimenting with souls. When his assistant Hans(!) is killed, Christina, who loved Hans, drowns herself. Victor puts Hans’ soul into Christina’s body – like you do. The disfigured Christina is surgically improved so that she is now a beautiful woman with the soul of her dead lover who, of course, goes on a killing spree. Then she drowns herself again because, hey, it kind of worked once already.

By this point, sequelitis was kicking in. It is nearly impossible to keep turning out sequels without a drop in quality. The next movie is a great example.

‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ is, at best, unoriginal. Brain transplants AGAIN. In addition, Victor has added blackmail and rape to his list of unpleasant little quirks. Peter Cushing objected to the rape scene, but was overruled. So this was a real low point for the franchise.

But fortunately(?), Hammer was able to sink even lower. They realized that they needed to try something different, something new. Then they threw back a few drinks and said “Sod it,” (because they’re British, see) and decided to REALLY upset Frankenfans. They succeeded.

Horror of Frankenstein1970′s ‘Horror of Frankenstein’ had three strikes from the get-go:
- It was a remake of ‘Curse of Frankenstein’
- In fact, it was a parody AND
- It did not star Peter Cushing

This movie sucks. Enough said.

Having learned their lesson, the studio brought Cushing back for ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’. Victor Frankenstein builds a new creature that – in a surprise twist no one could possibly have seen coming – turns out to be a homicidal idiot who goes on a rampage. The movie ends leaving the door open for a sequel, but sadly, this was the last film in the Hammer Frankenstein series.

The Hammer Horrors led to a revival of Gothic horror films, spawning countless imitations, particularly in Europe. In addition, these movies made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into household names. While Cushing is sadly no longer with us, Mr. Lee is still starring in films! The Hammer Frankenflicks are delightful and very watchable movies that have stood the test of time. Even after 50 years, these movies are fondly remembered and still enjoyed by viewers of all ages. Not bad for a tiny studio with a limited budget!

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