Saturday, 9 February 2013

HAMMER FILM PRODUCTIONS: THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN: TROY HOWARTH REVIEWS WITH RARE GALLERY




Conventional wisdom dictates some not-terribly-wise things with regards to Hammer’s Frankenstein series. For one, there’s a sense that the films form a continuous saga, though much in the films blatantly contradicts this. For another, there’s the long-standing argument that Terence Fisher, gifted director though he was, was somehow responsible for the conception of the character; here again, evidence to the contrary makes nonsense of this assertion. And lastly - and perhaps most commonly parroted - is the argument that the non-Fisher-helmed Evil of Frankenstein is a bad film - an anomaly in an otherwise unimpeachable series of films featuring one of Hammer’s most beloved icons, Peter Cushing, in his signature role. There really isn’t room in this essay to delve too deeply into the first two points, but the third is of particular interest in this context.



The Evil of Frankenstein came after a surprising moratorium on Frankenstein at Hammer. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) had initiated Hammer’s golden age of Gothic horror, and its success paved the way for everything that followed. The inevitable follow up, Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), was comparatively light on chills but still earned a pretty penny in the UK and the US. Even so, it would take the better part of five years for Hammer to revisit the franchise. It could be that the seemingly definitive finale of Revenge put Hammer in an awkward position - screenwriter Jimmy Sangster painted himself into a corner here, with the Baron effectively becoming his own creation. Sangster, an avowed non-fan of the gothic, wasn’t particularly keen on recycling the character, and nobody at Hammer could come up with a suitable follow up. Things changed when Hammer struck a deal with Universal, however. The deal enabled Hammer to have access to the much-coveted “monster” design of makeup genius Jack P. Pierce, immortalized in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). 

Hammer had struggled mightily to come up with a design for Christopher Lee’s pitiable creature in Curse, while Revenge went against the grain and offered a handsome “creature” who regresses to a drooling cannibal. For Evil, the idea was to start afresh - and in so doing, producer/writer Anthony Hinds decided to go back to the Universal catalogue for inspiration. It was a risky move, in some respects, and it remains the most hotly contested feature of the picture.



On the one hand, there’s no denying that the film marks a step backwards in terms of concept. It seems a bit stale, a rehash of elements and characters present in the Universal Frankenstein saga of the 30s and 40s. As such, it’s a more old fashioned film that its predecessors - and it certainly doesn’t aspire to the more inventive turn the series would take later on. But while this is a demerit, it’s hard to fault the film on a purely entertainment-based level. Director Freddie Francis was something of a “flavor of the month” at Hammer during this time - his stylish handling of several of Jimmy Sangster’s contrived Les Diaboliques riffs, notably Paranoiac (1962) and Nightmare (1963), had typed him as a genre filmmaker, much to his dismay, and his films made a tidy profit; this was enough to put him in the coveted position previously held by Fisher, whose increasingly character-based and romantic approach to genre tropes resulted in some costly box office failures. 


It doesn’t appear likely that Fisher was ever seriously considered for Evil, though the legend persists in some circles that he dropped out due to ill health. Francis admitted time and time again that he didn’t take these subjects seriously - he became increasingly disenchanted with his moniker of “horror director,” resulting in uninspired hackwork throughout the better part of the 1970s before a triumphant return to cinematography presented itself when maverick filmmaker David Lynch approached him to photograph the Hammer-inspired slice of real life grotesquerie, The Elephant Man (1960). Francis’ record as a cinematographer is unimpeachable - he can be counted among the finest that England ever turned out, which is no mean feat when one considers the likes of Freddie Young, Gilbert Taylor, Jack Cardiff, Douglas Slocombe, even Hammer’s own Jack Asher. His lack of feeling for the genre to one side, he proved a pretty good director during the 1960s, bringing his eye for color, shadow and depth of field to a series of stylishly lensed horror films and thrillers. The Evil of Frankenstein is not his best work as a director, but it shows him working at full speed within the confines of an admittedly routine and episodic screenplay.



One of the key things Francis brought to the film was a sense of scope. Recalling the original Whale Frankenstein films with fondness, he found the “mad labs” of Fisher’s films rather wanting. Thus, he instructed production designer Bernard Robinson and art director Don Mingaye to go wild, entrusting them with the better part of the budget so as to enable them to create the most imposing laboratory set in the history of the franchise. Francis’ faith in these expert craftsmen paid off in dividends - the film may have its problems in terms of story and character, but it looks terrific. Adding to the rich texture is the beautiful lighting by Francis’ friend and colleague, John Wilcox. Wilcox photographed some of Francis’ best work - including The Skull (1965) - and the two men were simpatico in their working relationship. If Fisher’s first two films in the series sought to bring an air of realism to the proceedings, Francis would go in the opposite direction, fashioning a film that can truly be called bigger than life. It unfolds very much like a fairy tale, and it presents the long-suffering Baron at his most heroic and sympathetic. 


Peter Cushing is immaculate in the role, and he clearly relishes the chance to play a bit of comedy here and there - just look at the scene wherein he confronts the sniveling, sex-crazed Burgomaster (David Huddelston, later to be frozen to death by The Abominable Dr. Phibes) and rants and raves about all the elegant furnishing and clothing the latter has pilfered from his estate. If Sangster saw the character as a villain in Curse, and a frustrated hero in Revenge, Evil presents him as a symbol of progress. Hinds’ screenplay gets the point across by reducing everybody he goes up against to the level of cartoonish caricature, a miscalculation which robs the story of any real emotional resonance. Even so, the film rattles along at a terrific pace, and Francis seizes every opportunity afforded to him to play up the visual - there’s even a lengthy, dialogue free flashback which can be seen as a dress rehearsal for his “purely cinematic” approach to The Skull, for example.



Francis fares so well with the visual, it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t so attentive to his actors. Cushing could have played this role in his sleep by now, of course, but he invests the character with his usual vigor and attention to detail. Remarkable actor though he was, he could sometimes fall back on a catalogue of ticks and mannerisms that felt a bit forced. There are no such reservations to be expressed with this performance, however, and the film surely benefits from his authority and gravitas. The supporting cast is less than stellar, however. Francis freely admitted that he felt the role of the monster needed to be played by a big man, regardless of his acting credentials. He expressed some reservations over Christopher Lee’s characterization in Curse, for example, and felt that he would do better to hire an athlete or stunt man to fill the costume. He entrusted the role to New Zealand born wrestler Kiwi Kingston, whose acting credits would be limited to two roles for Francis, in very close succession; he would go on to play a tough, wordless part in Hysteria (1965). 


Kingston may have been big and imposing, but he lacked Lee’s ability to infuse pathos and detail to his mute, hulking characterization. Matters aren’t helped any by a miserable makeup job, but we’ll deal with that Achilles heel in a moment. The normally reliable Hungarian actor Sandor Eles flounders in the admittedly poorly written character of Hans. It was a “middle European” name the writers at Hammer favored, as Cushing’s assistant in Revenge, played by Francis Matthews, was already called Hans, and his next lab assistant, played by Robert Morris, would be saddled with the moniker in Frankenstein Created Woman (1966)! Eles does what he can, but the character is a dud and Francis allows him to overact in compensation. Speaking of overacting, this brings us to Peter Woodthorpe, the accomplished character actor with a knack for seedy characterizations; he would go on to feature memorably in Hysteria, as well, before racking up one last role for Francis as the moth-eaten landlord in The Skull. Woodthorpe’s performance lays on the ham with relish - and it has to be said, he’s a sheer delight in the role. 


The larger than life characterization seems to suit the film’s milieu, and at least he brings a bit of zest to the proceedings. The normally reliable Duncan Lamont seems ill tempered and disinterested as the local policeman, however, while James Maxwell is perfectly dreadful as the irate village priest. Much the same can be said for Katy Wild, who flounders in her role as the mute waif that Frankenstein allows to tend to the creature; this character is so ill-defined, Universal was able to graft a senseless “back story” explaining her origins when they added in some newly filmed filler material for the censored US TV print.


So much of the film is so well executed, from its sprawling sets to its magisterial score by Don Banks, that it’s rather shocking to see how badly Roy Ashton’s makeup fares. Ashton was one of the unsung heroes of Hammer, devising some tremendously effective makeups on a paltry budget, but here he was encouraged to ape Pierce’s iconic design - and the best he could muster was a high school level imitation. The design is clunky - the head is literally box like, attempting to mimic the flat-top look of the Universal design, and the pallid complexion looks very much like what it was: a lot of putty tossed together with unseemly haste. Anybody doubting Ashton’s competence needs only to look at his design for Oliver Reed’s werewolf in The Curse of the Werewolf, but Evil of Frankenstein is hardly likely to be counted as a feather in his cap.



Even so, quibbles aside, Evil of Frankenstein is grand entertainment - and that’s all Francis ever intended it to be. There’s nothing terribly layered or complex here; it’s just a rip roaring yarn, done with a sense of style and scope, and it stands apart from the rest of the series as endearingly old fashioned.

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