Friday, November 30, 2012

183. THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958)

Hammer's long-running series of Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing -- beginning with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and concluding with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1973) -- represent something of a unique achievement in horror cinema, or was for many years: a sequence of films in which a single anti-heroic protagonist is allowed to develop greater complexity over a number of adventures. You could point to similar cases that followed, like Paul Naschy's Waldemar Daninsky, but Naschy's werewolf was regenerated anew for each new story, given new origins and circumstances that held closer to the surface rather than deepening with each appearance. There is a case to be made that Hammer's Frankenstein series may have been, more accurately, a series of series: THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN forming a diptych with its direct predecessor CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1964's Universal-produced EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964) standing curiously alone, and the final bunch -- FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967), FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) and MONSTER FROM HELL -- composing a sort of trilogy of the Baron's aspiration, bitterness and wreckage. However you choose to take them, whole or piecemeal, their collective beauty resides in the continuity of Peter Cushing's central performances. When he returns to his looted chateau in EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN and finally utters the bereft words "Why can't they leave me alone?" we feel his disappointment extending all the way back to 1957, and it somehow miraculously forgives more misdeeds than we can easily recount. And why? Because we too, in our hearts, share his belief that life is too precious for death to be anything but an utter abomination.

Its actual placement may be open to debate, but I've never known anyone to dispute that REVENGE either tops, or is very close to the top of the list of Hammer's best work in this series, or indeed on a list of Hammer's work in the horror genre. On a Frankenstein list, its main competition comes from MUST BE DESTROYED, which is generally regarded as director Terence Fisher's masterpiece (it is that, but, just as importantly, it was a major return to form) and often discussed as Fisher's bleakest film. Watching REVENGE again for the first time in several years, this acclamation rose to mind because it is, at the very least, as bleak and despairing about human nature, and the way people are encouraged to become dishonest and duplicitous by social divisions and career politics. Both Francis Matthews as Frankenstein's protégé Hans Kleve (a surname that would return in CREATED WOMAN) and future alpha Bond Girl Eunice Gayson (pictured) as Margaret Conrad do great damage in their innocence while Frankenstein himself, in the guise of Dr. Victor Stein -- a well-to-do surgeon who divides his time between tending to the privileged in a private practice and the poor in a Dickensian free clinic -- is, at the very least, giving back to his community more than he takes (which may be the odd pickpocket's arm), and it eventually murderously turns on him for doing so. Michael Gwynn is outstanding as a successful brain transplant patient who, once beaten by a groundskeeper, turns cannibal (his pathetic crashing of a high society soirée is one of the great dramatic moments in British horror); Gwynn's performance feels related to Richard Wordsworth's brilliant work in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, but Wordsworth is here too, stealing every scene he's in as a crafty clinic attendant who helps himself freely to Margaret's free tobacco and abhors the notion of a bath because his filth keeps him warm. The gripping story, again by Jimmy Sangster with additional dialogue by George Baxt (CIRCUS OF HORRORS), builds to what may be the most astonishing and ironic finale of any Frankenstein movie: the Baron's dream is finally realized... not by him, but by his pupil.
 

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies HD.

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