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Pity poor Baron Frankenstein. It's hard enough being an Old World gentleman in the tawdry modern world, but to have the embarrassing legacy of the name of Frankenstein to both live up to and to live down, that'd grind on anyone. Then pile on that he's the last of the Frankenstein line--and nothing can change that. As a victim of Nazi torture in WWII he was disfigured in various ways--being a father is no longer an option for him. Oh, and he's plum out of money, which obliges him to lease his castle to an American film crew making a cheesy movie in honor of the anniversary of his famous ancestor's unholy experiments.
Simply put, there's a lot going on in Frankenstein 1970 (1958). It is a setup pregnant with dramatic potential: sexual tensions and professional jealousies, personal anguish and historic grudges, class conflicts and meta-textual pop cultural references. All that, and Boris Karloff playing Doctor Frankenstein, in an atomic-age re-imagining of one of the English language's most enduring and relevant stories. It should have been terrific. It should at least have been good.
The project had its roots in a practical joke. In 1952, Armed Forces Network radio announcer Carl Nelson made a special Halloween night broadcast from the "real" Castle Frankenstein. "Real" in this situation must be understood to be relative. There was no "real" Dr. Frankenstein, of course, and since he was fictional he never really lived anywhere. But the monster-oriented tourist industry bent the truth a little to retrofit this actual location into the backstory of Mary Shelley's personal experiences, and in the end what happened in Castle Frankenstein in the 1700's is not what matters to us here, but what happened on that night in 1952. Poor Nelson didn't know his buddies had set up some pedestrian spook scares of the kind you might find on a carnival midway's haunted house ride--papier mch monster heads and the like. Unprepared for what was in store, Nelson accepted it as real and panicked on air, fainting during the broadcast.
If you want, you can listen to Nelson's worst hour on the internet. Archival recordings of his fateful broadcast are a popular download to this day.
Part of the appeal is the commingling of fact and fiction that underpins the broadcast. Shelley's Frankenstein was a book, a story that turned into movies. Hokey movies, sometimes. But what if Castle Frankenstein was a real place, and real people could go there today in the present and experience terrifying things? What if a person who set out to make a documentary tribute to something fictional became an actual victim of that fictional terror?
In other hands, that very notion would turn into such things as The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Last Broadcast (1998), Ghostwatch (1992, made for British television), and so on. For filmmakers in the 1950s to stumble across a post-modern concept of such potency had the potential to lead to an extraordinary B-movie--the sort of things cults are built around.
For producer Aubrey Schenck, the idea of bringing the Frankenstein legend into modern times was an appealing one already, and the Nelson broadcast suggested one possible route: a movie crew goes to the real Castle Frankenstein in the present day (or the near future, even) and falls victim to the resurrected monster their film is supposed to be about.
Schenck was not alone in rushing a Frankenstein picture into drive-ins in the late 1950's. His production of Frankenstein 1970 would arrive fast on the heels of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Daughter (both 1957).
Mary Shelley's novel was comfortably in the public domain--as long as filmmakers steered clear of the trademarked iconography of the Universal Studios interpretation, they were free to churn out rival Frankenstein pictures without restraint. It was a time of widespread public suspicion of the dangerous overreach of scientific progress. Entire distribution and exhibition systems had evolved specifically to channel horror and science fiction movies to a hungry audience of teens. And just in case anyone doubted the continued appeal of the Frankenstein legend, Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein had opened in the US the previous year to phenomenal success. Basically, if you ran an exploitation movie outfit and weren't doing something Frankenstein-related, you were leaving money on the table.
On top of all that, Schenck had Boris Karloff in a three-picture deal that obliged him to pay for Karloff's services whether or not they actually made a film. His competitors could crank out Frankenstein movies, but Schenck had the one name most associated with Frankenstein movies.
Karloff was suffering from arthritis--and in a mildly offensive move, the filmmakers decided to make his infirmity part of the character, wrapping one more layer of meta-textual reference into the story. They initially called it "Frankenstein 1960," but soon decided that wasn't futuristic enough and upgraded the title by another decade (no other changes were made to signal a more futuristic setting--it could just as plausibly be called Frankenstein 1950).
Based on the title and Karloff's name alone, Schenck pre-sold the film to Allied Artists for more than he needed to make it with. He'd turned a profit before even hiring the director.
In other words, making a Frankenstein picture was low-hanging fruit. Perhaps that was the problem. This particular low-hanging fruit was hanging too low. If a profitable Frankenstein picture could be manufactured with virtually no effort, why expend any effort on it?
Actually, that's being unfair. The makers of Frankenstein 1970 did put in some effort. The opening sequence, for example, is a doozy--almost worth the price of admission alone. A terrified girl is stalked through a darkened wood by a clawed and snarling thing. . . until the whole sequence is revealed to be a movie shoot, for the Frankenstein-film-within-a-film. In the same vein, later on in the picture, Karloff's Baron Frankenstein is put on camera by the same crew, in his family crypt, to explain the Frankenstein legend. Inspired by the theatrics of the moment, he goes off-script and delivers a chilling (if hammy) diatribe. This is a movie about the making of a movie--and the sad irony is that the fake movie within is demonstrably better than the real movie that frames it.
In broad strokes, Frankenstein 1970 dutifully traces all the familiar contours one would expect from a Frankenstein movie, but never quite hitting the right beats as it goes.
For example, consider what the story is fundamentally about. Dr. Frankenstein has used the money from the movie shoot to acquire an atomic reactor to revive the monster once given life by his famous ancestor. There's a nice symmetry there--the movie crew aspires to "bring Frankenstein back to life," and have unwittingly helped do just that. When it comes time for the Baron to transplant a new brain into the creature's desiccated skull, we are all primed for the inevitable cliche. He will damage the brain, and the creature will behave monstrously as a result. That's what always happens in these things. But no! The brain transplant goes off without a hitch. It all goes so swimmingly, that the Baron feels no qualm about absent-mindedly tapping away on the newly sutured brain-pan with a hammer (not in the Mad Scientist Best Practices Manual).
It is only later, when the time comes to install a fresh pair of eyes, that the butter-fingered doctor drops them and steps on them. It is hard to tell if director Howard Koch played this scene deliberately for laughs, or if the idea is simply so absurd that it cannot help but be unintentional slapstick. Either way, the rest of the film is now about the hunt for a good pair of eyes for the blind creature.
It makes sense that the film would need to establish a menace to the movie crew: their lives are at risk because their host is killing them one by one to assemble his monster. But it doesn't necessarily follow that their host would be killing them one by one solely in a goose chase after a single elusive body part, nor is there any explanation why the blind but otherwise allegedly unimpaired creature would now be a mute, lumbering murderer.
For that matter, the film squanders the obvious opportunities to have the "real" monster get mixed up with the movie-within-the-movie's version.
Boris Karloff was a gentleman actor of the old school, determined to give every part his all regardless of budget circumstance or prestige. He was also by this point a legend in his own right. These two facts collided in him to create a perfect storm. He arrived on set prepared to pour everything he had into this underwritten trifle, and no one in the production had the guts to tell him he was hamming it up.
"I was in awe of him," admitted director Koch, "We just let him go."
Karloff's costar Charlotte Austin agreed that they respected Karloff too much to tell him he was overplaying it. "I hate to say that, because he was such a gracious man, [but] it was theatrical, it was overdone."
"When you're given this kind of dialogue, what can you do with it?" she added, "It was degrading."
Schenck laid the blame at Koch's feet, saying (in some awkwardly dated slang), "That wasn't his bag. You know, when you do horror pictures, you have to have someone who really believes in this stuff. I don't think we were equipped to do real horror pictures for some reason."
For his part, Koch accepts the criticism. "I don't feel I did such a great job on Frankenstein 1970. I didn't have much time to really think."
This is not to say that Koch believes the movie to be a failure. Far from it. "I guarantee you, these cheap pictures will stand up against any two-hour movie made today. There's more care and thought in them--even though they were low-budget, we all cared what we were making, we really tried."
While Koch made that grandiose pronouncement in 1988, don't be tempted to write it off as the blowhard bluster of a has-been trying to defend his forgotten B-movie against modern pop culture. Koch actually has standing to make such a claim. In the years since directing Frankenstein 1970, he went on to serve as the chief of production of Paramount Studios in the mid-1960s, directed highly popular television series, and then produced such films as Airplane! (1980), The Odd Couple (1968), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)! If this fella wants to say that his low-budget B-movies of the 1950's had a handmade charm that big budget Hollywood films of the 1980s lacked, well who's to argue with that?
Let's let Koch have the last word: "We weren't great talents, we were just trying to make movies."
Producer: Aubrey Schenck
Director: Howard W. Koch
Screenplay: Richard Landau, George Worthing Yates (screenplay); Charles A. Moses, Aubrey Schenck (story); Mary Shelley (characters, uncredited)
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Music: Paul A. Dunlap
Film Editing: John A. Bushelman
Cast: Boris Karloff (Baron Victor von Frankenstein), Tom Duggan (Mike Shaw), Jana Lund (Carolyn Hayes), Donald Barry (Douglas Row), Charlotte Austin (Judy Stevens), Irwin Berke (Inspector Raab), Rudolph Anders (Wilhelm Gottfried), Norbert Schiller (Shuter), John Dennis (Morgan Haley), Mike Lane (Hans Himmler/The Monster)
by David Kalat
Audio commentary by Charlotte Austin, Bob Burns, and Tom Weaver, Frankenstein 1970 DVD, Warner Brothers.
Bryan Senn, "I was a Teenage Frankenstein, Frankenstein 1970, and Frankenstein's Daughter", We Belong Dead: Frankenstein on Film, edited by Gary J. and Susan Svehla.
Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties.
Tom Weaver, Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes.