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The final scene of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Hammer Films' startling and enormously influential initial effort in the field of horror films, features the good Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) being marched to a date with the guillotine. In spite of the finality of this punishment for dabbling in the realm of God by creating life from a sewn-together amalgam of dead bodies, Hammer knew that there would be a sequel; or, at least, Hammer head James Carreras did. Producer Anthony Hinds told Little Shoppe of Horrors years later that he and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster must not have given any thought to a sequel when they wrote The Curse of Frankenstein, "...because I can well remember Jimmy and I rubbing our hands together with satisfaction when we wrote the last scene - in which the Baron went to the guillotine - saying: 'They can't possibly ask for a sequel now!' But they did, and we had to devise a way for him to escape the blade." When he announced in 1958 that a sequel was indeed in the works, Carreras jokingly told The Sunday Express, "Oh, we sew his head back on again!"
Ultimately, The Revenge of Frankenstein begins just where the previous film left off, as Frankenstein (Cushing) is led to the guillotine in 1860 "for the brutal murders committed by the monster he had created." We see the blade fall, and later two grave robbers (played by Hammer regular Michael Ripper and future ubiquitous character actor Lionel Jeffries) arrive to dig up the coffin and find a beheaded priest buried in place of the Baron. Much to their horror, Frankenstein arrives on the scene with his deformed assistant Karl (Oscar Quitak). He explains that Karl had performed a switch at the guillotine in exchange for the promise a new body. They dispatch the thieves and set the graveyard right. Three years later, we see that the Baron has set up practice in Carlsbruck as "Dr. Victor Stein," working in a hospital for the poor. One of doctors from the local Medical Council, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), confronts Stein about his true identity. Frankenstein takes on Kleve as his assistant, and shows him his latest experiment - a new body for Karl assembled from parts acquired from the poor clinic. The Baron and Kleve work in relative secrecy, and the new Karl (Michael Gwynn) is restrained in the laboratory until a meddling hospital worker (Richard Wordsworth) assists in his escape.
Jimmy Sangster's screenplay makes a clear break with the pattern of the Universal Frankenstein series of the 1930s and 1940s, which focused on the monster created by Victor Frankenstein and revived by a series of Victor's relatives. Hammer logically set their focus on Frankenstein himself, and Peter Cushing became the linking thread through the series, although the Baron's approach and state of mind would vary from film to film, from obsessively evil to detached but decent. His mode in The Revenge of Frankenstein is self-obsessed but hardly murderous, and that sets the tone for the film as a whole. He has no hesitation in mutilating the patients under his care in the poor clinic, but he also seems to genuinely desire to provide a sound body for the twisted Karl. The Revenge of Frankenstein is also notable for featuring perhaps the least monstrous "monster" of any Frankenstein film. Actor Michael Gwynn elicits enormous sympathy as Karl's new body begins to betray him, and in a party-crashing confrontation with his creator, the creature is more pathetic than terrifying.
Producer Hinds promised The Daily Cinema that the sequel would "...contain all the shake, shudder, and wallop" of The Curse of Frankenstein. Shooting began on January 6, 1958 at Hammer's smallish Bray studio, actually a grouping of manor houses. Production designer Bernard Robinson effectively redressed some sets from The Horror of Dracula (1958), which had just wrapped shooting only days before. The British film industry magazine The Kinematograph Weekly visited the set of The Revenge of Frankenstein, and director Terence Fisher told them of his approach to the material: "It's no good having your tongue in your cheek when you are making horror films. You must be completely sincere. It is very difficult trying to stop people laughing in the wrong place. But there are also wonderful opportunities to put in intentional laughs." Writer George Baxt was brought in to add a few scenes of humor to the script. As he told Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio for Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, "I 'ghosted' two scenes... One was with the two grave robbers, and the other was an amputation followed by Cushing 'amputating' a roast chicken." Recently, co-star Francis Matthews talked to The Little Shoppe of Horrors about working with Fisher, and said he had "...already cut my teeth in movies with some prima donna directors who seemed bent on giving a better, bigger performance than the cast, [so] Terry was a revelation. He was instantly likeable, totally genuine, calm, unflappable and gently persuasive when conveying what he was aiming at."
Writing in Variety, Jack Moffitt noted the more genteel approach of The Revenge of Frankenstein compared to its predecessor, and said that the story "...lacks one of the basic essentials for a good horror tale - an anxiety for the characters being menaced." The critic in the Monthly Film Bulletin called the film a "failure" because of a "contrived plot and a notable lack of pace and imagination... Cushing's stylish and diffident performance serves only to underline the farcical effects of a crude and pedestrian handling of the little legitimate horror left." British notices were wildly divergent, with The Kinematograph Weekly calling The Revenge of Frankenstein "immaculately tailored, [with a] gripping and intriguing story [and] faultless atmosphere." At the same time, The Observer called it "a vulgar, stupid, nasty, and intolerably tedious business. ...I want to gargle it off with a strong disinfectant, to scrub my memory with carbolic soap."
In his book Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren calls The Revenge of Frankenstein a "...peculiar film. There isn't much in the line of menace, Frankenstein himself isn't endangering anyone other than his swiping of limbs, and he's not in any danger himself, until the end. After the transplant, Karl seems fairly placid, with occasional moments of anger. ...The movie also doesn't have a plot, so much as it is an incident in the life of Dr. Frankenstein. Events don't progress to a climax that arises from earlier actions. Except toward the end, actions have no consequences, and some characters seem lacking in motivation, just doing what's necessary to keep the film moving." At the same time, Warren justifiably praises Cushing's portrayal of Frankenstein as easily the best element of the film: "He plays Victor Frankenstein with delicacy, insight, humor, and Frankenstein's own precision. When Kleve first confronts him, Frankenstein is very carefully dissecting a roast chicken, which he then daintily eats with his fingers. Cushing's aloof absorption in this, and the care with which he slices the bird, are riveting; it's hard to listen to the dialogue."
Phil Hardy finds a deeper character development and even political implications in the follow-up Hammer film, and notes (in his book The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies) that while the Victor Frankenstein of the first Hammer film "...was merely an over-reacher, The Revenge of Frankenstein sees Cushing's Baron... as rather more merciful and humane, more the victim of the prejudices his work inspires than of his sadistic inclinations. Thus, it is others who transform his creation into a murderous animal. This heroizing of Frankenstein... and transformation of him into a scourge of the bourgeoisie is Fisher's greatest contribution to the Frankenstein myth."
Columbia Pictures released The Revenge of Frankenstein in America in June of 1958 with a co-feature that was equal in intelligence and atmosphere, Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon (1958). At the same time that The Revenge of Frankenstein was shooting in England, Hammer was engaged in a fascinating co-production in America, a television series pilot called Tales of Frankenstein (1958). Although co-produced with Columbia Pictures' TV subsidiary Screen Gems, the short film had the look of the Universal Pictures monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, due to a sanctioned use of the trademark neck-bolt makeup utilized in those films, and thanks to a freewheeling brain-transplant story from writer-director Curt Siodmak, screenwriter of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944). The odd hybrid ultimately did not please Hammer executives and found no buyers among American TV networks, and afterward the Frankenstein franchise at Hammer would lay dormant until The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), directed by Freddie Francis.
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster; Hurford Janes (additional dialogue); George Baxt (uncredited, additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Music: Leonard Salzedo
Film Editing: Alfred Cox
Cast: Peter Cushing (Doctor Victor Stein), Francis Matthews (Doctor Hans Kleve), Eunice Gayson (Margaret Conrad), Michael Gwynn (Karl Immelmann), John Welsh (Dr. Bergman), Lionel Jeffries (Fritz), Oscar Quitak (Dwarf), Richard Wordsworth (Up Patient), Charles Lloyd Pack (President of the Medical Council), John Stuart (Inspector), Arnold Diamond (Dr. Malke), Margery Cresley (Countess Barscynska), Anna Walmsley (Vera Barscynska), George Woodbridge (Janitor), Michael Ripper (Kurt), Ian Whittaker (Boy with Gerda), Avril Leslie (Girl - Gerda)
By John M. Miller
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland Publishing, 1996)
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies by Phil Hardy (Woodbury Press, 1984)
Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties by Bill Warren (McFarland, 1986)
"Terence Fisher: Hammer's Master of Gothic Horror", Little Shop of Horrors magazine, No. 19, 2007
"The Curse of Frankenstein: Hammer's First Horror", Little Shop of Horrors magazine, No. 21, 2008