Sunday, October 16, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Horror of Frankenstein' (1970)

Just a year after Peter Cushing's most recent turn as Baron Frankenstein, Hammer decided to reboot its series with a younger star, casting Ralph Bates as Frankenstein and retelling the character's origin story as he creates his first monster. Although Mary Shelley's name does show up in the credits, The Horror of Frankenstein doesn't follow her novel very closely, confining nearly all of the action to the Frankenstein estate and its immediate surroundings and limiting the monster (played by David Prowse, best known as Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy) to a brief sojourn outside the castle before being recaptured. The movie is mainly about Frankenstein as a horny, amoral murderer, who keeps killing people every time they inconvenience him slightly (almost always by very, very obviously leading them into traps).

It wouldn't be right to classify Horror as a comedy, but it definitely takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the story, and it isn't really concerned with being scary or disturbing. Frankenstein's obsession with building his monster is kind of funny in its absurdity, especially as he takes just one small part from each person he kills, necessitating a lot of murder. His lecherous treatment of women is equally ridiculous, and the way that he callously dismisses all the beautiful women who throw themselves at him is both creepy and darkly funny. At one point he impregnates the daughter of the dean at his university, and when the dean confronts him he offers to perform an abortion on her, which struck me as a pretty shocking thing for a low-budget horror movie in 1970 to just toss out there. Instead, Frankenstein leaves school to return home to focus on his experiments, presumably leaving the poor dean's daughter knocked up with a little Son of Frankenstein or Frankenstein's Daughter (sadly there was no sequel for his offspring to appear in).

At home, his housekeeper's duties including regular sex (a function she also performed for Frankenstein's father when she was just a teenager, one of the movie's many icky touches). Somehow Frankenstein also finds time to construct his creature, with the help of his classmate Wilhelm (Graham James), at least until Wilhelm starts getting in his way. Bates plays Frankenstein with more humor and playfulness than Cushing did, even if his version is just as much of a sociopath (perhaps even more so). This isn't a character we can really root for or sympathize with, and part of the movie's problem is that it has no really appealing characters (the monster doesn't appear for long enough to develop any sympathy). Still, director and co-writer Jimmy Sangster, who wrote Hammer's first two Frankenstein movies, makes a lot of the unpleasantness fairly amusing.

And unlike most Frankenstein movies, Horror never feels the need to build to a big confrontation or showdown. Frankenstein himself never has to pay for his crimes, he sleeps with all the women he wants completely consequence-free, and the monster is dispatched offscreen by accident in an absurdly anticlimactic ending. It's kind of amusing, but Sangster doesn't push the satire hard enough for it to really be a commentary on the Frankenstein story or Hammer's portrayal of it. It's a smirk of a movie that goes along with its smug title character, but it never makes the same impact as the more serious Cushing pictures.

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