Monday, October 10, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Revenge of Frankenstein' (1958)

Despite meeting what seemed like a pretty definitive end in the previous year's The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Studios' Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) returns alive and well for the sequel The Revenge of Frankenstein, still determined to bring dead tissue back to life. Having avoided his appointment with the gallows by bribing one of his jailers, he's set himself up under the name Dr. Stein in a new small town, with a thriving practice as a seemingly benign doctor of medicine. He may not be entirely benign, but he's much less evil than he was in the previous movie, and even though his clinic for the poor is partially a cover for obtaining body parts for his latest monster, he seems to be genuinely helping people when no other doctor in town will. His scientific process is also much more focused and humane, with applications that could even make sense for real-world medicine.

That makes the movie sound kind of dull, and it is a bit slow in the middle section, but it's more entertaining and more assured than Curse, partially because it no longer has to adhere to even the basic outline of Mary Shelley's original story. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher return along with Cushing, and they make for a good team, balancing between haunting existential questions and ghoulish horror. This time around, Frankenstein puts together a monster who looks more or less like a normal human, and he plans to implant a live brain, volunteered by the jailer whom he bribed. The man is partially paralyzed and sees this as an opportunity to live a full life and no longer be regarded as a freak, which is actually kind of poignant, and makes Frankenstein seem like a humanitarian. Frankenstein doesn't even deliberately murder anyone in this movie, and when another doctor reveals that he knows Frankenstein's true identity, Frankenstein graciously takes him on as an assistant.

Of course, this is still a horror movie, so eventually the monster has to become, well, monstrous, which he does because he doesn't give his brain enough time to adjust to his new body. Apparently one possible side effect of the brain transplant is a cannibalistic hunger, so when Karl (the jailer) gets too agitated in his new body, he regresses into an animalistic state and starts stalking innocent people. He also ends up disfigured in the same way he was in his old body, adding another layer of tragedy to his existence. The monster in Curse was just a lumbering beast who didn't have much to do, and in a way this monster is closer to Shelley's original creation, an intelligent, articulate and emotional being who just wants to find his place in the world.

As in Curse, Hammer has put together an impressive-looking movie on a fairly small budget. The sets and costumes are gorgeous and ornate, combining period detail (the movie is set in 1860) with exaggerated grotesquerie. Cushing is delightfully devious as Frankenstein, maintaining some of the sociopathic flair from the previous movie, even if he's less overtly sinister. And while Curse ended on a bleak note of finality (obviously retconned here), Revenge ends with a twist straight out of a slasher series from decades later, as Frankenstein has his own brain transplanted into a new body (played, in flagrant disregard for logic, by Cushing) in order to evade authorities, and moves to a new city to continue his reign of terror. Solving the pesky and persistent pop-culture confusion between the creator and his creation, by the end of this movie Frankenstein himself really is the monster.

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