Hammer: Baron Frankenstein at 60 – How to build a monster

The Hammer Baron Frankenstein at 70

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Hammer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness and the Wallachian Count’s glorious powers of resurrection. To complete the double-bill, we toast the 60th anniversary of the release of The Curse of Frankenstein by picking up tips on how to build a monster from the imperious Baron Frankenstein. Or, inevitably, how a bunch of pitchfork wielding villagers might thwart his plans…

*** Spoilers for the classic Frankenstein Hammer series stitched in ***

“Why can’t they leave me alone? Why can’t they ever leave me alone?”

BARON VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN IS 60! OR IS THAT DR STEIN? OR DR CARL VICTOR? YES,THE HAMMER SEQUENCE OF SEVEN FILMS THAT SPUN OUT FROM MARY SHELLEY’S DEFINITIVE NOVEL NEVER REALLY GAVE THE DOCTOR’S FAMOUS CREATIONS A CHANCE. Instead recognising them as the symptoms of a compulsion – following instead the journey of the talented and visionary, yet self-centred, increasingly obsessed, deluded and immoral scientist himself, through a variety of mishaps, aliases and decades. Despite the names that would be stitched into the form of the Baron’s creatures over the franchise, unlike the famous Universal Studios series that preceded it, Hammer’s adaptation insisted on following the scientist himself, played – with only one misguided exception – by the big name the sequence hang off: Peter Cushing.

The Curse begins…

The Curse of Frankenstein premiered on 2 May 2017 and changed everything. The Hammer entity had produced films since the late 1930s with mixed success, but it was in the company’s third incarnation during the mid-1950s that they invested in horror. The phase started with an adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, quickly followed by a scrambled pastiche. But it was when their sights fell on direct, period horror and rose to their strengths, without overdoing the funding of course, that they not only returned gothic horror to the cinema for the first time since Universal Studio’s heyday, but crucially, introduced colour. And what glorious colour it was.

Everything synonymous with Hammer Horror is there in that 1957 feature. The opulent cinematography, the period setting, the melodrama. Hammer’s horror output would later deviate from that formula, to mixed success; competitors would have great success aping their formula. But it remains one of the most distinctive studio signatures in cinema history.

Grave digging

Like a reanimated corpse at the hands of the Baron, Hammer’s Frankenstein had a painful root to life, despite Mary Shelley’s book being long in the public domain. Searching for production partners across the Atlantic, a Frankenstein script from two young American scribes landed on the desk of Hammer supremo Michael Carreras, son of the studio’s founder James Carreras. Close to the plot of Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), the idea of filming it cheaply in black and white, and knowingly bringing in horror giant and Frankenstein alumni Boris Karloff as their mad scientist was electrocuted at the bolts when Universal heard of their plans. And with the production firmly on the American studio’s radar, Universal were determined to protect their property. And so did constraints and circumstance become a significant shaper in not only this vision of Frankenstein, but also Hammer’s future.

The original script, eventually titled Frankenstein and the Monster, ran to a shoddy 55 minutes and under heavy threat from Universal it was reluctantly reworked until it fell to a rising star in Hammer’s home, Bray Studios. Jimmy Sangster had risen up the ranks when his script for X – the Unknown dug them out of a difficult hole when a Quatermass sequel fell through in 1956.

Adding colour

Sangster’s Frankenstein script pulled the story back to the 19th century, placing the imperious Baron in a satisfyingly central Europe. Like the Universal adaptations that cut a swath through film a few decades before, this was no faithful interpretation of Mary Shelley’s original. But the treatment was crucially strong enough to boost the production into full -olour production. Hammer engaged Eastman Colour, much to the BBFC’s dismay – horror in colour? – and under the unbelievable eye of cinematographer Jack Asher – who did more than anyone to define the ‘Hammer look’ – prepared to change gothic horror forever.

The distinctive make-up that defined Universal’s most famous version of the Doctor’s creation was out of bounds under scrutiny from across the Atlantic. And so it fell to Phil Leakey to sculpt something entirely different. The disfigured, alarming, brutal result did the job, even though it would never be repeated. That make-up almost transformed Bernard Bresslaw until either his agent’s pay demands or his reputation for comedy found him second best to the two inches shorter Christopher Lee (6’5”). The role didn’t allow Lee the moments that Boris Karloff enjoyed at Universal, but twitchy and child-like he managed two subtly distinct personalities in his few scenes. Karloff’s portrayal was governed by pathos, with Lee’s creature was a cipher for the Baron’s puppet. By sheer force of his creator’s will, Lee monster is half-mimic, half-puppet, walking as if on strings. And before he walks comes the famous, over-cranked reveal, when the score roars back after some purposeful silences during the accidental reanimation. That was the scene where Lee first shared the screen with his friend and long-time on-screen antagonist, Peter Cushing. Legends were set.

For the Baron, Hammer finally snared the actor they’d sought for some time. Peter Cushing was available to start sculpting one of cinema’s cruellest villains. Cushing’s interest in the character had been piqued many years before when watching James Whales Frankenstein. By the fifth film Cushing would be wryly questioning any film title that called for the death of his character at the contract stage.

Cycle of reanimation

Yes, five films. For The Curse of Frankenstein was a great success. The film’s meagre budget (another light characteristic of Hammer films) returned itself 70 times on release. The critics despised it, the censors dreaded it, the crowds flocked to it. The Frankenstein cycle had begun and so had Hammer as we knew it. And not to forget, it kept Cushing in the profession, as years of bit parts and a failure to launch left him considering an alternative career designing scarves. The loss for haberdashers everywhere was Hammer’s and our gain.

The following year would return Lee and Cushing to the screen in Hammer’s adaptation of Dracula. After a distribution partnership with Warner Bros. had proved so lucrative for The Curse of Frankenstein, 1958 found a newly interested Universal jump on the new gothic bandwagon as US distributor.

The Frankenstein cycle rolled on for a further 17 years, with only one blip of a minor reboot near the end of the Baron’s reign. Each successive instalment followed the Baron’s attempt to create new life, each time in different and often more straitened circumstances. And each time the good Doctor sinking lower and lower in morality as he pursued his singular aim. As original and recurring director Terence Fisher saw the Baron, he was either a supreme atheist who considered himself God, or an ultra religious visionary who’s signed a deal with the devil.

By the mid-1970s, the fortune of Hammer had changed. As Cushing said, they just “couldn’t bring Frankenstein up-to-date.” Those who’ve seen 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Hammer’s second modern-era Dracula film, may consider that a lucky escape. The Frankenstein films retain a remarkable consistency in quality throughout their run compared to other properties in the studio’s stable. The legacy on the horror genre is immense, although Cushing himself saw them as less horror films than “fantasies”.

But that legacy and consistency is all the more impressive considering how the franchise was a true product of 1950s Britain, in spite of its period setting and mainly continental European setting. The over-riding political and social dynamics that fuelled and empowered Sangster’s vicious interpretation of one of speculative fiction’s greatest antiheroes. Rebellion was in the air in the mid-1950s as the post-war years stretched, rock n’ roll took hold and angry young men emerged. Baron Frankenstein: genius, visionary, moral-void and the ultimate Angry Young Man.

Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

“Neither wicked nor insane. He’s just so dedicated to his work that he can’t see the terrible consequences that could result.”

From the start, Jimmy Sangster’s script cuts an intriguing figure for its protagonist. Boldly, Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein first appears in the shadow of a cell, awaiting execution for crimes we can only guess at. Well, perhaps we can with a fair degree of accuracy. He imparts his story to a priest, rather cynically, as the only man he thinks will listen to his tale. There unravels the story of a precocious orphan who uses his vast inherited wealth to engage a tutor and dedicate himself to science. His cousin, a dependent, soon becomes his fiancé (and passer of marmalade – that makes horrifying sense in one of the films horrific juxtapositions). His tutor becomes a friend before a moral opposition. His serving girl, just one sign of the baron’s spectacularly splintering morality, becomes an object to be used and when too troublesome, her elimination a perfect use for his monster, despite his apparent plans for a superman at the pinnacle of creation.

Clearly, the creature is a mere marker of Frankenstein’s need to succeed. At points, the Baron is self-aware enough to realise that his experiments must remain secret or challenge the safety of those around him. At other times, it’s abundantly clear those concerns come from a an entirely selfish place. There’s no doubt Frankenstein is astonishingly gifted. Far removed from the Eureka moment of the Universal classic, the Baron’s machinery, designed for two to operate, reanimates his creation when even he’s not there. And this is no one off, the struggle to create life doesn’t end in chance, it’s just corrupted by chance. He further reanimates his creation when it’s killed with a bullet to the eye and dismisses brain surgery as simple.

Yes, the classic tropes are there, from the initial damage sustained by the target brain to the creature’s appearance to his creator’s fiancé Elizabeth – although, there is little in the way of cognisance let alone revenge to be found in this monster.

All in all, Curse is a stupendous start to both the franchise and the studio that facilitated it. Frankenstein’s quest for the perfect brain and physical specimen are and will remain central to his cause, but there’s the distinct sense that events will constantly thwart his attempts; that nature will reassert itself. That’s something that will develop through the films, although their connection to each other would prove limited. It’s certainly something developed in the pseudo-reboot that failed to reboot the cycle 13 years later – a film we’ll fail to talk much about later. There’s proto-slasher and post-slasher in the horror mix of this first film. And a satisfying line of justice and injustice runs through events. There’s little ambiguity when we see Victor murder an eminent house guest or lead his serving girl to her gruesome death. And yet, it’s the death of his lost serving girl Justine,, the employee and lover he so woefully used and abused that finds the Baron heading to the guillotine.

“There’s nothing we can do for him now,” Paul Krempe his onetime tutor and friend opines. Even so, how could the Baron Frankenstein be eliminated by a mere falling guillotine?

How to build a monster: Scavenge and make sure of the black market

The decapitated body taken from the gallows (“well, the birds didn’t waste much time, did they?”), stolen hands, purchased eyes from a charnel house and one of the greatest brains of the age placed in a head of unknown origin – all subjected to fluid galvanism. Of course, The brain is damaged in relocation, as much to the Baron’s distaste as it is immune to his much-touted skills for brain surgery. Although the Baron seems far happier with the puppet slave he gets than the superman he says he craves. Frankenstein sets the trend for patchwork as he picks holes in the body as much as the birds who got to the original head first. It’s robust build, surviving countless brain surgeries and further reanimation after Krempe shoots it in the eye.

How to destroy a monster: Fire and acid

Escaping to the roof of Castle Frankenstein, the creature manages to seize Elizabeth on her and Victor’s wedding. So far, so on book… Until a shot and well applied oil lantern destabilises the monster enough to plummet through a skylight to an acid bath below (a hairy moment for stuntman Jack Easton who almost missed the bath during his fiery fall). The Baron forced to stop his creation, but still manages to lose his bride to be. Nothing of the monster remained.

Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

The urgent sequel, originally titled The Blood of Frankenstein, inevitably fell to scribe Jimmy Sangster, with the result making more of an effort to overcome the previous film’s ending than subsequent entries would. Frankenstein has retained his determination, regained his composure and escaped certain death thanks to a hunchbacked assistant, while claiming some, no doubt, satisfying revenge on the priesthood following the events of Curse. Saved for a purpose, years later he’s living a perfect double-life in the town of Carlsbruck. As Dr Stein he aids the wealthy at his surgery and moonlights at a local hospital aiding the poor at night. The mix of money and specimens is perfect for his undimmed motivation, until a familiarly precocious medical student blackmails his way into a full galvanised return to his old ways. Revenge develops the idea of Frankenstein as a prolific reanimator as much as a man who will never escape his past; that’s his past of murder and a dubious ethical medical practice, in a natural order that won’t ever let his plans take root… Until the extraordinary finish.

Karl the hunchback who saved the Baron is this tale’s primary creation. This time his susceptible brain is damaged post-surgery, just after paranoia sets in having seen the result of Frankenstein’s earlier experiments. But the end reveals the strangest thing: the true fruition of the Baron’s quest. Discovered near-beaten to death by his former patients, Frankenstein’s only hope is the transference of his brain into a new body of its own. Under his apprentice’s nervous hands it turns out that the Baron has prepared for just such an eventuality. You can measure his arrogance by the fact he’s created a perfect duplicate of himself, a duplicate that surely meets his aims like no creation before or after, but will continue to carry all the same baggage with it. Oh vanity!

A wonderfully solid and intriguing instalment. Not the classic that the original is, but also utterly unpredictable.

How to build a monster: Hospital work

Frankenstein’s aim to create perfect specimens reaches fruition this early in the franchise. Twice. Karl the hunchback’s brain is successfully transplanted into a body that can walk down the street, just doesn’t follow doctors’ orders. Later, Frankenstein is revealed to have perfectly duplicated his own body at the same time. The pick of the bodies, an endless supply and fulfilling his boats about spectacular reconstructive and brain surgery. A whole new Frankenstein. Surely, that’s the definition of perfection he meant all along…

How to destroy a monster: The reassertion of nature

Even through the psychotic impulses triggered by post-op trauma to Karl’s brain are beyond Frankenstein’s control, when the new creature gatecrashes a musical soiree late on, in a scene again ‘almost’ taken from the source-novel, it’s clear that while a genius may be able to transplant a brain, other things come with it. Quite what this poses for the nature versus nurture debate is left unclear, but it’s the reassertion of Karl’s deformity in the Baron’s new perfect specimen that sees the reanimate fall dead with the incriminating words, “Help me Frankenstein”. Cover blown. Well it may be that, or the cannibalism that now tends to develop in the Baron’s experiments.

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

“I realized long ago that the only way to prove my theories was to make something in my laboratory that actually lived. I never told you, Hans… I succeeded once.”

It took a while for the Baron to reappear for his least interesting outing, in part as the first film without Jimmy Sangster on the writing credits. Five years on, he’s on the run, hurling abuse at authority when he can, subject to raging abuse from priests and living in meagre circumstances, lurking in the basement of his ruined chateau. In a continuity crushing development, it seems that there was a creation before the one seen in Curse. A hotchpotch as it might be called, it’s a wry and franchise-broadening decision to make it look far more like the Universal Karloff model, the American studio having relaxed its fierce brand guardianship by this point.

But being generous, the make-up’s not really a patch on its inspiration. Also, director Terence Fisher had to sit this one out with a broken leg with Freddie Francis stepping in for his first Hammer director credit. Even the new director was rather disparaging about it in later years. Some strange ideas aside, it’s intriguing to see the Baron on his downers and for the only time, potentially the hero against a greater evil….

How to build a monster: Dig up your old work

Down on his luck, the Baron can barely find a finger to reanimate until a chance encounter with the hitherto unknown original creature, preserved in the ice. Unbelievably, its brain is damaged.

How to destroy a monster: Booze, chloroform and fire

A master of two men, it was always a strange choice for the Baron to fix the creature’s brain with hypnotism rather than his advanced brain surgery skills. When the monster’s pitted against his creator by the drunken hypnotist Professor Zoltan, it rampages through its laboratory birth-place as – at long last – riled villagers set about the Castle outside. It all ends in flames that surely consume creature and creator…

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

“Everything we don’t understand is magic – until we understand it… Until we understand it and master it.”

A stark change of pace from the previous instalment; far from finding the Baron on his downers, the Baron’s immediately dispatching his assistant to buy Champagne to celebrate a successful experiment. And the “Woman” of the title doesn’t pose the only twist this time around, in fact it’s a blunt, sensationalist misdirection, Created Woman dragged the franchise into mind transference. There’s nothing here of the surgery or gruesome creations that posed such issues, and stuck in the memory, in the first film. In fact, Frankenstein can take the disfigured Christina and beautify her in her next life. As with the second film, Frankenstein is tremendously successful: At the very start he successfully experiments on himself, and later quickly seizes the opportunity to successfully operate on two lovers, Christine and his assistant Hans, with little nostalgia – despite his loose attempts to save the latter from the guillotine. Well, no point wasting an opportunity. There’s a sense of an alternate cycle forming. As with the second film, it’s the manifestation of a past beyond Frankenstein’s control that does for the mad scientist’s plans. If only he was capable of empathy, but by this point he’s well beyond sociopathy. His creation, raised up and equipped with every skill by the Doctor’s hand, quickly leaves him to avenge Hans’ death and Christina’s subsequent suicide.

This is the one film of the sequence that is ahead of its time. It predicts the destiny and possession horror films that would in turn spill out of the slasher genre that the first film helped birth. It may be the most analysed film of the series, tackling issues of gender and transgender that the decades that followed would grow to embrace. And to build the layers even more, there’s the most pronounced splash of the Biblical for good measure.

There’s no doubt that Hammer wrung different premises from their material in way that would put franchises of the soon to be emergent slasher genre to shame. To an extent Frankenstein’s come full circle by the end, but in doing so, the studio didn’t quite have the dashing, iconic franchise it used to. This isn’t strong Frankenstein in the traditional sense. The scars, the surgery, the vindictiveness in the great scientist are all missing in its clever, low-key reversal.

How to build a monster: Capitalise on some domestic tragedy

Keep plugging way at your work and you’re bound to have tragedy turn up on your doorstep at some point. Hans the wrongly accused and executed assistant makes for an easy route to a brain – or in this case mind – while his grief-stricken lover’s desperate suicide makes for the perfect body.

How to destroy a monster: Job done

The monster instantly rises above its creator’s intent and hopes to avenge the soul that occupies its rather beautiful patchwork of two beings. And once it’s achieved its purpose, Frankenstein’s seemingly most perfect creation has no point in continuing. For all the Baron’s skills of plastic surgery and new found belief and manipulation of souls, he isn’t a good judge of them. In fact, he’s rather used and abused as a tool to make the revenge possible. Although indirectly, this may be the tonally close to the conclusion of Shelley’s book.

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969)

“You must choose between the flames and the police, Frankenstein”

Despite the upset, the Baron somehow bounced back. In 1970, Hammer would stage a triumph by transferring its Dracula series to the atmospheric streets of London. But a year earlier, a similar and presumptuous shot in the arm saw Frankenstein escape from middle Europe to continue his fiendish plans in London. Not a moment too soon you might think. Steeped into the gothic, this is the Baron at his nefarious best. And worst. On the run from the police, lodging under an assumed identity, he’s an utterly unsympathetic piece of work.

A strong script packs the hour and a half run-time with some of the Baron’s great put-downs, and hideously hubristic plans, but also contemptible murder, rape and blackmail. A classic, albeit one where its central character is at his most repulsive, the sheer power of its production hides the steady decline in ambiguity behind this rogue and its rather finite conclusion. It ticks so many boxes, while serving up some unpalatable scenes – that’s the Frankenstein conundrum for you.

How to build a monster: Dig up your past. Again. 

Gore is less important than synergy. When Frankenstein’s plans to capture a former colleague, now driven mad (presumably by the Baron’s work, or work ethic) from an asylum go awry, he’s forced to stitch unsettled he brain into the body of the asylum’s director – notably kidnapped and not grave-robbed.

How to destroy a monster: Sacrifice by fire

Picking up the melancholy justice of the previous instalment, this creature is possibly the series most sympathetic equivalent to its literary forbear. Scars are minimal, but it’s the distinct split of two bodies, or rather a brain and a body, that carries the film above the patchwork. Disgusted by its appearance, rejected by its (well, the brain’s) wife, there’s little else but despair, revenge, and flames that carry it and its creator into the fire and surely certain death.

Frankensnippet Christopher Lee as Hammer's Frankenstein's Monster

Reboot Interval: Horror of Frankenstein

[We’ll take a break at this point to briefly consider Horror of Frankenstein, the 1970 attempt to reboot the franchise, replacing Peter Cushing with Hammer’s rising star Ralph Bates. Loosely adapting the original film from 13 years before with markedly less charm and far more hubris, the Baron didn’t revert to his ambiguously driven roots. Any empathy from the earlier films has reached a hard stop as the young student, this time studying at university, de-aged the ruthlessness of the older Cushing. A shame for the return of Jimmy Sangster, not only on the script but behind the camera. Acid is the answer to destroying the monster, accidentally, in case you were wondering. Just as briefly, we’ll move on]

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

“‘He who sees!’ I like that!”

The final of Cushing’s run brings the sequence to an impressive end, although there’s plenty to distract from that – from the hirsute monster to the rather extravagant pseudonym the Baron adopts to his rather extravagant and misguided bouffant. Actually, it’s easy to like all those elements. Well, except the hair. Chosen by Cushing himself, even he rather regretted it after the fact, but it doesn’t undermine the film’s brilliance.

The Baron’s managed to escape his fiery doom once again, but due to that or less likely the conclusion of The Evil of Frankenstein, he’s lost the use of his hands. This barely affects the Baron’s determination, although you can imagine the language when he damaged them. Handicaps of this sort are de rigueur in a film that somehow digs out ideas to ramp up the gothic elements in new and unexpected ways. There’s the mute girl who carries out Frankenstein’s experiments for him. There’s the way he’s risen to surgeon in an asylum and can hand pick his body parts by murdering his ‘patients’. And reaching far back to the start of the Baron’s career, he finally manages to graft the hands of a sculptor to his most freakish creation yet. This is Frankenstein at his coldest, even if it doesn’t quite repeat the peak of depravity that was reached – to Cushing’s disgust – the film before. This is a compelling freak show. In a conclusion that sums up the savagery and futility of it all, the Baron is left as coldly dedicated as ever… The monster he’s grafted together is physically his most primitive, and yet also his most refined. It’s inexplicably below intelligence, whether that’s the manifestation of the body’s previous suicide attempts or the final fruition of nature usurping nature in the sequence. Certainly the criminal mind’s obsession reasserts, while even in that wig, Frankenstein remains the cold centre, quite removed from and yet at home in his ideal setting – the Carlsbad asylum. It would be series stalwart, director Terence Fisher’s final film, leaving satisfied that the “man who’s always got to fail” is utterly deluded and destined to fail again and again despite his rare confirmed survival. Ever contrary, this franchise.

How to build a monster: Engineer a job at the asylum

Work in an asylum and smuggle parts, with the able help of a mute girl ‘The Angel’ – an ideal Bride of his creation – and a willing acolyte.

How to destroy a monster: Savagery creations meet a savage end

No matter how big you build them, they can be ripped apart by the asylum inmates. It’s a neat, reversed, foreshadowing of the son of a thousand maniacs who’d enter horror just over a decade later.

But most importantly, if you’re Baron Frankenstein you’re already looking at the next creation. As Director Terence Fisher put it, franchise stalwart and here hitting a high with his final film, this is where the Baron, proclaiming himself “creator of man” shows his true delusion and inevitable, repeated failure. But how does the Baron put it? Ah yes: Who is going to “donate”?

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