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. Read more…

Fictionside 104: Heroes & Villains

Fictionside Heroes and villains

This half-birthday we pick out 10 of our favourite heroes and villains …

IT’S JOKERSIDE’S FOURTH AND A HALF BIRTHDAY, AND SO HERE’S ANOTHER OF OUR BI-ANNUAL FICTIONSIDES AS WE CAREER TO THE CLOSE OF JOKERSIDE’S FIVE YEAR MISSION! This time round, we’re picking out some of our favourite fictional heroes and villains. And wouldn’t you know, some of them are a bit misunderstood…

Actually, wouldn’t you know that with a Fictionside, things are a little more complicated than that. We’re going to pick out four and a half heroes and four and a half villains. There’s lots of Brits, and lots of hoods, a surprising amount who first appeared in comics, but bear with us…  Because it’s a Hell of a dinner party!

Heroes & Villains

Hero: Captain Britain

First appearance: Captain Britain Weekly #1, 1976

001 Captain BritainA champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, measured against the quality of his foes…

Brian Braddock. Bloody brilliant. Originated created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe in 1976, it’s when Alan Davis and Alan Moore stepped aboard to ‘learn their craft’ that the Marvel universe’s premier British hero earned his finest hour. And by Merlin, did he earn it.

The story that kicked off with a trip to A Crooked World didn’t simply define the British equivalent of Captain America, who’d been sauntering around for the best part of half a decade. It played a huge role in unfurling the Marvel multiverse, naming the main super-powered universe as Earth-616 under Moore’s predecessor David Thorpe, and introducing two barely stoppable Marvel supervillains. In the dapper form of Terry Thomas came Mad Jim Jaspers. And at the hand of Sir James’ megalomania, The Fury. Unsettling and unnerving.

In his first stab at a mainstream Marvel book, Moore took on Thorpe’s storyline mid-way through and proceeded to hone a champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, one measured against the quality of his foes left at the writers disposal. Jaspers’ is one of the Marvel universe’s great mutants, and by achieving the position of British Prime Minister yet another warning to George Osborne about taking on too much work. Jasper’s reality altering mutant skills were vast, and once used on a large scale triggered inevitable madness. His creation, the Fury, was a cyborg killing machine so perfect it could survive the collapse of reality and traverse the multiverse in pursuit of its single-minded aim. Within issues Moore had killed off the hero on the failing, warning Earth-238 before resurrecting him on 616, ready for the same, unstoppable events to threaten that reality.

Braddock’s powers were the parallel of Captain America’s, reflecting Albion. Instead of the truth, justice and American Way, Braddock was invested by the ancient, mystical powers of the British Isles by Merlin, destined to uphold the laws of Britain and by implication, become a chief guardian of the multiverse. Who knew that the role thrust upon this Brit would prove so influential. Starting with the wonderful Silver Age conceit of rubbing his sacred amulet, Britain’s comfort in his role changed as his abilities and weapons were refined and his distinctive, patriotic suit pared down just before he first encountered mad Jim.

Excalibur and Arthurian legend continues to wind around Captain Britain’s story, in storyline and pun. He’s inextricably linked to the wider Marvel-verse as the twin of mutant Psylocke. While she was last seen on the big screen in X-Men: Apocalypse, resolutely not with an Essex accent, Brian fans are still questioning whether Marvel’s simply forgotten to announce their Captain Britain film… Like any great British hero, he’s hardly a one trick wonder, mystic or otherwise. Informed by Holmes, Bond and the best of Blighty, the Braddock story has not only dragged in childhood trauma, the secret service, and huge wad of British society, but also granted him a Ph.D. in physics. Bloody brilliant. Read more…

Jokerside’s Top 10 Posts of the Year: 2016

jokerside's Top Posts of 2016

The results are in – which posts from the Jokerside were the most read in 2016? From A New Hope to much-missed Bowie, Psychotic comic book stars to 1966, there was something for everyone… And a mere five visits between the fist and second spot!

  1. “The Frankenstein Murders” – Frankenstein on TV and Film AD 2016 (January 2016)

Victor Frankenstein 2016 ADA romantic start, well, Jokerside’s version of it. It had been two years since our look at how Mary Shelley’s most famous creation was faring on screen, from the Munster‘s one-off come-back to the I Frankenstein‘s collapse. So for the leap Month’s  Valentine’s Day we galvanised ourselves into an update. The creature is going stronger than ever from big-spending ITV’s curious The Frankenstein Chronicles (surely the one series that even a Sean Bean would struggle to kill his character off in) to the bold, hugely anticipated but hugely flawed Victor Frankenstein

“The major let-downs are so destructive to this Frankenstein adaptation that it’s unbelievable they got through. Just as Frankenstein’s early claim about Igor’s hands seems misplaced, the film never displays Frankenstein’s genius. There’s the sketching, but little hands on work that previous adaptations have managed so well. That’s an unnecessary difficulty, but the real horror comes on the far too ‘logical’ solution to creating life. In creating a literal superhuman with two hearts, two lungs, super-strength and a gigantic physique, Frankenstein may be tapping into the supernaturally Promethean aspect, but the film completely misses the point, particular when framing it around the Doctor’s need to reanimate the idea of his lost brother. The point is that he creates man, not a superman.”

Yes, Frankenstein, as ever, has parts of various quality… Read more

If you liked that in 2016: Where there’s Jokerside there’s horror – stay tuned for the return of science-fiction’s most infamous scientist in a slightly different guise in 2017

  1. David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40 (January 2016)

David Bowie Station to Station at 402016 was riddled with confusion, shock and horrid irony from the start. Having kicked off the year with a light-hearted look at two muppet-powered movie classics, one inevitably featuring David Bowie himself, it was as horrific to find the great man had fallen away from the planet just days after the release of his sublime Blackstar album as that it came just days before the 40th anniversary of one of his finest years. It was with a heavy heart in a month dominated by the one-time Thin White Duke that Jokerside took a two-part glimpse at The Man who Fell to Earth and then the extraordinary album that surfaced that same year. Legendarily one that Bowie couldn’t remember recording…

“The Thin White Duke is as difficult to analyse as the album he apparently narrates, sometimes argues. It’s easy to dismiss the character as Bowie’s most ruthless, even evil – yes, even more than the Goblin King – but any analysis is difficult because of the amount of distraction built into the Duke. Unlike Ziggy Stardust, he’s less prevalent in a shorter album. He also appears more “normal” than those early ‘70s glam avatars. Impeccably stylish, simply cabaret, emotionful and emotionless in equal measure. The Duke may actually be Bowie’s most eroding character. And at times, there’s seems to be a real conversation taking place between the searching Bowie and the Duke – particularly in the title track that mixes first, second and third person perspectives.

The Man who Fell to Earth had sowed the seeds of a character that could carry a knowing and necessary transition and complete some of the greatest music of Bowie’s career. Not bad for a film that, as he said, “he didn’t really know what was being made at all”. But what’s crucial is the speed with which this character came to dominate his mind, just a catalyst of the clashing components in his mind and the Station to Station LP, and a character that took up less than year of Bowie’s incredibly prolific mid-1970s period.” Read more

If you liked that in 2016: Stay tuned for more David Bowie as Jokerside celebrates another of the chameleon’s incredible works as it passes a significant landmark this January…

  1. 1966: Invasion Earth 2150 – Movie Daleks at 50 (August 2016)

1966 Dalek Invasion Earth 2150 at 50“Changes (to the original television serial) are to a certain extent inconsequential in a condensed story that works almost beat for beat to the original template. It’s a heady mix of The Time Machine, 50s B-movies and the intrinsically British television show it adapted.

“The real change came in the spectacle. And of course, that was in the full employ, for the first time of colour. It would be seven years before the Daleks broke into colour on the small screen, and they’ve never looked better than in their big screen outings. The Daleks are utterly transformed as technicolour beasts…

“Sadly, this was to be the last live appearance of Peter Cushing’s alternate Doctor. On television, the character was to regenerate in a few short months, only to face the Daleks in his first adventure, away from the pen of Terry Nation. On screen, Dr Who leaves on a high. His first cell-break aboard the Dalek saucer is wonderful,. As he immediately fails, unlike Dortmun’s inability to cope with his frustrated situation, Cushing opens his eyes to Dalek eye-stalks with a meek “Back in the cell?” Read more

If you liked that in 2016: It’s time for the creator… In 2017 Jokerside will turn the microscope on the most fascinating Doctor Who villain, Davros…
Read more…

1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns 50

“Kicking off with a different loner”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…

IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…

Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.

Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.

The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.

Boiling spaghetti

“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone

It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.

A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

“Welcome to you stranger”

It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.

“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”

Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour. Read more…

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