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…

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The Mummy Unwrapped: Original Shifting Sand from Universal to Hammer

Karloff the Uncanny The Mummy

The original shared film universe of Hollywood is stirring in its crypt, as a new Universal Mummy is set to emerge in 2017. This Halloween found Jokerside wrapping itself up in… The Mummy. Before we head to action-adventure, we first pitch Boris Karloff against Christopher Lee in two undead classics!

THERE’S A HIERARCHY OF HORROR, YOU DON’T NEED ABBOT AND COSTELLO TO POINT THAT OUT. From the great gothic tradition, there are some clear if conflicted leaders. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde have been adapted over 140 times. Mary Shelley’s older diabolical exploration of nature and nurture has led Dr Frankenstein to the screen over 150 times, and that’s not to mention, unironically, a legion clones. It’s no surprise that these characters along with the odd Phantom of the Opera and Invisible Man have led the charge of literature adaptations in Hollywood and across the planet.

That was never clearer than when Universal Studios were propelled to another level by their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Those smashes came almost ten years after the studio had kicked off what would become a highly successful brand of heightened stylish horror, fantasy and science fiction. On screen, names were made overnight. A number of actors still have their names indelibly attached to parts that were galvanised during the Studio’s peak. Although many swapped across various leading roles of the key franchises that spilled down from these iconic originals, there’s no doubt whose names are still a breath away from that era’s Frankenstein, his monster, Dracula or the Wolf Man. But standing head and shoulders above them all, sometimes literally, there’s one of actor who’s name shouts the loudest. A year after originating Universal’s definitive Frankenstein’s Monster, English actor Boris Karloff originated a threat of a different kind. It wasn’t one that obviously sprung from the literature of the previous century, but it slotted so perfectly into contemporary zeitgeist and the essence of success behind those gothic adaptations that that it quickly set a permanent mark on horror cinema. No wonder it’s gearing up its major relaunch under Universal’s care for 2017. Dracula may not have rediscovered his lost love so much, slashers may not have been the same, zombies might never have caught on… without… The Mummy.

The Universal universe

It was Karloff who portrayed the Egyptian mummy Im-Ho-Tep himself in that first eponymous film, before other actors took on the role for five sequels in various states of bandage. A giant of the horror film, and certainly one of the finest actors the country has ever produced, the English actor’s nuanced performances as much as his distinctive looks are in large part responsible for the continued hold Universal have over the cultural the perception of The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster. Karloff acted in a number of Universal films before their association ended with 1952’s The Black Castle. Intriguingly, an earlier temporary break came after The House of Frankenstein as the early rise of Universal’s shared film universe proved too much for him. He later retired to Hampshire in England and before he died in 1969 could not have missed the rise of the British rival to Universal’s hold on the horror film genre. Hammer Studios were in the middle of, if arguably past the peak of, their Dracula and Frankenstein series by the time the world of horror lost Karloff. Hammer is similarly defined by a key core group of actors. And there it’s Christopher Lee who stands out as the key comparator to Karloff. He remains most famous for his occasionally feral blood-eyed Dracula, but it was Lee who followed in Karloff’s footsteps in originating Hammer’s Frankenstein’s monster and then Hammer’s The Mummy.

Hammer Time

And those were greatly different beasts. The brands and rivalry of those two great horror studios were never clean cut. Universal distributed Hammer films in the United States, and various exclusive deals and copyrights led the Hammer adaptations to be markedly different to their Universal forbears. That was clear in not only the look of Hammer’s various monsters of Frankenstein, but also in the emphasis that fell to Baron Frankenstein rather than those creations. Things were a little more muddled with Dracula. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula was typically distributed by Universal having forfeited the rights to distribute the film themselves to gain the rights, earning a longer title to distinguish it from the 1931 Universal film. Although Bram Stoker had never found a publisher in the United States and his most famous book remained out of copyright, Universal had signed an unusual deal with Bram Stoker’s wife that forbade any other film adaptations at the time. Hammer went through the grinder to produce their version, a mere four years before the work became public domain in the United Kingdom. Lee was famously and increasingly more dissatisfied with his role as Dracula, apparently rebelling against the sequels that worked further from the source novel by refusing to speak in some. And that’s after Hammer’s original had managed to be more faithful to Stoker’s original novel than Universal’s effort, though not by much. When it came to their Egyptian starring roles, a product of film rather than prose, things were a little different. Read more…

Hammer: Dracula Prince of Darkness at 50 – Dead and just not putting up with it

Hammer Dracula Dead and not putting up with it

Of the minor things worth celebrating in what’s been a rather terrible week is the 50th anniversary of the US release of Dracula Prince of Darkness. Jokerside breaks the gloom with a look at the glorious world where resurrection is FACT.

WE’RE NEAR THE END OF A WEEK THAT’S PILED ON SOME TERRIBLE LOSSES. AND 2015 WAS PRETTY BAD. Over the last 12 months we’ve lost two British icons whose careers seemed to defy any idea of death. Sir Christopher Lee and David Bowie. Bowie played a vampire of course, in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Lee’s illustrious career would take in everything from Gremlins to Jabberwockies and heavy metal, but he will be long remembered as a definitive vision of Stoker’s legendary vampire.

Of course, this horrid week also saw the loss of Alan Rickman, most famous to millions of Harry Potter fans for his glorious portrayal role of the vampiric Severus Snape. And just yesterday, Roberts Bank Stewart, the legendary British screenwriter, father of Bergerac, was also lost. Among his many achievements was the creation of Doctor Who’s premier shapeshifters the Zygons. Ah Dracula, one of literature’s great shapeshifters.

So from the depths of gloom, where better to look that at the glorious fall, rise, fall, rise and so on of Lee’s Count Dracula. As this bloody week ends, let’s celebrate utterly ridiculous over the top and glorious concept of resurrection.

Dracula Prince of Darkness was the second of Hammer’s films to feature Lee as the eponymous Count. Of course, it wasn’t the second of Hammer’s Dracula films, but 1960’s The Brides of Dracula can be dismissed along with 1977’s The Legend of the Golden Vampires. While both starred Peter Cushing as (a) Van Helsing, neither featured Christopher Lee. The latter even attempted to replace him, painfully. If you’re after the modes of vampire slaying therein: the shadow of a giant cross and a spear through the heart.

Dracula Prince of Darkness signalled the glorious return of Christopher Lee as the Count, eight years after his first appearance and sparking off the Hammer Dracula franchise proper. And as the first true sequel, it kick-started the Count’s ability to return. And of course, despite the wonderful recap of Dracula’s death almost a decade before, it rendered the whole final act killing of a vampire utterly pointless. The franchise didn’t care a jot for that however, and so began one of the earliest examples of a series where every successive film practically wiped out its predecessor. Don’t pursue that logic too heavily though. You’ll end up with The Satanic Rites of Dracula sat shivering and alone in the corner.

There’s more to Dracula Prince of Darkness – as well as bearing quite probably the best title of any Dracula film, it also kick-started double-bill horror. Released 50 years ago this week in the US it was accompanied rather oddly by The Plague of the Zombies. Some were luck to receive plastic vampire fangs and zombie eye glasses on attendance.

The film’s script features a very handy reminder of the many weaknesses of a vampire. Just as a refresher:

“He can be traced to his resting place during the daylight hours and there, a stake through the heart. He can be exposed to the direct rays of the sun. Running water will drown him. The cross will burn him. He is not invulnerable.”

But who needs to be invulnerable when you can constantly be reanimated, even a century later? And so, let’s have a good old and tongue-in-cheek rummage through the many resurrections of Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula.

Dracula (1958)

“I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house”

By no means a direct adaptation, it was still hammer’s most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s original novel. Jonathan Harker duly turns up to meet the Count, this time at the Castle Dracula outside Klausenburg, but the real reason for rapid departures was the lock-tight contract Universal Studios had cunningly taken out with the Stoker estate two decades before. Universal’s take, with Bela Lugosi apparently defining the role, looked to have the eminently adaptable story sewn up  (Stoker after all was business manager of the Lyceum Theatre for 27 years). Read more…

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