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…

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…

Penny Dreadful: The Last Rites

Penny Dreadful Trilogy

That gnawingly immaculate show, clinical, gothic… surely it was intended as a joke for Lit grads? It shouldn’t have gone anywhere but it did until in its third year it was prematurely staked. Jokerside’s final look at Penny Dreadful this Halloween dwells on where the those otherwise immortal characters ended up.

*Spoilers for the complete run guaranteed.*

World Without a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

And so it ended with Wordsworth, the romantic poet so extricably linked to the Frankenstein myth that was just one of Penny Dreadful’s beating hearts. In 2014,the show provided one of the best Frankenstein adaptations during a first season that Jokerside couldn’t help but include in a review of the state of Mary Shelley’s legacy that year. The fall of the witches, a surprising turn that powered the show’s second season, its strongest, was also irresistible. Jokerside mashed it together with Hannibal’s final season in our 2015 update (the best things come in threes), as that show veered from the indulgence of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal to his early perfect thriller Red Dragon.

So, how could Jokerside resist a glimpse at the bitter-sweet end of Penny Dreadful, now the soil has landed on the coffin lid? Happy Halloween.

Certainties

Despite an emphatic if premature conclusion, it’s difficult to say anything about Penny Dreadful with absolute with certainty. After three seasons of curiously differing lengths the story was noticeably dramatically shortened. Some characters retreated from their potential in the rush while some premises faded away. Hastiness didn’t work well in the Penny Dreadful universe, and that was more apparent than ever when the motley crew entered the villain’s lair in the finale, the climax of three years of meticulous plotting and prophecy. It was the primary storyline revolving around the enigmatic Miss Vanessa Ives that showed the strain, despite the rich fabric that stretched across compelling supporting characters. Those sub-plots, many feeding into the primary story, had mixed success in concluding individual stories. Penny Dreadful was always particularly good at expanding minor and complementary themes, lifted from the great works of gothic horror, and using them to breathe new life into familiar characters. Many had already reached a satisfying end point at the end of the first or even second year only to be have new life breathed into them for the third. Take Caliban, the original creature of Frankenstein who ended the second season on an oh-so-fitting icebreaker his story thwarted in misery, only to return to London to have yet more heartache heaped upon him in the third year.

The finale began as it ended: with death. That was to be expected, but as much as it delivered more sumptuous horror from the pen of John Logan, who’s to say prolonging the pain of these characters was really the enjoyably right thing to do? Even the glimmers of hope were steeped in melancholy.

It’s a key question, as Penny Dreadful, a sometimes purposefully difficult mix of clinical stylisation and gothic romance was always a contrary beast.

Back to one

“The dead place”

Few shows matched Penny Dreadful’s first year success, when it simultaneously provided a compelling conclusion while enhancing and priming its central roster of characters ready for a heightened second year. Not every character made that first year of course, but Brona Croft’s demise not only allowed Ethan Chandler’s story to fulfil its supernatural promise, but through the creation of Lily, propel the good Doctor’s story onto the Bride of Frankenstein. Every character, except Sir Malcolm Murray’s manservant Sembene, was left in a stronger position come the close of that first season. And most tellingly of all, although a strong and unmistakable shadow had been cast, the show’s main nemesis not only failed to appear but wasn’t even named. Come the second season, the show’s longest at 10 episodes, there was an astonishing turn of events as the villain we all anticipated fell back, replaced by the revelation of two separate nemeses of unimaginable power and evil. Two brothers. Two fallen angels. Both of many names. Dracula assumed the physical side. And on the unphysical, the one most easily called Lucifer.

The second year, Lucifer’s time in the limelight, closed with a glorious pitched invasion of the witches lair, a beautifully realised coven enslaved to Lucifer. Her back story having once again taken mid-season prime position, there was no doubt as to the importance of Miss Ives as those dramatic events unfolded. By the end every character had lost something, but for Miss Ives it was the one constant she’d held on to for two years: her faith. That was a strange response to an infernal meeting and escaping the jaws of the devil, but it left her alone in London while the majority of other characters were scattered across the globe.

The third season seized those reins, embracing the global diaspora after the claustrophobic events of the show’s second year. It was a tough act to follow and the multiple, parallel strands in the Arctic, London, America and Africa, unsurprisingly lost the momentum that had made the previous year the show’s strongest. Despite the show’s clear intent to forge powerful stories of its own around familiar characters and original creation Vanessa Ives, the third season couldn’t match the rhythm of its predecessor. That second year benefitted from storming set-pieces, a chilling and opaque foe in those powerful witches and their puppet overlord, a disembodied foe of mystery. That year undermined expectations, pulling characters further from their source works, and the third year consolidated it.

“A grisly, undead thing”

Having established the challenging threat of the two brothers, the third series expanded its interest in pairs. Gothic master of duality Henry Jekyll was a high profile addition, working with his old school friend Victor Frankenstein to control the latter’s second surviving creation. Unfortunately, although the news of the show’s cancellation came late into the run, the third year was forced to confront the imminent apocalypse with indecent haste. And it was a singular mission for the most part. As Vanessa Ives walked into the arms of her immortal lover, other characters were forced to battle their personal demons and almost entirely the consequences of their earlier actions before they could join her. Yes, Vanessa’s true love was the knockout twist of the third year, matching the powerful reveal of Dorian Gray’s painting the year before. This was the year we met Dracula. But anyone expecting the two diabolical brothers to be pitted against each other were to be disappointed. There was little point pitting evil against evil when their rivalry could simply fuel the terror and impossible odds stacked against our anti-heroes. For each one had shown their fair share of weakness and flaws since in the three years prior. One foe eventually had to rise above the other. As established in the year’s mandatory exploration of Vanessa’s background, this time in the claustrophobic confines of an asylum cell, Lucifer was on the descent, Dracula very much on the ascent. Read more…

FICTIONSIDE 103: Who needs a shared cinematic universe?

Fictionside 003 Shared Universes

 

To mark Jokerside’s fourth birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the one thing that everybody in Hollywood wants: A shared universe.

Framed in 10 questions…

 

SOME THINGS START WITH SUPERMAN AND END WITH SUPERMAN. AND THAT’S HOW THIS ANNIVERSARY POST WILL PAN OUT. That legend of the alien child, dispatched to Earth as the last son of his dying planet is one of the great pop culture stories of the 20th century. While Big Blue’s character took shape over a number of years, gaining powers of flight and heat vision until he became the cultural pinnacle of those abilities, it took a mere two for him to bump into a fellow comic character. That would be young pretender, by one year, Batman. The two first stood next to each other on the cover of 1940 New York World’s Fair comic book with only a Robin in-between.

That was the first time any two comic characters had appeared together, and of course it was the light and dark, then in happier guises and brighter colours. Although they’d fail to interact inside, it set a precedent for the extended Super-Family and the growing Bat-family join other parts of the burgeoning and acquiring publishing universe that would become known as DC.

The Teen Titans, the Suicide Squad, the Justice League. The latter would later inspire the envious eyes a stone throw’s away in Midtown Manhattan. As just one of the highlights of his extraordinary mid-1960s productivity, Stan Lee assembled his own super team from fresh and veteran characters in the marvel fold because DC had done the same. So why not him? And 50 years on, it’s those assembled Avengers who lead the charge in a different media.

Where did it start?

On paper – straight from the pen

Many universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands… And that’s the point

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesOf course, shared universes didn’t start with comics, that’s just a nice four-colour example. Expanded universes are so innate to the prose world that their late appropriation by new-fangled art-forms of the 19th and 20th centuries could be page-curlingly embarrassing. And that’s within genre and without. Expanded universes stretch as far as the might of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Edgar Rice Burroughs fantastic and rip-roaring adventures… Many of these universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands eager to explore the potential, often posthumously. And that’s the point.

What’s a shared universe?

Choose your collaboration carefully

This is shared, not expanded or expanding…

An overarching work where more than one creator independently contributes segments that stands alone while complying with the joint development of a greater storyline or world. That’s the definition of a shared universe. Distinct from a collaboration, a cross-over or string of sequels, spin-offs or the interlinking work of one auteur: it’s a definition ready-made for the ambitions of Hollywood’s studio model.

Hannibal meets Penny DreadfulOn the big screen Quentin Tarantino has built a loose connectivity between his films, through throwaway references and characters, as has Kevin Smith. Bryan Fuller has had great success doing the same thing on the small screen, through often cruelly curtailed series. The same is true of Joss Whedon. But the Whedonverse, Fullerverse and Tarantinoverse don’t count, no matter the involvement of other creators, as theirs are slotting into a singular vision. The involvement of separate properties and distinct creative forces is crucial. This is shared, not expanded or expanding.

It’s no new idea, but while the first major developments came on the page, it wasn’t from the great weight of published genre that shared universes became a public commodity. Hollywood didn’t shirk on seizing the potential.

What’s the Monster in the Room?

The days of Universal Studios

The ensemble that kick-started Hollywood’s original gigantic shared universe

In September 1923, 93 years ago, Universal Studios produced an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a lavish film that became their highest grossing silent movie. Read more…

%d bloggers like this: