Terence Fisher, 1958
Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn
Having escaped execution by guillotine as promised in The Curse of Frankenstein, the Baron Victor Frankenstein assumes a new name — Dr. Stein — and relocates to Carlsbruch, where he has become a highly sought after physician. He somewhat accidentally finds a new assistant when a young doctor, Hans, realizes he is Frankenstein and blackmails Victor into letting him help with new experiments. They work with Karl, Frankenstein’s deformed assistant, to try to transplant a brain into a new body. In this case, Karl wants his brain relocated into a healthy, handsomer form, thanks to his feelings for a pretty nurse at the hospital for the poor where they all work.
I have to admit that I find Hammer’s second film in the Frankenstein series — which followed hot on the heels of 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein and was shot simultaneously with the beginning of their Dracula series, The Horror of Dracula — nearly as enjoyable as the first. It’s a real relief that Hammer took the series in a new direction, choosing to focus on the Baron rather than the monster as the subject of what would become a seven film run. And, even more so than The Curse of Frankenstein, this film belongs solely to Peter Cushing. The plot may not be as grand as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, lacks serious moral quandaries, and doesn’t even really have a monster, but it’s still a fantastic films thanks to Cushing.
The Baron is a bit kinder and gentler here — or at least his ambitions are more rational and more focused. Hammer were building an effective Frankenstein mythology and made the Baron sort of a cross between protagonist and antihero. Here he is on the verge of having his genius and ambition result in real positive change. He’s still the same ruthless, egotistical bastard, but Revenge shows that he could be capable of true good… if things didn’t always seem to go wrong all the time. This movie is frustrating solely because everything would have worked out fine if everyone had just listened to Baron Frankenstein. Karl’s brain is ultimately damaged because he doesn’t give it time to heal and panics, fleeing his hospital bed with the help of the sensitive but ill-informed Margaret, the nurse he’s in love with. Karl’s brain goes haywire; it becomes convinced he’s paralyzed again and the ensuing trauma makes him completely homicidal.
It’s perhaps strange that Revenge of Frankenstein doesn’t even really have a monster in it. Karl fills the quota for “deformed assistant,” but he’s a sympathetic figure, arguably more so than any of Universal’s monsters. He also never really has an overly monstrous appearance and his transformation is not from a pile of corpses into a shuffling monster, but from a damaged human into a whole one. Hammer would use this formula again for later films in the series like Frankenstein Created Woman. Christopher Lee’s absence is not even felt, because he and Cushing teamed up for The Horror of Dracula, though the rest of the team is present: director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, cinematographer Jack Asher, designer Bernard Robinson, and so on.
This second film maintains several of the important themes of the first. Frankenstein is closely bonded with a male doctor — in this case, Hans Cleve (Hammer regular Francis Matthews of Dracula, Price of Darkness) — and seems completely uninterested in the female gender. There are also numerous class issues. Dr. “Stein,” Frankenstein’s less than clever pseudonym, refuses to join a local organization of wealthy doctors and willingly switches between upper class patients and charity treatment at a local hospital. Of course, this charity has an ulterior motive — experimentation — but the snub puts him on the wrong side of the powers that be and cause them to be suspicious of his actions and watch him closely.
But out of all the reasons to watch The Revenge of Frankenstein, probably the most important is its totally bonkers conclusion. Spoilers in the next few sentences: Baron Frankenstein is beaten to death by hysterical hospital patients, but he escapes death YET AGAIN. Hans removes the good doctor’s brain, so he can transplant it into a new body that mystifyingly resembles Peter Cushing and show the authorities Frankenstein’s corpse to get them off the doctor’s trail to make future experiments easier. And… drumroll… of course, Frankenstein himself planned this all in advance. So obviously, if you like Frankenstein films, Peter Cushing, or movies with amazing yet improbably endings, you owe it to yourself to give this a chance. You can find it on DVD and it’s a great choice for the Halloween season.