Freddie Francis, 1964
Starring: Peter Cushing, Sandor Elès, Peter Woodthorpe, Katy Wild
After surviving the events of the previous two films, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein, the Baron returns to his ancestral castle in Switzerland. Along with his assistant Hans, he plans to resume his experiments, but is surprised to find his original creature frozen in ice. Though he revives it, it’s damaged, and he enlists the services of a greedy hypnotist, Zoltan, who has been performing at a local carnival. Zoltan is able to help animate the creature, but also controls it and begins to use it to his own ends — stealing from the townspeople and committing crimes — which again riles the citizens of Karlstaad against Baron Frankenstein and his creation.
This third film in Hammer’s Frankenstein series is arguably the most frustrating. Though star Peter Cushing returned, it marked the departure of director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster, and it’s hard not to blame the film’s faults on the new team of director Freddie Francis and writer John Elder. Part of what made the first two entries so enjoyable is that Hammer reimagined Mary Shelley’s characters — particularly Baron Frankenstein — and made him an ambitious antihero at best, murderous villain at worst. With these early films, Hammer had to be careful not to replicate Universal Studios’ Frankenstein, which is primarily why they made so many clever decisions in terms of character, plot, and visuals.
But The Evil of Frankenstein is the closest Hammer got to Universal’s world of classic horror in terms of story, the look of the monster, and the laboratory sets. Thanks to a new distribution agreement between Hammer and Universal, the British studio was free to roam unchecked into ‘30s and ‘40s territory. But the problem is that this film is not a reimagining of Universal at their peak, but a reimagining of Universal’s campy, delightfully dreadful B-grade sequels from the ‘40s — titles like Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. Fortunately, this is really the only major instance of “Hammer does Universal,” and it’s particularly disappointing, because it doesn’t manage to evoke any of the campy fun of those films.
Instead, the plot is a total disaster. At first, it seems like Francis and Elder decided to backtrack a bit and return to the monstrous creation from The Curse of Frankenstein. As in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, the creature is found frozen — dormant, but intact — in a cave off the mountain where Frankenstein’s castle is based. The opportunistic hypnotist is also sort of stolen from a loosely similar character in The House of Frankenstein, a magician whose traveling act involves the skeleton of Dracula.
But The Evil of Frankenstein doesn’t stop there. There is a complete continuity break with the first two films and the ending of The Return of Frankenstein is ignored. The Baron magically has a new assistant (though both are named Hans, this is a different character and is played by Sandor Eles of Countess Dracula), and has abandoned the name Dr. Franck, the alias he chose. In an early scene, the Baron recaps past events to Hans and tells a totally different story — that he was a kind hearted, lonely scientist whose monster escaped accidentally and was killed after murdering some sheep, which resulted in the Baron’s banishment — and here he is sort of heroic and downtrodden, a completely different character than the sociopathic genius of the first two films.
I wish I could recommend The Evil of Frankenstein, but I really can’t. This film sort of exists outside the series and feels more like an attempt to tell the story in a totally different way — either rewriting Hammer’s Frankenstein legacy or pretending that the far more enjoyable first two films didn’t exist at all. Cushing is wonderful, as always, and there are some decent performances from familiar faces like David Hutcheson (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Duncan Lamont (The Creeping Flesh), and particularly Peter Woodthrop (The Skull) as Professor Zoltan, the hypnotist. But there is no “Evil of Frankenstein” to speak of and the primary destruction is caused either by Zoltan, or by the monster who gets drunk (!?) and accidentally sets the laboratory on fire. If curiosity compels you, the film is available on Blu-ray.