Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Evil of Victor Frankenstein in Hammer Films

 (Warning: If you have not seen Hammer Films' "Frankenstein" movies  you might want to avoid this article. Quite simply, Here There Be Spoilers)

When many people hear the name "Frankenstein", they are apt to think of the Creature created by the scientist of that name. And when many picture that Creature, he is played by Boris Karloff in makeup and platform boots. When others hear the name "Frankenstein", however, they are apt to think of the scientist himself, Baron Victor Frankenstein. And when they picture that scientist, he is played by Peter Cushing in exquisite, early 19th Century clothing.

It was in 1956 that the British production company Hammer Films decided to make their own movie based on Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The novel had been previously adapted by Universal Pictures in 1931, the success of that film leading to an entire series of movies starring Frankenstein's Creature. Hammer Films' version of the classic novel, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), would prove equally successful. Like Universal's Frankenstein (1931) it would also lead to a series of films. Unlike Universal, however, the star of Hammer's "Frakenstein" films would be the villainous doctor himself.

At the time that he was cast as Victor Frankenstein, Peter Cushing was primarily a star of British television. He had already starred in several BBC productions, including television adaptations of  Pride and Prejudice (in which he played Mr. Darcy) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (in which he played Winston Smith). He had played supporting roles in a few films, including The Black Knight (1954), The End of the Affair (1955), and Alexander the Great (1956). The Curse of Frankenstein gave Peter Cushing, heretofore a leading man on television and a supporting actor in motion pictures, his first leading role in a feature film. There can be little doubt that his performance in The Curse of Frankenstein was largely responsible for its success. Indeed, not only would Hammer make more "Frankenstein" films starring Peter Cushing as the doctor, but Peter Cushing would go onto play Van Helsing in Hammer's "Dracula" movies, Sherlock Holmes, and Captain Clegg among other roles.

Of course, Peter Cushing owed much of his performance in The Curse of Frankenstein to a particularly strong screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. While the script gave Christopher Lee a choice role as the Creature, the centre of attention in The Curse of Frankenstein remains Victor Frankenstein himself. This is in stark contrast to Universal's Frankenstein, in which the Creature (played by Boris Karloff) is the main attraction. While Colin Clive delivered an excellent performance as Henry Frankenstein (Universal having changed the doctor's name from the novel) in both Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, he was largely outshined by Boris Karloff. What is more, Colin Clive's Frankenstein is as nearly as different from Peter Cushing's Frankenstein as night and day. Colin Clive's Frankenstein is a misguided scientist who might play with the laws of nature, but is less willing to break the rules when it comes to conventional morality. In Bride of Frankenstein when Dr. Pretorius proposes building a mate for the Creature, Colin Clive's Frankenstein is reticent to do so. One suspects that Peter Cushing's Frankenstein would not only have eagerly taken Pretorious up on his offer, but he probably would have thought of it himself.

Indeed, while Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein may be considered a hapless anti-hero, Peter Cushing's Victor Frankenstein can be and usually is an outright villain. Quite simply, in Hammer's "Frankenstein" movies Victor Frankenstein is devoted to the pursuit of science at any cost, regardless of if it is illegal or immoral. While Henry Frankenstein in the Universal films was content to get bodies for his experiments through robbing graves or vaults, Victor Frankenstein in the Hammer films is not below getting bodies for his experiments through outright murder. When he needs a brain for his creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, he simply invites Professor Bernstein (played by Paul Hardtmuth) to his home and then promptly shoves him off the top of a staircase.

Despite his devotion to science it would be a mistake to think that Victor Frankenstein cannot appreciate the "better things" in life. Peter Cushing's Frankenstein is an urbane sophisticate with a love of wine, women, and song. Unfortunately, he is as immoral in his pursuit of pleasure as he is his pursuit of science. In The Curse of Frankenstein he has been dallying with his beautiful maid Justine (played by Valerie Gaunt), despite being betrothed to the equally beautiful Elizabeth (Hazel Court). When Justine threatens Frankenstein that she will inform everyone that she is pregnant with his child unless he marries her, he insures she is locked inside the laboratory with the Creature, full well knowing what her fate will be.

This is not to say that in The Curse of Frankenstein Victor Frankenstein does not have his good points. Peter Cushing plays the doctor with such charm and joie de vivre that it is sometimes hard not to root for him, even when he is doing some of the most despicable things. It must also be pointed out that when his fiancée Elizabeth is threatened by the Creature he goes to rescue her, even going so far as to destroy the Creature. It would then seem that Victor Frankenstein is capable of caring for someone other than himself after all.

With the success of The Curse of Frankenstein and the popularity of Peter Cushing in the role of the not-so-good doctor, the expectation would be that he would become an increasingly better person in the successive movies. This was not the case in the Hammer "Frankenstein" films. In fact, with the exception of one film (which I will discuss below) Victor Frankenstein remained as ruthless as ever. In fact, in some ways he would grow even worse than he was in The Curse of Frankenstein. Indeed, when audiences left the evil doctor in The Curse of Frankenstein  he was due to be executed by guillotine. At the start of The Revenge of Frankenstein he escaped by having a priest beheaded in his stead and then buried as "Victor Frankenstein". We later find him in the village of Carlsbruck using the name "Dr. Stein" and up to his old tricks--namely, building a new Creature.

In the fourth film in the series, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the doctor shows as little concern for his fellow man as he ever did. When his assistant Hans (played by Robert Morris) is executed and Hans' girlfriend Christina (played by Susan Denberg) commits suicide, he thinks nothing about reviving Christina's body and transferring Hans' soul into it. If anything Victor Frankenstein is even more ruthless in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Not only is he still committing murder to get body parts for his experiments, but when he learns Dr. Karl Holst (played by Simon Ward) has been stealing narcotics from an asylum pharmacy, he promptly blackmails Dr. Holst and his girlfriend Anna Spengler (played by Veronica Carlson) into helping him in his latest experiment.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also contains one of the most heinous acts committed by the doctor in Hammer's series of "Frankenstein" movies, and it is one that seems out of character for Frankenstein. Quite simply, in one scene he rapes Anna Spengler. Here it must be pointed out that the scene was not in the original script and is never again referenced in the film after it has happened. It must also be pointed out that it was filmed over the objections of Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, and director Terence Fisher. Peter Cushing even apologised to Miss Carlson afterwards! The scene was an afterthought added by Hammer executive James Carreras to please American distributors, who were wanting more sex and violence. At any rate, while Frankenstein is not below committing murder in the name of science, it is inconceivable to think of him forcing himself on a woman. In the previous "Frankenstein' films the doctor only uses violence as either a means to advance science (getting bodies through murder, et. al.) or to preserve his own freedom (sending Justine to her death, et. al.). Since the rape scene is not in the original script and is not referenced in the film afterwards, an argument could be made that it never even happened. It could even have been a bad dream on the part of Anna (who would understandably be frightened by Frankenstein).

Regardless, when Peter Cushing returned as Victor Frankenstein in the last film of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), he is as amoral as ever. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell finds Frankenstein working as the head doctor at an asylum. It seems that Frankenstein blackmailed the asylum director, Adolf Klauss (played by John Stratton), who had been playing fast and loose with the asylum's funds, into giving him the position. Of course, this means that Frankenstein now has a new source for body parts for his latest creature. Quite simply, he murders his patients to get them.

Throughout Hammer's "Frankenstein" series, the doctor commits a number of crimes that would guarantee he would be sent to the guillotine that waited him at the end of The Curse of Frankenstein should he ever be caught. The exception to this is the 1964 film The Evil of Frankenstein, which is so different from the other movies in the series that it seems likely it is not even set in the same reality.  Indeed, in The Evil of Frankenstein Victor seems more like the misguided, but ultimately good Henry Frankenstein played by Colin Clive than the ruthless, determined, and amoral Victor Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein. As if the differences in Frankenstein's character were not enough to prove that this is a different Frankenstein in a different reality, The Evil of Frankenstein provides the doctor and his Creature a backstory that in no way resembles The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein. Although made by Hammer and starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein, it would seem acceptable to consider The Evil of Frankenstein as belonging to an entirely different continuity from the rest of Hammer's "Frankenstein" series.

Of course, there is one other "Frankenstein" film made by Hammer that definitely exists outside the continuity of their "Frankenstein" series, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). By the late Sixties Hammer Films wanted to recapture the youth market that had made them the studio for horror films in the late Fifties and much of the Sixties. It is perhaps for this reason that they decided to replace Christopher Lee, with whom they were having dispute, with the youthful Ralph Bates as Dracula in Taste the Blood of Dracula. Unfortunately for Ralph Bates, when Hammer's American distributor Warner Bros/Seven Arts discovered this, they insisted that Christopher Lee must play Dracula. As a result, Ralph Bates lost the chance to play the legendary vampire. He would get to play a legendary character from Hammer's history, however, when the studio decided to reboot their "Frankenstein" series with a remake of The Curse of Frankenstein entitled The Horror of Frankenstein. Ralph Bates played Victor Frankenstein in the film.

Ultimately The Horror of Frankenstein would fail at the box office and Peter Cushing would return as Victor Frankenstein in the last instalment of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The Horror of Frankenstein suffered from a number of problems, not the least of which was director and writer Jimmy Sangster's decision to incorporate campy humour into the film. That having been said, much of the film's failure may have been the absence of Peter Cushing. As played by Ralph Bates, Frankenstein is still as determined, ruthless, and amoral as ever. And if anything he was even more of a sensualist than Peter Cushing's Frankenstein ever was, having seemingly slept with every girl at his university. Unfortunately, while Peter Cushing as Frankenstein possessed such charisma  that one almost rooted for him even as he was killing people for body parts, Ralph Bates' Frankenstein is so unappealing it is difficult to even understand what the girls at his university saw in him beyond good hair and a handsome face.  While Peter Cushing's Frankenstein was an urbane, charming aesthete, Ralph Bates' Frankenstein seems like a simple boor. In the end The Horror of Frankenstein only proved how necessary Peter Cushing was to the success of the "Frankenstein" films.

Indeed, as played by Peter Cushing, Victor Frankenstein remains one of the most memorable villains not only in horror films, but in films of any genre. Baron Frankenstein was a scientist so devoted to the pursuit of knowledge that he was willing to do almost anything to achieve his aims, including blackmail and murder. That having been said, it would be unfair to describe Frankenstein as a "mad scientist". Obsessed as he is with the pursuit of his craft, Frankenstein is as calm, cold, and calculated as they come. What makes Victor Frankenstein so effective as a villain, however, is not that he is utterly ruthless, determined, calculating, and amoral. Instead it is that he is possessed of an ineffable charm, the sort of charisma that would make even a matinee idol envious. One cannot help but like Baron Victor Frankenstein, even when it is against one's best judgement, as many characters in Hammer's "Frankenstein" series learned much too late.

By the mid-Seventies Hammer Films' brand of Gothic horror movies had largely went out of fashion, overtaken by the demonic horror of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) and slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, released in 1974, would be the last film in Hammer's legendary "Frankenstein" series. While Hammer's brand of Gothic horror went out of style in the Seventies, however, their films remained popular. For many Victor Frankenstein would forever look like Peter Cushing.


Silver Screenings said...

I was a bit hesitant to read your post, due to the spoilers, but as a blogathon co-host I couldn't NOT read your excellent post. I can only imagine how fantastic Peter Cushing is in this film. Charming and murderous – can a villain be any more perfect?

Thanks for joining our blogathon and profiling the essential Victor Frankenstein.

Kristina said...

This was a great read. I love the Hammer films I've seen, but they're not too far beyond the basics and I always say I need to see more (all) of them. Peter Cushing is a joy to watch so what I must do after learning so much from your post, is to line these titles up and see them soon! thanks for being part of this event

Caftan Woman said...

I really enjoyed this most informative and interesting article. Peter Cushing was never less than totally convincing in any role he took on, and his Frankenstein will never be surpassed.