When Frankensteinia announced their Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon, I knew that I would have to do something to participate, even though I also knew that May was going to be the busiest month I’ve had in, I dunno, maybe ever. But what could I do with my limited time and resources that would still fit the stature of such a great blogathon? I settled (perhaps not too wisely) on watching all six of the Hammer Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing in my favorite role he ever essayed, that of Baron Frankenstein himself. (I did not count 1970’s Horror of Frankenstein, which doesn’t feature Cushing anyway.) It turned out that I already owned all six movies, having acquired them all at various different times and not realizing until that moment that I had “caught them all,” as it were. And while watching them occupied the vast majority of my movie-watching time during the month, it was interesting to see them all stacked up together.
The Hammer Frankenstein films, like their slightly-more-famous Dracula counterparts, are not really sequels to one-another in the way that we’re accustomed to sequels working (with the exception of Revenge of Frankenstein, the second movie in the series, which picks up literally right where its predecessor left off). Instead, they’re more like, I’m not really sure, alternate universe episodes in the life of Baron Frankenstein, a character who is always more-or-less the same, but whose history and even personality seem to fluctuate to fit the needs of one script or another. Here he murders a guy in cold blood, there he says he’s never killed anyone, here he’s almost heroic, there he’s as cruel and sadistic a character as you’re likely to find.
There’s a fascinating quality to all of Hammer’s gothic horror films, one of many things that set them apart from their contemporaries and imitators, which is the way they all feel as though they take place in the same universe, while at the same time seldom sharing any continuity from one to the other. And even when they do share continuity–in the form, say, of recurring characters like Baron Frankenstein–they play fast and loose with it. It’s appropriate that one of the recent Hammer film logos mirrored the Marvel movie logo, since the not-quite-shared universe of Hammer’s classic horror films feels like nothing more than it does a comic book universe. And the Frankenstein movies are no exception to this rule.
Of all six movies, the only one that was entirely new to me was Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which I have seen widely touted as the best of them. Certainly, it was extremely well put-together and dramatically satisfying, but it also features the Baron at his most cruel, and a completely unnecessary rape scene that Peter Cushing himself famously objected to filming, which resulted in my finding it more difficult to enjoy than I did many of the others, in spite of its other virtues. Of the other films a few I had seen repeatedly (Curse and Evil for sure), while for others this constituted only my second viewing (Frankenstein Created Woman, Revenge, and Monster from Hell). I found things to like in all of them, of course, and it was a great deal of fun to watch Cushing’s characterization of the Baron at once stay true to the basics and at the same time move all over the map, depending on the film.
But that’s probably enough generic blathering from me. When I mentioned doing this, I promised to list my favorites from the films, and so I’ll get on that, without further ado:
The vast majority of the movies feature the Baron being assisted by one stripe or another of eager young doctor (a couple of them, I believe, named Hans), and while each of them have their own strengths, they do sort of blur together after a while. Standing out more are the Baron’s Disapproving Friend Paul (as Gemma Files dubs him) from Curse and Thorley Walters’s boozy but kind Dr. Hertz from Frankenstein Created Woman. Ultimately, Dr. Hertz is the winner for me, with the combination of his bumbling performance and his genuine awe of Frankenstein.
Hammer films pretty much unfailingly feature great sets, and the Frankenstein films are particular standouts of this, with every movie featuring one kind of spectacular laboratory or another. The lab in Revenge, in particular, has a great disembodied nervous system, while the lab in the opening of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is full of green lights and wonderful creepy things in tanks. But the hands-down winner of the best lab, for me, is easily Evil of Frankenstein, which contains not only my favorite lab (the one in the mill), but also my second favorite (the more extensive castle lab, which, like most of the rest of the movie, is Hammer’s take on the Universal version).
Unlike the Universal Frankenstein films, which followed the adventures of the monster, the Hammer films all follow the Baron, who creates a new creature in every film. These range from a beautiful girl with her boyfriend’s soul in Frankenstein Created Woman to a giant caveman in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, and just about everything in-between. Hands down the best of the bunch has got to be Christopher Lee’s iconic interpretation of the classic monster in Curse of Frankenstein, but I’ve got a soft spot for the creature in Evil of Frankenstein, with his giant shoebox forehead. He looks a lot like what I imagine would have happened if Jack Kirby had taken a stab at designing the famous Jack Pierce makeup from the 1931 original.
This is probably the most difficult category, since Cushing is always playing some variant of the same guy, even though he wobbles from almost heroic in Evil of Frankenstein (ironically) to incredibly and needlessly cruel in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, with stops off on almost every destination in-between. Every performance is basically magnificent, for my money, but the best ones are the ones where Frankenstein is a little tired and a lot acerbic, and so I’m pretty sure Frankenstein Created Woman takes the cake. He’s also got some of his best lines in that one. “Of course I”m alive. Didn’t I say I would be?”
It’s an unpopular choice, but my favorite movie of the bunch is Evil of Frankenstein, no question. It is the one that’s least like the others, in that it really feels like Hammer doing a best-of interpretation of the entire Universal Frankenstein series, from the carnival to the deaf/mute girl to the unscrupulous hypnotist to the design of the creature and the design of the lab. But rather than feeling like Hammer aping Universal, it all feels to me like the best of both worlds, and I love every minute of it, even the monster frozen in a block of “ice” that’s obviously just plastic sheeting. My second favorite is probably its immediate follow-up, Frankenstein Created Woman, which is way, way less sleazy or exploitative than you’d probably imagine given the title/premise.
I like your approach, and I agree on a fair number of your favorites. My favorite observation: “the not-quite-shared universe of Hammer’s classic horror films feels like nothing more than it does a comic book universe.” I had never thought of that. Thank you for sharing with us.
Thanks for reading, and glad you enjoyed it! Nothing quite so exhaustive as your own excellent “Six Degrees of Peter Cushing” posts, though!
Thank you for the kind words, Orrin. Six Degrees with Doctor Who and some of the companions coming tomorrow.
EVIL is my hands-down favorite as well, for much the same reasons. The film’s locations – the village, the chateau, even much of the mountain scenery (minus the cave and the burning chateau model at the end) – is suffused with such a lifelike richness that the film’s scenery is what has stuck with me more than anything since I first saw it as a child 40 years ago. From the first lab’s cramped, desperate genius, to the abandoned chateau’s palpable atmosphere of dank decay, to the cleaned-up second lab’s stark utilitarianism…it all adds to the mix. All of its other (often debatable) flaws aside, EVIL is one of the few movies that, in purely visual terms, I NEVER get tired of just watching because it looks so great.
Couldn’t agree more!