Not that long ago, I wrote about the original Universal Mummy sequels of the 1940s for Unwinnable. Specifically, I wrote about the odd fact that they are (inadvertently) set in the future. You can read the beginning at that link and buy the issue to get the whole story, but the short version is that the first sequel is set contemporaneously, and then the subsequent ones jump ahead by about a generation every movie or two, meaning that, by The Mummy’s Curse (1944) it would be around 1995.
I love that shit, so imagine my surprise when I discover that there’s a movie from 1958, that’s set in 1970, starring Boris Karloff as an aging descendent of the original Baron Frankenstein, who was tortured and disfigured by the Nazis during World War II and who is now continuing his deceased forebear’s experiments. Now compound that surprise with the fact that the movie’s plot concerns a film crew who are shooting a TV special to commemorate “the 230th anniversary of Frankenstein,” and who are using Karloff’s castle so that he can afford to buy an at-home nuclear reactor, which is definitely a thing we had by the ’70s.
If that sounds like a lot, well, you’re not wrong. Crammed into 83 minutes, fully 40 of which are Karloff flipping switches and looking at dials, Frankenstein 1970 feels, at times, like three or four screenplays, none of which were even remotely finished, all jammed together into one movie and then still not finished. I loved it.
What the hell is Karloff’s character’s plan? It is unclear, at best, and he never seems to have even the beginning of an endgame. At one point, when his creature doesn’t yet have eyes, he apparently sends it out to fetch somebody for him, and is then disappointed when it brings back the wrong person.
“You fool,” he says, or something to that effect, “I sent you to bring me Row.”
“Boss,” I wanted the monster to reply, “maybe you forgot, but I don’t have eyes.“
Several times in the film, there are what seem to be missing scenes that might illuminate some of the confusion, but unlikely anywhere near all. The 1970 conceit is meaningless outside the existence of at-home nuclear generators, and, frankly, so too is the film crew conceit. Any excuse – up to and including the old saw of their car breaking down in a storm – to get some fresh bodies into the Baron’s castle would have served as well.
Yet, the film crew thing is great, and not just for the metatext of it all. There’s a nicely-shot cold opening that could only ever end with the director shouting cut, in-movie. As for the 1970 idea, it could have been any year at all, including 1958. In fact, working titles for the film included Frankenstein 1960 and Frankenstein 2000.
As it stands, everything looks just like 1958 – or, rather, like 1958’s idea of what an old castle would look like, using sets mainly leftover from John Barrymore’s house in Too Much, Too Soon, the biopic of his daughter Diana, adapted from her memoir.
Karloff, of course, steals the show, reminding us of his range as he is as sadistically sinister here as he has ever been warm and grandfatherly in any other picture. Under some impressive facial makeup and performing a dramatic limp and hunch, he oozes just enough charm to allow you to maybe buy that people wouldn’t just run screaming, while still casting a long, dark shadow over every scene he’s in.
And as for the monster, it’s the coup de grace. Before I even knew that this movie existed, I had seen a shot or two of the monster, and that’s what ultimately made me dig up the further information that was more than enough to justify a purchase. Played by 6′ 8″ actor Mike Lane – who also plays the actor playing the monster in the movie they’re making within the movie – the monster looks a bit like the mummy of an astronaut.
Always depicted in head-to-toe bandages, wrapped around a piece of headgear that makes it look like a robot, the monster is very different than any other Frankenstein monster you’ve ever seen. Lane’s considerable height, towering over even Karloff, certainly helps. Also helping this along is that the Baron apparently just lets it wander around, eyeless, which seems like a very poor way to keep your elaborate secret.
But then, see above about the Baron not being really amazing at planning.
“We got some goblins that’ll kill you, man.”