Directed by Jimmy Sangster. Starring Ralph Bates, Kate O’Mara, Veronica Carlson, Dennis Price, Jon Finch, Graham James, George Belbin, Bernard Archard, David Prowse. UK 1970 95 mins Certificate: 12. Out on Blu-Ray from Studio Canal on 29th January 2018
Countless studies of Hammer Films place considerable emphasis on its undeniable financial decline in the early 1970’s, often sadly overlooking the fine work being done by the studio and its key personnel while the international market and the horror genre were both rapidly changing. Perhaps the stand-out of the studio’s “new blood” in this period was young Bristol-born actor Ralph Bates, a striking looking fellow largely remembered for prominent TV roles in POLDARK and John Sullivan’s DEAR JOHN, a short-lived but poignant sitcom offering an unpatronising look at middle aged loneliness. Hammer originally groomed him as a Dracula substitute when Christopher Lee became ever tetchier about reprising a role that seldom gave him much to do except snarl in the shadows and swish his cape. In the event, Bates was a marvellously arrogant and commanding presence as Lord Courtley in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, though the script’s awkward shoe-horning of Dracula into the Courtley-led narrative meant his more compelling character was beaten to death at around the half way point.
Soon after this scene stealing turn, Bates was promoted to leading man status for the first and only Hammer Frankenstein picture without either Peter Cushing in the title role or Terence Fisher in the director’s chair. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN had been the movie that came to define the term “Hammer Horror” and the studio returned to its roots, bringing back that film’s screenwriter Jimmy Sangster to rewrite an existing script (he also directed), while bidding to attract a young, modern audience via a sexier, younger Baron Frankenstein and a larger than usual emphasis on humour. The title harks back to the American retitling of Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, HORROR OF DRACULA, which was another Sangster script.
At the outset, we see Bates’ teenage Victor Frankenstein enjoying the privilege of sitting in school next to the beautiful Veronica Carlson with hair in bunches. (It’s Carlson that has her hair in bunches, rather than Bates…and keep your dirty fantasies to yourselves). Accustomed to canings for being the school smart-arse, Victor expresses his interest in anatomy by doodling naked girls in class. His father, Baron Frankenstein (George Belbin) expresses his own anatomical fascinations by routinely copping off with teenage maid Kate O’Mara and, in his strict patriarchal duties, oddly predates Homer Simpson by two media decades in his use of the open-ended phrase “Why you little….”
Years later, Victor gets the Dean’s daughter up the duff at university, is reunited with the majestically proportioned O’Mara and cops off with her just like his old man. The CARRY ON-ish dialogue in relation to O’Mara’s admittedly traffic-stopping cleavage (“You’ve put on weight in a couple of places…”) and the general feeling of a sex comedy gate-crashed by a Hammer Frankenstein picture means that it’s a while before you glimpse a severed head in a jar. Distractions include Carlson in a low-cut red gown as the schoolmate who still holds a Victor-shaped torch.
Bates makes the transition from school square (complete with rigid centre parting) to suave, wildly ambitious ladies’ man with great aplomb. Graduating from animals (“Where in the hell do you inject a tortoise?!”) to fresh human bodies and casually electrocuting his assistant when morals enter the conversation, Bates’ take on Victor is refreshingly modern and manages the difficult task of conveying a cold-hearted megalomaniac for dramatic purposes while being at ease with Sangster’s fluffier, jokier overall approach.
The movie itself is notably all over the place, though the many sniffier reviews over the decades usually fail to acknowledge that this ramshackle feel is part of its modest charm. The central creation sequence occurs one hour in, unveiling Dave Prowse’s unimaginative, under-used barrel-chested monster, and the muted horror content isn’t sufficiently compensated by bonafide laughs – unless you consider the Monster giving the finger upon his birth to be the height of comedy.
Still, there is fun to be had in watching the love rivalry of Bates’ two ladies, and the ending – which sees Victor ready for further adventures that never transpired - comes at a point where you yearn for a second Bates-Frankenstein outing equipped with a more confident script. Possibly one with less jokes about boobies and more emotional engagement – though at least HORROR offered a respite after the quite brilliant bleakness of both preceding Cushing Frankenstein movies.
As with all Studio Canal’s Hammer Blu-ray releases – marking the 60th anniversary of the “Hammer Horror” brand as we know it – the only extra is a 17-minute featurette that manages to pack a lot of insight into a short amount of time. Jonathan Rigby is a pleasure to listen to, as always, as he talks accurately of certain cast members bringing “a pier end approach” while acknowledging a stand-out bit of “comic wildness” involving a shadow play death scene. Other commentators point out the shift in the Frankenstein character to a full-blown psychopath as essayed by Bates. Veronica Carlson talks with respectful sadness about the changes she saw in Hammer at the time, and her dislike of what she calls “bathroom humour” that, in her words, “demeaned Hammer”. For an unloved movie like this one, it’s very refreshing to hear Alan Barnes enthuse about how much he likes Bates’ take on the character.