Love Letter to Hammer Horror: The Revenge of Frankenstein

The Revenge of Frankenstein, a somewhat weird and comic look at the classic tale, is a direct sequel – starting exactly where The Curse of Frankenstein left off. We see Baron Victor Frankenstein being led to the guillotine “for the brutal murders committed by the monster he had created”.

Victor’s hunchbacked assistant, Karl (Oscar Quitak), stages a switch at the guillotine to help his master escape death. Victor then reinvents himself as a physician to the wealthy (known now as Doctor Stein), while also implanting himself amongst the poor at a hospital in order to perform unnecessary surgeries to gather together pieces for a new creation.

Dr Kleve and Frankenstein amongst the lab equipment in The Revenge of Frankenstein.

History soon repeats itself as Victor plans to put the brain of Karl into a new and improved body. Despite Victor and his new assistant, Dr Kleve’s (Francis Matthews), intentions to steer clear of any mis-happenings like the last time, things don’t go as planned. The brain transplant has some side effects, and the “new” Karl (Michael Gwynn) is soon turned into a disabled cannibal. The transformation happens after his tranquil recovery period is interrupted by a conniving ward orderly (Richard Wordsworth) and the interfering charity volunteer, the lovely Margaret Conrad (Eunice Gayson).

The climax happens as the forces come together in an anarchic explosion of the tyrannical community as Karl crashes through a window at a social gathering. Begging for help from the Doctor (and calling him Frankenstein), he destroys his reputation as a philanthropist and his past comes to the foreground.

Gwynn’s passion as he cries “Frankenstein – help me” at this public skirmish allows the audience to feel a lot of empathy for the monster. Karl deserves the audience’s support, as we watch him struggle against his baser desires and wish that he gets the second chance he deserves. He is nothing more than a sad and innocent pawn in Frankenstein’s selfishness.

While the gore takes a back seat in this sequel, we are still given some explicit images of socketless eyes, powdery brains, and hacked off limbs. As well as the gore being dialed back, Frankenstein’s murderous tendencies have been lessened, making him a more likeable character. He is a man who places flowers in his lapel and takes his meals alone, making himself seem more like a genuine scientist than the psychopath he was in the previous film. Of course, he is still no saint – happily stealing body parts and barely concealing his vicious hatred for his contemporaries under his amiable personality.

A dismembered arm lays on a table while the doctors look down at it.

Baron Victor Frankenstein is also still the man who would smile at you while stabbing you in the back in the pursuit of science. Science is like a drug to him – you think he is going straight, but something will soon drag him back to his addiction. Karl understands that Frankenstein is a shifty professor, and while he can be trusted with a scalpel, he can be trusted with little else.

There are some leaps in logic and deus ex machina to keep the plot going, but it is still a classic Hammer film with a solid script and cast. Although some of the secondary characters have little beyond a brief function. In The Revenge of Frankenstein, Jimmy Sangster’s script wastes time on these secondary characters while losing some of the piece’s science. Gayson is endearing as the love interest, although she has no significant connection with the doctor or contributes to the film beyond freeing Karl before he is healed, and putting the wheels in motion towards tragedy.

Director Terence Fisher unites class distinction and gore, as we have people torn apart by enraged mobs. At the social gathering at the end, you are left in shock with the horror and social faux pas on show. But, the real strength of The Revenge of Frankenstein (and the Frankenstein franchise’s waning success) is Cushing. Here he is the rock in an already solid film that offsets the emotional drama with some strong horror elements.

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It is no surprise that Cushing, Fisher, and Christopher Lee become a holy trinity for Hammer works. Cushing’s Frankenstein is one of horror’s greatest non-supernatural villains. He always gives himself wholly to a role, giving us a character of enormous intracity. The Revenge of Frankenstein contains Cushing’s best version of the character, as he swings from honourable to disconnected throughout.

The rest of the roles are also played by strong and talented cast members. You can quickly draw a parallel between Karl and Carroon from The Quatermass Xperiment (also played by Wordsworth), as they are both ludicrous escapees in war with their changing body and committing accidental murders. Even the bit part of the lighthearted graverobbers are played to perfection by Lionel Jeffries and Michael Ripper (who would become synonymous with Hammer).

Matthews is superb as Dr Kleve, a sophisticated soul who is quite a leftover for 1860 Germany. However, Hammer’s Germany is full of Cockneys in Bavarian clothing, using English slang and phrases improper for the time. I did smirk at suggesting that Baron Frankenstein gives Vera “an overhaul.”

Fisher, with his understanding of attention to detail, gives us a moody piece. The mid-European town of Carlsbruck is a mature setting, although this type of area becomes cliched as Hammer films continue.

Karl pleading for help at the climax of The Revenge of Frankenstein.

The Revenge of Frankenstein removes the overreliance on “punishment of those that play God”. Frankenstein’s scientific desire comes from wanting to do right by his assistant, by giving him a new body – although it does not end well for Karl.

The Revenge of Frankenstein is visually spectacular with its superb performances and self-assured direction of Fisher. The bold decision to change from the Universal classic by making Frankenstein, and not the monster, the focal point has created an excellent series, with each film furthering his growth and advancement.

By: Beverley Price

Revenge of Frankenstein is available to rent on multiple platforms