Archive for July 14, 2008

Frankenstein Must Be Deployed

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2008 by dcairns

…THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Yes! This week we watch all the Terence Fisher Hammer Productions about Baron Frankenstein and his varied creations.

This means omitting EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, which isn’t a Fisher and doesn’t fit the continuity of the other films (indeed, it seems to go all-out to destroy all coherence) and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN which stars Ralph Bates instead of Cushing and likewise isn’t a Fisher.

Most of the Fishers are written by Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s prime creator of thick-eared dialogue and inventive plotting, a very important figure in the development of the Hammer style. While the cast may have despaired of Sangster’s speeches (Christopher Lee grumbled about having no lines and Cushing told him to be grateful), he was instrumental in stripping away the niceties of Universal’s gothic tales, substituting brutality, villainy and nihilism.

Of course, part of the Hammer approach is catchpenny hucksterism, beginning with the title of this one — there’s no curse mentioned in the movie. (Similarly, the later VIKING QUEEN has no Vikings, but a line of dialogue has been helpfully added to appease pedantic Scots like me: “She is our Viking Queen!”) Hammer obviously wanted a title distinctly different from Universal’s, because they were nervous of lawsuits. I don’t see any evidence that Sangster ever read Mary Shelley’s original novel (try it, it’s perfectly readable and entertaining), but he probably glanced at it, borrowing the notion of referring to Lee’s mangled creation as “the creature” rather than “the monster”, which again was useful in differentiating the new film from its predecessor.

Despite the fear of being seen as an unlicensed remake, Sangster cooked up a few references to the first two James Whale movies — at one point, a small boy and a blind man are introduced. The boy immediately heads to the shore of a lake, where he sits and picks something off the ground, immediately recalling Boris Karloff’s encounter with the flower-picking little girl. Meanwhile, the blind man, a direct swipe from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, meets and is immediately attacked by the creature. Hammer films are setting out their store: there is to be no pathos and no sentimentality here, just nasty surprises all the way.

The other classic horror film that seems to inform this movie is Murnau’s NOSFERATU, both in the cut of Lee’s coat, and in his pose when spying on Hazel Court through a skylight. Images like this show Fisher’s flair for this kind of storytelling. Robbed of the dreamlike somnambulism of Murnau, CURSE picks up the pace and delivers muscular thrills and punchy delivery. Fisher is helped enormously in this by his cast.

First, Cushing. Influenced by his admiration for Laurence Olivier, Cushing delivers an energetic and highly physical performance, throwing himself into the action sequences with abandon (see how he mimes getting a stitch in his side after running upstairs to fight the monster– sorry, “creature”). Baron Frankenstein may be a man of science, but he’s also a MAN. Sangster has also added an illicit affair with the French maid, so that from the very first film, Cushing’s Baron is morally tainted by more than his zeal for medicine. MOST of his crimes are motivated by a desire to achieve greatness in science, but he’s also perfectly capable of beastly behaviour for purely selfish ends.

Cushing is so perfect for this film, and this genre, and somebody was smart enough to realise it. He goes with the generally vigorous style of the movie (vigorous in a slightly stiff way, like Lee’s energetic yet ungainly creature) but adds cultivation and a believable intelligence. He’s also adroit at getting away with Sangster’s more boggling lines of dialogue, such as “We hold in the palms of our hands such secrets that have never been dreamed of.” And when handed a nice gag, like “Let him rest in peace — while he can,” he underplays magnificently.

Playing the juvenile version of Cushing is Melvyn Hayes, whose presence can be distracting to some: he’s famous in Britain for playing a transvestite bombardier in a campy sitcom about a military “concert party” (troupe of entertainers) in WWII Burma, called It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Imagine OBJECTIVE, BURMA! only with more songs and dragging up. But Hayes is a very good actor and, unlikely as it seems, a resonably plausible physical embodiment of a juvenile Cushing. (Irrelevant sidenote: Cushing was dressed as a girl by his mother, a reaction perhaps to so many boys being lost in WWI.)

Second lead: Robert Urquhart, as the Sensible Friend. “I bet nobody talks about him because they’re all too busy looking at Cushing,” says Fiona. “But he’s GOOD.” It’s true. Playing straight man to Frankenstein can be a thankless role, but Urquhart (good, unpronounceable Scottish name) espouses the morality without becoming priggish or boring. Whenever he’s given the chance to loosen up a little, he takes it, breathing life into the character as surely as he restores respiration to a dead puppy. Plus he gets that great end scene, betraying his old friend in the hour of his greatest need – Hammer’s moral characters often tend to be even nastier than the villains, and Urquhart’s cold-bloodedness here prepares the way for horrible heroes like Van Helsing (what an appalling man!).

(Side-note — the best perf in Kenneth Branagh’s Francis Ford Coppola’s MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN is Tom Hulce, in the tedious role of Sensible Friend. He should be a bore, but he winds up the only character you’d care to have a pint with. Hulce, the miracle-worker.)

Talk about thankless parts: Hazel Court has little to do save remain in ignorance throughout. Seeing her in something like MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH or THE RAVEN shows what a capable, sexy and witty performer she could be: Roger Corman always gave her enjoyable parts. She’s in lots of Hammer films but rarely got any interesting business: she doesn’t even get vampirized. Not once.

Then there’s Christopher Lee, of course. I think it’s fair to say, with no unkindness intended, that the man was cast for his height, here. The part nearly went to Bernard Bresslaw, another tall man, who had to content himself with fleshing out the role of Rubba-Teetee the mummy in CARRY ON SCREAMING instead. Lee’s one-off perf as the creature — he couldn’t return in sequels because Sangster had, perhaps shortsightedly had him dumped in an acid bath at the end of this film (having already been shot and set alight) — did, however, lead him to the role of Dracula, which he made his own and got a whole series out of. Indeed, a whole career (262 screen roles listed on the IMDb, and still going strong).

Lee’s creature is devoid of any of the nobler qualities of the Karloff monster, but the performance is not without detail. “Looking like a road accident” in Phil Leakey’s gruesome slap (crude but effective would be a polite way to describe it), Lee plays the character as brain-damaged and confused. The encounter with the blind man is particularly interesting for Lee’s odd movements and posing. This creature isn’t evil, as such, just bewildered, and he lashes out in violence at everything he doesn’t understand — which is EVERYTHING. It took some effort, but I was able to find him sympathetic at some level, although the character/behaviour is a bit too close to that of some school bullies I recall. At least the Lee-creature has an excuse: the jar with his brain in was smashed against a wall. His brain’s probably full of broken beaker (his revival is prefigured by a sound of smashing glassware: Fiona wonders if this is the sound the creature makes when he thinks). Why didn’t Frankenstein just get a new brain?” asks Fiona, agitated. “Even a bog-standard brain would be better than a genius brain that’s full of broken glass!”

Lee gets the film’s coolest shot (quoted by Kubrick in LOLITA! I should write a whole piece about Kubrick and Hammer films’ odd synergistic relationship) is Lee’s unmasking. Lurching about in muslin wrapping, he’s discovered by Cushing just as he raises his hand to the bandages swathing his lumpy kisser. The hand clutches the cloth, and just as it pulls away the covering, Fisher’s camera switches from 24fps to something more like 6, and we track in impossibly fast, Lee swooping forward at us in all his milky-eyed awfulness, his small movements suddenly insectoid in their inhuman speed.

“Hold your horses, I’m thinking with GLASS, here!”

It’s fascinating to me how Sangster and Fisher get away with delaying the monster’s appearance until about halfway through, with only a bit of medical grue and gallows-robbing to sustain the tension until the big reveal. Of course there’s something else at work: anticipation. Mary Shelley gets her monster onstage faster, but she was telling the story for the first time. Hammer realised they could rely on the audience already knowing the basic premise: they await the monster with eager dread. The tactic was to deliver a monster more unpleasant than expected.

The whole thing goes like a train, with the monster escaping, running amok, getting shot in the head, brought back to life, killing the French maid (as arranged by the Baron, since she’s outlived her usefulness and grown inconvenient) and finally escaping AGAIN and attacking Hazel Court. Time for the first of Hammer’s patented overkills (never JUST shove a stake through Dracula — try throwing holy water in his face, causing him to fall from a belfry into a pit with a stake in it, then poke him with a shovel just for good measure: DRACULA A.D. 1972), as Cushing shows more of his physical dexterity:

“I’ve created a monst — I mean, creature!”

Not only a great actor, also a great SHOT — right into the lens! The slung lantern sets Lee alight, and he falls into the convenient acid bath. Every home should have one. Except — not so convenient. Now there’s no evidence the monst creature ever existed, so Cushing’s going to be executed for the creature’s crimes. Which is fair enough, really.

A missed opportunity! As Cushing is led off to be executed (it suddenly occurs to us to wonder how he was convicted of the French maid’s murder, since presumably he dissolved her remains), we cut to the guillotine, its blade cranked up to the highest position. The credits roll…

And then — nothing! Fade to black. When it’s obvious to any gorehound that the blade should descend with a sickening SHOONK after the last credit has crawled off the top of the screen. THAT would be showbiz. Perhaps Hammer were already thinking about sequels, already regretting melting their creature like an Alka Seltzer. Using Cushing’s Baron as the constant feature of the films that followed, rather than his first creation, makes the Hammer FRANKENSTEINS delightfully different from their Universal forebears.

As we shall see.

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