[box cover]

The Revenge of Frankenstein

You wouldn't know it from the uninformative and disingenuous box art, but here's one of the best films to rise from the slab during the heyday of England's most venerated vintage monster factory, Hammer Films. Not even its headliner, the always-watchable Peter Cushing, is given any marquee status on the box. Damn shame, because both the film and its star deserve better than to be dumped into the generic horrorschlock dollar bin. The Revenge of Frankenstein lit the screens in 1958 as the first of five stylish and individually self-contained follow-ups to director Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein, the surprise hit that lightning-jolted new life into both Mary Shelley's manmade monster and struggling little Hammer, whose subsequent horror line made the "studio that dripped blood" the most successful independent production company in Britain. The centerpiece of each entry is Cushing's Baron Victor Frankenstein — a detached, amoral genius driven by the potential greatness of his life's work until inevitable madness ends him and the series.

Revenge begins right where Curse leaves off, at the guillotine. Through cold chicanery, Baron Frankenstein escapes the chop. He relocates to the German village of Carlsburg, where for three years he treats the local swells as beneficent Dr. Stein. His solitary nature and successful practice prick the city's oligarchic medical council, who decide to check up on their rival at his hospital for the poor. It's there that amputations are a wee bit more commonplace than they should be because the good doctor is secretly continuing his notorious research by harvesting spare parts from his patients. (A pickpocket's fine-tuned fingers doom their owner to one sleeve too many.) The new "monster" he builds is actually a rather handsome chap, and the Baron is determined to avoid previous unpleasantness by installing a good brain, this time from willing lab assistant Karl (Oscar Quitak), who wishes to trade in his crippled, hunchbacked body for a superior model. Frankenstein acquires a protégé, Dr. Kleve (Francis Matthews), who in deducing "Stein's" true identity gains a bargaining chip. With Kleve's help, the Baron succeeds in giving Karl a factory-fresh new body, thus beginning his redemption of the Frankenstein name.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Frankenstein movie if things didn't Go Horribly Wrong, and before long poor Karl falls victim to his unnatural state. As played with fine sensitivity by Michael Gwynn, the "new" Karl deserves the sympathy he pulls from us as we watch him degenerate into animal impulses (including cannibalism) and other misfortunes. In this and other ways does Dr. F's past catch up with him.

More a character drama than a "Boo!" scare-em, The Revenge of Frankenstein trods off the established path of Frankenstein tropes and eschews routine horrifics by putting a lens on its people rather than on an expected cereal-box monster. But you can still count on that gleefully macabre Hammer plumage — a relatively thoughtful script by Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula, The Quatermass Xperiment, The Crawling Eye), Fisher's effective and fat-free directing, the colorful atmospheric Eurogoth stylings of Hammer's production designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher, assorted amputated yet ambulatory eyeballs and limbs, comic-relief grave robbers, a brain-transplanted chimp that has eaten its mate, suspicious authorities closing in, a med-ward mob analogous to Universal Studios' villagers with torches, and decanted brains schloop-ing into jars. Plus, Revenge's final shot, which is either delicious or daft (or both), provides a shuddery coloration to every further film in the series.

Let the occasional burps in the plot logic or instances of writer's convenience roll past you. This is clever old-school Frankenstein that lays it down Hammer-style with a strong script and cast. Eunice Gayson (James Bond's lovely pal in Dr. No and From Russia with Love) is suitably winsome as the Pretty Girl plot device. Richard Wordsworth (the lead in Hammer's famed Quatermass Xperiment) relishes his scenes as a Cosmo Kramer-like hospital orderly. Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon) and Michael Ripper (Hammer's most-used player) are the jocular grave-robbers. It's the great Cushing, of course, who owns this movie top to bottom, and it's no wonder that this gentleman professional, along with frequent co-star Christopher Lee and director Fisher, is still indelibly identified with his work for Hammer.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar's DVD edition is your basic few-frills release. As such, though, it's not bad. It revivifies a good anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) from a new source print. Expect the usual mild grain and a few signs of wear, and those bold Hammer colors lack their full luster, but the print is clean with fine definition and contrast. A moment of herringbone shimmer is the only artifacting spotted. The monaural DD 2.0 audio is strong and clear. Extras include a black-and-white photo gallery, Revenge's trailer, and trailers for The Bride and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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