Monday, July 4, 2011

Frankenstein - 1970 (Aubrey Schenck/Allied Artists, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Frankenstein – 1970 (the dash is part of the original title, though it’s been omitted in some of the history books), Boris Karloff’s fifth film based on the Frankenstein story and the first in which he played a member of the actual Frankenstein family. (He’d been in four of the eight films in the Universal cycle, playing the Monster in the first three — Frankenstein, 1931; The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935; and Son of Frankenstein, 1939 — and in House of Frankenstein, 1944, he played Dr. Gustav Niemann, mad scientist and brother of the hunchbacked character Fritz played by Dwight Frye in the 1931 Frankenstein.) Frankenstein – 1970 was one of a cycle of horror films made in the mid-1950’s by producer Aubrey Schenck and director Howard W. Koch, following The Black Sleep (1956) and Voodoo Island (1957). This was made in 1958 and was originally going to be called Frankenstein’s Castle, then Frankenstein – 1960, before the producers decided they should locate the story farther in the future. (Ironically, Boris Karloff died in 1969.) Of the Schenck-Koch horror movies, The Black Sleep is the most convincingly Gothic, Voodoo Island the silliest (Karloff plays a debunker of spiritualists, the film takes place on a South Pacific Island and Our Boris wears a baseball cap throughout, making it virtually impossible for him to be scary) and Frankenstein – 1970 probably the most frustrating of the three, since it takes a marvelous premise full of potential and does almost nothing worthwhile with it.

In this version of the tale, the monster was created by one Richard Freiherr von Frankenstein (“Freiherr” simply means “free man” and was a medieval term for someone who was neither an aristocrat nor a serf), who started his researches in 1740 and finished them 17 years later; alas, the monster he created went on the obligatory murderous and destructive rampage, and Richard had to kill him. But he couldn’t bear to destroy his handiwork completely; instead he removed the internal organs (like the ancient Egyptians in the mummification process which inspired another horror cycle kicked off with a Karloff vehicle!) and stored the outer body in a crypt inside Frankenstein’s castle. (Incidentally, in this version the Frankensteins are German; in Mary Shelley’s novel and the Universal films they were Swiss.) By the time the film takes place, Victor von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) is the last surviving member of the Frankenstein family, and he’s also grotesquely deformed — the product of tortures visited on him by the Nazis during the war; they kept his hands intact because he was a surgeon and “they needed me to perform their diabolical operations,” but just about the rest of his body is either bent or badly scarred, and he’s reduced to walking hunched over.

Naturally, he’s had a long-standing ambition to resume his ancestor’s work and revive the monster, and to that purpose he’s sold most of the valuable art treasures accumulated over the years by the Frankenstein family and he’s also allowed a U.S. TV crew to film a Frankenstein show on the castle grounds. Rather than charge the TV company for the right to use the castle, he has asked them to provide him with a nuclear reactor, which he says he wants to use to supply it electrical power (even though it’s already got functioning electric lights), but of course what he really wants the reactor for is as a power source for the monster so he doesn’t have to wait for a dark and stormy night and fool around with kites. He’s already done most of the preliminary work, including disinterring the monster and making sure its flesh is intact and supple enough to be capable of revivification, and he’s also built the machine he’s going to use — which looks uncannily like a modern-day MRI scanner. The intrigues revolve around Karloff’s desperation to acquire all the internal organs he needs for the monster; his attempts to conceal what he’s doing from the seemingly omnipresent TV crew (one wonders why he doesn’t just wait and revive the monster once they’ve finished their show and left!); and the romantic intrigues among the cast and crew members. Director Douglas Row (Donald Barry, former cowboy star Don “Red” Barry) has been married four times; his most recent ex, Judy Stevens (Charlotte Austin), is still working for him as his script girl (today she’d be called a “continuity person”), but he’s now got the hots for his leading lady, Carolyn Hayes (Jana Lund), and wants to marry her as soon as he can get his alimony bills down to a reasonable level — which he’s hopeful about because Judy is actually dating someone else in the crew.

The film opens with a marvelous scene in which Carolyn is being chased through the woods by the monster — and of course it turns out to be a scene in the film Douglas Row is making — and throughout the movie there’s a marvelous tension between the elderly Frankenstein’s desire to get as much money as possible from the crew and his desire to get them out of there quickly so he can get on with his work. Alas, what could have been a quite original and entertaining film is marred by director Koch’s ultra-slow pace and a script (by the usual committee — “original” story by producer Schenck and Charles A. Moses, screenplay by Richard Landau and George Worthing Yates) that not only doesn’t take advantage of the provocative premise but verges on silliness and sometimes goes over. It also doesn’t help that Karloff relentlessly overacts — as great an actor as Karloff was, it’s clear that by 1958 he realized that no one was giving him projects of the quality of the James Whale or Val Lewton movies and the scripts he was getting were coming from people who wanted him to overact, and the more scenery he ingested, the better they liked it, but it still doesn’t help the film that instead of using the subtlety and restraint he was capable of to show us a desperate, traumatized individual, he went over several tops and screamed and snarled his way through a role that could have used, in George Cukor’s famous one-word direction, “less.”

It also doesn’t help that the animate monster is shown wearing a hood of bandages throughout (rather than risking a plagiarism suit from Universal over the standard monster makeup Jack P. Pierce had cooked up for Karloff to wear in 1931, or coming up with a different one the way Hammer did for Christopher Lee in the 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein, which made him look like Marcel Marceau had been in a really bad accident), or that when the monster is finally reanimated Dr. Frankenstein addresses him as “Shuter,” the servant whom he killed so he could use his brain in the monster. Frankenstein – 1970 has its virtues, including marvelous Gothic cinematography by Carl Guthrie (according to a “trivia” note on, Guthrie was hired because the company was filming at Warner Bros., they were recycling a set from the film Too Much, Too Soon and Schenck figured that Guthrie had photographed that film, too, he already knew how to light the set) and an effective use of CinemaScope (the print we were watching, recently shown on Turner Classic Movies, was blessedly letterboxed), but it’s a really frustrating movie because it could have been so much better than it is.