Just over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley, at the age of just eighteen, conceived the story of “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” while sheltering with her lover (and later husband) the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the home of Lord Byron, the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Frankenstein is a brilliant but tortured scientist who creates a creature and brings it to life, whereupon it wreaks havoc, due to Frankenstein’s actions in first abandoning his creation, then reneging on his promise to create a wife for it. Shelley’s story perfectly summed up the fears of the Romantics: Science was capable of the improvement or even perfection of humanity, but if misused, could lead only to catastrophic consequences. She would have been fascinated by the modern versions of this paradox: global warming, weapons of mass destruction, and pandemics issuing from factory farms and slaughterhouses.
A century after his literary birth, Frankenstein and his monster were popularised by Hollywood (with the story considerably changed) in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff as the huge, shuffling, homicidal monster.
The British company Hammer Horror, the virtuosi of Gothic films, revived the story in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, their first colour horror movie, and the first gory slasher, with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature. This week’s choice, Revenge of Frankenstein, was the first in a string of sequels, which made Hammer the pre-eminent horror studio, and Peter Cushing the master of cultured monstrosity.
The trailer to the movie (above) gives a succinct summary of the story so far: Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) was sentenced to the guillotine in 1860 for creating a version of a human, and was blamed for its murderous rampage, caused by the creature’s brain being damaged.
“It should have been perfect. I made it to be perfect. If the brain hadn’t been damaged, my work would have been hailed as the greatest scientific achievement of all time.”
He escapes the guillotine by substituting a priest whom he pays the executioner to decapitate instead of him, and relocates to Carlsbrück under a false name (Dr Stein). Here he treats the hypochondriac rich and the grimy poor, whose limbs and other parts he amputates for his continued research.
Another doctor recognises him and blackmails him into agreeing to work together, and they plan to transfer the brain of Stein’s hunchback assistant Karl (played by Oscar Quitak) into a “healthy” (i.e. not disabled) body (played by Michael Gwynn).
“Nobody. He isn’t born yet. But this time he is perfect… All I need is a brain, and then I can give it life.”
Karl is a hunchback, and can’t wait to get his brain removed and put into Frankenstein’s jigsaw of spare parts.
Is the hybrid human getting a brain transplant? Or is Karl getting a body transplant? There’s another character, Otto, a chimpanzee into whom Stein has already (unforgivably) transplanted the brain of an orang-utan. After the operation, however, Otto “ate his wife”.
Yes, brain transplants, followed by head trauma, lead to cannibalism – who knew? Karl, in his new body, escapes but is spotted and beaten up by a janitor, whom Karl (now brain-damaged) then kills and eats. The Otto syndrome has spread to Karl! His injured brain then, somehow, starts restoring his hunchback, and his withered arm and leg – he starts turning into Richard III. An eyewitness tells the police that Karl’s first victim was killed by “some sort of animal”. Karl is dehumanised – again, first as through his disability, then through his monstrous appetite, caused by the tinkering of Frankenstein and the violence of the janitor. As expected of a monster, Karl gets right into killing and eating people.
But Karl’s violence is not really the point. Earlier movies had a shuffling, terrifying monster to amaze the audience but, in this one, it is pretty clear that the monster is not Karl, in either of his bodies, but it is the handsome, brilliant Doctor Frankenstein, a forerunner of the serial-killer Renaissance man, Doctor Hannibal Lecter. While Karl’s brain, twisted by insertion in a “perfect” body after a life living with societal rejection and shame at his disability, drives him to kill and eat human flesh, the good doctor deliberately and calculatedly ‘consumes’ the limbs, organs and other parts of the poor who fill his clinic, in order to satiate his scientific curiosity. Organ transplants save lives, but if taken from unwitten donors, how are they different to gustatory cannibalism? Like Hannibal, Victor Frankenstein is the real cannibal in this story.
It’s an interesting and at times engrossing film; the dramatic music by composer Leonard Salzedo is annoying, but Peter Cushing and the rest of the cast are great and, in 1958, it might possibly have seemed as scary as the hype made out. The film has 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Empire Magazine calling it an:
“Expertly executed example of a golden time in British cinema – one to savour.”
Of course. All cannibal movies should be savoured, as long as they are properly prepared.