So I have been a fan of Peter Cushing for a long time, and who hasn’t? He’s been the Grand Moff Tarkin, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Blyss (aka, Dr. Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh), Van Helsing….and….Victor Frankenstein. (Also, apparently, Mr. Darcy in a TV Pride and Prejudice miniseries? Hah. I’d pay money to see that. Can you even begin to imagine the snideness?) Christopher Lee–not that you would recognize him, or want to–also got his start in this movie, because, I guess, if you’re 6’5 and really good at shambling and glaring, you’ve got it made. And then there’s also Robert Urquhart as Paul Kempe and a couple of miscellaneous 60s-era Hammer Horror babes as the love interests. Obviously, though, the show belongs to Cushing and Lee.
Basically, I don’t have a lot to say extra about this movie. It’s perfectly cast, it’s fast-moving, it’s scary (or at least horrifying, or at least it is to me), it’s got thrills and kills and, if you have about 90 minutes of your life and nothing else worthwhile to do, it’s a pretty good way to fill that time.
So the movie begins with a minister paying a visit to the imprisoned Baron Frankenstein, who, even knowing he is within a few hours of the gallows, is more intent on insisting to the impassive padre that he listen to his side of the tale. This leads us directly into flashback-land. Turns out, Victor was an arrogant–and highly intelligent–twerp from puberty on up, with a keen interest in biology and a keener sense of his own importance.
He, together with his once-tutor and later co-discoverer, Paul, bring a drowned puppy to life. Exactly why this involves things as many bubbling and/or gently steaming beakers in as many colors as it does is kind of a mystery, but science! I suppose. Paul is jubilant at the thought of the practical medical and scientific knowledge they can share….Victor, on the other hand, is all for keeping their newfound powers, er, I mean, scientific discoveries, to himself. Ourselves, I mean. Until they’ve perfected it! Until they create the perfect man! The man with the hands of the artist and the mature brain of a genius!
Now….just to be clear, Paul takes some convincing. Just….not a lot. And you’d think that outright gibbet-robbing would take more than a single “we are like unto gods” monologue, but it’s with barely more than a dubious expression he helps Victor collect a body. And then we get a brilliant line: “What are you going to do with that?” “Take the head off. It’s no use to me, anyway.”
The giant, open-topped vat of acid in the back room, however, could potentially be exceedingly important, er, I mean useful.
Victor, struck by a sudden flight of scientific inspiration, dips out. I will take a moment to say that no one other than Peter Cushing could play this role this way: someone completely devoted to their vision of science! (and also personal gratification therein,) utterly lacking in morals, but also deeply steeped in polite behavior and gentlemanly manners and as such, completely at ease within the standards of admittable behavior in society. Also, he looks really good in a cravat (why did those things go out of style in the first place?)
This is perhaps why he has not one but two love interests: the housemaid Justine, with whom he is already having an affair; and Elizabeth, his cousin, with whom he has an arranged marriage upcoming. Elizabeth arrives somewhat early, and there’s what would be, in less competent hands, a wonderfully awkward four-way, eight-sided discussion when she, Justine, Paul, and then Victor all meet up in the doorway.
Then Victor dips straight out again, because he’s, well, got to go put his new stolen hands into a bubbling beaker before they start to go bad or something.
Paul tries to impress on him that it’s about time to stop. Why, you might ask? Is it because going cross-country to steal a dead artist’s hands off his body is the action of a crazy person? Nope. Is it because it’s illegal? Nope. Is it because by meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know is intrinsically harmful to sanity and humanity? Nope. Is it because that vat of acid definitely doesn’t meet OSHA standards? Of course not.
It’s because a) the hot girl who just walked in would be pretty disturbed to find that her fiance is trying to resurrect the dead, you are interested in hot girls, Victor, right? Right? Victor, are you listening to me? Victor? Oh, and also, b) I’m interested in hot girls and also my sanity.
So Paul attempts to persuade Elizabeth to leave. Unfortunately, she’s attached to the idea of marrying Victor.
Anyhow, Paul sidles up to the laboratory (did you pronounce that with five syllables?). Victor attempts to gloat to him a bit, but is put back on the defensive by his erstwhile tutor’s insistence that what he’s doing is evil and reckless. Once again, not that he really recognizes it as defense, he’s mostly just hurt and puzzled that his brilliant ideas aren’t being recognized and lauded the way they should be. Well, yes, true, the Creature is hideous. And yes, he’s been robbing graves (“What doctor or scientist doesn’t?”–the man has a point), but as far as the actual mind, he’s planning on implanting only the best! in his Creature. The brain of a genius. Of superior intellect. Of a lifetime of knowledge!
Also, he’s just invited the illustrious, elderly Professor Bernstein for a visit.
So naturally, about thirty seconds later, Victor is down in the vault prying the lid off the coffin. He’s just gotten the brain into a glass jar when Paul wanders in. Y’know, got to wonder about Paul: he absolutely knows what’s going on is beyond wrong–for reasons apart from the approval or disapproval of hot girls–not to mention illegal; but he really isn’t doing anything about it. He attempts to apprise Victor of the wrongness of this path, but he never actually uses any persuasive tack that Victor would actually recognize, such as: society will never recognize your genius; or, you will get in trouble for this and your work will be destroyed and ignored. Not to mention, the only time he raises an actual finger to stop Victor is now…and he half-asses it utterly, too.
Paul succeeds in smashing the glass jar against the wall–causing Victor to show the first actual emotional distress in the entire movie–and then follows up by….leaving the room. He then goes to Elizabeth and tries to convince her to leave, too. But, note, without using any words to the effect of, “Victor is doing immoral and illegal acts up in his laboratory (FIVE SYLLABLES), he’s not gonna stop, we need to get out of here before everything blows up in his face and ours.” In fact! When Elizabeth asks what is up in that laboratory (FIVE SYLLABLES!) he specifically denies that it’s “Wicked or insane.”–merely that Victor is blind to the consequences of his actions.
DUDE, YOUR PROBLEM. IT’S RIGHT THERE. IT IS WICKED AND INSANE BY DICTIONARY DEFINITION AND ALSO CRIMINALLY ILLEGAL, HELLO.
Elizabeth, as any woman would who is hearing bad things about the man a man she is dependent on and also desperately wants to be in love with, throws him out.
(Victor is fishing glass shards out of the Professor’s brain and apparently doesn’t like the odds on snagging another genius brain, because he’s started procedures going in the Tank of Bubbles.) Needless to say, there’s also a thunderstorm going on. Having started the flywheel at full speed ahead and all supplementary flasks at Maximum Bubble, Victor goes off to ask Paul for help….only for a direct lightning strike to supercharge the generators while they’re still downstairs arguing.
(Victor has the most amazing fraction-of-a-second almost-smile before the Creature reveals his face and then tries to strangle him, but I can’t freeze-frame quickly enough to get a screenshot of it.)
And then by the next morning, it’s escaped into the woods, where an old blind man and a cute young boy are gathering wood by the side of a river, and, interestingly, the Creature is wearing clothes now. It–he?–also seems at least as much discombobulated by the terrified blind man as he is of him….at first, anyway.
Anyway, the safari catches up with the Creature pretty soon, and then Paul shoots it in the face with a shotgun, which can’t be good for what’s left of it’s (his??) brain, either. And now he’s dead and they bury it.
Man, these guys. These guys! AS THEY ARE BURYING THE BODY OF A STITCHED-TOGETHER CORPSE MADE OF PARTS THEY HAVE ACTIVELY ROBBED FROM GRAVES, Paul is still going on about how Victor has done “monstrous acts”, “monstrous,” I tell you! Done with that shovel yet? No? Tamp down that end of the mound a little bit more, ‘kay? And Victor, for his part, is going “I’ll never forgive you for this. Evah! Wait, where are you storming off to? COME BAAAACK!” YOU GUYS ARE MORONS.
Naturally, the next scene is Victor in his laboratory (five syllables), and Paul walking in to bid his farewell. He’s no longer needed there, after all, of course. NOT THAT HE DID A DAMN THING WHILE HE WAS THERE, MIND YOU, but whatever. His work is done. You know, after having helped raise and educate this man, and stood beside him while he started his work, and then stood back while he continued it, done. Whatever lets you sleep at night, man.
So, no matter what else you can say about this movie, it’s got multiple things going for it: the actors, their performances, the tight scripting and fast pace…and by golly, it’s got the very freakiest of freaky designs for The Creature. Apparently Christopher Lee had to eat his lunches alone, because no one else on set wanted to sit anywhere near him. Dude.
Victor is a fairly simple creature, really. All he wants to do is be left alone (with the occasional other person to come by now and again and tell him how brilliant he is) to work on his projects, and also screw over conduct household affairs in peace. Whyyyy?! this can’t just happen is something of a mystery to him. And to him only. The former (Paul) source of gratification has gone, and the latter is about to blow up in his face, as Justine reveals that she’s pregnant, jealous, and desperate.
Thing is, despite his single-mindedness and arrogance, Victor isn’t actually stupid, and he’s a fairly adept manipulator when he wants to be and when he actually can understand what people want and are motivated by. Unlike Paul, who has always been wishy-washy, Justine doesn’t make any bones of the fact that she wants Victor to marry her or else she’ll turn him over the authorities.
Now, here’s another thing to say about this movie: it moves fast. There really isn’t any wasted time: things happen. For instance: we skip directly from ahead ahead to the wedding rehearsal. Or at least, to some guy rehearsing his wedding toasts before his wife drags him off.
Contrast this with Victor’s brush-off of Elizabeth as he heads straight back to the laboratory. (FIVE SYLLABLES!) Paul arrives, gormless as ever, and heads up to the laboratory (FIVE SYLLABLES!), where oh my gosh, Victor is preparing some food for the Creature?! OH MY GOSH. THIS MOVIE.
OKAY, I’m not sure whether it’s my lunch sitting queasily or it’s really just this movie hitting home the way it does, but this is genuinely disturbing to me. Like, seeing the Creature tied up, and then it hides its face, it’s creeping me the hell out.
Victor has to have a gloat, naturally, and then has to display his mastery over the Creature for Paul’s benefit. Oh ye gods. Credits to Christopher Lee, it’s really genuinely disturbing to watch it flail around to obey while he orders it up and down like a dog. (Although I also think that curry mix was expired.) And, naturally, Paul isn’t impressed with this–especially when Victor points out that the damage to the superior brain was his fault to begin with.
But! The final straw! Is when Victor admits that, well, try and try again. And again. And again! if need be. With superior brains each time, naturally. Paul storms out to notify the law for real this time….WALKING DIRECTLY PAST ELIZABETH AND OUT THE DOOR AT WHICH POINT VICTOR ALSO RUSHES PAST HER AND OUT THE DOOR ALSO.
Did we mention that the laboratory (FIVE SYLLLABLES) is unlocked and standing open right now?
ARGH. Also, B-T-DUBS, there is a grand total of five minutes left in this movie. Wow.
Anyhow, all parties (except Paul, who has buggered off again, NATURALLY), end up on the roof, Elizabeth gets shot, the Creature gets set on fire and did we mention that giant vat of acid? Yeah.
We cut back to the jail cell, where Victor is trying to persuade the preacher and then Paul turns up to…be completely passive-aggressive and refuse to utter a word about this whole business, leaving Victor–you know, the man he TAUGHT FROM A, yes, indeed, snotty and obnoxious and arrogant, KID–there to scream incoherently and die with everyone believing he’s an insane criminal murderer.
Well, I mean, yeah, it’s true, but it’s true for the wrong reasons, and Paul’s still a little bitch.
AND IT TURNS OUT ELIZABETH IS STILL ALIVE OKAY WHAT?!
And then Baron Frankenstein is led to the guillotine, THE END.
A sequel, you say?