Sunday, 23 August 2015

Assembly Line: Part Three - Universal Reversal

Universal Pictures were fully behind this installment, giving their blessing and their monster design , but did anyone really want, or need it?

Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Colourful mittle-European villagers, a comedy burgomeister, immoral carnival hypnotist, a dogged chief of Police and a monster discovered preserved in ice - surely one of the Universal Frankenstein films?

Well, yes and no.  Evil of Frankenstein was distributed by Universal Pictures, but was actually the third  Frankenstein film made by Hammer .  I say third film and not second sequel because the presence of Peter Cushing is the only thing this has in common with the previous two closely-linked productions in this series.

The Baron discovers a site for thaw ice (sorry!)
So Evil is an anomaly for two reasons, it has no links with previous continuity (which is a shame as Revenge of Frankenstein set up a starting point for a following adventure very deftly) and secondly it doesn't really feel like a Hammer film, but more like a Universal film from the 1940s - somehow starring Peter Cushing, and in colour.

Chances are, this is exactly what the American distributor wanted, or at least what Hammer thought they wanted. Either way the result seems to fall between two lab stools, too Grand Guignol for Universal horror fans and a little too 'Old-school' for we Hammer-heads.

"Good on ya, Kiwi!"
One of the chief problems is from New Zealand, and he literally wears the blame. 
Very tall, gangling wrestler Ernest 'Kiwi' Kingston is cast as the monster, but sports an extremely problematic makeup, bearing an depressing resemblance to papier mache in many scenes.
Finally given the go-ahead to emulate Karloff's square-headed monster, Hammer made one of their rare missteps, perhaps trying too hard to update or put their own spin on the iconic look.

Cauliflower, anyone? 'Kiwi' Kingston (left)  in They came from Outer Space for Amicus Productions.

None of this, I hasten to add, is the fault of Mr Kingston, formerly of Banks Peninsular and a protégé of Wellington-based wrestling coach Anton Koolman.

Kingston had been a runner-up in the New Zealand Heavy weight boxing Championships in 1938 before turning to wrestling, but was also a top rugby player, equestrian and all-round sportsman. Although almost unknown in his own country, he became one of the greatest heavyweight wrestlers in Europe and Britain.

Apparently a gentlemen outside of the ring, his brief screen career included two films for Hammer and one for Amicus.  He passed away in 1992.

This will become a well-worn cliché by the time I finish looking at the Frankenstein series, but despite everything else, Peter Cushing holds this film together.  Even in a scene where he and assistant Hans don bizarre domino masks, making them look like a duo of period drama crime fighters. 

Zoltan the Mesmerist attempts to revive the comatose creature.

The opening credits, taking place over a continuous shot of Baron Frankenstein removing a heart from a corpse (Cushing was actually cutting into a cabbage, just out of frame) is both compelling and convincing.

 He even gets a couple of 'action-Cushing' sequences, including tossing a 'Roger Moore-like' aside over his shoulder before abseiling on knotted bed sheets out of a high bedroom window, towing a bed containing a grinning buxom actress across the floor as he does so.

The other scene, swinging on chains across the blazing lab at the fiery climax apparently gave Cushing third-degree burns, but seems to have done little to curb the actors fondness for throwing himself into the physicality of roles throughout the rest of his career.

"The next mad laboratory I build is going to have a fire extinguisher!" 

It seems difficult to reconcile this film, with a different background and first creature for the Baron with the two before it, and this could have been so easily fixed by altering or adding a couple of lines. The Baron himself seems to be a more sympathetic and mentally- stable character than before, hardly deserving the title of this film. 

Application of 'nerd logic' can easily overcome these inconsistencies, but perhaps getting too hung up on continuity is a modern syndrome. Having said that, Hammer's Dracula series, bar a couple of small exceptions, does seem to adhere more closely to a sequential narrative - so it will be interesting to see how well-stitched together the remaining Frankenstein films are with each other.

The end of the Baron?

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