Thursday, 10 December 2015

Assembly Line: Part Five - Young Frankenstein

Ralph Bates might have had a short career at Hammer, but he did land some plumb roles, positioned, (unsuccessfully), to take over from both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

I looked at how Bates' Lord Courtley was supposed to cut in on the increasingly reluctant Mr Lee's vampire Count in Taste the Blood of Dracula here:

This strategy was scotched by American co-financers and distributors Warner Bros, who insisted they were putting their money in to see Lee as Dracula.  In Horror of Frankenstein, Ralph Bates then moved in on  Hammer’s other icon and took the lead in a film which was to reboot the popular film series, beginning with a quasi-remake of Curse of Frankenstein.  But this time it appears that the public voted with their feet, the only Baron they wanted was Peter Cushing.

For Bates it was to be third time lucky, playing the last of his trio of iconic horror Characters, Doctor Jekyll, opposite Martine Beswick's Sister Hyde in 1971.

But neither of his previous efforts were his fault, Ralph Bates does as excellent a job as ever in Horror of Frankenstein (1970), despite having hair almost as big as the two lovely female leads, Veronica Carlson and Kate O'Mara. In fact in direct opposition to everything I'd always been led to believe, it is hard to find any real deficiencies with production.  Despite the impressive d├ęcolletage on display this is not Carry On FrankensteinMad Doctor at Large or even Monster About the house.  But the weakest element does remind me inescapably of another famous British comedy series:

"I didn't get where I am today..."
Really, resembling the immortal CJ from The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin might be Dave Prowse's greatest achievement in this film.  The disturbing and somewhat deviant fact that the 'monster' is nothing but a body-builder in a bald cap, dog collar and nappy just can't be overlooked and only makes Christopher Lee's achievement of emoting through several layers of mouldy pudding in the 'original' that much more remarkable.

If I'd have to make a guess at why this film is not considered a success it would have nothing to do with the cast, or even the script but the intention of the film.  The earlier films in this cycle succeeded because the essence of Mary Shelley's novel was interpreted by Hammer with their first film, freeing up the ensuing chapters to explore innovative new directions in storytelling (perhaps with the exception of Evil of Frankenstein - tailored specifically  for Universal to emulate their original films).
Horror of Frankenstein gives us a bright new cast and a more modern sensibility, but unfortunately feels the need to tell the original story yet again.  Apart from this repetition, the re-stitched plotline also depends intrinsically upon a 'creature' whose deficiencies have already been mentioned.

Cushing would know what to do...
A new series of Frankenstein films starring Bates was not forthcoming, but lets close by focusing upon an important success.  The previous two cinematic outings for Cushing's Baron had been gradually establishing more central roles for women, but here we have the epitome of that shift.  Kate O'Mara and Veronica Carlson (her second Frankenstein film in a row) have as much screen time as their male co-stars and easily as much significance to the plot.  O'Mara relishes in her vampish role: Alys showing a ruthless streak of her own when her livelihood is threatened. And Carlson brings depth and conviction to what could too easily have become merely an over-virtuous polar opposite to O'Mara's earthy and mischievous housekeeper.

Horror of Frankenstein is a worthy experiment, but like the results of the Baron's own researches, is only a partial success: a product of great skill but somewhat clumsy, misshapen and unfairly shunned by those who don't understand its intent.

"One day I'm going to play the most famous villain in film history!"
"Sure, Dave..."

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