‘A Matter Of Taste’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
The second of three full length reviews written for Montage Film and published during August 2008.
The Horror Of Frankenstein (1970) is the second last of Hammer’s cycle of Frankenstein films and should serve as a lesson and a warning to modern horror filmmakers against the temptation to maintain a successful franchise through endless sequels and ‘re-imaginings’. Touching on all the ‘issues’ and themes popular in contemporary horror cinema, yet never quite manages to become, akin to the title character’s monstrous creation, more than a sum of its parts.
The Universal ‘monster’ films of the 1930s, built the structures of the modern horror film in its earliest films. The monsters and the iconography would be passed on and reused both as re-imaginings of their original selves and as entirely new forms, sprung from the mould they had established. Hammer where not the only company to exploit this model for their own ends, though they were arguably the most successful. The successful model employed by Universal, provided the structure for Hammer’s own cycles, building expectation that defined the genre to the audience, but at the same time shaped for a very different audience that would make them unique. The most singular difference between the Universal and the Hammer Frankenstein film cycles is one of perspective. While the former focus on the creature, the later shift that focus to the creator. In the case of Horror of Frankenstein this proves to be the downfall of the film, as the character of Baron Frankenstein, whether as mad-scientist or mere human being, is just not interesting enough. Bland and passionless, no amount of blood and sex seems able to inject a bit of life into the Baron, he is neither an object of sympathy or revulsion for the audience. Even his very coldness isn’t consistent enough or deep enough to make him truly villainous. There is something thoroughly cold about the film itself despite the lashings of sexual activity shown and implied. An object of lust for a succession of characters of both sexes throughout the film, the Baron confirms to the horror movie trope of repressed homosexual male, striving and failing for heteronormativity and caught in a trap between recreating a twisted re-conception of ‘family’ on one hand and brutally destroying those who awaken his repressed desire rather than facing up to it on the other. Making it something of a relief, an hour into the proceedings, when the monster finally puts in an appearance. Even the monster with its unlikely superhuman strength and improbably toned physique proves, ultimately ineffective. For all his brutality and strength, he is utterly impotent in the face of the spiralling series of events that he finds himself caught up in. He may in fact not even be remotely responsible for his own actions, cognitive and moral reasoning are that bit harder when one has a chunk of glass stuck in an important part of one’s brain. Not for nothing does the little girl comment that he’d been ‘quite a nice monster’. Neither a misunderstood anti-hero, nor a darkly scheming villain, the monster might as well still be a slab of meat lying on the operating table for all the audience engagement it provokes. That the grave-robbing couple, serve to be both the most likeable and raise the most of the few smiles the film can provoke speaks volumes about the film’s characters.
Given that Horror of Frankenstein is the only one of the seven Frankenstein films that Hammer released between the late fifties and the early seventies, that was neither directed by Terence Fisher nor starring Peter Cushing (both of whom had been instrumental in helping construct the ‘house-style’ that had defined Hammer’s output over the previous twenty years), it would be expected that the film might take the opportunity to be something new, something different. However, instead of taking the opportunity to do something interesting with the series, it merely takes a cycle previously darkly, subtly humorous and rich with irony and tries to turn it into a black comedy. The directorial debut of script writer Jimmy Sangster, who would go on to direct Lust for a Vampire amongst others, the film regularly appears to mistake sex for passion. Apparently, Horror of Frankenstein was supposed to be a pastiche, sending up the conventions, of the genre, however if that was its intention it fails utterly. The film opens promisingly enough, with the teenaged Frankenstein and his contemporaries discussing his interest in, nudge nudge, wink wink, ‘anatomy’, and Kate O’Mara as the ‘eager to please’ serving girl sports an utterly out of place comedy yokel accent, lost somewhere between Devon and the West Country. However for all the heaving bosoms and sex, the film is something of a cold fish, too frigid for anyone to notice if its tongue should happen to be firmly in its cheek.
Much of the pleasure of watching Hammer’s output, even or perhaps especially from the perspective of three or four decades out of context, comes from how compulsively watchable they remain in spite of the dated special effects, camp undertones and apparent joy in being utterly bad taste. Even at their worst excess the output of that particular studio retains a certain place in culture and audiences hearts, a sense that they were utterly rubbish but terribly good fun. Of course the real sadness of this transformative nostalgia is that the section of Hammer’s copious output that was clever, subtle and politically astute has been relegated to obscurity. Quality cinema and ‘bad taste’ cinema are popularly drawn as polar opposites, yet the best in British cinema is that which manages to walk the tightrope of balancing those two elements. The interplay of realism and anti-realism working together to create excitement in the audience. Caught in fascinated pleasure at the disturbance or destabilization of the reality, or illusion thereof, that they cling to so tightly in ‘real life’, revelling in the discovery that the pattern of cause and effect that they thought they understood was actually something else entirely. With all its reliance on the stock tools of suspense and shock gives it much in common with humour, thus the line between must always be tread carefully. The role of ‘excitement’ in this pleasure and how this relates in the context of wider British cinema, (culturally, historically and institutionally specific) especially in its relation to ‘bad taste’ is fundamental to understanding it.
Much like other popular British cinema genre films strands, from the Carry On films to the James Bond series, how the Hammer films are remembered is more important to their cultural role than how they actually were on screen. The general impression of their films in the public’s collective memory is of scenery chewing acting, dramatic lighting, dodgy special effects, and heaving bosoms. Yet however problematic their handling of issues of gender and sexuality, many of their better films used the medium to tackle complex political and social issues, with greater or lesser success and foregrounding varying between films. With their unashamedly ‘low culture’ sensibility – not only employing but revelling in the sexual, bodily humour, the grotesque and the revolting – these films owe considerable debt to an ongoing tradition of what Bakhtin refers to as carnivalesque. The use of humour, whether blatant or more subtle – that very ‘British’ ability to send up our own foibles and fail to take ourselves seriously – gives the films the licence in the public conscience to be somewhat transgressive. By employing ridicule and the reconception of the status quo, they create an illusion of being safe and silly, allowing them to paint a world inverted right under the noses of the ideological, political and moral authorities. Celebrating the conflicting yet complimentary forces of the beauty and the disharmony of the vulgar. Where the Carry On films retain a brazenly unrepentant loyalty to this cultural heritage, proud of their status as ‘low culture’, ‘working class’ entertainment, the majority of the Bond and Hammer films attempt something slightly more complex. Attempting to marry elements of their native low culture with elements of ‘high’ or ‘art’ culture. By creating a veneer of ‘art-house’ or at least ‘artistic, respectability which allows them to appeal to a wider audience – other than those watching and enjoying the films as a ‘guilty pleasure’ – than might otherwise be the case.
A film such as Horror Of Frankenstein has the potential to make the most of this tradition, to subvert audience expectations and shine an interrogating light upon the decadence and exploitation that was inherent in the genre during that period. The skilful use of humour to make a serious point is a powerful and often effective, making people laugh while making them think does wonderful things for positive reception of new ideas. It lurches along as unevenly as its monster, neither plot, characters or tone seemingly able to decide whether to play it strange, darkly humorous or camp it up to extremes, and relies too heavily upon the same tropes that it purports to be lampooning. Perhaps this is where the film’s greatest weakness lies, not so much in its own failings but in all the wasted potential, of the better, cleverer film it could have been.