Remember that the screams you hear will be your own!
Journey back to a different era of screen horror as Hammer Studios and Columbia Home Entertainment debut The Revenge of Frankenstein on DVD. The first of six sequels to 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein, this 1958 production is one of the strongest entries in the film series and manages to hold up remarkably well after 44 years.
I wish the same could be said for its DVD incarnation.
Facts of the Case
Sentenced to die by guillotine because of the murderous actions of his first creation, Baron Victor Frankenstein executes an ingenious escape and three years later has set up shop as Dr. Victor Stein. By day, he is doctor to the German elite, while at night he uses his fees to subsidize a free clinic open to the poor and downtrodden. From these forgotten souls Frankenstein finds the parts he needs to continue his work. He hopes will change the face of science forever with his work…work that will doom all connected with it, work that will bring havoc to a quiet little burg, and work that will carry with it the smell of blood and the taste of revenge.
Considered the only direct sequel to the movie that launched Hammer's fortunes, The Revenge of Frankenstein has a lot of things working in its favor. First of all Peter Cushing is back as Dr. Frankenstein AKA Dr. Stein, and he nicely modulates his performance from The Curse of Frankenstein. With the previous film, his portrayal was distinctly over-the-top, while with the second film he settles into playing a quieter, grayer moral tone. The man is certainly mad with ambition, but Cushing manages to underscore his single-minded drive with a paternal instinct for his patients, his young charge, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews—Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the crippled Karl (Oscar Quitak—Brazil), and the creation itself (Michael Gwynn—Scars of Dracula). His performance combines brazen ruthlessness with charm, wit, and clear human frailties. Few actors could maintain such affectation while also being completely natural, but that was Cushing's stock in trade. An actor of limitless energy, he imbued this role with a stillness that was always lurking even as the good doctor was running around trying to play God. It's a star performance and a clear reason why Cushing became and remained so popular.
In most Hammer productions, once you got past the lead performers a serious drop-off in talent would occur. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Hammer veterans Matthews and Gwynn more than hold their own. Gwynn in particular is quite good; he creates a man learning to live with pitch perfect accuracy, making his descent into madness and murder all the more painful. To provide the needed eye candy, Hammer turned to glamour girl Eunice Gayson (Dr. No, From Russia With Love) who, it should be noted, is able to acquit herself quite nicely. She is pretty in that very cool way while still giving off the warmth needed to inflame both doctor and creature, in the process creating the movie's odd and essential romantic triangle. On top of that, it's hard not to like a movie where Hammer regular Michael Ripper (Quatermass 2) gets to team up with character actor Lionel Jeffries (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) to rob some graves and steal some scenes. Both give the opening of the movie a much-needed shot of energy, making their limited time onscreen a welcome addition.
Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster penned the screenplay and, as with his work on the first Frankenstein movie, provides the most faithful of all adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel. His scenario is one filled with questions of morality, of right and wrong, and he wraps everything up with a wry satire of the elite upper class. Its humor and warmth set this Frankenstein movie apart from most others. As written, Frankenstein may well be mad, but he is certainly a man of complex ideals and standards. Even stranger and more welcome is the great affection Sangster has Frankenstein feel for those in his inner circle. It is this almost paternal love and the way Sangster focuses on the creator rather than the creation that makes this movie such interesting viewing.
Also making a return trip to the labs were director Terence Fisher (The Devil Rides Out), cinematographer Jack Asher (The Brides of Dracula), and production designer Bernard Robinson (The Abominable Snowman). Each man brought definable and unique gifts to the film. As usual, Fisher carried with him the eye of a former film editor, maintaining a brisk and economical pace, and even if his camera didn't do a whole lot Jack Asher contributes his trademark beautiful lighting, while Bernard Robinson steals the cake with his keen eye for richly textured detail; each man was also talented at wringing every possible drop of atmosphere out of the limited resources provided by both the budget and the tiny shooting spaces of Bray studios. In spite of all the difficulties presented to them, these three men combined to create that special Hammer look that would define a generation of horror films and lead to the studio's fortunes.
If the film has one real shortcoming, it is the uninspired music of Leonard Salzedo. I longed for James Bernard's classic touch to enhance the movie and to bind all the different themes together. For such a seeming run-of-the-mill genre movie, The Revenge of Frankenstein has numerous complex thoughts and ideas running through it, and a more reflective score would have helped drive those concepts home. The scoring is not terrible on its own, but it is certainly lacking in vigor and originality.
For its DVD release, Columbia has chosen to present the film in its American Eastmancolor version rather than the IB Technicolor most commonly found in England. Having seen screen captures of both, it's a real disappointment to see the American print used. With the Technicolor, colors have substantially more vibrancy, seeming to pop right off of the screen. Viewing the Eastmancolor, the movie takes on an entirely different tone. The film ends up being more subdued, a little more hushed than it should be. I hate to harp on this but it's difficult to imagine Anchor Bay not taking the time to secure the superior print, leaving another part of this release with a bittersweet feeling of what might have been.
Looking at this specific release, we find the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 given anamorphic enhancement. For a film over 40 years old, I suppose it comes off as well as can be expected. The print has the expected wear and tear, but the colors that do come through appear natural and lifelike while the crucial black levels remain solid throughout.
Sound is a sturdy 2.0 mono, and background distortions such as hissing and popping have been cleaned up. As to be expected from a vintage soundtrack, there isn't much in the way of warmth, and the more energetic sections of Salzedo's score come off more than a little shrill at times. Still, dialogue is well recorded and easily heard and as noted above, there is a lot more music found in the words as opposed to the score.
Extras? How about a still gallery and some trailers? Want more features for a Hammer Studio release? Go get an Anchor Bay Hammer Collection disc, because you are not going to find much here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose you can call this the whining of a fan who has gotten spoiled, but Columbia's treatment of this film leaves a great deal to be desired. One only has to look at the current wave of Hammer Collection discs from Anchor Bay to see how things should be. Every one of those discs features commentary tracks and video transfers that leave the big boys shaking in the dirt. To add insult to injury, this latest wave from Anchor Bay are all second tier Hammer titles, while The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of the studio's very best horror projects. I realize that almost all of the principals associated with the film have passed on, but off the top of my head I can name several Hammer historians who could have provided a great alternate audio track if only the time and the effort had been put into this release.
It's funny, but I remember a time not so long ago when a Columbia DVD was a sign of quality. Now all we seem to get are lackluster treatment of catalogue titles, endless double dips (triple dips, if you count the SuperBit line), and full frame-only releases. There are the occasional bright spots, but regrettably, they are getting harder to find. Seems DVD going mainstream has not been a good thing for the real film lover. Pity.
The Revenge of Frankenstein is upper tier Hammer, Peter Cushing turns in excellent work, it moves quickly under Terry Fisher's direction, and benefits greatly from the work of Jack Asher and Bernard Robinson. I have to say that The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein are the best adaptations the cinema has ever seen of this horror classic. 'Nuff said. The flip side is if only the movie looked better and had something in the way of extras, this would be a full fledged, hands down recommendation. As a purchase, this disc is probably only of interest to hard-core Hammer fans and Frankenstein completists; otherwise, I'm sad to say a rental is in order.
The Revenge of Frankenstein is acquitted of all charges; however, its DVD incarnation is held in contempt. Until such time as Columbia proves that it holds its classic and cult film properties in higher regard, or licenses them out to companies that do care, this incarceration will be continued.
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