This hour, when I momentarily expect my release, is the only happy one which I have enjoyed for several years. The forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms. - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
They will never be rid of me! - Baron Victor von Frankenstein, Revenge of Frankenstein
The Revenge of Frankenstein is the second of the Hammer Frankenstein movies, starring Peter Cushing and directed by Terrence Fisher. It is interesting in that it contains no obvious revenge. It is followed by the Evil of Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein does seek revenge, but is not noticeably evil. Go figure.
Revenge is better than its predecessor by a mile. The plot makes a great deal more sense, the Monster is better looking and more sympathetic and with 'Frankenstein Movie Storyline A' taken care of in Curse of Frankenstein, Revenge is able to do something less predictable.
We open on the guillotine that was the closing shot of Curse. Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is lead out by a priest and a visibly disabled jailer. The blade comes down, but we do not see Frankenstein die. Cut to a tavern. Two grave robbers discuss taking Frankenstein's body to sell. They dig up the grave and discover the body of a priest. One robber flees, the other remains, and is confronted by the Baron, alive and well and dies of shock, collapsing into the open grave. Frankenstein and his jailer bury the body.
Later, the Medical Council of Carlsbruek is discussing the mysterious 'Dr Stein', who has set up practice in their town and stolen away all their best patients. Unhappy, they send a delegation to encourage him to join. Dr Stein is actually Frankenstein (duh) and it is implied that his success at stealing patients is at least partly to do with the fact that the ladies love him.
(As an aside, the Cushing's Frankenstein was shown to be a bit of a ladies man in the first movie. In this, women are shown to be attracted to him, but he shows little sign of being interested in return.)
Dr Stein's wealthy patients finance what Stein claims is his true passion: the Poor Hospital -- but it is implied that this Hospital is really just a source of spare parts. Stein is amputating a tattooed arm there when the Medical Council delegation comes to see him. Stein tells them to sod off, and they do – except for one man, Dr Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews).* Kleve confronts Stein alone, identifying him as Baron Frankenstein. Stein stalls, then finally admits Kleve is right. Kleve asks to become Stein's pupil, and is accepted.
Stein shows Kleve his lab. He has the partially paralyzed jailer, Karl (Oscar Quitak), as his assistant. A series of fish-tanks contain a brain, a set of eyes and a hand in order to demonstrate reflexive behaviour. He also has a chimpanzee with the brain of an orangutan, because of course he does.
But Stein is proudest of the man he has built and which he keeps in a tank. Everything is ready to go but the brain, which must come fresh. Kleve believes that this must mean murder, but in one of the cleverer twists of the movie, Stein has a volunteer brain donor – Karl, who will be cured of his disability in his new body.
The situation is complicated by the arrival of Margaret (Eunice Gayson), the daughter of an influential minister who wants to work at the Poor Hospital. Stein lets her, feeling that it is the easiest course of action. Karl falls for Margaret, but does not approach her.
Stein and Kleve complete the transplant. It is a success. Karl comes to life in a new body (Michael Gwinn) and other than a scar on his forehead looks pretty good. However, he is in pain. Fearful that he may injure himself, Stein orders him strapped down to a bed in the Poor Hospital attic. Kleve informs Karl of Stein's plans – to travel Europe, demonstrating his success by showing off Karl and his old body. After a lifetime of being stared at, Karl is unhappy with this plan.
Margaret hears of the plight of this mystery patient and tries to offer him help. (Seriously, what is up with all these nosey women? Always peeking into the Monster Room.) Using a stolen key, she goes to see him to see him. He convinces her to loosen his bonds.
The orangutan-brained chimp is showing un-chimplike behaviour, including a hunger for flesh. Kleve asks Stein if the same will happen to Karl, and Stein claims it can't, so long as Karl recuperates properly. Karl escapes. D'oh! Poking around the basement, he finds his own body, and burns it. He is confronted by an angry servant, who he strangles before running off.
Karl flees, hiding out in Margaret's aunt's stables. Distressed at finding his old paralysis returning, he flees again. At night, he runs into a young lady who has ditched her date because he won't put out, and kills her. As Stein and Kleve search for Karl, they see the police dealing with the dead woman. The police ask Stein for a medical report, then send him on his way.
Stein and Kleve go to Margaret's aunt's musical gathering, where Stein interrogates Margaret. He is interrupted when Karl, crashes through the window. Karl has deteriorated terribly, and now looks seriously monsterous. He calls out to Stein: "Frankenstein… Help… me…" before dying.
Kleve advises Stein to flee. Stein refuses, claiming he has plans in place for this eventuality. He goes to work at the Poor Hospital as usual, but the inmates are not happy to see him. They mob him and beat him until Kleve comes to the rescue. But it is too late – the Baron is dying.
Kleve removes the Baron's brains, and shows his body to the police and Medical Council. They concede that Frankenstein is dead at last, and leave. Kleve gets to work…
In the final scene, we see a number of well-to-do women in a waiting room in London's Harley Street, belonging to one Dr Franck. As Dr Franck washes his hands, we see one arm is covered by a familiar tattoo. He smooths down his moustache, nods to his assistant, Kleve, and carries on.
So, here's my theory about the Hammer Frankenstein movies: other than the first one, they're not really Frankenstein movies. They're sort of hybrid films, with the Frankenstein element mixed with another classic monster. Evil of Frankenstein explicitly mixes Frankenstein with Dr Caligari, Frankenstein Created Woman is a ghost story, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a doppelganger story, The Horror of Frankenstein is basically Carry on Frankenstein** and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is… well, I'll get to that one.
Revenge of Frankenstein, in this interpretation, is a vampire movie. Frankenstein is Dracula. An aristocrat, believed dead, arises in a graveyard. He is charming to women, but dangerous. He prays on those beneath him on the social scale, prolonging his existence by consuming their bodies. Eventually, his victims turn on him and seemingly destroy him, but he returns from the grave to continue his bloody occupation.
Revenge was shot back-to-back with the first of Hammer's Christopher Lee Dracula movies, and perhaps this is why some of the same ideas leach through. But this is Cushing-as-Dracula, where is Cushing as van Helsing? Nowhere to be found. There is no good guy. While Curse has Paul Krempe, a colleague of Frankenstein's who tries to reign in his friend's worst impulses, Revenge has Hans who backs Victor all the way.
Stein's enemies are many, but they lack van Helsing's perspicacity and benevolence. No one except Hans is clever enough to detect the monster in their midst, and those who act against Stein are motivated more by self-interest and fear than by any heroic impulse.
Of course there's a reason for this, and that reason is that van Helsing is simply too similar a character to Frankenstein. Van Helsing and Frankenstein are both brilliant scientists who spend their lives studying dark forces and forbidden knowledge, and their knowledge brings them into conflict with monsters. The difference is that van Helsing's monsters are external to him while Frankenstein's are of his own making. It is possible to imagine a film pitting van Helsing against Frankenstein, but Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is the closest Hammer gets. For now, Frankenstein is clear to work without interference from an intellectual equal.
So what brings him down? Our cold-hearted aristocrat is defeated, in the end, by a well-meaning aristocrat. It is Margaret's kindness to Karl in loosening his restraints that tips the first domino. From that point the destruction of Stein's creation and his own unmasking are inevitable. Frankenstein and Hans are amoral. The Medical Council is self-serving. The inmates of Frankenstein's hospital are mostly petty criminals. Even Karl, though sympathetic, is not noticeably good. Margaret is the only character shown to be acting from kind and generous impulses, and it telling that these impulses that bring Stein's monstrous scheme crashing down.
And yet, there's nothing preachy about this. The structure of the movie is a straight, old fashioned tragedy – man driven to destruction by his own hubris – with a little contemporary sting in the tail when he comes back to life. Margaret's subplot is beautifully underplayed, hiding the sentimentality of her role with a veneer of Hammer cynicism.
One final thought: As Stein is being grilled by Hans, he admits to being called Frankenstein, but denies the significance of the name. "My name is Frankenstein, I'll admit," he says, "but it's a large family, you know. Remarkable since the Middle Ages for productivity. There are offshoots everywhere. Even in America, I'm told. There's a town called Frankenstein in Germany. Then there are the Frankensteins emanating from the town of that name in Silesia…"
It's an intriguing thought. The Frankenstein family as a dynasty of monster makers goes back to Son of Frankenstein in 1931, and since then Frankenstein movies have been filled with Victor's sons, daughters, and grandchildren by the score. Yet having introduced the possibility of more Frankensteins, the Hammer movies keep their focus firmly on Victor. Other than Victor's cousin Elizabeth in Curse and his father in Horror, I don't believe we ever see any of this huge family that Victor claims to hail from.
* As in Clever Hans? If so, it's a weird and obscure joke.
** The trouble (well, one of the troubles) with Horror as Carry on Frankenstein is that the Carry On team beat Hammer to the punch in 1966 with Carry on Screaming, one of the better Carry On movies.