This dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release from Final Cut Entertainment is aout £14 on amazon at time of writing.
The news that Hammer were going to bring several of their classic horror movies to Blu-ray was welcomed by most fans of vintage horror. While Hammer were a bit stodgy, and the films a bit samey, there are a few stand-outs, and the vibrant, lurid colours seemed to be crying out for higher definition.
Unfortunately, we've had an almost comical succession of cock-ups and baffling decisions, which seems to have put the future of the line in doubt before they've even got around to most of my favourites. Disks have been released with synching problems and with poor-quality sound. Brides of Dracula has been released in the wrong aspect ratio. The Devil Rides Out was released with George Lucas-style 'improved' special effects. And Curse of Frankenstein had picture quality so bad it shouldn't have been marketed as high definition at all.
And there have been some distinctly odd choices for release, too. Evil of Frankenstein (1964) is one of the oddest. Hammer's Frankenstein films form the backbone of their reputation; unlike the Dracula films, they kept a generally high quality, and even had a continuing story running through them. Of the six they made featuring Peter Cushing, all but one are considered important and worth a look.
But one isn't. You can probably see where I'm going with this. Evil of Frankenstein is generally seen as the runt of the litter, so to see it upgraded before, say, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, is a little disappointing.
Baron Frankenstein is still trying to bring life to the dead. This time he is hounded out of one location by an angry priest. Heading back to his old castle, he is infuriated that the local burgomaster has stolen most of his possessions, but he finds one of his earlier creations entombed in ice. He revives the creature, but has to employ a shady hypnotist to control it. And the hypnotist decides he'd rather use the creature for his own gain...
This one exists outside the continuity of the rest of the series (although the entrance hall in the Baron's castle looks like the one from Curse of Frankenstein). It gives the Baron a whole new backstory, although it's almost the same as the old one. The one thing that you really can't say about this version of the Baron is that he's 'evil' - in most other films he does at least one murderous thing in order to keep his plans alive. In this, while he's driven and not too fussy about where he gets his dead bodies from, he's fairly saintly, showing compassionate concern for his assistant and their mute maid. Almost the first line of the film is 'Who has done this *evil* thing?', which feels almost like it was added solely to try and match up with the film's title.
Frankenstein is rather sidelined in his own film. Hammer's focus was generally on the baron rather than on his creations, probably to differentiate their movies from the old Universal films. In this film, though, the focus of the second half is on the hypnotist, Zoltan, and his attempts to use the monster for profit and revenge. The Baron becomes an unknowing dupe, and the film suffers for it. It doesn't help that the monster looks terrible.
In the earlier films Hammer had to go to some lengths to ensure that the monsters didn't look anything like the famous Universal version - they were worried about being sued. By the time of Evil, though, they'd struck a co-production deal with Universal, so were able to make the monster look more like the Karloff version. So he has a big square forehead and huge, clumping shoes and stitches and bolts and all the old, hackneyed stuff. And sadly, he looks absolutely terrible. His face just looks like it's made of papier mache, with only the actor's eyes and, weirdly, his Kirk Douglas-style cleft chin visible.
The monster is played by a wrestler named Kiwi Kingston, who is enormous, but doesn't get to do much other than lumber around walking into things. Hammer's monsters were usually more interesting - most of them could talk - and this guy feels like a real throwback. Peter Cushing is on hand as the Baron, and is the best thing about the film by some distance. He gives his usual committed performance, never once letting us think that he's taking it less than completely seriously.
The other stand-out performance is from Peter Woodthorpe as Zoltan. He's having a bit too much fun with the part, jutting his lower lip out to look menacing and overplaying pretty much everything he does. But he brings some much-needed vim into the film, which before he arrives is slow and tedious. The rest of the cast are so-so. Sandor Eles as the Baron's faithful sidekick is OK, but it's weird that he alone in the film has a European accent - he sounds very peculiar next to Cushing's cut-glass English voice. This doesn't have any of Hammer's reliably likable supporting players - no Michael Ripper or Patrick Troughton of Miles Malleson to distract us (although I think one of the police helmets in this is the same as the ones Troughton's police chief wears in The Gorgon). The priest who accosts Frankenstein at the beginning overacts shockingly.
The film has a bit of a Hammer second XI feel to it. The music is by Don Sharp rather than James Bernard, and it's directed by Freddie Francis, rather than Terence Fisher. Francis was an Oscar-winning director of photography, but his work as a director is less accomplished. He did a lot of cheap horror flicks, and some of them (The Skull, The Creeping Flesh) are pretty good. His Hammer gothics, though, are generally weak. He makes the laboratory scenes visually impressive (lots of zinging electrical doodads). The body snatching scene at the start is good - it has Hammer's usual matter-of-fact bluntness about corpses, which must have been shocking once. But otherwise his direction is boringly functional.
There's no humour in the film (it sets up what might have been quite a funny joke, and then fluffs it). It has very few women characters (the deaf-mute girl who helps the Baron when he's on the run in the mountains is rewarded by being allowed to become his unpaid maidservant. What a gent). And there are anachronistic balloons on display in the village carnival. The special effects aren't too bad, especially the matte scenery paintings. All in all, though, this is not the most sparkling jewel in Hammer's crown.
A mystifying choice it may be, but it looks pretty great on Blu-ray. There are some speckles and light damage in places, and the quality plummets in the opening credits and during scene transitions. But most of the time it looks clear, sharp and colourful without looking digitised. One of the better Hammer transfers I've seen, and it doesn't have any sound synching problems that I could see (although the fact that I was looking at all speaks volumes). Too much detail isn't such a great thing in every case, as it brutally exposes some of the film's limitations - a block of ice is obviously just a plastic sheet, and the monster has dark gauze over his eyes in at least one scene.
There's a half-hour making-of documentary, which covers a lot. A few survivors from the era contribute interviews, and there's some audio footage of Cushing talking about his approach to playing Frankenstein (generally, not specifically in this film). It's just a bit tricky because they admit the film isn't one of the better loved entries into the series, and have to kind of skirt round the issue of whether it's actually any good. I'm also not convinced we need an explanation and demonstration of how they did the 'heart pumping by itself' special effect, as any idiot could work that out themselves.
Otherwise there's a trailer, a photo gallery, and a short interview with an actress who has a bit part. Not a bad selection of extras, but still not really enough to make the film worth seeing. There's also a DVD included, but I haven't watched that. I still hate these dual format editions.
It's far from the best Hammer horror, although it is a mercifully gaffe-free release. I bought it in the hope that strong sales will mean more, and better, Hammer films being released later on. But this is one of the least essential Hammer films, and still feels like an odd choice for a high-profile Blu-ray release.