* Prices may differ from that shown
A film-only review. This can be imported through amazon for about £11.
Gothic horror had died out in the movies in the 1950s, pushed aside by scary science fiction movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But 1957 saw England's Hammer studio bring gothic horror back - the Curse of Frankenstein was hugely successful and brought about a revival in the sub-genre. New films were rushed out to try and capture some of Hammer's box office magic before it dissipated.
Frankenstein 1970 (made in 1958) is an American attempt to jump on Hammer's gothic horror bandwagon, but with some blatantly sci fi elements. Its main selling point is that it stars Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein. Karloff was the greatest of horror stars, having made his name playing the monster in the 1931 Frankenstein. He'd acted more on stage and TV than the movies during the 50s, but the gothic revival brought his career back from the grave, and he made two or three more great horror movies before his death in 1969. Frankenstein 1970, sad to say, isn't one of them.
An American TV crew is making a film at Frankenstein's castle. They're trying to cash in on the anniversary of the original book being published, but the grumpy Baron just wants to be left alone. He needs the money, though, so he has to tolerate the TV bozos. Turns out the Baron has discovered his ancestor's monster and plans to revive it (there wouldn't be much of a film if he didn't, I guess). He is also creepily charmed by bubbly young Carolyn, the ingénue actress. But people keep vanishing under mysterious circumstances as Frankenstein's need for body parts grown more acute.
While this is trying to fool us into thinking it's a state-of-the-art gothic horror - it's set in a castle and is about Frankenstein - it feels more like a lousy late 40s cheap horror flick. The Hammer horrors were pretty radical for their day, hard though that may be to believe now. Their combination of once-shocking blood and decadent eroticism was highly potent in the censor-happy late-50s. Most of the imitators miss the Hammer ambience by a long way, not understanding that just stealing the trappings of gothic horror isn't enough. A few directors - Roger Corman and Mario Bava, say - managed to take Hammer on successfully, but there were lots of cheap black and white imitations which did not.
Frankenstein 1970 hedges its bets by playing up the science fiction element a fair bit. It's notionally set in 1970, although everyone dresses and acts exactly like its 1958, and the one car we see is definitely late 50s. Perhaps wisely, no attempt is made to predict the fashions of the near future, but the 1960s are just too monumental a decade in our popular culture for us to indulge a film set in a 1970 that doesn't have The Beatles or Richard Nixon in it.
The only even vague attempt at convincing us we're in the future comes with the fact that the Baron can apparently order and install a nuclear reactor for his castle without any real difficulty. The presence of nuclear power as part of the mechanism that creates the monster - as opposed to the more traditional lightning - shows the essentially confused nature of the film, neither able to commit wholeheartedly to gothic or sci fi. The lack of commitment on the film's part - it can't decide whether to be more gothic or more science fiction - does rather hobble it. The film seems to be set in a world in which Frankenstein (the novel) was a work of non-fiction, an idea that isn't explored at all. Frankenstein himself worked for the Nazis, performing experiments for them, albeit under duress. That's a novel way for bringing the character into a post-war setting, but nothing is made of that idea either.
It does seem to have had some ambition behind it beyond just being schlock for the drive-ins. It's filmed in cinemascope, a panoramic widescreen process, although it doesn't do anything interesting with all that extra space - in fact the film rarely leaves the castle, and we only see about four rooms at that (sets left over from another film, apparently). Karloff himself probably didn't come cheap, either. But it feels horribly old fashioned even for the time it was made.
Karloff is his usual self as the Baron - he's never less than professional, but it's clear he's not really trying too hard. He has a certain inbuilt charm, but is lumbered with a ridiculous scar (that isn't terribly consistent) and makes no attempt at a German accent. There are too many scenes where he potters around his laboratory talking to himself, which would have required a far more engaged actor to work properly. The main problem is probably that Karloff is too professional to go over the top. This film could have done with a barnstorming 'muah hah hah hahhhh' type villain. Instead it gets polite old Boris going through the motions rather grudgingly.
Still, he is by far the best thing in the film. The rest of the cast make little impression. There's an insipid love quadrangle - the overbearing director wants to sleep with the ingénue, Carolyn. His ex-wife is also in the film crew, but she's being wooed by another guy (possibly the writer, it's not clear what everyone is meant to be doing). Of course, Frankenstein and his feeble old servant both carry a torch for Carolyn as well. But you really, really won't care what happens to any of them.
It's full of silly touches. Frankenstein keeps a tank full of placid fish that he insists represent the Darwinian struggle that defines us all. He plays the organ very badly, and walks very slowly (he has a limp). This is the kind of film that pads its running time with interminable scenes of limping men walking painfully down staircases in real time, as if editing was never invented. The only real oddity is the fact that the Maltese Falcon (or something that looks very like it) is seen sitting on one of Karloff's bookshelves, a weird in-joke that means nothing.
Frankenstein's old pal Wilhelm keeps asking him what he's up to, always being warned off by Karloff, who threatens to tell him the story of the overly-curious SS commandant. That sounds like it could be the most inappropriate children's book of all time, but when we finally hear the story it's predictable and unimpressive.
Something that can be said for the film as a whole, sadly. The only attempt to generate suspense comes over the credits, as Carolyn is chased around by a lumbering monster (the film is too cheap to show us its face). That, of course, turns out to be just part of the film that's being made. The 'real' monster in the film is incredibly cheap, constantly wrapped in bandages (which sets up the film's truly stupid final twist). It's also maddeningly reticent about onscreen deaths. There's a scene involving some eyeballs in jar, probably because Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein had a similar scene, but that's as bloody as it gets.
Not a film to waste any energy in tracking down, then. Not really endearing even with Karloff in the cast, this one is hard to remember even an hour after it ends.