The front office at Hammer saw which way the wind was blowing, but seemed powerless to stop it, instead churning out a final series of flops that put the final nails in the studio's coffin. Among these is 1970's Horror of Frankenstein, an attempt to hold on to a young audience with a more photogenic cast and hints of amplified eroticism and bloodletting. Trusty Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster, whose scripts for Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula helped launch the classic horror line, was tapped to direct this, ostensibly meant to be a remake of the studio's first Frankenstein film, which starred Hammer icons Peter Cushing as the not-so-good doctor and Christopher Lee as the monster.
Instead, Sangster wanted to incorporate more humor into the proceedings, and give it a more youthful spin, with a handsome Dr. Frankenstein played by future Poldark star Ralph Bates and a pair of gorgeous frauleins fighting for his affection, Kate O'Mara as the hot-blooded Irish housekeeper/plaything Alys and Veronica Carlson as his virginal childhood admirer Elizabeth.
Bates's Frankenstein is a marked change from Cushing's determined, professional approach, instead portraying Mary Shelley's monster maker as an arrogant, ruthless medical dilettante, creating life seemingly for his own amusement. He kills indiscriminatly, as required to cover his tracks, and is as much of a monster as his shambling hulk of recycled body parts played by David 'Darth Vader' Prowse, who finally makes his appearance in the final third of the film.
This isn't quite Mod Frankenstein A Go-Go, but it's close, with everyone over 30 winding up part of the Baron's evil machinations, from his father who gets killed in a hunting 'accident' to Elizabeth's doting papa, whose sharp brain is prized by Frankenstein for use as his creation's, um, fatherboard.
Now Horror of Frankenstein isn't the worst thing Hammer ever produced, although diehard fans would often like to believe so. The studio's traditionally strong production values are in full effect here, and the attractive leads lend their all to their roles. Bates infuses his brutish Baron with an undeniable charm (although I couldn't get over his uncanny resemblance to "Talk Soup" / "Queer as Folk" star Hal Sparks) and O'Mara and Carlson play off their whore/virgin roles quite nicely. The horror of the title is delivered through a series of brutal killings (often conveyed through the use of stomach-churning sound effects and suggestive uses of fake blood), and Prowse looks convincingly like a medical experiment gone terribly awry.
Unfortunately, the appearance of the monster after an hour of the Baron's evildoings is almost anticlimactic, and since there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for any of it's actions, it doesn't generate the sympathy of Karloff's monster or the savage intensity of Lee's take on the creature. The film ends with a whimper rather than a bang, as if Hammer was desperately hoping a new series of Frankenstein films would turn the studio's fortunes around, but instead it would return to Peter Cushing for the its swan song, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.
Horror of Frankenstein may be lesser Hammer, but it gets the royal treatment from Anchor Bay, with a crisp widescreen transfer, preserving the lucious look the studio was famous for, and providing a healthy dose of extras to make it an attractive package for viewers beyond the core of die-hard completists. Sangster gives a valuable audio commentary, aided by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, with first-person insight into the inner workings of the studio as well as the making of this particular film, and Carlson discusses her work on Horror as well as Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed in a video interview, where she was able to share the screen with legends Lee and Cushing. The disc is topped off by detailed talent bios, trailers (a standalone, and a double-feature bill with Scars of Dracula), production stills and Carlson's own snapshots and pastel portraits.
In her interview, Carlson identifies the appeal of the Hammer films in the way they take you back to another world in a way that modern horror films don't even attempt, and anyone who's seen one of their titles on the big screen can attest to this effect. My first experience seeing one in the theatre, Countess Dracula with the luscious Ingrid Pitt, remains one of my favorite times at the movies, and certainly an eye-opener, but sadly such opportunities have been few and far between. If anything, films like Horror of Frankenstein serve to whet one's appetite for the truly great Hammer works still waiting in the wings for DVD release.