Saturday, 26 April 2014

Hammer's Frankenstein: The Unreliable Narrator

In 1957 Hammer Studios released their original Gothic horror hit, The Curse of Frankenstein". The film was an immediate success for the British company and spawned the Hammer Horror phenomenon. The Frankenstein legend was a goldmine that had already been well mined by the American movie studio Universal through a series of 7 films. The series, beginning with Frankenstein (1931) and concluding with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1947), had told the ongoing story of the Frankenstein Monster. From  his creation in Germany to his apparent demise on a flaming pier in the USA, the Universal series had introduced the monster to various descendants of Henry Frankenstein, other classic monsters and finally a popular comedic team. By the end of the series the popular usage of the name Frankenstein for the monster and not a member of the Frankenstein family was being reflected in the titles. The Universal image of the monster, designed by Jack Pierce and portrayed by Boris Karloff and his successors, had become the dominant one in the public consciousnesses and would over shadow every depiction to come. This was Hammer's dilemma when they set out to produce their own adaption of the classic 1819 novel. Unable to imitate the popular but copyrighted monster make up, Hammer chose to take a very different approach to the Frankenstein legend. In lurid Technicolor, Hammer created a taught Gothic thriller which featured a homicidal monster (Christopher Lee) that, despite stitches and height, bore no resemblance to Universal's monster. However the biggest departure from Universal's take on the story was that the real monster of the piece was Baron Victor Frankenstein himself, a homicidal sociopath who is prepared to kill in the course of his quest to create life. But the quest itself proves to be a fatal one, with the monster falling through a sky light into a vat of acid and Victor being taken to the guillotine for the murder of his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt), who had died at the hands of the Monster with a little help from the Baron.

The Revenge of Frankenstein
The film was a success for hammer and more horror thrillers soon followed. In 1958 the studio decided to follow up their 1957 hit with a new Frankenstein outing. The only problem was that both the monster and the Baron were dead, the latter dying childless. This problem was over come when The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) made it clear that Victor had survived the guillotine via the help of a group of co-conspirators lead by a deformed prison attendant named Karl (Oscar Quitak). Three years later a certain Doctor Stein is setting up his practice in the nearby town of Carlsbruck. With parts obtained from his work at a nearby poor hospital, Frankenstein has built a new body for Karl. After an initially successful operation things quickly go wrong. Karl, in his new perfect body, receives a blow to the head and is transformed into a twisted cannibalistic maniac and the local medical council discover the true identity of Doctor Stein. Soon Karl is burned in a fire and Victor is savagely beaten by an angry mob in the poor hospital. As the authorities close in on the dying Frankenstein, his brain is transplanted by his assistant Hans (Francis Matthews) into a new body that has been constructed to resemble the original one. With his brain in a new body and the authorities finding his  lifeless corps and declaring him dead, Frankenstein flees to England with his companion Hans. The film ends with a certain Dr Franck opening up a practice in London making it clear that the story of Victor Frankenstein hadn't ended.

The Universal Deal
With the Baron know a reanimated creature himself and very much alive, it was clear that Hammer had learnt its lesson about killing it's hero off. However this could not be said of the original Frankenstein monster which had met its demise in a vat of acid and seemed to be irretrievably dead, that is until the third installment of the Hammer series went into production. In 1958 Hammer struck a distribution deal with Universal/International. One of the upshots of this was that Hammer now had permission to use elements from the original Universal horror cycle. One example of this was their version of Universal's 1931 classic The Mummy. Rather than being a straight remake, The Mummy actually drew characters and scenarios from several films in the Universal Mummy series. Outside of allowing Hammer to remake Universal's popular monster movies, this turn of events also had an impact on Hammers Frankenstein series. Now the popular image of Universal's Frankenstein Monster was no longer off limits and Hammer sought to revisit the story of the original creature. The problem Hammer faced was that the creature was now nothing but a collection of disassembled proteins in the bottom an acid bath and was obviously never coming back. How could the return of the Monster be achieved? The answer was to ignore the events of the original film and retell a whole new story.

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
The resulting film, The Evil of Frankenstein, did just that. Baron Frankenstein returns to his home town of Karlstaad with his assistant Hans (Sandor Elés) after being away for ten years. Broke and in need of money to further his  work, Frankenstein heads to his Castle only to find that it has been ransacked and it's contents confiscated by the powers that be. Victor tells his companion all about his initial experiment via flash back which shows Victor working alone his creature. He describes the resurrection of the creature and it's progress after. However the monster soon escapes and is hunted down and shot by farmers after it has slaughtered a herd of sheep. Victor is also shot in the arm by farmers as he tries to stop them. Shot in the head, the monster staggers around eventually falling of a cliff, lot to his creator. Frankenstein then describes how he was run out of Karlstaad, never to return until the present time ten years later. After heading into town, Victor notices some his belongings in the possession of the Burgomaster (David Hutcheson) and soon sets off to reclaim them. After confronting the Burgomaster, Frankenstein is chased by the authorities, forcing he and Hans to take refuge in a cave. They hide with the help of a local mute beggar girl (Katy Wild) who leads them to the Monster frozen in a glacier that is visible with in the subterranean ice wall. Soon the Monster is defrosted, revived, and with the help of a carnival hypnotist (Peter Woodthorpe), is brought out of a catatonic state.  Things quickly go wrong when the hypnotist sends the Monster out on a burglary spree that soon turns murderous. Before long there is a village mob seeking the monster, which returns to Frankenstein Castle only to go on a laboratory destroying rampage. The film ends with both Frankenstein and the Monster seemingly burned to death as the castle's tower collapses in a fiery blaze.

Universal's Frankenstein Hammer-style 
The Evil of Frankenstein contains many plot elements derived from the Universal movie series. The creature preserved in subterranean ice, village mobs, the monster's friendship with another outsider and an exploding castle, are amongst a few of the narrative references from the Universal cycle. This influence also extends to the visual design of the movie which presents a monster, laboratory and castle that are reminiscent of the Universal versions. This creates an interesting contrast when comparing The Evil of Frankenstein with the version of the origin story as told in The Curse of Frankenstein, a movie that set out to avoid the similarities with the Universal series and present a fresh take on the Frankenstein legend. However design and plot elements aside, the real thing that creates a contrast between the two films is the drastic contradictions in their versions of the origin story. Curse clearly presents the Monster as being dissolved in a vat of acid, making its preservation frozen in a glacier in Evil a major continuity problem with in the series.

Frankenstein Rebooted
It's apparent that Hammer intended to over look it's previous Frankenstein entries and reboot it's continuity utilizing the well known tropes of the Universal series. Truth be told, in popular consciousness, the Universal movies had replaced Mary Shelly's novel as the primary Frankenstein text and now Hammer had the opportunity to adapt that too. This, however, would be short lived, as the next three films (not counting the origin story remake, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) would leave the original creature behind and instead continue to focus on Victor's further medical misadventures.

The Lying Baron
But from a narrative perspective, when placing the two films side by side, some interesting conclusions can be drawn that go some way towards harmonizing the continuity problems between the two films. Both films contain narrative that is told in flash back from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein. It may be that the Baron is an example of the 'unreliable narrator', a story telling device that presents a narrator who is telling a story that can't necessarily be trusted.  Frankenstein is a character who is known to be manipulative and prepared to lie to protect his own interests. In Revenge, Victor sets up a practice in the town of Carlsbruck under an alias and works in the poor hospital to harvest parts from unwitting patients. In Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) he blackmails a young couple who are stealing narcotics into helping him with his latest experiment. The Baron is also a dangerous psychopath who is happy to take human life in order to further his plans. In Destroyed, Frankenstein murders a surgeon purely because he is a suitable candidate to provide a body for the brain he is trying to save. As a source of information he is hardly a reliable as his very version of events may be another endeavor to cover his tracks. This is especially the case in Curse where most of the narrative is framed as his plea of innocence in relation to the murder of his maid Justine. He claims he is not guilty of her murder, but that she met her death at the hands of the monster. Frankenstein's reflections in Curse also describe his years of experimentation, assisted by his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). In Evil this collaboration is not mentioned and Frankenstein's creation of the monster is presented as an individual pursuit. It can be argued that Paul had decided to cease his involvement with the experiment before the monster was activated and that in Frankenstein's ego-maniacal thinking the work was all his, which is naturally reflected in his retelling of the monsters origin.

A Tissue of Lies
The crux of the issue revolves around the death or disappearance of the monster with in the narrative. Both versions of the story relate the escape and fatal shooting of the creature. In Curse, Victor describes how He and Paul went out after the creature only to find the dead victims of it's murderous rampage. Once confronted, Paul shoots the monster in the head against Victor's protestations. However Victor goes onto explain how he retrieved the body and revived the monster once again. In Victor's flashback in Evil, he describes how, while searching for the escaped creature, he comes across a trail of dead sheep rather than human bodies. Soon he finds the creature feasting on a sheep's carcass and a policemen and two others also hot on the monsters trail. It is at this point that the monster is shot in the head, disappearing over a cliff, lost to his creator.

Although the details of Victor Frankenstein's flashbacks vary in many ways, the shooting of the monster in the head by another during the search is the consistent point between the two. I contend that within the narrative Frankenstein alters his recollection of events to suit his audience and tries to elicit the response that will aid his current circumstances. To try and piece together a series of events that helps explain the contradiction between the two accounts, one must reflect on the events outside Victor's flashbacks.

We know that prior to his impending execution for the murder of Justine, Victor appeals to Paul to back his story about Justine's death at the hands of the monster. In the flash back he is complicit in the pregnant Justine's death, locking her in the room with the monster in order to silence her after she had threatened to expose his experiments. Earlier in the same flash back Victor also pushes the elderly Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) over the balustrade in order to use his brain in the creation of the monster. To cover his crime he makes it look like an accident, although Paul is suspicious. Victor claims that Justine was murdered by the monster but his own recollection implicates him. He says the death of the Professor was an tragic accident but his reflection reveals other wise. Frankenstein is not only the 'unreliable narrator' but the also the inconsistent narrator, revealing pieces of information that would seemingly hamper his cause rather than exonerate him. This is something that is not foreign to the character else where in the series. In Frankenstein Created Women (1967) Frankenstein openly shares information about his latest experiment, the transplanting of the soul of an executed man into the body of his dead lover, to the authorities to explain why the fugitive is homicidal. The Baron, aware of the genius of his work but blind to its horror, will at times naively share details of his grisly work under the impression that others will be won over by the brilliance of his achievements. Here, in pleading his case, he further implicates himself in other crimes. In believing that some how telling of Justine's death at the hands of his animated monster would actually exonerate him, Frankenstein has either proven his guilt to an even greater degree or merely convinced the priest he is telling his story to that he is lying or delusional.

The Facts of Fiction 
If it wasn't for the follow up story Revenge of Frankenstein it might be a reasonable suggestion that the later two points of you may be the case. In Revenge Frankenstein's abilities  to do amazing, but gruesome things is confirmed. Even his creation of the monster is some how known by the Doctors of Carlsbruck. However, how much of his story in Curse is true, and if he was lying, what really happened to the monster and Justine.

I believe the answer comes in Evil when the monster is found frozen in a glacial cave. Just as Frankenstein described at the beginning of the film, the monster had been shot and fell of the cliff only to be preserved in the ice. The monsters resurrection following his shooting, as described by Frankenstein in Curse, was a lie, a lie I believe was concocted to shift the blame for the murder from himself to his creation. The murder of Justine was the work of Baron Frankenstein himself, silenced when she threatened to expose his experiments to the authorities after he refused to marry her. I also suspect that Victor's fiancé  Elizabeth (Hazel Court) herself was accidentally shot by the Baron in the situations that surrounded the discovery of the body. In his flashback she was shot by Victor who was firing at the unseen Monster behind her. Unfortunately for Victor, Paul and Elizabeth refuse to support his concocted alibi as he has exhausted their loyalty. Death is what he deserves for his crimes and Paul refuses to corroborate any part of his story leaving Victor to appear like a deluded mad man.

With Our Thoughts We Shape the World
However Victor is rescued from the guillotine and lives to gain a reputation as a monster maker. Interestingly in Evil, he tells his assistant Hans that, rather than condemned to death for murder, he was charged with 'assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and working against God' and run out of town. Once again Victor changes the story to suit his audience. Justine's murder is conveniently forgotten and he presents himself as the misunderstood genius returned to claim what is rightfully his. Truth be told, this is how he sees himself. He is a man above all others, a master of life and death. He is quite at ease remaking the past, remaking himself and manipulating the present to assure his man-remaking future. In Hammer's version of the tale, the Baron truly is the Monster.

1 comment:

  1. As with the Dracula series, Hammer's Frankenstein series was not planned out for the long run. That's why the individual pieces don't follow a linear path. No master plan over a 17 year time span, just annual production meetings to produce films for their distributors.