A series of bizarre crimes involving beheadings, secret labs, theft of medical instruments and expert killing methods stump investigators. All they know for sure is that they are dealing with “a mad and highly dangerous medical adventurer.” Truly here there are three scientists along the spectrum of madness and nefarious intent. You have Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) and his former colleague Dr. Brandt (George Pravda), with whom Frankenstein collaborated on developing a method for transplanting brains. Frankenstein’s experiments failed, but Brandt found the key to a successful procedure. However, before Frankenstein learned that secret, Brandt was driven completely, incurably bonkers from stress and being ostracized by his peers.
Frankenstein kidnaps his old friend from the asylum and gets to work transplanting his brain into the healthier body of Dr. Richter (Freddie Jones), intending to awaken Brandt and extract that last key piece of knowledge (a backup hard copy of that secret formula is also locked in Brandt’s study). To secure a secret lab, Frankenstein blackmails a young doctor working at the asylum, Karl (Simon Ward) who has been trafficking cocaine to help his fiancé Anna (Veronica Carlson) finance her mother’s medical treatment. Now Frankenstein gets an expert assistant plus access to Anna’s massive boarding house. He also earns the couple’s resentment, which will complicate matters once the trio and Brandt are discovered and must flee to the country.
This is one of my favorite Hammer “monster” films, and I use those quotes because this is the familiar tale taken in different, more realistic directions. Where most conventional versions look at the doctor assembling and giving life to his monster, who is then misunderstood and hounded by a fearful community, this version is about the villainous doctor and makes him a real human monster. His creation doesn’t get up off the table until the last part of the movie, when Brandt awakens, escapes and goes to visit his wife (Maxine Audley). Even then, Frankenstein’s thing is no grunting, mumbling half-wit, but a sympathetic, intelligent scientist trying to comprehend the terrible things his research has wrought. After seeing the horror of what they’ve accomplished, and the impossibility of returning to his old life, Brandt sets a trap for Frankenstein (one of those famous Hammer climactic fires) so that they both die and take their perversion of science with them.
Detailed subplots involve rich characters, and are so nicely woven into the main events that every development holds interest and nudges the plot in unpredictable but logical and satisfying directions. There’s even some comic relief with Thorley Walters as the pompous and arrogant inspector. As with the best Hammer productions, there’s plenty to marvel at: lush colour, costuming, atmospheric scenery and sets, from musty cellars to Bohemian neighbourhoods. There’s a shocker of an assault on Anna, and plenty of suspenseful moments thanks to police searches, nosy neighbours, screaming mental patients, and a broken water main. The opening struggle finds a masked Frankenstein fighting with a burglar and hurriedly disposing of his latest victim, and during the brain surgery, the sounds of vigorous sawing and drilling into skulls will fool you into thinking you saw the whole grisly affair. Cushing sells it all with his single minded ruthlessness and smug superiority, and he makes perfect sense when you hear him talk about his goals. He’s being held back by ignorant neanderthals, and just wants to advance human knowledge, and enable genius to live on after the bodies that house great minds have died.
This post is part of the Movie Scientist blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Christina Wehner. Please check out all the movie scientists– the good, the mad and otherwise by clicking here.