The thirst for knowledge is slaked with blood, as science unleashes the power of creation without morality, the deadly chemistry of human nature set ablaze by the fire from the gods. Hammer Films resurrects Mary Shelley’s creation in vivid color, a story whose half-life is as modern as the fallout from the Atomic Age, a prescient parable that spans time: though set in Victorian England, its message looms as large as the disfigured victims of Oppenheimer’s folly.
Terence Fisher directs this exciting and Technicolor nightmare, pitting a young Baron Victor Frankenstein against his mentor Paul Krempe, their conflict not only an ethical dilemma but an undercurrent of unrequited obsession. Once Victor crosses the line by murdering to achieve his goals, Paul distances himself from his cohort but remains attached in emotional bondage to the lovely Elizabeth, whom he wishes to spare from her husband’s moral cruelty. Paul is ever the gentleman, never crossing social boundaries himself, the scientist who reveres the selflessness of his work, opposed to the selfishness of Victor, whose Promethean egoism is his eventual downfall.
The film begins in a dungeon cell where the walls weep viscous tears, a raving Victor averring his innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. The story then becomes a flashback, and like every criminal tale it becomes exculpatory, unbelievable, and desperate. His punishment carries a conspiratorial sense of Justice: he pleads his innocence for Justine’s murder and it’s true that the creature (which has conveniently dissolved) strangler her to death, but he sent her to this gruesome end. But Victor is too blinded by science to believe his own guilt, blaming instead his damaged creation, intellectually crippled by Paul’s interference.
The story becomes a pretext for mankind’s toying in the clockwork of heavenly conception, unwinding the springs of electric impulse and restarting our tick-tock hearts. But it can also be seen as a Cold War parable of unleashing the atom, a power now beyond control, feared knowledge now spread like a virus among political psychopaths.
Christopher Lee projects a deep sadness and self-loathing as the nameless creature, his madness beyond control and deserving of compassion. When the creature is first revealed, Fisher trucks the camera in quickly for a startling close-up, recreating a demented version of John Ford’s dramatic introduction of John Wayne in the classic STAGECOACH! In another unnerving scene, Victor excitedly shares his success with Paul (who believed the experiment destroyed) and the creature, collapsed like an abused animal, suddenly hides its face in shame revealing intelligence and self-enlightenment. Then Victor begins his dehumanization by barking orders, treating it worse than the dog he revived earlier in the story. Finally, Victor’s ultimate search for a head results in the loss of his own. Or does it?
Final Grade: (B+)