Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cushing reveals 'The Evil of Frankenstein'

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Peter Woodthorpe, Sandor Eles, and Katy Wild
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) returns from exile to find that his ancestral home has been looted by the corrupt leaders of nearby Karlstaad. Fuming with anger, he roams the nearby mountains, where he comes upon the monster he originally created, frozen in a mountain-top glacier. With the help of his faithful assistant Hans (Eles), a deaf-mute beggar girl (Wild), and a heapin' helpin' o' mad science, he restores the creature to "life." However, it is only with the help of Zoltan (Woodthorpe), corrupt, dark-hearted showman and hypnotist that Frankestein is able to bring the monster's awareness back from the mental shell it retreated into after its "death" a decade earlier. Unfortunately for Frankenstein and his friends, the monster is now under Zoltan's control, and he quickly starts using it for nefarious purposes.

This is Hammer Frankenstein film has grown on my since I first saw it several years ago. I still think it's one of the weaker in the series--it's to the Hammer 'Frankenstein' movies what "Scars of Dracula" is to the 'Dracula' series... a kinda-sorta reboot and remake of the initial film in the series--but I found myself liking it quite a bit more than I did originally.

First of all, Cushing gives another great performance of Frankenstein... and for once, the "good" Baron actually has cause to feel put-upon and persecuted; the townsfolk of Karlstaat really are a bunch of bastards, and the betrayal he faces at the hands of Zoltan is also something that would fill even a sane person with righteous indignation. Frankenstein really has more of a heroic air about him in this film, and most of "evil" that's committed comes from corners other than his. (Okay, so he DID create a monster made from human body parts, but can't anyone let bygones be bygones?!)

Second, although the story is thin, it is quote good. The film's strength is derived mostly from Cushing's ability as an actor--as, with the exception of Woodthorpe's destible Zoltan character, the rest of the actors turn performances so muted or predictable that they are little more than parts of the sets--but his performance is made all the stronger by the way the story elevates Frankenstein almost to the level of tragic hero; he is a man pursuing a dream of science, but he is ultimately doomed to failure through his own actions. (In this case, it's hiring Zoltan that's his main mistake... he really should have asked for checkable references first!)

The film also has one of the best Frankenstein Monster Labs in the series. That weird Martin the Martian raygun-style lightning catcher on the roof is very cool, as is the entire set-up by which Frankenstein transfers electricity into the monster's body.

Finally, the film shows us that Frankenstein's Monster is a mean drunk. Never let your monster drink booze. He's sure to run amok and light your house fire.

On the downside, the film has the second-worst monster in the series (only the furry beast of "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell" is worse). It is suitably hideous, but the square-headed mask worn by the actor is shown so-very-clearly to be a mask in every closeup shot by the makeup around the actor's eyes. There's also the aforementioned issue of a very thin story, not to mention an illogical reason for why Frankenstein returned to his ancestral castle in the first place.

All-in-all, I think "The Evil of Frankenstein" (a film that's as mistitled as "Revenge of Frankenstein" was, as there are characters in this film more evil than the Baron) is worth a look if you're a fan of Hammer movies. It's even more worth a look if you're a fan of Peter Cushing... now that I've watched the movie again, I think it can be ranked among his best performances. It's not among the best overall of the Hammer Frankenstein films, but it's worth your time.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cushing vs Hound of the Baskervilles:
The Rematch

It the mid-1960s, Peter Cushing starred in 16 episodes of a BBC-produced series devoted to adapting Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales to the small screen. Althogh believed lost for nearly 20 years, a few episodes have been rediscovered and brought to Region 1 DVDs by American cable network A&E.

Naturally, I got me a copy as soon as possible. I'll be posting reviews of the six episodes and the odd little documentary included in the three disk set over the next couple of weeks.

In general, the episodes are quite good. Peter Cushing once again plays an EXCELLENT Holmes (after starring as the character in the first ever color Sherlock Holmes movie for Hammer Films a decade or so earlier.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 (1968)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock and Gary Raymond
Director: Graham Evens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. Watson (Stock) are called upon to solve the mystery of a spectral hound that seems to be visiting very real death upon the Baskerville family. Will they solve the mystery before Sir Henry Baskerville (Raymond) joins his forebearers in the most gruesome of fashions?

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" is the famous and most-often adapted Sherlock Holmes story, and it is the second version of the take that Cushing starred in. It seems odd choice to lead with in this DVD collection, as the earliest chronological episode included in the set is "A Study in Scarlet" and Cushing/Holmes is absent for the second half of the first episode and about 2/3rds to seonnd part. Most consumers of this will almost certainly be buying it for Cushing, and even if they weren't, his absense is felt. While Nigel Stock and the rest of the cast are talented and give admirable peformances, they don't have Cushing's presence.

As an adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," it's as faithful as can be expected and as well-done as other similar BBC productions from the 1960s. It is even better in many areas, as there are no pathetic attempts at night-for-day shots and most of the sets are well-constructed. On the downside, though, there seems to be a timidity against showing violence that goes beyond even typical television avoidance. For example, when Watson tustles with an escaped convict on the moor, all we get to see is the convict preparing to strike and then Watson stumbling backwards the next scene. The blow happened somewhere during the reversal of angles, but we didn't get to see any action. There are two or three instances like that in the film. The hound is also dissapointing. We don't really get to see anything as far as what it looks like.

However, despite not showing us the hound (and barely showing us the characters' reactions to it), the BBC director and editors did get the ending exactly right. It is suspenseful, with Holmes and Watson rushing through the fog along a nearly invisible path through deadly quicksand pits, the hound howling somewhere nearby, and Henry Baskerville walking blindly toward doom.

While the 1950s Hammer adaptation is more exciting and colorful, this version is more in keeping with Doyle's original story. I prefer the Hammer version, but this one is also well done, and Cushing is, once again, absolutely magnificent as Sherlock Holmes.