Sentenced to death by guillotine for the actions of his murderous first creation, Baron Frankenstein hatches an ingenious escape with the help of his assistant. He relocates to a new town, adopting the name 'Dr Stein' and opens up a medical practice to help the poor and the sick.
But this practice is just a front for his latest experiments and, with a steady supply of body parts from his dying patients, Frankenstein is determined to correct the mistakes he made with his original creation. Things don't according to plan once again as his creation exhibits deadly side-effects.
When Hammer made The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, they didn't realize that it would revolutionize the horror film and become one of the landmark films of its genre. As we all know too well by now, commercially successful films are easy cash cows when it comes to studios planning their next moves. The day of the sequel is almost as old as cinema itself and Hammer quickly cranked out The Revenge of Frankenstein, the only true sequel to the original which picks up directly where the first one left us.
Unlike the Universal Frankenstein sequels which focused on the monster, the Hammer series made the Baron himself the main character and the sequels followed his progress and development. It's a novel idea and allowed Hammer the chance to continue to reinvent the story, tweaking different parts and adding new challenges for Frankenstein to keep the material fresh over time.
The Revenge of Frankenstein kicks off with an ingenious start to the film. As Frankenstein is being escorted to the guillotine, it turns out that the executioner and his assistant are both in cahoots with him. This is good news for the Baron, who escapes but bad news for the overseeing priest who takes his place to get the chop. Jimmy Sangster picks back up the writer's pen and adds new, resourceful ideas to his original story which really enhances Frankenstein and brings out the best in both character and actor. Unfortunately the film doesn't show half as much creativity during the rest of it's running time, opting to become a weaker retread of the first film. It's nowhere near as dark, as clever or downright entertaining as the original. That's not to say it doesn't have much merit, it's just that the original set high standards that the series always tries to better but never manages to.
Director Terence Fisher is back for this one and he replicates the same sort of Gothic vibe and atmosphere to create the illusion that this is the same world, the same time and the same place as the original. The pace of the film is good and the real pleasure as an audience is seeing how long Frankenstein will be able to get away with using his pseudonym before he's found out. It's going to happen at some point and the highlight scene of the film is the one in which the monster bursts through the ballroom window, publicly confronting 'Dr Stein' and outing him in front of his peers. The ending shows just as much inspiration as the beginning and sets the way up for another sequel quite ingeniously. It's a pity that the following sequel didn't use it and instead rebooted the series.
The Frankenstein series is notable for giving horror, in fact cinema in general, one of it's greatest ever villains in the form of Peter Cushing's Frankenstein. Never a man to phone through a performance, Cushing infuses the role with all of his acting skill, portraying a character of immense complexity. Cushing's Frankenstein is a little more sympathetic in this one and he doesn't send the monster out to kill anyone. He's more a man blinded by science than an outright psycho. He seems no problem with stealing body parts for the progression of science and his bitter contempt for his inferior counterparts is masked through his charming personality. This is a man who would hug his own mother and tell her he loves her whilst knifing her in the back to take out a kidney if he thought it would better science. His heart is in the right place but every time you think Frankenstein is back on the straight-and-narrow, along comes something ambitious which drags him back into a murky world.
Christopher Lee does not return as the monster, his Hammer star quickly rising thanks to his role as Dracula in Horror of Dracula. As a result, the new monster is a bit of a let down. To say he's been patched up from body parts, there's no stitch marks or scars or any visible signs that he was anything abnormal. He just looks like a normal man, albeit a very tall one. He's not as intimidating or threatening as he was before and most of the menace is lost. But in tweaking the monster this way, the series was able to reinvent itself time and time again so that it wasn't just the same story over and over. Frankenstein didn't repeat the same mistakes, he was always trying out new ways of creating and preserving life.
Here, Frankenstein is doing the right thing by giving his crippled assistant the chance of a new life by giving him a new body albeit it with disastrous consequences. Michael Gywnn does at least convey a lot of emotion as the monster, his cries of "Frankenstein - help me" during the very public confrontation with Frankenstein brings out a lot of sympathy for the monster. He's a tragic character but simply an unwitting pawn in Frankenstein's ultimate game to cheat death.
The Revenge of Frankenstein is top notch Hammer horror at it's best, simply overshadowed by a classic original and a few superior sequels. How many franchises can you name which offer up a handful of fresh and original stories in such a manner as the Frankenstein series? It's few and far between. To be honest though, the title is a bit misleading as Frankenstein doesn't get his revenge - only what is coming to him!