A priest has been called to the jail in a remote Swiss town, and when he arrives he is informed by the jailer that he is the only person Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) will talk to. However, once he enters the cell it becomes clear that the priest is the only person willing to listen to what sound like the ravings of a genuine madman. After grabbing the priest's lapels in a bid to make him take him seriously, the Baron calms down and begins to recount his story. It all started when he was a precocious boy (Melvyn Hayes) whose parents had died, leaving him their estate and wealth, so the only reasonable option he saw was to hire a tutor (Robert Urquhart) and learn...
If you've ever wondered why horror films stopped being spooky and started being gory, well, a lot of them at any rate, then look no further than Hammer's groundbreaking version of the famous Mary Shelley novel. At first this was to be a straightforward retelling of the tale until Universal, who had made a fortune with their nineteen-thirties Boris Karloff film, threatened to sue if there were too many similarities. And so screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and company had a brainwave: make the Baron the centre of attention rather than the monster.
And make Frankenstein the out and out villain of the piece, too. Peter Cushing was well known in Britain for his television work, specifically an adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and so when Hammer were looking around for a lead he was the obvious choice in light of how scary a lot of the public had found that T.V. play. His Baron is an intellectual, but a dangerous one, caring little for ethics when the advance of science is of paramount importance to him. Cushing's incisive delivery and the driven nature he brought out in the character meant that the United Kingdom now had a new film star to contend with.
The morals of bringing the dead back to life - as espoused by Urquhart's dubious assistant - and then creating life in a stitched together body intended to bring out the best in humanity, are treated with a surprising ambivalence here. As the Baron is up to his elbows in eyes and severed heads, we are keen to see his experiments succeed, yet also enthusiastic about his punishment for meddling in God's domain. Complications include the two women in Frankenstein's life, his cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court, whose apple-cheeked voluptuousness started the trend for glamorous females in peril during Hammer movies) who he is supposed to marry to keep her from destitution, and the Justine the maid (Valerie Gaunt, whose only other film was the following year's Dracula).
The Baron is having an affair with Justine, but when she announces she is pregnant, his typical ruthlessness comes into play. We have already seen that he is not aversed to murder when to secure a genius's brain for his creation he pushed a respected professor off a balcony and stole the organ from the corpse that he had thoughtfully buried in the family crypt. Therefore, when a few bolts of lightning get his creature animated, its violent nature he realises can be implemented for his own gain. As the monster, Christopher Lee was another actor destined to be recalled for his horror roles after this film; he doesn't have any lines but his miming is simultaneously pathetic and menacing (his vampire Count would be a better role). Though there are moments of dark humour, overall the tone is grim, perhaps too grim to be truly enjoyable, but this was a landmark work for all that. Music by James Bernard.