“Frankenstein 1970” (1958)
by A.J. Hakari
Unless they’re properly spruced up time and again, what scares us in movies tends to have a pretty finite shelf life. A little awe is lost with each generation, which ridicules, parodies, and grows accustomed to that which creeped out the crowds before them. Getting left in the dust is awfully easy, which 1958’s Frankenstein 1970 knows all too well. The film was only released a year after Hammer Films successfully reinvigorated the maddest of all cinematic scientists, yet it looks like something that would’ve been seen as as outdated two decades earlier. One almost wants to let it pass as a winking satire poking fun at the poor esteem in which jaded audiences hold vintage monster movies, but its wit and substance are in much too slim supply for this to fly. Nope, Frankenstein 1970‘s greatest flaw is that it wants to return one of classic horror’s greatest legacies to its spine-tingling roots, only without ponying up the kind of content that lets us know it means business.
A new evil has taken root in the heart of Germany. This is a most powerful force, one notorious for its greed, influence, and complete lack of shame. Its name: Hollywood. The 230th anniversary of the first time a Frankenstein attempted to create life is fast approaching, and to capitalize on the occasion, a motley crew of showbiz types has set up shop in the family castle to film a television special. Reluctantly helping the production out is Baron Victor (Boris Karloff), whose great-great grandfather was the one who played God all those centuries ago and forever etched his surname in the history books. Holding nothing but contempt for those making a mockery of his clan, the Baron is nevertheless glad to take their money and get to work picking up where his ghoulish ancestors left off. Victor is eager to do his bloodline proud and conjure up a creature of his own invention…with a spare part or two donated by the cast and crew cavorting about his humble abode. By the time the survivors figure out that fishy matters are afoot, it may be too late, for nothing will stop the Baron from doing justice to his family and siccing an unspeakable scourge upon the world.
I’m not one for letting nitpicks get the best of me, but when they dogpile you as swiftly and forcefully as Frankenstein 1970‘s nagging flaws do, getting annoyed and overwhelmed is all but guaranteed. Firstly, to say that the film’s premise is muddled is like saying Igor has something of a skin blemish. Though the concept of the Frankenstein family’s unholy activities being based in reality is a fine hook, it’s dressed up with so many futile little touches that there’s nothing about the product as a whole that grips you. Why give the movie a “futuristic” title when nothing about it seems advanced beyond the decade in which it was made? Why ignore the Mary Shelley novel and all other forms of Frankenstein media so that this flick’s monster mania can be attributed to a single made-up character? And if the Frankensteins are real in this universe, why is everyone so keen on celebrating their grave-robbing, corpse-defiling, God’s domain-meddling legacy? Normally, go-nowhere flourishes such as these would be endearingly kooky, but one gets the impression from the film’s underlying cynicism that its own creators couldn’t have cared less. Whereas the best bad movies are that way because the powers that be had some kind of faith or drive, this one blows its chance at being memorable (if not genuinely good) by refusing to embrace the potential for ironic humor and thrills staring it in the face.
Frankenstein 1970 aspires to somewhat loftier goals than we’re used to from B-horror jaunts, but it doesn’t want to put in the work necessary to getting there. As a showbiz satire, the film is a bust, for all the wit the script imparts amounts to a couple tired jabs at how vain and inconsiderate Hollywood types can be. Because the production value is so low-rent (with even the Baron’s high-tech atomic reactor seemingly ripped straight from Colin Clive’s laboratory), it also fails considerably in paying respects to the Frankenstein property and filling it with a frightening new charge. The movie can’t settle on just how seriously to take itself, so it idly shuffles back and forth from tone to indifferent tone; we get plenty of voids where we’re pretty sure gags should be, and the audience hasn’t any other option but to chuckle at the many cheap excuses for suspense offered up onscreen. With so many of the actors left to fritter their time away in uninteresting, one-dimensional roles, it really falls on Karloff’s shoulders to carry Frankenstein 1970, although he puts up quite the admirable effort. He’s sinister, sneering, and given to delivering grandiose monologues about carrying on the work of his forefathers like the consummate professional he really was. Unfortunately, Karloff’s moments in the sun are few and far between, with agonizingly long chunks of screen time dedicated to showing him tinkering with lab equipment and fawning over a bulky, bandaged monster that, quite frankly, looks like a joke.
Because of Karloff’s powerhouse performance, I let Frankenstein 1970 slide the first time I caught it, but upon closer inspection, it doesn’t hold up in the slightest. While its corniness isn’t totally lacking in entertainment value, the film damages one of horror’s most classic dynasties more than it gives it the good press it could’ve used at the time. Frankenstein 1970 claims to be a fitting successor to its titular cinematic bloodline, but it’s little more than a condescending impostor, shoving a cut-rate monster mash into our laps and having the gall to expect us to be perched on the edge of our seats for the whole ride.