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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Frankenstein 1970’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you want to buy a car, because the pieces under the hood are worth a lot more to you than the car itself…

Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
Distributed by: Allied Artists Pictures
Directed by: Howard W. Koch

The usual audience envisages the founding story of science fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, as a Gothic tale with old castles, horse drawn carriages, and people other than the “good” doctor who don’t really understand any of the science involved.

Surprisingly, this story works almost as well when the setting is moved to a more modern time…

Our story opens in the far-off year of 1970, of course. It’s not all that different from the film’s present, save for a few small but essential details like having worldwide television broadcasts and miniature nuclear reactors. We start after the credits with a young lass (Janet Lund) screaming in horror as a monster chases her. We don’t see the monster clearly as the two of them hurtle through the swamp, but we can guess who the monster is from the inch-plus soles on its shoes and gnarled hands.

Ultimately, the chase reaches a point where it looks like our young lady will be the creature’s prey, until they switch gears and pretty well give us the set-up for the whole film:

Yes, our ‘victim’ is Carolyn Hayes, who gets a lot of TV work on macabre projects. She’s been brought in for this one too, a special to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Doctor Frankenstein’s creation. The producer/advertiser’s rep Douglas Rowe (Donald Barry) is enthusiastic that she’s on the production, and the writer/director Mike Shaw (Tom Duggan) is enthusiastic she’s working under him, while thinking if she should be under him in other ways ifyouknowwhatImean. The reason that Shaw hadn’t made his move yet is most likely thanks to his script girl and first wife Judy (Charlotte Austin in one of her last theatrical roles), who has a working relationship with her ex that just can’t be considered ‘civil’ at all.

As they mentioned, they are shooting the special Frankenstein’s Castle, where Herr Barron Victor (Boris Karloff) is starting to regret giving the TV production access to his castle. His solicitor Gottfried (Rudolf Anders), though, reminds him how broke he is, due to his ongoing experiments. Herr Doctor, who in his crankiest moments suggest that the TV crew are worse to put up with than the Nazis who imprisoned him during the war when he refused to make a monster for those monsters, relents and allows the production to continue, even having his butler Schuster (Norbert Schiller) serve as the crew’s gopher and PA.

A kind of détente then settles over the castle. The TV crew can continue to shoot at the site, presumably somewhere in West Germany, doing all the shooting and sniping that you find on most TV productions out in the field. Herr Doctor, on the other hand, tries to go back to his work between requests from his guest, coming up with something familiar in the lab that carries on the proud (?) legacy of the House of Frankenstein…

And yes, we all know what’s going to take place before the last reel starts. Herr Barron starts work on his creation, he needs biological parts and uses what’s on hand rather than wait a few weeks for the scientific catalog company to ship him eyes and such, hilarity ensues. It wouldn’t be a film about Frankenstein’s monster if we didn’t get these story beats in the film.

And if you’re not really into other versions of the story, you might well tune out before you get a chance to notice that there’s a lot more here than meets the eye:

Befitting a film sent in the near future (although at different points of the production the working title of the film was Frankenstein 1960 and Frankenstein 2000), the lab had to have been updated. There’s no more stray sparks lighting dingy stone walls. Instead, we have banks of early computers and an atomic pile used to build the monster. One can appreciate the effort made to give the mad scientist an up-to-date lab to work with. It’s not perfect, thanks to a jerky automatic rollout gurney and a disposal unit when operable that uses the sound effects of a toilet flushing (presumably because their original choice of a meat grinder was considered in bad taste…), but ignoring those elements it’s actually a decent set piece.

We also finally get Karloff playing Frankenstein. Yes, instead of the misnamed monster, he gets to be a real member of the family, a bona fide scientific genius. Yes, his performance lumbers a bit like the monster he played before, but there are flashes of what we could have had if Koch worked more closely with Karloff. His lines about his time as a prisoner of the Third Reich are probably the high points of Karloff’s time on screen, and if we’d have had more of performance like these scenes, we might better remember the film today.

In terms of thinking about the film, the obvious weak spots are in Koch’s directing and Aubrey Schenck’s script and production. Anxious to cash in on a ‘Frankenstein renaissance’ at that time, with Universal syndicating the Frankenstein films to television, and the release in 1957 of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Daughter, the production was pre-packaged before a single scene was put together, and it showed. The whole TV special plotline and the characters tied to that seems especially confused and not well sketched out, and with two years to go before Mark Burnett was born there was no chance for this to get fixed.

Years later, Koch would acknowledge that the film’s production was a complete mess. It may seem odd for the director to willingly admit that he gave us a poor effort, even as there were actually a few bits from the movie that worked despite itself, but having gone on after the film to produce such movies as The Manchurian Candidate, The Odd Couple, and Airplane!, he was in a good position to recognize what did work and what didn’t.

After all, someone like Koch should know from his experience that film making is more of an art project than a science experiment made in the lab…


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