The Film: Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
The Principles: Written by Mary Shelley, George Worthing Yates, Aubrey Schenck, Charles A. Moses & Richard H. Landau Directed by Howard W. Koch Acted by Boris Karloff, Tom Duggan, Jana Lund, Donald Barry, Charlotte Austin, Irwin Berke, Rudolph Anders, Norbert Schiller, John Dennis and Mike Lane
The Premise: The last living descendent of the Frankenstein family plots to resurrect his ancestor’s monster using parts from a film crew making a horror movie in his Bavarian castle.
Is It Good?: No, and that’s a shame given the promise of a “meta” Frankenstein with Karloff on hand to poke holes in his most iconic role. Instead, this is a turgid retread that feels akin to an inbred sequel rather than the the first two James Whale films.
The opening is a beautifully shot laundry list of horror cliches (for the time), with a girl running through a dark forrest from a twisted thing that corners her into wading waist deep into a pond. She screams, he strangles her and in case it isn’t already obvious…the director yells “cut.” It’s a movie-within-a-movie. It’s also the last scene with any real atmosphere, since the rest of the film is shot with a flat, locked-off camera under some of the hottest lighting you’ve ever seen. The promise of a proto-Scream begins and ends here; because unlike that film, which knowingly trades on the horror tropes and works as a successful entry into the genre, this is simply a horror movie where the victims just happen to be making a horror movie.
The rest of the film is a depressing drag, as an aging Karloff limps, hunched through the two or three sets they’ve built/borrowed. There’s something cruel about the number of stairs the director has his star ascend/descend throughout the film. Cruel to Karloff—who is totally game even as he looks ready to collapse—and cruel to the audience, who have to watch scene after scene of characters in transit. Even Karloff’s purred dialogue begins to feel like padding after a while. He places dramatic pauses between nearly every line of pseudoscientific garbage he’s been given, creating a word salad with no meaning, no beginning and no end.
That’s representative of the movie as a whole. It’s formless, with similar scenes of Karloff mumbling to himself in the lab repeated endlessly throughout the running time. Each scene should bring new information or add a dramatic wrinkle, but they don’t. Instead, the doctor works out of sight and away from the rest of the cast for 70% of the movie. When Frankenstein is finally discovered by one his caretakers, what might have been a dramatic, interesting scene is spoiled by lazy blocking. The two men stand across the room from one another, the caretaker begging Frankenstein not to kill him (as if the 70-year-old could either catch or overpower him). By the time Frankenstein hypnotizes the other man with a scalpel, it’s clear that any excitement in this film is going to take place off screen.
Which brings me to “The Monster.” Warner Bros. made this movie, and it’s clear they had neither the rights to the classic Jack Pierce design, nor the creative energy to think of something new. Instead, they wrap the monster in gauss and carve two jack-o-lantern triangles where his eyes should be. It almost works as a piece of minimal design, but like everything else here, it’s just another example of the film’s empty promises. You want a meta horror film? Too bad! You want a great, final performance by Karloff in a Frankenstein movie? Too bad! You want Frankenstein’s monster in a Frankenstein movie? TOO. BAD.
Random Anecdotes: Poor Karloff. He’s acting predominantly with his neck, pushing his head as far away from his shoulders as possible. Like an agitated turtle. And I’m not sure if it occurred to anyone else, but Carl Fredrickson from Up must have been modeled at least in part on Karloff.
Apparently, this was shot in eight days. Like Tom Scharpling famously said of Robert Rodriguez’s infamously inexpensive movies, “it’s not like they passed the savings on to the audience.”
The title, Frankenstein 1970, makes no sense. The film crew are making their movie to celebrate the “230th anniversary” of Frankenstein and your guess as to what that means is as good as mine. If they’re going by the publication of the book, 1970 would be close to 80 years off. That said, this movie exists in a world where Frankenstein was a real doctor who really created a monster. The only problem with that is when we see the doctor’s birth and death date on a headstone, 1970 still doesn’t wind up being the 230th anniversary of anything.
The film was released in 1958 and even if the filmmakers could have begun to imagine how much the world was about to change in the next twelve years, they exerted NO effort to predict any kind of future.
Is It Worth A Look?: For Frankenstein completists only. That said, it’s currently streaming through Warner Archive Instant.
Cinematic Soulmates: If there are other movies like this, I’m not sure why you’d want to seek them out. The Black Sleep, maybe?