Frankenstein 1970 directed by Howard W. Koch
Horror icon Boris Karloff, during the mid-1950s, significantly slowed down his prodigious output of the ’30s and ’40s. After 1953, fans would have to wait a full four years before his next horror picture, Voodoo Island, was released, and that one is generally acknowledged as one of Boris’ few stinkers. The British actor seemed to rebound a bit in 1958, however, with the releases of Frankenstein 1970 — a shlocky yet entertaining picture — and the very-well-done British film Grip of the Strangler. Frankenstein 1970 was the fifth Frankenstein film that Karloff had participated in, following the classic original in 1931, the eternal glory that is 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, 1939’s excellent Son of Frankenstein and 1944’s House of Frankenstein, but — no surprise — the film in question is any number of rungs down the scale, quality-wise, as compared to those great others.
Here, the 70-year-old Karloff plays Victor von Frankenstein, the final descendant of the infamous House. Needing additional funds to purchase the atomic reactor that will enable him to complete his experiments (and at this point, need it even be mentioned what those experiments consist of?), he rents out his ancestral castle near Frankfurt to an American TV production company that is making a movie to celebrate Frankenstein’s 240th anniversary. (Never mind that that would make for a birth date of 1730, if the film actually does take place in 1970, and that Mary Shelley’s original novel came out in 1818, although admittedly set in “17–.” Also, never mind the fact that the film makes no attempt to look as if it’s transpiring 12 years in its then future.) But when body parts, such as brains and eyes, are in short supply, what is the good Baron supposed to do, other than use parts from the retainers, film crew and nubile actresses on hand?
Frankenstein 1970 is a film that I never got to see as a little kid, despite its ubiquitous presence on television back then. When I mentioned to my Psychotronic Guru, Rob, that I had just acquired the DVD to watch, he enthused about the film’s opening scene, which he said he’d found terrifying when he saw it in a theater over 50 years ago. Film historian Tom Weaver says the same thing on the DVD’s commentary regarding this sequence, in which a claw-taloned maniac pursues a screaming, hysterical blonde through a fog-shrouded landscape and into a swamp, and in truth, that scene IS the best and scariest moment in the film; the only scary moment, as it turns out. For the rest of it, the picture is a tad slow moving, occasionally dull, with many scenes of the Baron puttering around with his creation in his lab, dictating his progress into a running tape recorder.
The resultant monster is one of the most ridiculous looking in any Frankenstein film; indeed, swaddled in mummy-like wrappings as he is, we never even get a good look at the pathetic thing, until the picture’s admittedly startling final moment. A lumbering bundle of bandages, with a head that looks like a giant cardboard box residing under the wrappings, the monster here is an object of laughter, not fright. Eyeball-less as it is, the monster seems to get around just fine, leading the viewer to wonder just why the Baron is so obsessed with procuring orbs for his creation.
Besides the monster, the film’s laboratory equipment and creation sequence FX pale mightily in comparison to those earlier four Frankenstein films, which all featured stunning-looking lab sets and amazing creation sequences (particularly Bride). Still, it must be said that director Howard W. Koch (later, the producer of such classic films as The Manchurian Candidate, The President’s Analyst, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite) makes nice use of his CinemaScope frame, that the score by Paul Dunlap is occasionally gripping, and that cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie has provided some moody B&W visuals. The film also offers fans of grisly horror some very mild gross-outs, such as a jar of spilled eyeballs, the massaging of a human heart, Boris’ tale of the tongueless commandant, and a corpse-grinding machine (an inspiration for Ted V. Mikels, perhaps?). Basically, however, the film is of interest mainly because of Uncle Boris, who gets to overact deliciously and impress his many fans, once again, with that wonderfully mellifluous voice. As in the 1934 classic The Black Cat, Boris also gets to play some chilling music on his home organ, always a dismal thrill!
Bottom line: Filmed as it was in only eight days (!) in January ’58, Frankenstein 1970, cheezy as it is, remains a surprisingly decent, oddball entertainment. After 1958, fans would have to wait another five years before Karloff’s next horror pictures, which he made under director Roger Corman. So this film, and Grip of the Strangler, had to hold them for a while (in addition to TV’s Thriller, of course, which Boris hosted from 1960 – ’62). And really, where else can you find a line like “Torch, scorch, unforch”?