When last we left the baron at the end of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), he was headed for the guillotine in Switzerland. As The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) opens, he’s still on his way, so it’s a pretty direct sequel. More or less. Let’s talk continuity, shall we? Let’s do.
Curse opened with some text stating that the story took place “more than a hundred years ago.” So we can do the math: 1957-100=1857. But Revenge’s opening text tells us the baron was condemned to death in 1860. So . . . that’s in the ballpark, though it seems like it should be 1857 at the latest. But that’s not the pickiest nit to pick here. There’s a whole lot of retconning going on.
Revenge’s intro also explains that the doctor was “condemned to death for the brutal murders committed by the monster he had created” and “the whole continent” was relieved at the end of “his life of infamy.” But that’s not at all what happened in Curse! Frankenstein and his assistant Krempe worked in obscurity for years, and only the two of them really knew of the Creature. Frankenstein himself was considered guilty for the murder of his maid by his own hands, because no one believed him that a Creature had existed.
Furthermore, only the maid was mentioned, a single murder. Although Curse did imply that the Creature killed a blind man and the man’s grandson, whatever the Creature did with them wasn’t shown on screen . . . and they were never mentioned again. So, at worst, the story could have spread of a baron who killed his maid and then tried to get off by claiming he’d made a monster who’d done the deed. Not exactly the kind of event which would make a whole continent breathe a sigh of relief if you ask me. Unless it’s a small continent populated entirely by maids who work for barons.
But I digress. Because the big retcon is still to come. Although at the end of Curse the pompous baron was reduced to a blithering mess begging for his life, we find out in Revenge that that was all an act, because Frankenstein—even though unable to convince the authorities of his miraculous surgical skills—had convinced one of his jailers, Karl. Karl suffered from various physical deformities, and in turn for the doctor’s promise of getting him a new body, Karl colluded with the executioner to take the head of the priest attending the execution in the baron’s stead (it’s unclear why no one seems to have noticed a priest went missing at an execution). Now on to more spoilers.
Flash forward three years. Dr. Victor Frankenstein has moved to Carlsbruck, Germany, and taken up practice as Dr. Victor Stein. In a move far more clever than his transparent pseudonym, he works at a hospital for the poor, giving him a source for all the body parts he needs. The dashing doctor also attracts a large number of women to his regular practice, drawing the ire of their former doctors. When they confront him, one of the locals, Dr. Hans Kleve, recognizes him. Since, according to this film, everyone knows about Frankenstein and the Creature, Kleve wants to learn all Frankenstein can teach him and signs on as the baron’s assistant.
Together they put the finishing touches on Karl’s new body; unlike the hideous reanimated corpse of the first film, the doctor has outdone himself, building a tall, handsome vessel for Karl. The brain transplant is a success, but Karl isn’t patient enough to remain in bed as long as the doctors recommend. He tries out his new body too soon, unsettles his brain, and goes wonky in the melon. Unpleasantness occurs, and Karl spills the beans on Frankenstein’s identity. When Frankenstein’s poor patients find out, they give him a serious beat down. Kleve arrives while he still lives, but his body is too damaged. Kleve harvests his brain just before the authorities arrive, and he tells them he tried to save the doctor but was too late. They are convinced of Frankenstein’s death, having seen the body with their own eyes. Luckily, however, Frankenstein has also crafted a duplicate body for himself; Kleve finishes the transplant after the authorities have left.
Flash forward to London and the practice of one Dr. Franck; yes, the evil doctor hasn’t learned anything about convincing pseudonyms, but this time he wears a moustache and a monocle, so I’m sure no one will ever recognize him. The credits roll as the audience imagines what sort of high jinks the doctor is going to get up to now.
Revenge works quite well as a sequel—even though the retconning requires the audience to put some extra effort into the suspension of disbelief—by avoiding being just another story about the doctor reanimating a creature. The twist of making a healthy body as a cozy new home for a living brain is a nice twist. But there’s no mistaking the doctor for a humanitarian; when he sees an arm he wants on one of his poor patients, he lies to the man about needing to amputate. Another great angle is the sympathetic character of Karl—at least if you try to overlook that he killed a priest. Michael Gwynn’s performance as Karl in his new body is touching. He struggles to adjust, but as things go wrong, he starts carrying his body like his previous, deformed one, and his descent into madness is sad and disturbing. The unreserved ruthlessness of Frankenstein along with various body parts sloshing around in jars and tanks help continue the enjoyably twisted tone of the original. Three decades later, films like, say, Re-Animator (1985), owe a debt to these Hammer Films although, of course, with the gore and depravity turned up to 11.
One could even make the argument that Revenge is a better film than Curse. While Curse, enjoyable as it is, might be characterized as a so-so adaptation of Shelley, once past the original story the Hammer peeps were freed to do whatever they wanted, and they took the story in an interesting direction. It would have been nice to follow the further adventures of Franck and Kleve in London, but, as we shall see next time, the series was about to take a detour in 1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein.