March 26, 2008

Tales of Frankenstein


Fifty years ago this week, on March 25 to be precise, Hammer Films executive producer Michael Carreras fired off a letter to his counterpart Ralph Cohn of Screen Gems in New York. The subject was the recently completed pilot for Tales of Frankenstein. The proposed television series was to be co-produced in equal measure, thirteen half-hour episodes apiece, by Hammer in England and Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures, in America.

Carreras had not yet seen the pilot, The Face in the Tombstone Mirror, shot in Hollywood, but when news came that it had cost $80,000, Carreras complained that the episode could have been made at Bray Studios for roughly half the price. “The reason I am making such a bloody nuisance of myself” he wrote, “is because I have tremendous faith in this series and I honestly believe that we can make them better than anyone else. Somewhat presumptuously, he added, “Let me know when you are ready to start.

The pilot turned out to be competent enough to attract cautious interest by the ABC network. Development of the series continued through the coming months, but the collaboration between Hammer and Columbia was never an easy one. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds had dropped out of the project after a frustrating visit to America, and Carreras would later refer to the project as “one of the unhappiest experiences of my screen career”. The project, perhaps inevitably, fizzled. The pilot aired occasionally as late-night filler on American TV and eventually fell into the Public Domain.

The Face in the Tombstone Mirror is a curious hybrid, mixing the classic Universal Frankensteins with a distinct Hammer Film vibe. Curt Siodmak, who, a dozen years previous, had written Universal’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944) wrote the story, produced and directed the episode. The script was finished by Catherine and Henry Kuttner (also known as Lewis Padgett). Henry was a famous science fiction writer who had been friends with H.P.Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He passed away suddenly, of a heart attack, in February of 1958, shortly after delivering the script.


For all the name talent, the script proved to be simple-minded and clich├ęd. The direction was workmanlike and pedestrian. Spark was provided by the curt, calculating Anton Diffring as Baron Frankenstein, very much in the cold-hearted Peter Cushing mold. The striking Helen Westcott was also effective as the devoted wife of a doomed artist. The doughy-faced Monster is played by six foot six character actor Don Megowan, who holds the distinction of being the only actor to have played both the Frankenstein Monster and the air-breathing Gillman, in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).


As this Tale opens, in a scene reminiscent of Hammer’s then recent Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the Monster is no sooner brought to life that it lunges to strangle its creator. There’s an explosion and The Monster shorts out. Frankenstein reflects over the fallen Creature: “Your brain came from the skull of a murderer. You still wanted to kill. But, with the right brain, the brain of an intelligent man, a good man… Where will I find it?

Enter Christine Halpert (Westcott), seeking urgent help. Her husband, Paul (Richard Bull), is dying of some unspecified “critical” illness. The Baron turns them away, but not before registering interest in Paul’s “good hands” and artistic bent.

In quick succession, Paul dies and is buried in the local cemetery. Frankenstein promptly digs him up and performs a brain upgrade on his hulking Monster. Meanwhile, visiting the grave, Christine finds a discarded locket that had been buried with her husband. She gets the caretaker, Frankenstein’s grave-robbing accomplice, to spill the beans, and heads for the castle. The Monster recognizes her and carries her away, but stops in his tracks when he sees himself in a mirror.


The Monster now turns on the Baron and the chase takes them back to the graveyard where Christine reasons with The Monster: “The life you had was brief, but it was decent and good. Don’t destroy everything now because of a hideous face and grotesque body… that aren’t yours!

The Monster contemplates his situation and hurls himself into the open, collapsing grave, embracing the death he had briefly cheated. A constable appears and arrests the Baron for grave robbing.

You have your job to do,” Frankenstein says, “and so have I. And I don’t think either of us would let anything stand in the way of fulfilling our respective destinies. Time is of small matter, you see… There’s always tomorrow!

Before the project was finally canned, Hammer Films hired a handful of writers to come up with potential script material. Jimmy Sangster, author of Hammer’s Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy pictures, came up with a dozen one-line story ideas (“He has a set to with Zombies”). Other writers provided themes that would be recycled in upcoming Frankenstein movies, notably a mesmerist episode that wound up as the core of Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and a beautiful, but soulless female monster that anticipates the character in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967).

One understands Michael Carreras’ enthusiasm and frustration. Hammer Films had just recently exploded on the scene, its gothic horrors were box-office gold. In 1958, Monsters were beginning to hit big. The Shock Theater package of Universal horror movies was a late-night TV phenomenon. Today, we know that monster magazines, bubble gum cards, plastic kits and toys, the Corman/Price pictures of AIP, The Addams Family and The Munsters were all coming down the pike. In retrospect, it seems that there was a Monster Kid audience out there that would have embraced a Frankenstein TV series.


Tales of Frankenstein: The Face in the Tombstone Mirror can be seen online or downloaded from Archive.org. It’s definitely worth a look.

Some of the details in this post were found in the excellent The Hammer Story (1997, revised 2007) by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes.


7 comments:

Karswell said...

Great post Pierre, I've been waiting for this one. It's more frustrating than anything to see an unsold pilot that had the potential to be something really great. Think about all the episodes we could be watching over and over right now, if only...

Frank3 said...

Well, I was a bit underwhelmed when I finally saw this, which was included on a dvd collection of Frankenstein trailers. The brain-swapping thing seemed like Siodmak was just going through the motions and didn't really explore anything new (by the 50's anyway).

I wonder if a straight-horror Frankenstein series would have worked anyway. The Addams Family and The Munsters both played their horror elements strictly for laughs. I don't know what sort of true horror a weekly series in the early 50's could have gotten away with.

Pierre Fournier said...

I remember the original Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Thriller, and they had some good shocks in them. The network badgered the producers of The Outer Limits to add more monsters. Considering the monster-crazy era, I think a Frankenstein series would have killed in syndication.

The real “what if” here is how Hammer would have handled its episodes. Maybe get Terence Fisher to direct one. Imagine the possibilities.

Frank3 said...

Hey Pierre! I guess I didn't mention those because I've never read for certain what format "Tales of F" was going to pursue, as an anthology or following Dr. Frankenstein around (a la the Hammer series). In either case, they would have faced a problem fulfilling a weekly quota of horror.

The Twilight Zone mixed up their genres, from horror to comedy to mystery. The monsters in the Outer Limits were as often friendly as they were frightening (or at least misunderstood). Even Hitchcock didn't kill people every week. Unfortunately my knowledge of Thriller is limited to three episodes, so I can't comment there.

Was there any series at the time that was solely horror-based? I definitely don't think there was one with recurring characters at any rate.

(Did this just post twice? Sorry if it did)

Anonymous said...

Some elements of the plot (wife finding husband's brain in another's body) might have made it into FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTRoyed as well.

Anonymous said...

Pierre-- the memo you quote in your opening was from Jimmy Carreras, not Michael, although for once father and son were of like mind about a project. -- Ted Newsom

Anonymous said...

Just caught the show the other day by accident. This article is a perfect companion piece to what I viewed.