Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Jimmy Sangster wrote a lot of movies for Hammer Films, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). When he was asked to write a sequel called The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) – which the producers had already sold based on the title and poster art, Sangster reportedly said “I killed Frankenstein in the first film.” The producers said “you’ll think of something” and told him he had six weeks before shooting started. 

I love stories like that. As a writer, nothing gets my creative juices flowing more than a bunch of strange requirements and limitations. Give me a box to work in, and a deadline, and odds are I’ll come up with something fun and interesting. On the other hand, if you tell me to write whatever I feel like – and to take as along as I want to do it – I will probably never deliver anything. There’s something about the challenge of taking an idea that seems impossible and trying to make it work that I’ve always found irresistible. And deadlines are not only helpful, they’re practically essential. I don’t know how many times I’ve been forced to deliver something that I didn’t think was ready – like a song for new children’s musical a few years back. In spite of not being happy with what I had, I brought it to rehearsal and discovered that it not only worked, but people LIKED it. Left to my own devices, I probably would have kept tinkering with that song for days, trying to make it better. I might have even thrown the whole thing out and started fresh with a different idea. Would it have been better? I don’t know. But I can tell you that after I heard the cast perform that “flawed” version a few times, I couldn’t have imagined it being anything different.

I’m not sure how Jimmy Sangster felt about the results of The Revenge of Frankenstein, but the general consensus is that it’s a very good sequel. Sangster found a fresh story to tell – as opposed to just repeating the events of the first film, as so many sequels seems to do. It almost feels more like a  compelling art-house drama than a monster movie – although the horror eventually comes. 

Jimmy Sangster has to be one of the most prolific writers of horror films, and other thrillers, of all time. He’s got 75 credits listed on the IMDb. They’re not all horror films, of course. He also wrote the made-for-TV comedy The Toughest Man in the World (1984), starring Mr. T as a bouncer named  Bruise Brubaker. I remember seeing that one when I was a kid, but I had no idea who Jimmy Sangster was at the time. Sangster wrote a lot of made-for-TV movies after his time with Hammer Films had ended (or was winding down). My friend Brian and I watched one called A Taste of Evil (1971) during one of our annual movie marathons a couple of years ago (as I may have mentioned before, we have taken to exploring made-for-TV horror in recent year). About halfway through A Taste of Evil, I suddenly realized that it was kind of a remake – or maybe a rewrite – of an earlier script that Sangster had written for Hammer. I won’t say which one, as I don’t want it spoil either film, but it’s proof that Sangster really knew how to get the most out of a good idea. 

Sangster also wrote episodes of TV shows, including The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975), and Wonder Woman (1975–1979) – which were all important shows of my childhood. Okay, I didn’t actually see Kolchak: The Night Stalker until later, but it would have been important if I’d seen it back then, believe me. I’m not sure if Sangster ever reused any of his old movie ideas on these TV shows, but it’s certainly possible. I’ve heard of TV writers from that era reusing the same basic plot on three or four different shows, so why not reuse a movie plot?

To be clear, I’m not criticizing this approach. In fact, I admire it. I’ve read the same advice in relation to freelance magazine writing. If you’re going to spend time and energy researching a topic, don’t just pitch one article that makes use of that research. Pitch five different articles to five different magazines. I suppose nowadays, they might  talk about websites, podcasts and blogs more than magazines. Whatever the case, the advice is still good. I’ve often wondered if I could somehow apply it to my own writing. Like say, for instance, I was commissioned to write a play about a very specific period of Canadian history. I study that period intensely for a couple of years, reading every book I can put my hands on, and I now know more about that period of history than I could ever use in a single two hour play. So, why not write two or three plays? They could have completely different stories and characters, and/or focus on different aspects of that same period of history. Or, even better, I could write a screenplay or pitch a TV series based on that same research. Or, when the theatre that commissioned me in the first place decides not to produce my play, I could turn it into a screenplay or TV series, or whatever I want. Of course, this is all completely hypothetical. Or theoretical. Or 100% true – I get the proper terminology mixed up…

I’ve never been good at getting the most out of the work I’ve done, although I did reuse one song I wrote in a second musical, so I guess that’s something (although honestly I think it might have been a mistake, for various reasons – but that’s another story). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find Jimmy Sangster to be an inspiration. I only hope that one day the inspiration, and admiration, will somehow translate into determination and action as well.

Oh, and in case I haven’t been clear, Sangster knocked it out of the park with this Frankenstein sequel. Not that it’s all about him. Director Terence Fisher delivered a beautifully shot, atmospheric movie and Peter Cushing was as brilliant as ever in the title role. Eunice Gayson, best known for playing James Bond’s girlfriend in Dr. No (1962)  and From Russia with Love (1963), is also very good as the sympathetic Margaret Conrad. If you’ve enjoyed The Curse of Frankenstein, or any other Hammer horror films, you will definitely want to see The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). A good deal more classy and classic than the average #NotQuiteClassicCinema, it’s the kind of movie that can take an ordinary #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn and turn it into something special.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Scream of Fear (1961)

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to watch scary movies. Before I could even read the TV listings, I asked my Dad to tell me whenever there was a scary movie coming on the TV. This is how I first saw films like King Kong (1933) Frankenstein (1931) Dracula (1931) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). Sometimes a movie was on too late at night for me to stay up and watch. I remember one morning my Dad saying “It’s a good thing you didn’t see that movie last night. It was pretty scary.” This only made me feel like I’d missed out. Scary is what I wanted. I asked my Dad for details, hoping that hearing about it would give me the same thrill that watching it would have. All he would say was that it had something to do with a house. To this day I don’t know what that movie was.

I also remember one Sunday afternoon, my Dad calling me up from the basement because something scary was about to start. I sat in front of the TV and watched the first twenty or thirty minutes of a movie that just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was about a family living on a farm. They had a bunch of horses inside a big old barn, and one night that barn caught fire. The horses were trapped inside, going crazy. As the family formed a chain and passed buckets of water from the well to the burning barn, I remember my Dad shaking his head and saying “I think I was wrong. This isn’t a scary movie.”

I refused to give up hope. “Maybe the horses will die and then the barn will be haunted,” I suggested.

My Dad looked skeptical, but he said “Maybe.”

I don’t remember if the family saved the horses or not. I do remember that nothing much seemed to be happening after the fire, and eventually I gave up on watching that movie. My Dad felt bad for giving me a bum steer. “The TV listings made it sound like it would be scary…” he explained.

            

In those days, we didn’t have a lot of places we could look if we wanted to find out about a movie that was coming on TV. If it was a famous movie, like Dracula, Frankenstein, etc., then we already knew what we were getting into. But if it was a title we’d never heard before, all we had to go on was a one or two sentence description published in our local newspaper’s TV guide (in our case, called TV Scene). Sometimes the descriptions weren’t very accurate. One famous example from several years later (and not from our local paper) was this description of The Wizard of Oz (1939):

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

Almost sounds like a horror film, doesn’t it?

The other thing our local TV guide did, was to assign a star rating to all movies. Really good, classic movies like Casablanca (1940) or The Maltese Falcon (1939) would tend to get three or four stars (four being the highest rating possible).

One day we found a listing for a movie called Scream of Fear (1961). I don’t remember what the description said, but it was clear from the title alone that this was a scary movie. The only problem was that the TV Scene only gave the movie one star! One star?! I’m not sure if I had ever seen that before. Boring, unfunny comedies tended to get two stars. How bad did a movie have to be to get one star?

My Dad and I were unsure if we should watch this movie. With a rating of one star, it was bound to be terrible. But, we had suffered through the first part of the horse fire movie and turned it off. We figured we could stop watching if this movie was as bad as the TV listings claimed.

To make a moderately long story somewhat shorter, we both loved Scream of Fear, and we kept commenting to each other as we watched, with variations of “How can this movie only get one star?” and “What’s wrong with the guy who reviewed this movie?”

And that brings up a good question: Just who were these guys who wrote blurbs and assigned star ratings to movies in local TV listings? Did they really watch all of the movies? Or did they just make assumptions based on the type of movie, or it’s reputation (or lack thereof)?

I think it’s fair to say that I never trusted a star rating in the TV Scene again.

My Dad and I judged Scream of Fear to be an excellent movie, with suspense, atmosphere, mystery, and – yes – scares. It’s been compared to the much lauded French film Diabolique (1955), which is a film my Dad told me to tape off of late night TV once we had a VCR. We also loved that movie, and I think we could see the comparison, but each was still their own film. Scream of Fear is a Hammer film (perhaps the first one I ever saw, I’m not sure…) written by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote (and directed) a lot of films for Hammer. It was directed by Seth Holt, who is somewhat lesser known (at least to me), perhaps because he died young (at age 47, in 1971).

Jimmy Sangster on the set with Susan Strasberg,

I wanted to see Scream of Fear again for many years, but for some reason it was hard to come by. I never saw a VHS tape that I could rent or buy. And it was never again listed in the TV guide. I started to wonder if it had vanished into the ether, or if perhaps my Dad and I had imagined watching it all those years ago. I found other Hammer films like Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964), and Fear in the Night (1972) – all written by Jimmy Sangster, by the way – which seemed similar, and I wondered if I could be remembering the title wrong. And yet none of these films were quite the right one, upon closer examination. 

When I bought books like Terror On Tape by James O’Neill, I was relieved to see that Scream of Fear was included, and therefore not a figment of my childhood imagination. O’Neill gives the movie three stars, by the way, and calls it “a first rate shocker.” Too bad he wasn’t rating movies in my local newspaper…

Seeing Scream of Fear again after all these years only confirmed my opinion of it. I’m sure that I would list it as a personal favourite if I had managed to see it more often over the years. I look forward to doing exactly that in the future, whether on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, or any other day of the week. Scream of Fear (1961) is a #Certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic!