The film itself isn't nearly important enough to earn this, but you could do a lot worse than holding up 1970's The Horror of Frankenstein as a summary of all the things going terribly wrong with Hammer Film Productions at the dawn of the '70s. The studio's reign across the anglosphere as the premiere home for ultra-violent, ultra-sexy horror cinema had been absolute for a solid ten years; ten years during which the Hammer bosses, James & Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds, went pretty much all-in on horror and horror-tinged adventure movies. Which was great while it lasted, but it also left the company vulnerable to even the slightest fluctuation in the marketplace. If, for example, the Hollywood film industry finally loosened its shackles on violent and sexual content in 1968 and the immediate response was a flood of more-Hammer-than-Hammer horror movies in the United States, the chief marketplace for Hammer's output, that would be bad.

So it happened, and so it was. The briefest glance at Hammer's filmography reveals something terrible had gone on. After having produced anywhere between five and seven features every single year from 1963-'68 (plus a 17-episode television anthology series in 1968), Hammer only had two releases in 1969, the horror film Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and the sci-fi flop Moon Zero Two. 1970 looks like it's back to business as usual, with six releases, but the films themselves reveal a certain sweaty anxiety, a muddled attempt to figure out what the hell to do next, and that's pretty much what every remaining year of the studio's existence would look like until it more or less ceased to exist after 1974 (with one meager release in each of 1976 and 1979). And of those six features from 1970, none is so sweaty or anxious as The Horror of Frankenstein, a film so drearily mediocre and ineffectual that it manages to make both of the studio's Dracula films from the same year (Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula) seem relatively admirable. They're bad, but at least they have a kind of consistent madness that's enjoyable to grapple with. The Horror of Frankenstein is merely a drab grind, barely even sufficient as a delivery mechanism for the costumes and sets that are the one last thing we can keep counting on from a Hammer film even when everything else has gone wrong.

The first sign of the film's position in the New Hammer Order is the fact that it exists at all. That sounds snide, but it really isn't. In the 12 years between 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Hammer produced five films about the increasingly vicious and degraded Baron Victor Frankenstein, played in all cases by Peter Cushing, four of the five directed by Terence Fisher. They were, only somewhat less than the Christopher Lee Dracula pictures, the symbol of the studio's whole output. As such, they were tainted by a distinct old-fashioned mustiness, right at the moment that Hammer needed above all things not to seem old-fashioned. For the Dracula series, this ultimately meant some atrocious attempts to modernise the character by bringing him to the present. For Frankenstein, it meant starting up a brand new franchise with a brand new Frankenstein.

Spoiler alert: this did not work at all, and four years after The Horror of Frankenstein, Cushing was brought back for one last go-round in the role, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The question facing us now is, why did it fail? What about The Horror of Frankenstein proved to be such a bad attempt at creating a new Hammer Films for a new decade? Since "everything" is clearly not an okay answer, we'll have to dig into it a bit. The film's problems started early, with a script credited to Jeremy Burnham and Jimmy Sangster - as I understand it, Burnham wrote the first draft, and Sangster polished it up as part of directing the film (his debut in that role, and not an auspicious one). But we're already cheating a little by saying that, since the film's actual first draft was the 1957 Curse of Frankenstein itself, also written by Sangster, when he was just a fledgling screenwriter and not one of the major creative forces at Hammer. So what we have, before one role has been cast, before one frame of footage has been exposed, is an attempt to make a bold new Hammer for a new generation of counter-cultural young folks, that starts by attempting to retrofit a pristine example of exactly the kind of old-fashioned culture now out of fashion. I imagine there are ways this could have worked, but I frankly don't see any of them having worked very well, and The Horror of Frankenstein is decidedly not a strong attempt even at something already doomed to failure.

What the film does, without much conviction, is to try to put a bit of a snarky spin on the material - I've seen some people go so far as to say that The Horror of Frankenstein is even actively a comedy, though that's a huge stretch. A completely humorless comedy that smothers all of its jokes, maybe, which I guess is the point. At any rate, that's the big change, that and the addition of a new first act that shows the young Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) as an arrogant university student,Β  admired by men and beloved by women and infuriating to the faculty. But there's nobody who finds him more infuriating than his father (George Belbin), who demands that he abandons his fascinating with human anatomy - mostly female and nubile, but there's enough of the messianic Frankenstein edge to young Victor's obsessions to put the old man off. Victor arranges a hunting accident, comes into the family fortune, heads off to Vienna to continue his studies, and suckers a fellow student, Wilhelm Kassner (Graham James) into joining his quixotic quest to unlock the secrets of death and life.

Every last bit of the film's 95 minutes is slack and pointless. No, I take that back. There is I think, one thing worth praising: the monster itself. Or maybe not the monster, which suffers from some extremely dopey makeup that makes it look like a homicidal toddler with a huge forehead. Rather, it's the performance of David Prowse, still going by "Dave" in those days: while he's no Christopher Lee, Prowse has a heavy screen presence, an ability to dominate every screen he's in, and a way of exuding dangerous, animal evil, a kind of instinctual desire to rip things apart, just from the way he walks with his angry grimace. It's not much of a shock that Prowse was the one thing brought back for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell; nor that somebody with that kind of ominous presence would catch the attention of the Star Wars casting director when the time came to find the body of Darth Vader.

Other than Prowse's menacing presence, though, the film has a relatively breezy tone that's not very interesting or effectively-executed. It's intentional, as far as I can tell, carried through in the fairly bright cinematography by Moray Grant, the wide-open blocking, and especially the flippant attitude towards the grave matters of a Frankenstein story. If I can't quite bring myself to call it "comic", it is at least rather silly, especially in the way the older generation comes off; I think particularly of Professor Heiss (Bernard Archard), the father of Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), the object of Frankenstein's most focused erotic attention, who is presented as something of a buffoon. This is, presumably, how Sangster thought he could go about doing the business of appealing to the youth market. The same animating spirit explains the film's decision to focus on Frankenstein as a bored libertine, bedding his way through Europe with a mild sneer. And yet, despite the shift in sex that would never, ever have befitted a Peter Cushing vehicle, The Horror of Frankenstein is a peculiarly un-randy film for a studio that had adopted randiness as one of its core principles ages before this film ever saw the light of day.

At any rate, the film is too light and snotty to be in any way atmospheric or scary, but not nearly funny and sardonic enough to be anything else. Sangster was maybe just not a funny guy; there's nothing in his filmography to suggest otherwise, at least. And it's his misfortune to have made this ill-conceived directorial debut at exactly the moment that Hammer's well-oiled support structure was in a tailspin, so there's not really anything to compensate. The film has the complaint common to many Hammer films, but especially around this period, that there's not really anybody particularly good in the cast; the women are just there to be pretty and dazed, the men are insubstantial jackasses. As for Bates, now that's where the film's miseries really make themselves manifest. A TV veteran, Bates was the recipient of the studio's last concerted attempt to launch a leading man, having initially been selected to play the title villain of Taste the Blood of Dracula; he ultimately got stuck with just a brief role as second banana to Christopher Lee in that film, and so The Horror of Frankenstein ended up functioning as his big coming-out party. The results were mixed, at best; though Bates kept getting work at Hammer, his career never really did take off, and based on the evidence of this film, it's incredibly obvious why not. He's an absolute nothing of a screen presence; certainly not compared to the imperious Cushing, but not even compared to some of his less-insipid costars here. Bates's big problem is that he seems profoundly bored; I suspect his director was nudging him in that direction, which doesn't help, but everything I've seen him do suggests that his great strength as an actor was putting the "banal" in "banality of evil". He's smug, uncharismatic, and dull-eyed, less an excitingly dangerous avatar of egocentric hedonism than a flimsy dilettante, and if this is what Hammer thought the kids in 1970 wanted, it's little wonder that kids stayed far away.