Posts Tagged ‘Frankenstein’

You can’t do a Peter Cushing celebration without including a proper Hammer horror movie, and if you’re only going to do one then it should really be a Frankenstein film, the series which – in every sense worth considering – he led for the studio. I have to confess that, much as I love Cushing’s performances, I’m not a particular fan of these films – though I do like Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell – but obviously other opinions are available. For example, let us consider the words of Martin Scorsese, talking ahead of a season of his favourite films in 1987: ‘If I single this one out it’s because here they actually isolate the soul… The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime.’ Yowser.


Scorsese is referring to 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman (the title spoofs Roger Vadim’s 1958 movie And God Created Woman), which opens, sublimely, with a low-angle shot of a guillotine. There follows a jolly sequence in which Duncan Lamont plays a nutter who’s being beheaded for murder, something which doesn’t seem to bother him much until his young son Hans turns up. Nevertheless, the sentence is carried out, the father being guillotined in front of the boy. This is really only tangentially connected to the plot, but it’s still a great opening.

One title sequence later (Lamont gets fifth billing, despite already having had his head chopped off), we have skipped forward many years and Hans is now a strapping young man (Robert Webb), which is good, and working as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Cushing), which is probably more questionable. With the help of Hans and bumbling local doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), the Baron is taking his peculiar researches in a new direction: rather than creating new life, he is now intent on preserving existing forms of it. To this end he has been putting himself into suspended animation to see what happens to his soul, and Cushing gets a great ‘entrance’ where Webb and Walters have to drag him out of a fridge and defibrillate him back to life.

Inter-film continuity was never really a priority with Hammer, and this film doesn’t really attempt to dovetail with the previous film in the series, The Evil of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is operating under his real name, although he seems short of resources, and he’s not quite the criminal outcast he is in most of the Hammer sequels. He has lost some of the use of his hands, though it’s never specified how (a plot detail which is picked up again in Monster from Hell). He still has a reputation as a sorcerer amongst the local yokels, but he doesn’t have a castle for them to burn down.

Anyway, having been defrosted, the Baron packs Hans off to the local pub to buy some champagne. It turns out that Hans is in love with the landlord’s daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg): one of the slightly difficult aspects of this film is the presentation of Christina as suffering from an unspecified disability, with a scarred face and partial paralysis. This doesn’t bother Hans, though. What does bother him is cruel treatment of his girl by three nasty young rakes, and there are some fisticuffs before the evening is out.

Having run out of cash, the upper-class twits try to rob the pub, but they are discovered by Christina’s dad, so they beat him to death. Unfortunately, all the circumstantial evidence is pointing to Hans and after seeing Christina off on a trip to see a medical specialist (her absence is a plot point), he is hauled in and put on trial. Surprisingly, it turns out that having the notorious Baron Frankenstein and his idiot assistant appear as character witnesses is not an advantage in a court case, and Hans is sentenced to be guillotined too.

Up to this point, Frankenstein has been depicted as a brilliant, obsessive scientist (he’s even invented the nuclear reactor a century early), rather than a bad guy, but his response to learning his assistant is going to be executed is basically to start rubbing his hands and planning what he can do with the body. He has figured out a way to isolate the soul of someone recently deceased (that guy Scorsese knows what he’s on about) and is just looking for a test subject. There is even more good news, for the Baron at least, when an unwitting Christina comes across her boyfriend being beheaded for the murder of her father. This comes as a bit of a shock and she promptly flings herself into the nearest river, her body being delivered to Frankenstein’s lab as well (presumably he has some sort of first-refusal arrangement in place).

I know geniuses see the world differently to the rest of us, but just how detached from reality do you have to be to think that transplanting the soul of your wrongfully-executed assistant into the body of his own lover, after she commits suicide, is in any way a good idea? Nevertheless, that’s what Frankenstein does, taking the opportunity to fix Christina’s various disabilities and blemishes along the way – he also turns her into a blonde (oh, good grief). Little does he suspect that, though seemingly a total amnesiac, the Hans/Christina amalgam retains the young man’s memories of the three real murderers and is intent on exacting a bloody revenge…

(Well… there is the minor issue of it never being explained how Hans knows who the real murderers are. Maybe he’s just killing them because he doesn’t like them.)

Easy, tiger.

Easy, tiger.

Hammer advertised this movie with a series of quite well-known publicity shots featuring Cushing and Denberg in some, er, interesting poses, but to be perfectly honest the film itself is a lot less fun than the photos imply. As I hope I’ve managed to suggest, the plot is a strange mixture of metaphysical science fantasy and brutal revenge melodrama, not really like any of the other Hammer Frankensteins. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but definitely problematic is the fact that the revenge melodrama is definitely what the script seems most interested in. While Frankenstein himself is essential to the plot, he’s never really central to it. Cushing walks off with the movie, as usual, but he feels like a character turn rather than the genuine star. It’s hard to imagine how this could be fixed without totally rethinking the premise of the film, but it’s still a problem, and it may explain why this script apparently hung around for years prior to being made (apparently it was written before the Evil of Frankenstein script, then put on hold when Hammer negotiated the rights to the classic Frankenstein’s Monster makeup from Universal, allowing them to make that film).

Nevertheless, this is a classic golden-age Hammer horror film: possibly formulaic, but it is for the most part a bloody good formula. James Bernard contributes another wonderful score, the character actors get their teeth into their material, the younger members of the cast aren’t too embarrassing, and the production values are relatively lavish. Hammer afficionados will recognise most of the locations from the studio’s other films, but that’s part of their charm and identity.

Still – one really could wish for more Peter Cushing in a Hammer Frankenstein movie, and more of a sense of hubristic transgression in the central premise (the Baron’s experiment does seem weird, but that’s mainly because of the relationship of the two people involved in it). Failing that, even a slightly deeper exploration of the metaphysical foundation of the film might have made for a more satisfying production. As it is, Frankenstein Created Woman yomps along briskly and logically to its conclusion, and Cushing himself is exemplary, but one can never quite shake off the vague sense that this is a movie hobbled by an underpowered script.

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Ah, there aren’t many movie taglines so good I’ll happily reuse them myself at the top of a review, but I think you’ll agree the one above is something pretty special. The only danger, really, is that the film itself doesn’t do justice to its own advertising. And given that we are talking about a late-period and rather bargain-basement Hammer Horror movie, one could be forgiven for some considerable anxiety on this point. However, extremely pleasingly, this movie is very nearly as much fun as one could wish for.

For we are discussing Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, released in 1974 after sitting on the company’s shelf for a couple of years. The previous movie, Horror of Frankenstein, had been a bit of a cock-up in nearly every department, and this is in many ways a return to the House’s classic style – marked most obviously by a return to one of his signature roles by Peter Cushing.

However, the film is well aware that Cushing is the star turn and holds him in reserve until the end of the opening section. Proceedings kick off with a graverobber (Patrick Troughton, still in his Liam Gallagher disguise from Scars of Dracula) hard about his trade, but it transpires that he is not working for Frankenstein, but a young doctor named Simon Helder (latter-day Hammer star Shane Briant). Helder is a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy and is engaged in cover versions of some of the Baron’s more infamous experiments. When Troughton is accosted by the law, the police turn up on Helder’s doorstep and his cunning ploy of hiding behind a curtain and being really quiet does not succeed: he is nicked on charges of sorcery!

(At this point, one can’t help but contemplate what a good choice Briant would have been to play Frankenstein in a straight relaunch of the cycle – he’s by no means dissimilar to Leonard Whiting in the American TV movie made about this time. Then again, as I’ve mentioned before, Ralph Bates could also have been great with the right script, and it’s not really surprising that Hammer went back to someone like Cushing.)

The judge is lenient and packs Helder off to the local lunatic asylum (so that’s part of the promise of the tagline fulfilled already) – but the lad is not too displeased, as he has heard rumours of a certain disgraced aristocrat being sent to the same place. However, he falls foul of the (slightly camp) asylum orderlies and is rescued by…

Well, no prizes for guessing who gets his big entrance at this point: it’s Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, operating (in every sense of the word) under the name of Doctor Victor. Frankenstein has got some dirt on the putative director of the asylum and done a deal whereby he effectively gets to run the place, leaving the director with more time to spend with his collection of exotic pornography. (Told you this was a class movie.)

Needless to say, the rigours of running an early-nineteenth-century lunatic asylum have by no means reduced Frankenstein’s desire to continue his academic researches. Already having his medical doctorate and a postgraduate qualification in Playing God, after all these years of spectacularly grisly failure he is hard at work on his thesis in Not Being Able To Take A Hint. However, life as a mad scientist has resulted in a little wear and tear on his hands and he has been reduced to getting a mute-but-beautiful inmate (Madeline Smith) to do the fiddly sewing for him. The arrival of another surgeon is thus rather good news for the Baron, especially as he is in the process of cobbling together parts of various former patients in order to vindicate his work in the eyes of the world.

However, a movie which has been storming along up to this point nearly gets spectacularly derailed when the Baron reveals what he has been working away on. According to the script, it is the corpse of a homicidal inmate possessed of tremendous physical strength and endurance – ‘a throwback!’ Frankenstein declares. Well, that’s as maybe, but what the costume department have cooked up is not so much ‘a throwback’ as ‘the missing link’. The titular Monster from Hell is basically Dave Prowse in a Bigfoot suit. It’s a reasonable monster, but the least plausibly human of any of the various Hammer Frankenstein creations.

Oh well. What follows is for the most part a retread of the original Frankenstein tale, set in a medical institution. Frankenstein proves his devotion to his cause, someone’s brain gets transplanted into Bigfoot, Helder finds there are limits to his desire to emulate his hero, and there is in the end a gratifying amount of mayhem (so that’s the other part of the slogan sorted out).

When I first got into Hammer movies in the late eighties, I must confess to being more interested in the Dracula series than the Frankensteins. Looking back this was possibly because the Dracula continuity is slightly better, Christopher Lee is a reliably immense presence, and vampires seemed more interesting than mad scientists anyway.

But these days I’m reappraising this – some of the Dracula movies are very good, but some of them aren’t, and Dracula’s schtick doesn’t really vary between them. The Frankensteins have a lot more variety in their plotting and a rather more interesting central character a lot of the time – in the best films, Frankenstein is an obsessive and often ruthless individual, but rarely a definitely evil one. It helps a lot that it’s Cushing in the part, too, of course: certainly, from the moment he first appears in this movie he utterly dominates it (despite a slightly dodgy wig).

It’s a typically magnetic and committed Peter Cushing performance, including moments of black comedy (‘Kidneys! Delicious!’ he says with obvious delight when his supper arrives, shortly after extracting someone’s brain) and physical courage. At one point Cushing gets a pretty full-on fight sequence with Dave Prowse and acquits himself extremely well for a man pushing sixty. But he also displays tremendous agility in terms of the tone of his performance: at one point his assistant is demurring at the latest scheme Frankenstein has come up with (understandably so, as it’s utterly, utterly barking, to the point of incoherence), but the Baron is off into town on a shopping trip. ‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ he says jovially, on his way out of the door, only to reappear moments later: ‘I know you won’t’ – this in a chilling, icy whisper. This film is by no means a one-trick pony, but it would collapse utterly without Cushing at its heart.

That said, there are incidental pleasures all the way through. One of the weaknesses of the Hammer Frankensteins is that they tend to be much more about the creator than his creation, whereas the relationship between the two is at the heart of the best versions of the story. Here, though, there’s a scene where the monster sits down and toys with a violin, which it finds itself unable to play (the previous owner of its brain was a virtuoso). It sounds like the corniest scene imaginable but it actually has genuine pathos. Elsewhere, the film is consistently atmospheric, particularly in the scenes in the asylum beyond the laboratory.

Even the palpably tiny budget doesn’t cause that many problems – although it’s fairly obvious to the initiated that the outside of Helder’s lodgings is the back yard of Hammer’s production offices, and there’s some appallingly unconvincing model-work towards the end. The film still has a good cast – most startlingly, Bernard Lee turns up in a tiny, mute cameo – and is effectively directed by Fisher.

It all concludes with a memorably nasty, almost Romero-esque climax quite unlike anything else in the annals of Frankenstein – and beyond this, manages to pull off an ending which is ominous and suggestive while still remaining subtle. Hammer had clearly learned by this point not to bother killing Frankenstein off at the end of each movie, as it just raised awkward questions in the next instalment. So the Baron is left alive and apparently well – but the script and performances irresistibly suggest that, perhaps, the strain of his repeated failures have finally taken their toll, and that a lunatic asylum is now the best place for him…

But this was the last Cushing Frankenstein and the last Hammer one, too (unless the revivified company returns to the story, which I can’t forsee happening). Given that, it’s a relief that the movie is such fun and so accomplished in many ways: make no mistake, this is an old-school British horror movie, with no ambitions to be anything else – but in those terms it solidly hits its targets, and is easily amongst the best of the late-period Hammer horrors.

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So, it’s 1970, and you’re an award-winning and iconic British movie studio whose horror movies have come to define the genre for a generation. Unfortunately, critics have started to get a little harsh and audiences aren’t quite turning up in the numbers they once did. What are you to do?

Well, funnily enough, Hammer Films found themselves in that exact situation, and the option they went for was to reboot both of their main series for a younger, hipper crowd. First out of the blocks was Jimmy Sangster’s The Horror of Frankenstein, which dropped any pretence of continuity with the previous five Hammer Frankensteins.

So we’re back with the Baron (here played by Ralph Bates) at the start of his career as a student and then a mad scientist. Already having murdered his father to further his career, Victor Frankenstein sets about creating a hideous patchwork monster, a travesty of man… and so on. I think we’re all familiar with the main thrust of this story, and this film adds nothing to it in terms of actual plot twists. The monster himself is embodied by a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse, while filling up the necessary Hammer-glamour slots are Veronica Carlson as the good girl and Kate O’Mara as the bad one.

It sounds a bit formulaic, but you would be wrong in thinking this film makes no demands of its audience. It does. Mainly when it comes to the suspension of their disbelief. Very early on, there is the following exchange –

Old Baron: ‘It’s not natural for a boy of your age to be so interested in all this scientific twaddle!’

Young Frankenstein: ‘It’s no less natural than a man of your age being interested in a sixteen-year-old housemaid!’

– which on paper doesn’t sound unreasonable, but the fact that both Victor and the housemaid are visibly in their thirties doesn’t help the film in any way. The production values are up to the usual high standard for a Hammer film, but it’s slapdash in virtually every other department. Supposedly set in Austria (with stock footage of somewhere appropriately Alpine turning up for establishing shots of Castle Frankenstein), the local church appears to be in the Borehamwood area, and Frankenstein’s housekeeper has an accent from somewhere on the Ireland-Somerset border. Historical realism, particularly when it comes to things like class distinctions, isn’t even a factor.

Instead, Sangster seems to think the way to entice a younger crowd is to channel the spirit of late-period Carry On films and other softcore comedies (not that there’s any of your actual nudity in this movie). The first fruit of Frankenstein’s researches is a severed arm that gives the V-sign to order, for example, and the Baron himself seems as obsessive a womaniser as he is a scientist – none of which is strictly relevant to the plot.

And in including all of this stuff, the essential things you actually want from a Frankenstein movie get pushed aside. This story should be about obsession, and hubris, and arrogance. When Frankenstein’s first major success comes from resuscitating a deceased tortoise, it sort of lacks the blasphemous energy the film really requires. And rather than being a misguided obsessive, he’s an out-and-out ruthless bastard from the opening scene, with no real reason for this being presented. One way or another he murders half-a-dozen people in the course of the film, including his best friend, his father, and his mistress, and we’re never given any sense of why he feels so strongly about his work that he’s driven to do this, or how he can function the rest of the time if his brain works that way.

(Three of the murders occur following an exchange along the following lines –

Soon-to-be-victim: ‘You’re an evil man, Baron Frankenstein! I have proof and I’m going to the police about it!’

Frankenstein: ‘Very well, you have that right. But before you do that, would you like to come down into my dark and mysterious cellar all alone with me and my dangerous scientific equipment?’

Soon-to-be-victim: ‘Er – yes, all right.’

– which is jaw-droppingly lazy scripting.)

What’s worst of all is that there’s no sense of transgressiveness or moral outrage anywhere in this film, almost as if the viewer is supposed to empathise with someone who appears to be a complete psychopath. The resolution of the film – there isn’t an actual climax – has a disgruntled-looking Baron experiencing an admittedly major setback, but otherwise with his health, wealth, and freedom fully intact. There’s no sense of real punishment or the moral order being restored.

What makes this even more irritating is that, very rarely, the film stops trying to be arch and fashionable and takes itself seriously, and in these moments we get glimpses of what a fantastic performance Ralph Bates could have given if he’d had a decent script. Groomed by Hammer as a successor to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Bates appeared in a number of movies, most of which were sabotaged by weak scripts or low budgets. But his performance as the obsessive title character in Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde shows just how good he could be, given the right material. Someone like Lee or Cushing, might, possibly, have had the sheer charisma and wit to make this film work, but Bates seems to be trying to play a ridiculous character straight (his first words to the monster are ‘How do you do?’) and he just can’t carry it off.

Aside from those brief flashes of could-have-been, there’s not much else to get excited about in Horror of Frankenstein – even Kate O’Mara’s extraordinary wardrobe loses its fascination quite rapidly. Dennis Price has a cameo as the local grave robber and displays the sort of droll wit that the rest of the film is sorely lacking in, while Veronica Carlson has the most elaborate hairstyles this side of the planet Naboo, but the rest is extremely forgettable.

So, it’s 1972, and you’re an award-winning and iconic British movie studio whose attempt to reboot its Frankenstein series with a new continuity and a new actor turned out to be a bit of a disaster. What are you going to do?

Easy peasy. You sack Ralph Bates, re-hire Peter Cushing and go back to the old continuity…

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