“In my early teens, I went with groups of friends to go and see certain films. If we saw the logo of Hammer films we knew it was going to be a very special picture…a surprising experience, usually – and shocking.” - Martin Scorsese.
For me, the Hammer Frankenstein series is one of Hammer’s finest overall achievements. If its Dracula series degenerated into silliness (as enjoyable as some of the later entries were), its Frankenstein movies remained first-rate all the way through. I think the entries got stronger as the series went on, and how many movie series can say that?
Whereas the Universal Frankenstein had the monster as the connective tissue, the Hammer Frankenstein’s focused on the Baron himself and his attempts to create life. There is a mood of ineffable sadness to these films. Countless lives are ruined as the Baron continues on his quest; he doesn’t care who he hurts to achieve his goals – the ends justify the means.
“Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” (1973) was a last Hammer hurrah on several fronts: their seventh and last Frankenstein film; after six films, the last time Peter Cushing portrayed Baron Victor Frankenstein; the last Hammer film directed by Terence Fisher; the final screenplay by John Elder (pen name for producer Anthony Hinds).
“Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” may not be the best in the series, but it’s a most effective Gothic chiller. It has the brilliant idea to put Baron Frankenstein where he belongs after a lifetime of attempting to re-animate corpses – in an asylum.
Still as lucid and cool as ever, Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) may be an inmate but he’s practically running the place, thanks to his blackmailing of the asylum’s director (John Stratton), who likes to take liberties with the more comely of his female patients. Said director looks the other way as the Baron, doubling as the asylum’s doctor, dispenses medicine during the day but uses the asylum’s recently deceased to continue his experiments at night. In a nod to Burke and Hare, the Baron is not above killing an inmate or two to satisfy his need for fresh corpses.
When young doctor Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is sentenced to the asylum for experiments similar to Frankenstein’s, the Baron coaxes him to be his assistant in the surgery. Because the Baron’s hands were horribly burned at the end of the series’ previous, and best entry, “Frankenstein Must be Destroyed” (1969), Frankenstein guides Simon’s hands to put the brain of an insane violinist into the body of a hideous monster (Darth Vader himself, David Prowse).
(Cushing played the Baron six times. In 1970, Hammer re-booted the series with a younger Baron, Ralph Bates, in the ill-advised “Horror of Frankenstein.” It was dismal failure and the re-booting ended with that one film. Even though it came between Destroyed and Monster from Hell, I don’t consider it part of the series).
The monster, now graced with intelligence, is only the latest in a series of failed experiments for the Baron, who only sees he has created life, but not the hideous monster he has created.
Prowse delivers a very good performance as the creature repulsed by his own hideousness, yet flooded with memories of his former life, love of music and yearning towards the beautiful mute girl Sarah (future Bond girl Madeline Smith), who aids the doctors.
It is a performance for which Prowse is justly proud. “Terry (Fisher) was a wonderful person to work with – sort of the doyen of the horror film. He was really a wonderful guy and gave me a lot of help and direction – unlike many who give you nothing at all except to have you just get on with it. The film probably gave me more satisfaction than any other I’ve done – including “Star Wars” (1977).”
If the Baron possesses a trace of humanity in him in the first film “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), his insatiable thirst for creating life is all-encompassing by the last film. Even when the monster is destroyed at the end, he is ready to start all over again, giving no more thought to his creations than we have on swatting a fly.
But there would be no more sequels, thanks to diminishing box office returns. Critical response to “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” was mixed, but after six films there was really no place else for the Baron to go, and if the taste for Gothic horror had dissipated over the years, it was pretty much decimated by the release that year of “The Exorcist.”
Still, there’s some potent imagery here. In addition to the dank asylum setting, the scene of the monster digging up graves in the asylum graveyard using a crucifix during a raging thunderstorm is a splendid piece of Gothic excess.
Speaking of excess, the surgery and brain transplanting scenes are pretty graphic, and helped garner the movie an R rating. The griminess of the asylum setting makes the scenes even more uncomfortable. Still, director Fisher is smart enough to cut away from the most gruesome parts.
Cushing was 60 years old when he made his last appearance as the Baron, but he still jumps on tables with the aplomb of Van Helsing in “Horror of Dracula” (1958). It’s obviously no stunt double as Cushing leaps onto a table and then onto the monster, knocking him out with a handkerchief full of chloroform before they both fall to the ground. Prowse remember it well: “When we were finished, everyone on the set just stood up and applauded. It was the first time I’d even seen anything like that! It was just great!”
The Monster from Hell exhibits probably the most extreme make-up of a creature in the Hammer Frankenstein’s, a design that was pre-sold on advertising materials and forced on director Fisher. “I disagreed with them from the start and tried my best to limit the makeup,” Fisher later said. “However, they had sold Paramount on the idea that the monster would be this grotesque hairy beast, so I could not make him human, but I reduced him as far as I could without ruining what they had sold it on.”
The film rarely strays beyond its asylum setting, a strong metaphor for the Baron’s state of mind by this time. Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein may be his powerful characterization. While his Van Helsing is one of the great vampire terminators of all time, that role doesn’t give him the depth the Baron offers. The final film is a suitable coda to a series showing an impassioned medical doctor vainly trying to create life in the laboratory, but degenerating over the course of six films into a heartless doctor whose humanity, ironically, has been crushed by the need to create yet another life form.
Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is a remarkable characterization in a fascinating series of films, a series that holds up remarkably well today.
All quotations taken from Hammer Films, An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1996.):
It’s Hammer Time! For many of us, Halloween is not complete without a dose of Hammer Horror. This post is happily part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film &; TV Cafe. Go here for the complete Blogathon schedule for lots of bloodthirsty reading: