Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hammer Horror Blogathon: Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

“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:


ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I really liked this review of one Hammer Frankenstein movie that I missed -- I thought I had seen all of them, and somehow passed over this one. You make such a good case for the development of Dr. Frankenstein through the series..."Countless lives are ruined as the Baron continues on his quest; he doesn’t care who he hurts..." Unlike Dracula, the Doctor is a human being, and it is hard to forgive him for what he does. That was truly obvious in one I thought was one of the best too, as you mention, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Cushing played the Doctor as downright sociopathic, and it was disturbingly well done.

I feel bad for Fisher that the monster had to be designed in such a silly hairy way -- still, your review makes me want to see this one for the many reasons you outline. Great job, Kevin!

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I've looked forward to your review because I've never quite known what to make of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. Some critics actually consider it a black comedy, which I don't get. Yes, it takes place in an asylum and, at this point in the series, one could argue that Victor Frankenstein was going a little nutty. But, other than that, it seems to be a straightforward entry with an increased emphasis on visual horror (the Monster is easily the least human-looking one in Hammer's series, though, as you pointed, that’s not Fisher’s fault). I agree with you that the best of the series is FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. But it's a strong series with a great central performance by Cushing. I also admire FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN and THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I like Ralph Bates, but--you're right--HORROR OF FRANKEBNSTEIN is best forgotten and I don't consider part of the series either.

Kevin Deany said...

Becky, I hope you like it. Some of the operation room scenes are a bit gory, as opposed to earlier entries in the series, but from what I've been told about some scenes on current medical and forensics shows, they're pretty mild.

Rick, I've never considered it a black comedy and take it as a straight horror thriller. In other words, I don't think all the action is taking place in the Baron's mind. But for a sixth film in the series, I think it's pretty good and the asylum setting helps the movie. It's not one of Hammer's best, but I still enjoyed it and there's lots of movie series that have ended on a much more sour note.

I do apologize to my readers again for the amount of white space at the beginning. It looked OK in the preview, but no matter what I do, it always reverts to the white space. Because its the Halloween season, I'm blaming it on gremlins.

Jeff Kuykendall said...

Great review! Apparently the uncut version is more graphic, though it has yet to be released on DVD in Region 1. I found the comments about Fisher having to use the monster makeup despite his reservations to be very interesting. The monster's probably the most distracting element of the film, though this is still one of the most interesting of his Frankenstein films in my opinion.

Gilby37 said...

Well done review. I agree, there was no where to go after this sequel. And you are so correct about the Ralph Bates film. This past summer, Veronica Carlson was at the Monster Bash Convention. She said that she was constantly commenting on the lack of quality of the script during production and was not surprised when it failed to spurn sequels.

Caftan Woman said...

I find it fascinating, and a testament to the actor, that Cushing was still able to plumb depths to his characterization of the Baron. You make a strong case for the film. Well done.

Kevin Deany said...

Jeff, I did not know that about the more graphic international version. So much for my idea of Fisher cutting away from the more gruesome operation scenes. But I know he did not like gore, and kept it to a minimum when possible.

Gilby, thanks for the Veronica Carlson anecdote. I've been lucky to meet her on several occasions and she remains a most delightful lady. But "Horror of Frankenstein" still reeks.

CW, yes, Cushing was an amazingly dynamic actor who could do no wrong in my book.

Citizen Screen said...

Wonderful read, Kevin. I saw this movie many, many moons ago in my teens and haven't watched it since. Needless to say it's well past the time when I should revisit it. Cushing is a wonder and as much as I love him as Van Helsing, I must agree with you that Frankenstein gave him more opportunity to explore the deep recesses of a dark soul.


Kevin Deany said...

Aurora, I first saw it in my teens as well, heavily cut, on, I think, the USA Network, when they used to show horror movies on Saturday night. Saw quite a few Hammers there which I had never seen. I didn't care for it much, but appreciated it much more as an adult.

I love Cushing's Van Helsing as well. He may be my favorite Van Helsing of all time. But his Baron Frankenstein is, for me, his most inspired creation.