Friday, March 20, 2009


Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Shane Briant. Madeline Smith. Dave Prowse.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell marked a definite milestone in both the history of British horror films and of Hammer Films in particular. It was the last pairing of the great Peter Cushing and the equally great Terence Fisher, the last time that Hammer would tread its trademark ground of MittleEuropa Gothic and the last time that Peter Cushing would play the Baron.

By the time Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell was made, Hammer was in dire straits. The once ground-breaking formula that had seen such films as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (aka The Horror Of Dracula) break box-office records in the late 1950’s was starting to look very old fashioned, its major stars were starting to age and at least one of them – Christopher Lee – beginning to tire of the increasingly lame vehicles offered to him. More than that, a new breed of horror films was beginning to emerge, mostly from the USA, that were edgier, often gorier and, quite frankly, a lot more hip than Hammer – Night of the Living Dead (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Against this, what could poor old Hammer do?

Actually, with Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, quite a lot. Eschewing the boobs n bums approach of many Hammer movies of the early 1970’s (particularly films like The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Lust For A Vampire) and going instead for a much more claustrophobic feeling, combined with a gleeful approach to the gore, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (daft title to one side) manages to be a final, joyfully bloody, roll of the dice for the ‘traditional’ Hammer movie.

Set almost entirely within the confines of an insane asylum where Baron Frankenstein (now known as Dr Karl Victor) has set himself up as resident surgeon and resident monster-maker, the movie initially follows the story of Simon Helder (an icy Shane Briant) committed for body snatching, illegal surgery, and all sorts of shenanigans inspired by his hero, Victor Frankenstein.

As luck would have it, Helder finds himself taken under the wing of the now clearly insane Frankenstein/ Dr Victor (his hands ruined in a fire, presumably the same fire that ended Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and together they continue the Baron’s experiments to cheat death and create life.

Fortunately the asylum is a rich source of raw materials – a hulking ape-like, homicidal inmate here, an insane sculptor there and, most importantly, the brain of an only slightly deranged violin playing genius to top it all off. In time honoured fashion, however, nothing quite goes to plan and instead of creating a violin-playing genius they create a revenge-fuelled madman (played with remarkable subtlety by Dave Prowse) who is eventually torn to pieces by the other inmates after a murderous and hugely entertaining killing spree.

Put in such bald terms there is nothing to elevate Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell above a slew of other monster-maker films and, indeed, the film suffers badly from its obviously low budget – the miniature shots of the asylum are unconvincing, the make up for the creature is less than satisfactory, the sets obvious cardboard and polystyrene and the rich Eastman Color that had been such a feature of the earlier movies is here replaced with a dull, if fitting, grey and green colour palette – but what elevates it are the performances from both the stars and the supporting cast.

Cushing is excellent as usual, his Frankenstein now a man prepared to go to any lengths and his insanity bubbling under the surface for all to see. Shane Briant (as icy and imperious here as in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) exudes the same chilling charm as the younger Cushing did in Curse of Frankenstein, John Stratton as the oily Asylum Director is enough to give anyone a delicious shudder of disgust and Madeline Smith as the mute Angel brings a vulnerability to what might have been simply a decorative role.

But it is the inmates of the asylum themselves who create the essentially uneasy atmosphere of the film – the strangely camp man in lavender who flits in and out of several scenes, the old man with a Jesus complex who is first seen mock-crucified against his cell wall, the cackling women and the howling men that could have come straight from Marat/Sade.

Added to this is Fisher’s unflinching eye for gore and viscera – always a feature of his best films and here, particularly given the relaxation of British censorship laws, given free reign – the hanging of Professor Durendel with his own violin strings, the jars of staring eyeballs, the Baron’s perfunctory treatment of a discarded brain, the brutal death of the creature, all of which bring an unsettling feeling to the film, best summed up in the moment when Baron Frankenstein, unable to use his hands, holds a severed vein in his teeth to assist Helder in an operation.

Depending on your point of view, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is either a fitting swan-song for the once great Hammer or a feeble attempt to recreate past glories at a time when the cinematic landscape had irrevocably changed (ironically due in great part to Hammer itself). Me, I incline towards the former rather than the latter.

No comments:

Post a Comment