Monday, October 27, 2014

Frankenstein Created Woman

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Starring Peter Cushing, Robert Morris, Susan Denberg, Thorley Walters

I like this poster because he's totally checking out her goodies. Way to perv it up, giant green floating head of Peter Cushing.

Well, this is certainly a surprising one, especially coming off the previous sequel, 1964’s moronic and meandering EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Being the fourth no-budget sequel exactly a decade after the release of the original is quite a handicap to overcome, and the possibility of abject shittiness looms over the production like the 30-foot tall guillotine which always seems to be perching menacingly on the horizon in this movie. But somehow --perhaps thanks to the return of original director Terence Fisher, perhaps thanks to the increasingly strange scenarios required to bring fresh ideas to this concept-- this one succeeds pretty admirably, going on to become one of of Hammer’s most entertaining and most bizarre productions.

It begins with a belligerent drunk about to be beheaded, worming his way across an open field with his captors towards a appropriately sobering monstrous guillotine. He’s having fun taunting his guards and making a scene -- until he sees that his young song is watching. He shouts the kid away, but the lad returns and watches his father’s bloody beheading from the bushes. They didn’t have daytime talk shows back then that you could go on to be emotionally healed, so you gotta figure this kid is gonna have some issues.

This thing practically deserves second billing. Note, by the way, that it very closely mirrors a similar shot.....


But oddly, that seems not to be the case -- we reconvene with the little scamp (Robert Morris, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and apparently nothing else) later in life, as he’s racing to the aide of a notorious local doctor somewhere in the hick part of Germany. Since the young man’s name is Hans (just like the Doctor’s last two assistants… or all three of these youngsters the same character, and merely portrayed by different actors?) we have a pretty good idea what the name of that doctor is going to be, so we’re suitably shocked to see him arrive at the office of a bumbling, mustachioed drunk named Hertz (The redoubtable Thorley Walters, who would return for FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL). Where is the titular Frankenstein? Why, he’s frozen himself to death in an attempt to see if he can prevent his soul from leaving his body, which, as luck would have it, turns out to be possible. That all seems scientific enough. Hey, at least you can’t accuse the guy of being a hypocrite; he’s willing to put his own body on the line for these experiments as much as anyone else’s.
Pleased with himself for defying death, Baron Victor Frankenstein (still played by Cushing, this time indulging in a caustically hilarious dry wit) settles in to wait for a fresh corpse to become available so he can steal its soul in his soul-stealing machine (which is a welcome change from his old brain-swapping scheme, because you don’t have to wear gloves or anything. This is the kind of mad science you can safely do in a room with white carpet). This is the first sign that this particular Frankenstein is a little nicer than a few of his predecessors; the Frankenstein from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN would have happily gone out and murdered someone that very night, but since REVENGE he seems to have cleaned up his act quite a bit, in fact I don’t believe he’s actually been directly responsible for any murders since then. His personality kinda wavers film to film since there isn’t a lot of continuity (in fact, the most intense continuity is between the end of the first film and the start of the second, which counterintuitively also marks his greatest personality shift) but this is probably my favorite iteration of Frankenstein out of all the sequels. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN sees the good Baron as kinda a Dr. House type, a bit of an amoral asshole, but able to win us over by being caustic and funny and intelligent. Since he’s not being actively evil and seems genuinely committed to trying to be a nicer person, we can enjoy his pithy contempt for the superstitious yokels a bit more, and kinda get on his side. He even says some positive things about Hans to try to get him out of trouble with the law, I believe the first genuinely altruistic thing he’s done the whole series, unless you want to count firing the shifty murderous hypnotist from EVIL.

Musketeers, stooges, or amigos?
You know, that actually raises something kinda interesting about Hammer’s Frankenstein series. It was obviously inspired by the ultra-successful Universal franchise of the same name, which cast Colin Clive as “Henry” Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the Monster -- I mean, Hammer had to change the design of the creature at the last minute to avoid a lawsuit from Universal, and in EVIL (distributed by Universal and hence protected from lawsuits) they actually intentionally tried to recreate it. These films definitely had their Universal predecessors on their mind. But you know what those Universal sequels had in common? The Monster! First played by Karloff and subsequently by Lon Chaney Jr, it was the iconic monster who was the star of the show, to such an extent that people began erroneously associating the name “Frankenstein” with the monster itself, rather than his creator. Yet Hammer did the exact opposite: it is Frankenstein himself who ties this loose series together, and each movie has a different variation on the monster he creates. Though the monster is the selling point, it’s obvious that it’s Frankenstein the scientist who’s the main show here, with the monster playing a decidedly second-fiddle role, often portrayed as a victim as much as a threat.

I suspect that has a lot to do with director Terence Fisher’s tortured fascination with the subtle but distinct line between science and spirituality, strongly evident in these Frankenstein films and appearing elsewhere in his filmography too (THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, TERROR ISLAND). Fisher is intrigued by both the promise and the process of science, but also deeply wary of its ability to dehumanize and isolate. Frankenstein -- the man, not the monster -- is kind of a perfect embodiment of Fisher’s skepticism of pure science, unbound by any human concerns of morality or basic humanity. But even through his discomfort, I also get the sense that Fisher is powerfully intrigued by a man of Frankenstein’s near-superhuman intellect, and maybe even admires him a little on some level even as he’s repulsed by him. Freddie Francis, who directed the last film (the only one not directed by Fisher) was content to cast Frankenstein as more or less the hero of that particular story -- Fisher’s not quite willing to go so far here, but I do get the sense that he’s a bit bemused here by the idea of a variation on the character who allows (or dares us, anyway) us to identify with and indulge in his exciting --but also somewhat disturbing-- worldview. The sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, goes in quite the opposite direction, but while both takes on the character are interesting in themselves, I think the most interesting thing about the whole series is the way it subtly explores different facets of the character, sometimes casting him as pure hero, sometimes as pure villain, and, here, something rather in the middle. We got lots of movies about horrible monsters, but how many do we have which seriously seek to crack open the head of a character as complex and distancing as Frankenstein and bring us into his frighteningly alien world? And even when we have a role like that, how often does it end up in the hands of an actor as capable and compelling as Cushing? Exceedingly rarely, if ever. Just one more odd thing that makes this Hammer series unique and special, particularly this installment which puts us in the unique position of watching Frankenstein play God without feeling it morally necessary to particularly condemn him.

This is a publicity still and isn't actually in the movie, but I think we can all agree I need to get this image tattooed on my face immediately.

One of the reasons we’re able to get on Frankenstein’ side here is that he’s actually on the side of truth and justice this time around. See, poor Hans has got himself involved with shy and disfigured local lass Christina (Susan Denberg, 1966 playboy playmate, a few TV cameos including the original Star Trek series, but no other film roles) but though a total coincidence her father has recently been beaten to death by this gang of preppie fuckheads, and Hans is the prime suspect. Since Victor shows up at his trial to defends him and since he’s basically the main character, we assume somehow some deus ex machina is going to come along and save Hans right up until the point that he gets gruesomely beheaded for the crime. His ex, now bereft of both her father and her boyfriend, then offs herself by drowning in a local river.

Frankenstein, receiving the two bodies, could hardly be more excited about this incredibly lucky turn of events. See, knowing that Hans was going to be executed, he paid off a few guards to let him grab the corpse and stuff it in his soul-stealing apparatus real quick, stashing the soul away for later use. But what good is a isolated soul while the body is a headless… saaaaay, didn’t they just find the body of that drowned girl in the river a couple hours ago? Well, it doesn’t take an incredibly disturbed mind to put two and two together; Frankenstein stuffs Hans’ soul into the body of his waterlogged ex, fixes up her crippled body (including bleaching her hair to a handsome blonde, exactly the kind of detail work that defines a truly mad scientist) and sets to work seeing what the fuck is going to happen.

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him... recently.

I mean, you gotta love that premise, right? The eyebrow-raising sexual politics alone would be bizarre enough to carry the whole movie, but then you gotta get into the starling metaphysical implications of all this. What the hell is the soul, actually? Where does it live in the body, and what does it actually contribute to life and personality? For that matter, is it different from the memory, which remains fixed in the brain and can be successfully transmitted from one body to the next (as Frankenstein’s previous experiments prove)? And most importantly, what happens when you combine one person’s soul with another person’s brain minus the soul? And hell, for that matter, if you can bring a brain to life by itself can you do it without the soul? To the film’s credit, these questions are not belabored, but are clearly on the movie’s mind. It wants you to really mull over how weird this all is, especially as the newly revived “monster” gets to ponder this for her (his?) self.*

The newly revived Christina is quite the looker, but has no memory of any previous events. She can’t remember who she is or where she came from, but seems otherwise unaffected by the cobbled-together resurrection. If her new, male soul has altered her personality in any way, it’s not immediately evident, though it’s also not exactly a sure thing that her post-death personality is the same one she had before drowning. Frankenstein insists on keeping her in the house, and telling her only her name (perhaps he remembers how poorly things went for poor Karl back in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) apparently waiting to see how things play out before he reveals his hand. I notice that he has her cook and clean for him, which begs the question of whether it was worth going through all this trouble for a live-in maid, but it turns out he has good reason to be cautious: somebody has been murdering the immensely hateable fops who caused all these problems in the first place by beating her old man to death. These guys are amazingly hateable, and so it’s extremely enjoyable to watch them get bumped off,** but what exactly is going on here? Does Christina remember more than she lets on, or is something more exotic happening here? The answer turns out to be both completely unexpected (at least in its details) and at times genuinely shocking.

Talk about your cleavage, ammiright?

In a lot of ways, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is a deeply unusual Hammer movie. For one thing it has our boy Victor getting involved in a sex-changing soul swap from beyond the grave, obviously that’s pretty unusual, but there are some stylistic differences, too. Veteran cinematographer and Hammer stalwart Arthur Grant (who would return for the next sequel as well) finds plenty of striking images, but the production eschews the usual Hammer gothic atmosphere and deep blacks, in favor of a positively sunny palette and a picturesque fairy-tale village set. Combined with Frankenstein's newfound nice guy disposition, you might be tricked into thinking this was an uncharacteristically cheerful iteration of this tale*** -- but no amount of sunshine can quite dispel the lurking sense of surreal perversity at work here. There’s something profoundly weird and disquieting about this idea, and it ends up going to a pretty dark place, despite the idyllic setting.

If there was one thing Hammer was known for, it was their lush gothic atmosphere, so it’s kinda a surprise that the movie could succeed so handily with a decidedly different vibe. It’s possible the studio was trying to shoot for something a little more lighthearted; the weirdo sexual politics combined with the lurid title (presumably meant to evoke Roger Vadim’s 1957 boundary-pushing erotic drama ...AND GOD CREATED WOMAN) seem to suggest they may have been trying to court the growing countercultural youth demographic which was beginning to foment around sex romps and genre films. But if that was their goal, you can thank Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (also a Hammer producer) for mucking it up by seriously committing to a concept this weird and never short-changing its philosophical implications. Frankenstein may not actually create woman here, but he does create a damn fine oddball Hammer film and one of the stronger films in the franchise.

            *In fact, no less an authority than Martin Scorsese is on record calling this his favorite Frankenstein movie.

**This actually made me wonder: what is the first horror film to intentionally introduce totally hateable characters for the sole purpose of making us side with the monster who’s picking them off? I guess this can’t be the first one, but I don’t know how far back this goes. I imagine it probably had something to do with the gradual realization on the studio’s part that since we’re here because we enjoy monsters, it would be much more satisfying to see them ply their murderous trade on people who deserve it anyway. When exactly did that happen, when did studios decide to stop pretending to be horrified by a good monster and start writing scripts which at least tacitly put us on the monster’s side? It was certainly the Universal monsters who became celebrities in their own right, but did Universal ever have them primarily killing people we hate? I can’t think of any examples from that era, but maybe there are some. Anyway, whoever came up with that idea, it’s a good one.     

***And compared to the incredibly grim next sequel, I suppose it is.




The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Again, based on Shelley's characters, not much else.
  • REMAKE: No, they don't have the balls for this one.
  • FOREIGNER: English
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Peter Cushing
  • BOOBIES: Heaving cleavage a'plenty, but no dice.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No, just the regular kind of assault.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Heads lopped off all over the place, plus soul snatching.
  • MONSTER: "Frankenstein's Monster" in the loosest sense.
  • THE UNDEAD: Reanimated corpse, but this one has a soul. Just not her own.
  • POSSESSION: Yes, quite possibly.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Not really, though we get some murders...
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Ah, here we go.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Nah, not really. Lady does get a makeover, though.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Middle sequel in Hammer's series.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Uh, jeez. I dunno, I guess don't steal peoples' souls and put them in other peoples' bodies?
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Though both Frankenstein and "woman" make an appearance, it's a bit of a stretch to say he "created" woman. "Frankenstein re-animates female body but with someone else's soul" would be more accurate. Call it 60%.

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