Friday, November 7, 2014

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Starring Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, David Prowse, Madeline Smith

Less an escalation and more of a coda to FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, this very late-game, noticeably cheaper final Hammer sequel finds the doctor back to his old tricks, and I do mean his old tricks. This is almost a remake of REVENGE, with the doc something of a good guy here, assisted by a younger doctor whose own amorality reflects the wizened old man. But it’s not as bad as you might think, particularly considering the circumstances: the Baron had been absent from the big screen for five years since 1969’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (it appears he was not) and during that time, Hammer studio’s fortunes declined precipitously. The trickle of far-more-graphic imports from Hollywood and Italy that had challenged the studio for dominance in the late 60’s had now become a torrent; Hammer, constrained by English censorship laws, could hardly compete with the over-the-top gore and frank sexuality being generated elsewhere in the world, and were engaged in a dismal, pathetic frenzy to pimp themselves to the youth market by chasing tacky trends (hippies in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, martial arts exploitation in LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES) and unfocused thrashing about (the ill-conceived Cushing-free comedy reboot HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, the sleazy softcore wannabe Karnstein trilogy). This, in 1975, would be not only the final Frankenstein movie for the studio, it would mark a definitive end for the studio’s heyday as well. Only two more films would be produced by Hammer for more than 30 years, and of those only TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER would continue their horror tradition (and even in doing so would bring little of the recognizable Hammer magic to the proceedings, beyond hiring Christopher Lee.)

So considering all that, it’s kind of a miracle the movie is as good as it is. Oh, it has its problems, no doubt. It’s certainly a bit of a letdown after the dark and ambitious DESTROYED. It’s derivative and doesn’t bring a lot new to the table except a Frankenstein’s Yeti (more on that later). It’s obviously an order of magnitude cheaper than the already-pretty-cheap previous sequels. The monster’s makeup is laughably inept even by Hammer standards. And Peter Cushing (returning to the role for a final time) is bedecked in a blonde curly wig that makes him look like Shirley MacLaine (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT*) (he actually identified it as a Helen Hayes [HERBIE RIDES AGAIN], but I don’t know who that is). While this confirms what many have suspected (that Cushing would be a pretty unappealing drag queen), it isn’t as distracting as some reviewers seem to think. Actually now that I think about it it’s too bad he died before PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. I’d like to think he’d have been great in that. But I digress, and with it already a good way into November and me with still something like 40 movies to review from October, I can’t really afford to do that. Back to your regularly scheduled rant.

Pretty woman.

Anyway, the movie. It begins, as so many of the greatest movies do (THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, I SELL THE DEAD, CASABLANCA, BLUE HAWAII**) with graverobbing. But the catch here is that the culprit isn’t the nefarious Baron, but rather a handsome young doctor named Simon Helder (Shane Briant, CAPTAIN KRONOS,VAMPIRE HUNTER)***. Helder is sentenced to a madhouse for the very reason Frankenstein once was, i.e. meddling in God’s domain. Once there, however, he discovers that his role model Dr. Frankenstein --presumed dead, not for the first time-- is in fact very much alive, having cheated the gallows again and now posing as the head doctor of the asylum, with a side dish of unspeakable human experimentation sans consent forms. And Frankenstein has a very special experiment in store for the two of them: removing the mind of a mentally ill genius and placing it in the body of a brutish ape man, and, you know, seeing what happens. You know, science.

I know, I know, that sounds exactly like the plot of REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, with a dash of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED tossed in, the only thing missing from the classic formula is a sidekick named Hans or Karl. And it pretty much is. Oh, there’s the colorful detail that although people are too polite to point it out, the “criminal” body that Frankenstein has earmarked as his new monster (David Prowse, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) is some kind of crazy god damn Sasquatch. The makeup looks about as convincing as Cushing’s toupee, but you gotta enjoy a weird touch like that (you’d think Frankenstein would have learned his lesson with that cannibal Chimp in REVENGE, but I guess by this point we gotta just admit that he’s one of those guys who never learns). But other than that, it’s mostly a fairly modest regurgitation of a lot of territory we’ve already covered, but cheaper and a good five years after it would have been cool.

I've met a lot of apes in my time, and some very good ones at that. But you, sir, are a great ape.

So given all that, what’s the damn point? Well my friend, the damn point is, as always, Cushing himself, yet again finding something new in the surprisingly rich psychological faunt which is the good doctor’s squirming, one-track mind (now, of course, demurely obscured by his flaxen locks, which now that I’m looking at them again have a surprising amount of shine and bounce, particularly considering that conditioner would not be introduced until the turn of the century, though maybe the nefarious Baron figured that one out on his own sometime between sequels. Man, that thing is distracting.). Watching Frankenstein slop brains around like a kid in a mud puddle is a bit old hat by now, but Cushing’s take on it is surprisingly fresh; this is the first sequel to genuinely acknowledge just how long the poor guy has been at this.

This Frankenstein is, at long last, just a touch world-weary. He subtly alludes to his long history of trying this and failing, exclaiming with a wan smile at the sight of a fresh victim, “I haven’t been this excited since… well, that was a long time ago.” There’s a redoubtable enthusiasm here as ever, of course. His hands have been damaged in a fire**** but he also has a resoluteness and a cheerful energy which kinda make him a likable protagonist again. Still, there’s an undercurrent of something kind of tragic and pathetic in his character. This is the man who in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was unsatisfied merely conquering death, insisting that the only worthwhile endgame would be to create his own humans from scratch. Now, decades later, he’s reduced to being a physician for the mentally ill, subbing one madman’s brain for another and keeping the missing link in a cast-iron cage. But he soldiers on, I think more than anything because it’s all he knows. There’s almost a desperation in his single minded zeal for mad science. Gone are are his speeches about how he’ll benefit mankind; he does this now simply because its all he knows, and all he’s lived for. When horribly foiled by the death of his monster, he seems almost energized about the prospect of starting again.

At least they kept its pants on.

We should be so lucky. Like his scrappy new crew of mentally ill misfits, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is a little confused, a little disoriented, a little distracted, and can’t in good conscience be said to seem entirely clear on its end goal 100% of the time. But even here, at the very end, you gotta admit there’s genuinely something interesting going on. While Hammer’s Dracula films were lurching into shameful ignominity and their other properties were languishing or painful contorting to try and bend themselves to the zephyrous whims of a bored public, Frankenstein alone continued to be interesting, old fashioned fun. A big part of that is Cushing, of course; even gaunt as a mummified cat skeleton, he’s wonderfully alive in the role (check out the stunt where the 60-year-old, spry as a schoolboy, springs off a table and onto the back of the monster, who swings him around like a dry leaf in a windstorm). Another part is director Terence Fisher, in his final film as a director -- this guy was just incapable of phoning it in, and even here with pathetically dwindling resources he finds things to be interested in and manages to shoot it so it doesn’t look as cheap as it really was. He started the whole thing way back in 1957, so it was fitting that he got to end it, too.

And finally, there’s simply that ineffable Hammer magic. There’s just something unique and special about the films put out by this studio; that sense of gothic heaviness which linger about their film, the rich combination of genuine talent and abject amateurishness, the sense of the old-fashioned 50’s horror infused with just a hint of modern salaciousness. There’s nothing else quite like it. It couldn’t last forever, of course, and just as Dr. Frankenstein discovered, trying to swap the old Hammer brain into a new, sexy body wasn’t as good an idea as it might seem on paper. A few lumbering monsters later, Hammer would be no more, lying silent for decades. But even though nothing can, or should, last forever, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is a perfectly fitting swan song, a grace note of an ending that fondly recalls all of Hammer’s finest moments and all of their charming foibles. “I haven’t been this excited since… well, that was a long time ago.”*****



*I actually thought she was Lamb Chop, turns out that was Shari Lewis, who also has hair that looks kind of similar. Huh. That’s gotta mean something, right?

** I think. It’s been awhile since I saw that one.

***For what it’s worth, Briant is probably the best of Frankenstein’s assistants, coming dangerously near being remotely memorable.

**** Presumably the same one at the end of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN which left them paralyzed in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, a detail which for whatever reason did not make it to DESTROYED.

***** OK, so it was only like two weeks ago in my case.

  • FRANKENSTEIN: GOOD, BAD OR UGLY? Good, but the wig is ugly.
  • HANS OR KARL: Assistent this time is named Simon, but there IS a credited Hans.
  • CONTINUITY: Only the burned hands, which are in part 4 but not part 5 for whatever reason. Unless maybe this is suggesting he re-burned them at the end of 5.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Friends don’t let friends experiment with stray yeti brains.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Frankenstein, check. At least the title acknowledges that this new monster is not just some especially hirsute north-ender, he’s obviously some sort of Bigfoot. Not sure where the from “Hell” came from, though. Call it 60%.

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