Sunday, 1 September 2013

AND THEN HE CREATED WOMAN: SOUL SEARCHING AND DECAPTATIONS IN FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN


Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) discovers a technique of isolating the soul, thus preserving life indefinitely; he chooses a disfigured village girl (Susan Denberg) to experiment with, perfecting her body via surgery and then transferring the soul of her recently-executed lover (Robert Morris) to occupy her body….


Hammer and Universal’s collaboration The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) proved successful at the box office, but it still took a little while for the writers at Hammer to concoct a new Frankenstein adventure.  By the time Anthony Hinds delivered the next installment, he had decided to harken back to a warmed over idea first mooted in the late 50s, which had been designed to cash in on the success of Roger Vadim’s scandalous and successful And God Created Woman.  The reference may have been a little out of date by the time Hinds found a way of making the idea work, but it still had obviously exploitable elements.  In 1966, when the film went before Arthur Grant’s camera, Hammer had split with Universal and they were in the midst of a money-saving production arrangement with Associated British in the UK and Twentieth Century Fox in the U.S.  It was producer Anthony Nelson Keys who concocted the idea of making two films back to back, each utilizing essentially the same sets and much of the same crew.  The first films to employ this tactic were Dracula Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk, produced and released in the UK in 1965 (US release: 1966), and these were followed by the “Cornish duo” of Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, released in 1966.  Frankenstein Created Woman and The Mummy’s Shroud, both produced and released in the UK in 1966 (US release to follow in 1967), would bring this short-lived tradition to a close.  The advantages of the technique clearly were outweighed by the deficits in the long run, and in terms of what was showing on screen, these last two suffered from production values which appeared positively anemic compared to the lush and beautiful Hammer gothics of the late 1950s and early 1960s.


The story is at once intellectually ambitious and thematically troubling.  The concept of Frankenstein using science to “capture” the soul is a heady one – and it is this which has endeared the film to Hammer buff/Oscar winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese – but it is inconsistent with the character’s belief system – or lack thereof.  There’s something inherently troubling about the notion of Frankenstein even accepting the notion of the soul, let alone addressing this “life essence” in such terms.  The screenplay makes no effort to explain how he even came to light upon such an experiment.  The concept of the character is also closer to Hinds’ swashbuckling, light hearted version of the character from Evil – and the presence of the character’s burned hands (which render him incapable of delicate surgery, thus necessitating his use of the drunken village doctor played by Thorley Walters to serve as his hands) definitely ties the film into that previous adventure.  Thus, the fans who insist upon attributing the character’s growth and nuances to director Terence Fisher fail to acknowledge some practical realities.  While Jimmy Sangster had conceived the character as an amoral dandy who ends up literally becoming his own creation, Hinds’ reboot changed him to an altogether more positive force for change and innovation.  After this, in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the character would change back to the more ruthless nature of the earlier Sangster versions, this time with Bert Batt handling screenwriting duties, while Hinds’ final visitation of the character in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1972) finds him wedged somewhat between the good natured rogue of his earlier screenplay and the deranged genius of Sangster and Batt.  In any event, the Baron present in Frankenstein Created Woman is virtually reduced to supporting player status – thus making this the closest Hammer ever came to sidelining Peter Cushing in his most iconic genre role, just as they had done with Christopher Lee in the Dracula franchise.  That’s not to say that Cushing isn’t given ample screen time – he certainly is – but the dramatic arc of the story is more concerned with the other characters in the long run.


The “monster” this time is played by Susan Denberg, a former Playboy centerfold who caught the eye of Hammer’s managing director, Sir James Carreras.  Carreras knew an exploitable asset when he saw it, and he wasted no time arranging for the stills photographer to shoot a variety of pictures of Denberg (kitted out in a sort of bikini made of bandages) being “birthed” by Cushing.  These images captured the imagination of fans, and a rumor persists in some circles that they are the only surviving evidence of a “creation scene” which was never filmed in the first place.  Denberg had very little actual acting experience at the time of filming, but under the tutelage of Terence Fisher, she delivers a rather touching and effective performance.  She’s dubbed by another performer, but the dubbing is of good quality, and her physical movements and reactions show that she had genuine talent beyond her obvious good looks.


Cushing, of course, performs beautifully.  It would have been easy for him to walk through this part by this stage in the game, but he was much too professional to adopt such a mentality.  He plays the role with warmth and sly humor, making this an altogether more “lovable” Baron Frankenstein than the character we first got to know in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).


The other standout performance is by Hammer/Fisher favorite Thorley Walters, who plays the drunken and disgraced Dr. Hertz.  Walters always bore a slight resemblance to Nigel Bruce, the English actor known for playing a bumbling version of Dr. Watson against Basil Rathbone’s most canonical Sherlock Holmes, and indeed he was even cast in the role in Fisher’s disastrous experiment in German filmmaking, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), which cast Christopher Lee as the great detective.  This film, however, presents Walters at his most “Bruce-as-Watson.”  The character is a self described “broken down, drunken old muddlehead,” and he effectively stands in for the audience in his relationship with the brilliant Baron.  It’s Walters’ function to ask an increasingly exasperated Cushing to explain what he’s doing, and it’s a tribute to Walter’s natural likability as an actor that this never comes off as strained or contrived.  Walters would go on to play one more role for Fisher (as the short tempered but even more idiotic police inspector in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and then one last role for Hammer (as the burgomaster in Vampire Circus, 1971), but Dr. Hertz arguably remains his most beloved characterization.


Director Fisher handles the action with grace and economy.  His excellent use of framing and editing is evident throughout.  The various “revenge” scenes, wherein the “possessed” Christina, driven by the vengeful spirit of her lover, visits retribution on the men who used to torment her, are beautifully executed, even verging on the surreal at times.  Indeed, the basic concept of the “monster” taking revenge on three pampered, well-to-do louts would be brushed off and used to even greater effect by Hinds for Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969).  On the downside, despite Fisher’s best efforts, the film simply looks cheap – even tacky at times.  Arthur Grant was always a cinematographer for whom speed and economy meant more than experimentation – his lighting was always perfectly solid and professional, but it never sought to emulate the poetry of Jack Asher or even Michael Reed.  His work here is similarly professional but uninspired, and this, coupled with some unusually cramped looking sets, helps to make this film look the cheapest of all the Hammer Frankenstein films – that is, unless we count Jimmy Sangster’s Horror of Frankenstein (1970), an ill-conceived attempt to rejuvenate the franchise at the box office by casting youthful Ralph Bates in the lead role.


Despite its shortcomings, however, Frankenstein Created Woman remains an engaging film.  Fisher’s flair for handling drama and characterization gives the film genuine “soul,” and the performances help to compensate, as well.  The impact is aided by a wonderful, melancholy soundtrack by James Bernard.  It may not emerge as top tier Fisher, but it is still a well done and enjoyable addition to the franchise.


Images: Marcus Brooks


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