Monday, 24 June 2013


Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is arrested on charges of sorcery when it is discovered that he is following in the foosteps of the infamous Baron Frankenstein.  Upon being confined to a lunatic asylum, Helder is shocked to find that the doctor in charge is none other than Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) himself…

Although The Curse of Frankenstein was the film that put Hammer Studios and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee “on the map,” as it were, as a series it never quite matched their Dracula franchise in terms of popularity.  Hindsight has demonstrated, however, that the Frankenstein series was far more consistent in quality.  Even so, while Warner Brothers reportedly balked at backing a Christopher Lee-less Dracula (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1969, had been designed to showcase Ralph Bates as a possible replacement for the vocally dissatisfied veteran), Hammer faced no such opposition when they decided to reboot the Frankenstein series with a younger Baron.  As such, Peter Cushing sat out on Horror of Frankenstein (1970), with none other than Bates taking over the role. The film was was a flop, and Hammer decided to go back to basics with their next entry. The film was a flop, and Hammer decided to go back to basics with their entry.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell would mark Hammer’s last true Gothic of the era, their last Frankenstein film to date, and Terence Fisher’s swansong as a director.  It is, in many respects, the end of an era.

The screenplay by Anthony Hinds (written under his usual nom de plume of John Elder) would also mark his final feature length script produced by the company, and it has been remarked upon that it bears some similarities to Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay for The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).  A definite air of déjà vu does hang over the proceedings, but the film never seems stale or half hearted; if anything, it’s something of an elegy for a period of filmmaking that was inevitably drawing to a close.  Hinds and Fisher bring the film up to date by indulging in a number of memorably gory set pieces, but in every other respect it’s very much apiece with the classical style of Hammer horror.  The film doesn’t aim for the experimental, elliptical style of storytelling one will find in the films Christopher Wicking was writing for Hammer during this period, for example (including Demons of the Mind and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, 1971), not does it seek to amp up the “sleaze” quotient by tossing in some gratuitous nudity or lesbian lovemaking.

Some critics have attempted to argue that there is a specific continuity from entry to entry in the series, but close examination of the films doesn’t lend much credence to this.  Despite my admitted belief in the auteur theory, which places tremendous emphasis on the role of the director in the filmmaking process, the auteur of this particular series is not so much Terence Fisher as it is the various screenwriters.  Jimmy Sangster wrote both Curse and Revenge, and the two films link together clearly and coherently.  When Anthony Hinds took over screenwriting duties with Evil of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Created Woman, he essentially ignored everything that had come before and offered a kinder, gentler slant to the character.  Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, written by Bert Batt, most certainly was not consistent with Hinds’ conception – but it did link into the ruthless character devised by Sangster.

With Monster from Hell, Hinds resumed screenwriting chores – and sure enough, the story links into his earlier efforts far more comfortably than it does to the film that immediately preceded it.  (I am divorcing Horror of Frankenstein from this equation, as it was ultimately a tongue in cheek retread of Curse, and it remains an anomaly in the franchise.)  Thus, Evil of Frankenstein ends with the Baron fighting for his life in a fiery conflagration.  Created Woman establishes that his hands are burned.  And Monster from Hell refers back to the character having burned his hands in a fire, thus rendering him useless when it comes to performing intricate surgery.  The Baron’s disposition is also far more mellow and cheerful than the black hearted sadist and black mailer of Must Be Destroyed, though by this stage in the saga it’s quite apparent that Frankenstein is as insane as the patients he is treating at the asylum.

It's unlikely that anybody associated with the film knew that it represented "the end of the line," so to speak.  Chances are, if the film had been a big hit at the box office, Hammer would have put more Frankenstein films in the pipeline.  Indeed, around this time, Italian writer/director Dario Argento even approached the studio with a pre-packaged Frankenstein film of his own - albeit one quite disconnected from their saga, detailing the Baron's attempts to create a super human being in Nazi Germany, with Timothy Dalton attached to play the lead.  This failed to come to fruition, however, as Monster from Hell demonstrated yet again that what Hammer was offering the public simply wasn't in step with the times.  The film's attempts to appease current audience trends towards more graphic violence and gore put off some of the more traditional (ie., genteel) fans, while simultaneously failing to reel in new converts.  Even so, there is a definite sense of finality and melancholy that runs throughout the film.  Whether this was evident when the film was first released, or if it merely seems to be the case in hindsight is open to speculation.  Regardless, if Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the "angry" nihilistic entry in the franchise, then Monster from Hell is very much its elegy.

For his final directorial outing, Fisher was blessed with a superb ensemble.  Cushing is immaculate as usual as the Baron, tossing off lines in a distracted manner befitting the character's descent into madness.  Shane Briant is a fine addition to the franchise, evolving from wide eyed pupil to appalled antagonist.  Madeline Smith isn't given much to do as the mute assistant, Sarah, but she brings a delicate, doll like quality to the role.  David Prowse, previously cast as the monster in Horror of Frankenstein, does a nice job under the circumstances - he evokes ample sympathy, but the overdone makeup design is much too over the top to be taken seriously (I understand that the unwitting "donor" of the body was something of a "Neolithic throwback," but really?).

John Stratton steals many scenes as the lecherous director of the asylum, and familiar character faces like Patrick Troughton, Peter Madden and Bernard Lee (who must have really needed the cash - he has but one scene, with no dialogue) add flavor throughout.  Fisher handles the film with his customary economy and skill, adopting an almost detached, documentary-like quality to the various surgery setpieces.  James Bernard is also on hand to contribute a good score, one of his last ever for the studio.

Ultimately, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell deserves much more respect than it typically receives.  Many a film franchise has been known to go out on a sour note (Castle of Fu Manchu, anyone?), but Monster from Hell proves to be a happy exception.  It is in many respects one of the best films in the series; if you haven't seen it lately, do yourself a favor and take another look.  It's worth it.

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