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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Producer: Roy Skeggs
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (writing as "John Elder")

Cast:
# Baron Frankenstein: Peter Cushing
# Doctor Helder: Shane Briant
# Sarah, the Angel: Madeline Smith
# The Monster: David Prowse
# Asylum Director: John Stratton
# Professor Durendel: Charles Lloyd Pack
# Tarmut: Bernard Lee
# Graverobber: Patrick Troughton

Boy, what a title.

Titles make a big difference in how one views a movie. A bad title can throw you off completely; a good one can let you know what to expect. These assumptions we make generally follow custom that develops over time; thus, if a movie shows up called "The Delicate Color of Lilacs," or some such Merchant Ivoryism, I know that a trip down *that* path will yield much soft focus and introspection, and probably a pinafore or two. Most likely I'll run screaming for a movie with a title like Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, a title that sounds like a drive-in extravaganza, the sort of title that gets thought up (with accompanying poster) long before a script is written.

And of course, I'd still miss my mark, because Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is not a godawful drive-in exploitation movie at all. It's not even the usual Hammer gothfest. Rather, it's a cold, dark, claustrophobic take on Hammer themes, so pensive and neurotic that it should have been called "Marat/Frankenstein."

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is the final chapter in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle, and one can sense the passing of something great. And as in life, that passing is not necessarily pretty or expected.

For those entering the Frankenstein cycle backwards, Peter Cushing first played the titular Baron in the first Hammer triumph (which I have yet to review), Curse of Frankenstein. Cushing's Frankenstein is a careful, stalwart sort of mad scientist -- ruthless but dedicated to his plans of overcoming death and aiding mankind. He is very much of a type with the Cushing's heroic Van Helsing, except that Victor Frankenstein is both hero and villain of his own movie, invariably creating a monster which becomes his own greatest foe, leaving him to clean up as best he can and start over. Along the way he acts in ways that veer from the merely disconnected to the violently antisocial -- he steals bodies, he lies, he kills, he even rapes. He seems to be sane, and yet he'll suddenly do something that lets you see that the synapses inside might not all be firing just right. And each of the films Frankenstein cut a swath through were firmly ensconced in the Hammerscape, with the Burgomasters and the bar wenches and big mugs, and of course, lots of burgundy.

So we find Victor Frankenstein, in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, in an asylum. We find him because we have spent the first ten minutes or so following the hard luck of a young mad scientist in the making, Doctor Simon Helder, who manages to get arrested for putting bodies together in his lab and banished to an asylum for the criminally insane. Immediately the arrogant young doctor is abused by the guards, whereupon he is rescued by the cadaverous but firm Victor Frankenstein himself, the boy's hero. Peter Cushing has come a long way since he first sharpened his scalpel. Here is a wraith of a man, so gaunt that he seems to move by some internal force unknown to us. He is sad, and a little dotty, dangerously lucid and charming and then inexplicably cruel and thoughtless.

Ever the Victorian politico, Frankenstein has worked out an arrangement with the Director: "Victor Frankenstein" has been declared dead, but he remains within the asylum walls, acting as house doctor under an assumed name (Doctor *Victor*) and carrying on his experiments in an environment where no-one would think to look for him.

Frankenstein rules the asylum just as the Marquis de Sade did in his final years, a highly intelligent man carrying on his life surrounded by the mad-- possibly the maddest of them all, and then, maybe not. Frankenstein takes Helder under his wing as he works to build yet another monster, combining the body of a dead bruiser of a man, the brain of a brilliant mathematician and musician, and the hands of a sculptor. The result is a hulking brute with a tortured soul.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell takes some odd chances and they all pay off. The action remains in the asylum, and the asylum becomes the world. In here, Frankenstein begins to make sense, which becomes more horrifying when those frayed wires pop out. We finally see Frankenstein as a failed scientist -- driven to try the same thing, over and over again, always meeting defeat -- and more, after all this time, a desperate, failed man. He cannot appreciate music, for he is tone deaf. He cannot appreciate sculpture, except to appreciate the usefulness of "such good hands." Indeed, the hand motif crops up throughout- Frankenstein, the craftsman of new men, has useless hands, having burnt them in the previous chapter. Helder must be his new hands. The final act of misunderstood violence is done at the hands of the inmates.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is a dark, dank look at a fallen craftsman, in league with Requiem for a Heavyweight in its sad examination of a man who might have been great, might not have but at least expected more from himself. When we leave Frankenstein he is deluded as ever, and we must turn away, away from the gothic horrors of the sixties, away from the once-handsome, now skeletal Cushing, into the dangerous and unfamiliar world of post-gothic horror.

This film is not the last gothic. It is the first post-gothic, and it is worth seeing.

2 comments:

  1. I have a title of that sort, for you: Dracula and the Lost World (the two books I read back-to-back this Halloween).

    Now: how shall I dress that Dracula in my short story?

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  2. Worth reading for the commentary about the fallen craftsman, alone!

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