Sunday, 8 January 2012

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Country: UK

Although To the Devil - A Daughter (1976) officially marked the end of Hammer’s first cycle of horror film production, it is Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, made two years before, that has the more genuine feel of a concluding statement. It was the final example of Hammer’s archetypal brand of gothic Victoriana (though Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires [1974] would transplant these trappings to an East Asian milieu later the same year), it was also the final film directed by the legendary Terence Fisher, who was one of the key architects of Hammer’s distinctive visual style, and it features the final adventure of one of the companies most enduring characters; Baron Frankenstein. But the film also has an ambience and an attitude of finality. It possesses a pitch black streak of cynicism, and indeed an equally bleak sense of humour. Frankenstein might conclude the film making positive pronouncements about embarking on his next experiment, but this is unable to disguise the ultimate pointlessness of the Baron’s endeavours. In each of the Baron’s previous adventures he found himself increasingly marginalised - by society, politics, and the scientific community. It seems somewhat fitting then at the end that we find him operating out of an insane asylum. His previous status as inmate is soon forgotten, and with the asylum director firmly blackmailed into submission, the Baron is able to continue his experiments using the incarcerated human fodder at his disposal.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell has traditionally been the least visible of Hammer’s Frankenstein pictures. It has suffered from patchy distribution, the travails of censorship, substandard video and DVD editions, and a general aura of critical negativity. But in recent years the unremitting desolation at the heart of the film has found itself a receptive audience willing to revise prevailing attitudes to it. Its critical recovery in fan circles is such that a negative assessment of the film is becoming a rarity. Its main distinguishing feature is that the theme of humanity in the face of inhumanity is perhaps most clearly communicated. But it takes a very long time to get there, because the moral consciences of the film (represented by Simon Helder and Sarah) are so eager in their servitude to the Baron. The former is a young physician desperate to follow in the Baron’s bloody footsteps (to the extent that he is institutionalised for sorcery), and the latter a mute girl devoted to the Baron for reasons that become clear later on. Both are used by the Baron, he has no affection for them, other than for their skills in assisting him to achieve his devilish aims. For the Baron humanity is either a tool to be used, or an object to be pilfered.

These themes are not new, they exist in all previous Frankenstein adventures, but the isolation and microcosmic nature  of the setting gives them a rawness which had hitherto only been hinted at. There is a base and primal aspect to the asylum which is reflected both in the sadism of the guards (an early scene sees two of them torture Helder with a hose) and in the ‘Monster’ the Baron and his collaborators create. David Prowse has a thankless task here as a Monster which is more Neanderthal than human, but he still manages to communicate the pain and suffering of the man whose brain has been transplanted into the hulking and hairy body. That he happened to be a sensitive musician and brilliant mathematician is one of the screenplay’s cruellest jokes. There is something deeply iniquitous and vile in the way The Baron covets the body parts of some of societies most damaged and vulnerable citizens. But it only serves to add to the doom laden and apocalyptic timbre.

Much of the Baron’s tiredness and desperation is communicated through the performance of Peter Cushing. Cushing looks more cadaverous than ever, and he brings the genuine heartache and sorrow of recent events in his personal life to a role exploring the very nature of life and death. This is the Baron at his most irredeemable, and even after his latest creation has been ripped apart by the frenzied inmates, he is still able to look on the bright side. Shane Briant puts in one of his better shifts for Hammer as the young apprentice who goes from fervent and vigorous to jaded and disillusioned by the films conclusion. Local colour is added by Patrick Troughton as a drunken grave robber, and by John Stratton who is utterly repellent as the slimy and odious asylum director. Terence Fisher directs in his usual unobtrusive manner, but the film moves along with style and elegance. He his helped by the cinematography of Brian Probyn which does so much to cultivate the sense of inhumanity with intentionally murky and dismal lighting schemes. Perhaps it is the overall climate of doom and gloom which put audiences off, but within the context of British horror at the time, and the generic expectations of the gothic horror form, the films marginalisation is puzzling to say the least. Fortunately we live in more enlightened times, but probably not quite enlightened enough for Baron Frankenstein.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. It doesn't help that the Creature looks like the younger brother of the sasquach from Harry and the Hendersons, but Peter Cushing makes anything worth, at the very least, a look.

  2. Peter Cushing is an actor that always enhances any film he graces, which is a characteristic I don't think he shares with his Hammer compadre Christopher Lee. I too have always found the 'Monster' to be poorly realised in this film as well.

  3. This one was a huge favorite of mine as a kid mainly because it actually had a monster in it, lol. I recall seeing MUST BE DESTROYED as a child and being bored to tears with it, only for it to become my favorite FRANK flick years later. Now, MONSTER FROM HELL is still a favorite, but for different reasons. As outlandish as it is, I don't have a problem with the creature here. The whole asylum setting really "Hammers" home (haha) the grand guinol aspect that was lacking in some of the other movies. This one used to get regular airings on this great double feature program we had here back in the 80s and early 90s called Commander USA's Groovie Movies. They showed a lot of Hammer films, but specifically those from the 70s. And yes, anything with Peter Cushing, even the most trite film, is a pleasure to watch. He will always be my favorite actor.

  4. I think 'The Monster' is a very divisive aspect of this film, some love it and some hate it. But one undeniable triumph is the asylum setting. I think everyone can agree that this was an inspired choice, and it works extremely well. The Baron always embodied a carnivalesque attitude, very much a rogue outsider, a rebel with a cause. It seems only logical that he should end up in Victorian societies most obvious representation of societal breakdown - bedlam!


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