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Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

REVIEW

Hammer's Frankenstein series came to an end with the often under-valued Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, also sadly Terence Fisher's swan song. It was something of a reunion film, with Peter Cushing back in the saddle after being replaced by Ralph Bates in the disastrous The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), a rather derivative but nonetheless impressive script from 'John Elder' (Anthony Hinds) and Fisher back in the director's chair for his first Hammer horror since Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Also aboard were old hands James Bernard, who supplied another memorable score, while the all-important editing was again in the capable hands of James Needs.

Despite some initial nerves from Fisher (he was still recovering from a couple of car crashes and hadn't directed a film in three years), Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell emerges as one of the best films in the series, one which has deservedly grown in critical stature since its release. Working with a typically threadbare Hammer budget (most of it derived from a distribution deal with Paramount), Fisher works his usual magic with the most meager of resources, creating a claustrophobic and rancid atmosphere with only a handful of cramped sets. It was a much darker and nastier film than any other film in the series, a reaction perhaps to the increasingly visceral nature of the contemporary American horror film. It was certainly more violent than anything Hammer had tried recently, the BBFC taking particular exception to the killing of the asylum director and the subsequent evisceration of the creature. Fisher manages to walk a fine line, nudging Hammer belatedly into the increasingly fashionable gore arena while retaining the gothic ambience that had become their trademark.

One of the least discussed facets of Hammer's Frankenstein series has been the development arc of its leading character, from dedicated if obsessed seeker after knowledge to directionless madman vainly going over old ground in a hellish asylum. One of the frequent criticisms of Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is that it recycles much of the plots of both Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed which is certainly true but which may have been intentional - by Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, Frankenstein is clearly insane and weary (Cushing's own recent tragedy, the death of his wife, had left him looking worryingly gaunt and tired, lending an unnerving extra dimension to his performance) and had completely lost his purpose in life. Hence he was reduced to retreading old ground but in a less precise, more slapdash and increasingly desperate fashion.

In his earlier exploits, the Baron may have had some odd ideas, but he attacked his work with passion and commitment. Here he's reduced to again making artificial creatures out of stolen corpses and dabbling in eugenics as he tries to get the creature to mate with Angel. There's a pointlessness about Frankenstein's work now (which some have used to attack the film itself), the Baron reduced to a sad old man who simply can't let go of his obsessions and admit that he might have been wrong all along.

He remains an enigmatic character, far more so than Dracula whose motivations are almost always blatantly clear. We never really understand Frankenstein, while Dracula simply became a blood drinking seeker of vengeance, enacting increasingly dull vendettas against those who cross him or, ultimately, trying to wipe out the world like a third rate Bond villain. Frankenstein remains beyond our reckoning, even here. We may feel that we've come to know something about Frankenstein as the series unfolded, but really we know only enough to make his fall from grace so shocking.

All of this was precisely what made the Hammer Frankenstein series so much more interesting than their increasingly tired and desperate Dracula series - the Baron developed (or perhaps more accurately degenerated) as a character while the Count simply became an embarrassing irrelevance in his own films. It wasn't really until the conclusion of the Frankenstein series that this development became clear, lending Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell a poignancy that was missing from its counterpart in the Dracula series, the awful Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974).

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell has enjoyed something of a reappraisal in recent times as writers began to pick up on the film's many strengths rather than play on its relatively few failings. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell as the last truly impressive horror film that the studio made, a gloomy, downbeat dénouement to what was always its most interesting series. Though out of practice and beset with health problems, Fisher had lost none of his skill at orchestrating his resources and he brings to Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell an ambience that was conspicuously absent from other Hammer films of the period. There's a melancholy air about Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell and it's tempting to believe that all involved knew that the end was nigh. The stunning, chiaroscuro lighting of Brian Probyn combines with Scott MacGregor's wonderfully grimy sets and Fisher's downbeat, subdued direction to remarkable effect - this is a far cry from the glorious Technicolor excesses of the early films in the series.

The great tragedy is that, even here, virtually at the very end of their career in horror, Hammer proved that they were still capable of holding their own against almost all comers. Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is the product of a world class studio who had suffered badly at the mercies of bad business decisions and a collapse of the British film industry that this time it simply couldn't survive. Sadly, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell was a commercial disaster, released two years after it was completed to audience apathy - by the time the film finally opened, The Exorcist had been playing in London for two months and screen horror was looking very different to the gothics that Hammer had traded in. It was a body blow to Hammer to find its second flagship series suffering a poor public response so soon after the failure of The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The writing was clearly on the wall for Hammer now and the company's apparent inability to roll with the times was proving its undoing. It's ironic that its final Frankenstein film ends with the Baron still unable to accept that his time has gone, that his methods are no longer acceptable even to those who, like the impressionable Helder, may have supported him. Like the Baron, Hammer was running out of friends and increasingly losing touch with the world it inhabited.

Fisher apparently wanted to continue the series, but public tastes had left Hammer's gothic behind and the studio had only three more horrors to come and could find no place for its most talented director. The director was also clearly unwell, suffering from the aftermath of those car crashes and, according to his wife Morag, aware that this was to be his last film. Indeed Fisher was to make no more films, dying in June 1980, his contribution to the British horror film still largely unrecognised. David Pirie had done his bit to raise Fisher to the dubious status of auteur and it wasn't really until some years after his death that serious - and long overdue - critical reappraisal of his work was forthcoming.
KEVIN LYONS

 


Last Updated: 1 January, 2009

 


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