31 October 2010

HAMMER'S SOULFUL HORROR

The years 1964-1969 were probably the peak of the Hammer Film Productions wave, popularly if not aesthetically. By the middle of the '60s, the company had firmly entrenched itself as the world's best source of tony Gothic horror, and was beginning to explore other genres, finding great success with pirate movies (e.g. The Devil-Ship Pirates of 1964) and a rather silly but greatly enjoyable cycle of cavepeople adventures (begun the the wonderfully cheesy One Million Years B.C. in 1966). The Dracula franchise had been triumphantly taken out of mothballs in 1966 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and as pop culture gradually caught up with Hammer's cutting-edge infatuation with gore, the studio grew increasingly bold with its treatment of onscreen violence.

Thus riding high, producer Anthony Hinds returned to the Frankenstein series, arguably Hammer's most important property (just as it had been at Universal in the American horror Golden Age of the late '30s and early '40s), which had been left at something of a slack impasse with The Evil of Frankenstein. By no means a failure at the box office, the film nevertheless was a failure of nerve, rewinding the bold experiments made by the series' first two entries in re-defining what "a Frankenstein movie" could be, in favor of a darker, edgier take on the histrionics of the later Universal monster movies. Whether this was necessarily the way that the Hammer folks thought of that project, it is absolutely undeniable that the next film in the series, 1967's Frankenstein Created Woman, is all the wonderful things that The Evil of Frankenstein is not (despite sharing with that film Hinds as screenwriter): a genuinely original chapter in the annals of cinematic mad science, exploring themes never quite tackled in the same way before or since, and returning to the brilliant and cold Baron Victor Frankenstein, played as ever by the indispensable Peter Cushing, the gravitas and dry wit and outstanding psychological complexity that had made The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein two of the most innovative and excellent of all classical horror films.

The film marked the return of Terence Fisher to the Frankenstein series; in the end, The Evil of Frankenstein would prove to be the only Cushing-as-Frankenstein picture not to be directed by Fisher, and the inordinate jump in quality between that film and this would appear to be all the argument anyone needs ever make as to why this is a very good thing. Fisher was not the only talented director working at Hammer, but his trademark stateliness and presentational grandeur was a perfect fit for the archly Victorian, idea-driven Frankenstein films, as evidenced by how convincingly he foregrounds themes in Frankenstein Created Woman that, in the hands of someone looking just for shock and atmosphere, would have seemed altogether silly. For, even by the standards of the Hammer Gothic aesthetic, this movie has some very loopy notions upon which its plot hangs - yet it never comes anywhere remotely near camp or melodrama.

Like Revenge, Created Woman opens with a death-by-guillotine (which is framed as a mirror image of the earlier film): a loud, evidently drunk man (Duncan Lamont) taunting his captors as they drag him up the scaffold. The prisoner's loutishness quickly evaporates, however, when he spots his son, Hans (Stuart Middleton) watching from a distance, and while he successfully begs the police to send the boy away, you can't keep an inquiring adolescent from hiding in the bushes and observing with intense terror as his father is decapitated.

Such a dramatic way to open our story! Buoyed by a great, burly performance by Lamont, who popped up in small roles in a good handful of Hammer pictures, it is driving and threatening, unforgettably staged, instantly wiping clear all the memories of the far less urgent Evil. And it's only an appetizer for what's to come, when we jump ahead a decade or so to find grown-up Hans (Robert Morris) serving as the assistant to Hertz (Thorley Walters), the doctor of whatever tiny backwater German village serves as the location for this chapter. The scene in which we first find these men is even more dramatic than the opening: Hertz has been nervously counting down time, and at the exact second he reaches one hour, he and Hans pull a coffin out of a freezer. Who should be in the coffin but our good friend Baron Victor Frankenstein, apparently dead, though Hertz and Hans quickly set to reviving the body. It's clear from Hertz's addled, terrified actions that whatever is going on, it's the baron's experiment, even before he comes back to life and explains it for us, but the precise nature of that experiment is a great deal harder to predict: apparently, Frankenstein has set his skills on determining the exact length of time that the human soul remains in the body after death sets in.

The straight-up metaphysical nature of Frankenstein Created Woman marks it as a peculiar outlier within its series, which was otherwise devoted to the idea of mad science, though for my part, I rather love it: it is right in keeping with the films' treatment of Frankenstein as a man icily divorced from sentiment or human feeling, driven only to learn more and more about the natural world. Having over the course of three films discovered most of what he could about the revivification of dead flesh, he has haughtily turned his gaze even more towards the domain of God in which men of his ilk so cheerfully like to tamper. And it's also worth pointing out, as regards Frankenstein's character arc over the course of the films, that he has grown so detached from anything like "emotion" that he apparently didn't think twice about using himself as a guinea pig, forthrightly committing suicide-by-exposure just in the interests of knowledge. This remarkable emphasis on scientific process over even his own personal safety will inform the film's later events, and serve to make this step in the baron's development perhaps the most subtly terrifying yet.

(Whatever "development" means: there's no direct continuity linking this film with the others, unless it is true, as is customarily assumed, that Frankenstein's lame, gloved hands are the result of the fire at the end of Evil. Certainly, there are no other specific plot points that connect this with any of the three preceding films).

Cutting to the chase: Hans, forever shamed in the community by being the son of a convicted murderer, loves the local tavern-owner's daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg), crippled and covered with facial scars apparently from birth. Her father (Ivan Beavis) refuses to let the boy consort with her, but he is cowed enough by the wicked local fops - three grating assholes named Anton (Peter Blythe), Karl (Barry Warren), and Johann (Derek Fowlds) - that he says and does nothing when they make a mess of his café and humiliate Christina. In due time, the three youths are drunk and belligerent enough that they accidentally beat the old man to death, leaving Hans on trial for the murder; he is convicted and executed, and deprived of her father and her lover, Christina pitches herself into the river and drowns. Frankenstein is absolutely delighted by this turn of events, for it lets him push his soul experiments to the next level: without any thought for what it might do to the victims, he leaps upon the chance to instate Hans's soul in Christina's body.

It is the privilege of genre films to investigate questions far above their station, sliding ideas in through the backdoor; but even so, Frankenstein Created Woman has some uniquely bold ambitions hiding just underneath its story of bloody revenge. "Where does the personality lie?" the film asks at every turn, from Frankenstein's blithe decision that the soul is a quantifiable physical object that can be contained within a sonic force-field (it's much less contrived the way the movie presents it), to the tension underlying the film's last 20 minutes or so, when Hans's consciousness resides both within and yet somehow "outside" Christina's own consciousness - which may or may not be the same one she had before she died. A strict materialist ought to write this off as so much question-begging; we could just as easily argue that the personality lies wholly in the brain, and once the brain dies the personality is irretrievably erased. But it would be crude to allow strict materialism to deny the dramatic power of a movie so breathtakingly uncommon as Frankenstein Created Woman, which probably did not invent the "man's mind in a woman's body" narrative, but certainly explores issues that no other film of which I am aware has explored in anything like the same way. One need look only as far as Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man to see the idea of "soul transference" used in a perfunctory, plot-driving way, and be doubly impressed at the level of intellectual commitment that went into Hinds's script for Frankenstein Created Woman.

Of course, it still works as straight-up Gothic horror, albeit on a level less horrifying (and frankly, less Gothic), than some of the earlier Hammer works. Cinematographer Arthur Grant, working in one of Hammer's A-list horror franchises for the the first time, was not as accustomed to the murky blacks and hushed shadows that had marked the form to that point; and Fisher didn't seem inclined to emphasise the story's Expressionist possibilities either. The result is a clean, even bright mise en scène - it is the most daylight-heavy of all Hammer's Frankenstein films - that is less scary than it is troubling: troubling that Frankenstein should be such a stone-cold villain and yet be so engaging and charming that we can't help but like the bastard.

Cushing's performance is neither as layered nor as deep as it had been in Curse or Revenge, but he appears highly refreshed and ready to take the character in new directions, which involves a much spryer, more sarcastic, and weirdly enough, more fun baron than we've seen prior. All of Frankenstein's actions, and certainly Cushing's performance, shows that he's grown even more certain of his skills and genius than before; and thus untroubled by self-doubt or pesky ethical considerations (not that ethics were ever more than glancingly noted in the earlier films, beside Evil), he has become cheeky. It's a remarkably playful, entertaining performance, dominant enough that we can forgive the fact that, in all other ways, Frankenstein is not as prominent here as before.

Mostly, the cast surrounding Cushing is good: Walters is particularly wonderful as Hertz, characterising the doctor as a smart but easily-confused sort, helplessly impressed by Frankenstein's strength of character and medical genius. It's a performance that reminded me, oddly but distinctly, of how Frank Morgan might have played the same part. As for the young lovers, Morris and Denberg are both only slightly better than the average pretty young Hammer co-leads, though since Denberg wasn't a professional actress - she was a Playboy model - that she manages to be better than so many wilting Hammer blondes is its own sort of achievement.

The film is not, honestly, an unmitigated success: the plot moves forward in a choppy way, underdone by some very harsh editing at points, and it is much less visually distinctive than the very best Hammer movies. But it's original enough, and sure enough of its own originality, to stand proud as one of the truly essential horror movies of its era, just a couple of years before the walls came tumbling down and Hammer's stately brand of thrills had to compete with the unbounded violence and gore that has remained the dominant mode of horror filmmaking ever since.

Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)

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