07 November 2010

A PORTRAIT OF THE MAD SCIENTIST IN DECLINE

Five years can be a long time.

When Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed came out in 1969, Hammer Film Productions was at its absolute peak of influence and popularity. The next and final entry in the main line of Hammer Frankenstein films, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, was released in 1974, but the cinematic landscape in between left the studio straggling like the last survivor of a nuclear winter in a post-apocalypse flick. The explosion of hyper-violent horror in America and Italy, and the normalisation of T&A and pornography, had robbed Hammer of its two main selling points - shocking but not extreme sex and violence - and the arch Gothic aesthetic that defined most of the company's best-loved projects had gone from slightly stale in the late '60s to laughably old fashioned. And not least of all, Anthony Hinds, whose brilliance had guided Hammer through most of its golden age, left in the early '70s in the midst of a nasty bit of managerial jockeying.

The studio had spent the first half of the decade trying desperately to grab on to the youth market that had abandoned them in the blink of an eye, with a number of generally unsuccessful projects like Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde or the humiliating Dracula A.D. 1972 fighting for any kind of relevance. Even the Frankenstein series itself had been given a phenomenally awful attempt at a reboot with the awful Horror of Frankenstein, which failed miserably to attach a hipper attitude to the Frankenstein mythos.

Absent that disastrous misfire, Baron Victor Frankenstein was able to largely sit out the immolation of the studio that had served him so well since 1957. During the same five-year span that no "true" Frankenstein film was released, the company crapped out four Dracula pictures, driving that franchise straight into the damn ground (two of those films brought Peter Cushing back into the fold, which may or may not explain the silence from the Frankenstein series); but the mad doctor was allowed to keep his dignity intact.

This changed, finally in 1974: sort of the Last Year of Hammer, though the company tottered along for a while. But in 1974, they produced or co-produced five films (one a comedy!), released one film in each of 1976 and 1979, and then lay dormant, except for a couple of TV series, all the way to 2010 and Let Me In.

Which is to say that Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell isn't just the last film to star Peter Cushing as the baron - arguably his signature role; it is not just the last feature directed by the great and criminally underappreciated Terence Fisher, who had himself been silent since 1969; it was the last shudder of the classic Hammer Gothic (the only true horror film in the company's future, To the Devil a Daughter, had an altogether more modern sensibility). In this it is far from perfectly satisfying, though it makes for a much more dignified send-off than the previous year's The Satanic Rites of Dracula would have done. True, its narrative represents a singularly deflated version of the character arc which had been so tightly wound through the end of Must Be Destroyed, the titular monster is an abortion of effects make-up bad enough to make the hatchet-job from The Evil of Frankenstein look fairly decent, and Cushing was saddled with a blond wig that he groused made him look like Helen Hayes, and he was in this perhaps being generous. But cheap as it is, and tired as it is, the core of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell remains as fixed as it ever was in the series' best moments, with none of the pandering or flailing that marked the decline of the Dracula series, and while it is assuredly the second-worst of the Cushing Frankenstein pictures, rising above only Evil, that says more to the consistent excellence of those pictures than to the quality of Monster from Hell itself, which ends up being a much more credible effort than it should have been, and better by far than its dire reputation

The film opens in familiar territory: a grave-robbing, a fresh corpse, a chilly scientist who takes the body. But it's not Cushing we see first, but Shane Briant, who was tried out in this role and as the titular hero of the same year's Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, as one of Hammer's last futile attempts to make a new star out of some bland young actor, though Briant is nowhere near as crushingly anonymous as several examples of the form. This is, we learn, Dr. Simon Helder, and he is about to be committed to an insane asylum for witchcraft, being as he has committed himself to the grand tradition of tampering in God's domain spearheaded by his idol, none other than our good friend Victor Frankenstein. As a matter of fact, Helder is being committed to the very same asylum as Frankenstein, though he is heartbroken to learn, upon interrogating the clammy, nervous director (John Stratton), that the old scientist is long-dead, buried on the asylum grounds.

But is this not a Frankenstein film? and is not Peter Cushing's name in the opening credits? So in due course we discover that our favorite mad scientist has managed to hide away from the world in the guise of Dr. Carl Victor, the asylum's resident physician. How he managed to pull this off, he won't tell Helder, but it would appear that he has some terrible information about the director, information which would so ruin the man that the sorry bastard would rather let a madman literally run the asylum than have it get out in the world. Whatever it is, we can assume it's worse than the physical violence being done to the inmates, or even the director's habit of bringing ditzy young women to the asylum to give thrill and seduce them.

But probably not as bad as what Frankenstein is doing himself: he has a private ward stocked with "interesting" patients: a mathematical genius and keen violinist (Charles Lloyd Pack), a gifted sculptor suffering from what appears to be autism (Bernard Lee, the M to three different James Bonds), and a grotesque ape-like subhuman (David Prowse, who also played the monster in The Horror of Frankenstein and would appear opposite Cushing again three years after this, in Star Wars). This last specimen has recently died, bursting through the wall of his cell and falling to his doom on the iron fence below. Of course, having a piping hot dead body was more than Frankenstein could bear to pass up; the beast is revived but hideously crippled in Frankenstein's hidden lab, in need of new eyes, and new hands, and a sharp new brain, and isn't it just aces that a man with a brilliant mind, and a man with the most graceful, dextrous hands you could hope for, are both cooling their heels in that very asylum? And isn't it even better that the both accidentally die totally by accident right about this time?

Even in this degraded carbon copy of The Revenge of Frankenstein, it is good to see that the filmmakers were still trying to find new things to do with the hoary old character of Victor Frankenstein - not that you can any of those things in that plot synopsis, necessarily. But even if the basics of its plot are a retread, Anthony Hinds's screenplay (his last for Hammer, left behind when he abandoned the company - it is worth noticing at this point that Monster from Hell was actually filmed in 1972) finds new tones to strike, new perspectives on well-worn material. The addition of a craven young Frankenstein-in-training, for example; not new, not to this series nor the whole world of Frankenstein cinema; but done in such a way here that if nonetheless seems fresh, adding to our understanding of how monstrously broken the main character's humanity is, rather than re-treading material already played out. And this despite a performance from young Briant that does not, to be polite about it, make us feel terribly sad that he never got much of a career (though damned if he isn't still out there acting).

By making Frankenstein so dependent upon the young sociopath (Hinds, having also written Frankenstein Created Woman, is perhaps in a better position to remember that the baron had lost the use of his hands prior to that movie, a fact which evaded the authors of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), the filmmakers raised questions about the moral culpability of the acts within the film not addressed in quite these terms before: between the cheerfully wicked Frankenstein, and the more sullenly "evil" but also more seemingly "sane" Helder. It's the contrast with the young man, all bored arrogance, that makes Frankenstein seem that much sharper; sharper than ever before really, since we're invited throughout the series to observe the steady evolution of his character throughout all of his experiments. And in this film, the baron is certainly more responsible for what happens than Helder - the genius versus the agent - but he is also much more human than Helder. Frankenstein, though never more demented than here, is still driven by some tattered belief in human progress; the young doctor is driven by nothing that we can put our finger on. And so, at the last, the film makes us confront just why we have (or have not) been charmed by this figure over the course of six features.

Cushing is largely responsible for it, once again: having continued down the road to becoming a rail-thin skeleton man, his depiction of the baron in this film already seems quite worn out; the actor plays that feeling up considerably, and gives us for the first time in the series - maybe in all cinematic mad science - a world-weary Frankenstein, a Frankenstein whose life of disappointment and running has finally left him without the energy to keep trying, ending up in this shithole asylum cobbling together a ghastly ape-creature with a neurotic violinist's brain. For all that Cushing still plays the character as a genial charismatic with a depraved streak of amorality, there's something sad always peeking out from behind his eyes: having tried to attain the stature of God, the baron has at last settled for prodding at the insane, and manipulating the venal. At the very end, having been set back to square one if not further, Frankenstein seems to be in the highest spirits he has been all along: a sign of his madness, or a sign that the only thing he has left to live for is the process? The latter, I think: having at last run out of frontiers to pursue, all that he can do is keep himself busy. Frankly, he probably wouldn't know what to do with a resurrected genius body if he could keep one alive for more than a couple of days. I don't know that Frankenstein has ever been more pathetic than he is here; and by dint of that pathos, he is weirdly, discomfitingly pitiable.

It's not, when all is said and done, a great movie: it's too obviously cheap, and other than Cushing, nobody gives any more than a passable performance (Prowse tries very hard, but the latex defeats him; Stratton goes overboard into cartoonishness every time it seems like he might bring something actorly to a scene). Fisher keeps a sense of grand Gothic sliminess about the film, though, long after the Hammer Gothics had descended into miserable self-parody, while cinematographer Brian Probyn - one of the three photographers of Terrence Malick's Badlands, so he's got his credentials in order - captures the textures of the sets well and bathes everything blacks that recall the earliest, most visually impressive Hammer films, without sadly recapturing their lurid colors. But all in all, it's a perfectly suitable piece of craftsmanship, rather more atmospheric than the studio's output as a whole had been in some years.

It's for that reason above all that the film proves to be a satisfying conclusion to its series, and a good farewell picture for Hammer. It may not be terribly memorable or unique, and in that respect we might call it a disappointment; but I am much more inclined to say that it was the best send-off that 1974 was going to see, and considering how awful everything was around Monster from Hell, it's altogether touching that Hammer's Frankenstein was able to go out on such a relatively high note.

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)

2 comments:

The.Watcher said...

This was a fantastic retrospective, Tim, I enjoyed the hell out of this:)
Thank you.

Briantman said...

Great article. Best, Shane Briant