December 13, 2010

The Late Films Blogathon

David Cairns is hosting The Late Films Blogathon all this week on his superlative film blog Shadowplay.

David writes, “The idea is that late in many filmmakers’ careers, when they’re no longer in fashion, they often produce work which is underrated at the time: it’s compared negatively to their Golden Age work, and to the hip hits of the moment, and then consigned to the dustpile. But with nearly every great filmmaker, whatever the problems of the late films (often produced on low budgets, sometimes literally shot in the filmmaker’s back garden), they nevertheless encapsulate the mature reflections of great artists, and are worth appraising with an open mind.”

My contribution to The Late Films Blogathon is a repost, tweaked a bit, of my article on Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, the last of Hammer Films’ remarkable Frankenstein series. The film also marked the end of director Terence Fisher’s career and the impending demise of the studio itself. Here is...

Twilight of the Goths: Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Released in May of 1974, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell reflected the end of an era. It was the last of the Hammer Films’ Frankenstein series as well as Terence Fisher’s final directorial effort and, ultimately, it was one of a handful of films that effectively closed out the history of the studio and its gothic horror heritage.

As the Seventies dawned, the market for Hammer’s classy, low budget horrors was shrinking fast. Double bills were being phased out, the small neighborhood cinemas and the second run houses were vanishing from the landscape. The company tried desperately to hang on to its share of the market, but ambitious co-productions deals with Japan’s Toho, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and America’s AIP fell apart.

Most damaging to Hammer’s fortunes, sensibilities were changing, too. The Gothics that had made Hammer the most copied horror studio in the world were going out of style. In 1968, a wildly popular independent American film, Night of the Living Dead, yanked horror films out of the Victorian parlors and back into the Twentieth Century, making Hammer’s civilized chills feel suddenly very quaint. The major Hollywood studios entered the horror field with big-budget titles like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Hammer introduced nudity, the famed, deep-cleavaged Hammer Heroines dropping their bustiers altogether, but still, even with extra helpings of Kensington Gore, a new generation of horror film fans looked upon Hammer’s Victorian settings as old hat.

Despite the best efforts of studio head Michael Carreras, the partnerships and distribution deals that Hammer had always relied upon were disappearing in a sea change of mergers and realignments. Financing was drying up and distribution became problematic. Hammer’s Dracula series, the studio’s most lucrative franchise, ground to a halt with The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Shot in late ’72, the film wasn’t released in England until January 1974 and it would be another four long years before it finally limped onto North American screens.

Likewise, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell wrapped in October 1972, yet it would take a year and a half before it came out in England, to poor box office. It would eventually make it to North America in the Fall of ’74, on a double bill with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter — a bold but failed attempt at creating a new franchise — sneaking into second rate cinemas for a quick week’s run with no publicity save a newspaper ad. It was an ignominious end to the Hammer Frankenstein series, though the film itself, a true valedictory piece, is quite remarkable. Despite its shrunken budget, it has all the trappings of the classic Hammers, with detailed period sets beautifully lit and photographed, and a sterling cast, every player excellent, headed by the formidable Peter Cushing.

Older now, emaciated, his hands burned and useless, Cushing’s Baron is still at it, hiding under one of his barely disguised names. This time he’s “Dr. Victor”, the resident medical man in an asylum for the criminally insane. Harvesting parts from the inmate population, as he did with the patients of a charity hospital in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), he is helped in his secret experiments by the mute Sarah (Madeline Smith), a willing but unskilled assistant, beloved by the inmates who see her as an angel come among them. Things go into high gear with the highly coincidental but very timely arrival of Simon Helder (Shane Briant), a young surgeon sentenced to the madhouse for his unholy experiments inspired, as it happens, by the writings of Baron Frankenstein.

Frankenstein’s living canvas is Herr Schneider (David Prowse), a colossal, shaggy brute incarcerated for violence, namely a propensity for attacking people with broken glass. The gorilla-like creature is given new eyes, the delicate hands of a sculptor (a brief appearance by Bernard Lee), and the brain of a genius, but the sum of the parts don’t add up and the violent nature of the beastly Schneider re-asserts itself.

In an unexpected and sobering twist, perhaps hinted at by the very surroundings of the tale, Baron Frankenstein’s solution to his miserably failed experiment is to propose the mating of the mountainous monstrosity with the helpless, innocent Sarah. The creature would be “Reborn… A new version of his true self,” says the Baron to his incredulous assistant. We’d always known the Baron to be a cold, cruel man, but this shocking development betrays a fleeting grasp of sanity. “I think you’re mad,” says Helder. “Possibly,” Frankenstein laughs, “I must admit I’ve never felt so elated in my life!

Helder squelches the Baron’s ludicrous plan. The Monster, on a rampage, is set upon and literally ripped apart by the assembled inmates. Censors having warned Hammer not to shoot the written scenes of the mad crowd eating chunks of Monster flesh, director Fisher shows one inmate “feeding” strips of flesh to a doll.

In the final scene, Cushing’s Baron shrugs off the loss of his tormented creation. “Best thing that could have happened to him,” he says, “He was of no use to us or himself.” With Helder and Sarah watching in sad silence, The Baron starts sweeping up the laboratory debris, babbling on, “We must get this place tidied up so we can start afresh… We will need new material, naturally. Herr Adler in 106, perhaps…”

The scene fades to an outside shot of the asylum, dark but for the light in the laboratory window, and the end titles crawl up the screen.

In a film curiously devoid of the patented Hammer Glamour gloss — no cleavage to speak of — the gore is ramped up, though it seems very tame by today’s standards. Eyeballs are frequently jiggled in front of the camera, collected in jars and spilled on the floor. There’s an extended scene, almost documentary in detail, where a brain is methodically removed from a freshly sawed skull. When it’s transplanted into the Monster’s head, Cushing dumps the old, useless brain to the floor and kicks it away. The Monster is last seen as a bloodied, disemboweled mess. Most memorably, there’s a brief moment, unfortunately cut from some copies, where Cushing’s Baron, unable to use his hands, helps his assistant re-attach a severed hand by biting down and holding a vein between his teeth.

Peter Cushing turns in a typically commanding performance as the snappish Baron, in full possession of the character, ordering people around with élan and apparently delighted with having an assistant he can teach his dark arts to. Cast as the diligent Simon Helder, Shane Briant had appeared in three other Hammer Films as well as playing Dorian Gray in a television adaptation. He would go on to a busy career as an actor and an accomplished novelist. Sarah, the mute “angel” who wafts demurely through the picture is played by Madeline Smith, a former model used to far sexier roles that included a couple of Hammer vampire films, a Carry On part and being Roger Moore’s first Bond Girl. Of special note, veteran actor John Stratton puts in a rousing performance as the dastardly, corrupt and ever-harried asylum director.

The “Neolithic” Monster is played by David Prowse, unrecognizable in an ugly full-head mask and bulbous upper body suit covered with long matted hair. It was Prowse’s third appearance as Frankenstein’s Monster. He had a tiny walk-on part in the James Bond comedic curio, Casino Royale (1967), as a Universal-style flathead Frankenstein. In 1970, he was the muscular Monster in Hammer’s Horror of Frankenstein, a smirking remake of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and an ill-fated attempt to relaunch the franchise with a younger cast headed by Ralph Bates in the Cushing part. Prowse would play another role in a concealing head to toe costume, opposite Cushing again, in 1977, as Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977).

Director Fisher, though in ill health and insecure, made Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell a sure-handed, sober film that projects a fin-de-siècle weariness. It’s as if Fisher and Cushing understood — with Hammer in slow motion collapse — that this was their last stab at Frankenstein and they conspired to give the Baron a proper sendoff.

In the climactic scene where The Monster lies eviscerated on the flagstone floor, surrounded by the blood-spattered inmates, Cushing’s Baron steps up and orders the inmates back to their rooms…

There’s nothing more to see,” he says. “It’s over now... All over.

After Frankenstein: Almost 40 years on, actor Shane Briant revisits the part of Simon Helder in a short YouTube video.
The Posters of Frankenstein: Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell
Who Am I? Frankenstein Created Woman
Peter Cushing
The Director: Terence Fisher


David L Rattigan said...

You've whetted my appetite to see this one again.

Anonymous said...

I love this one. It may be my favorite Hammer Frankenstein entry ever.

John Cox said...

Excellent article. Thank you.

thomas said...

Enjoyed reading, Thanks.

wich2 said...

I'm with DF, above; this is my fave HammerFrankFilm.

And though odd, I've often wondered if Prowse's Monster here isn't a tip of the skulltop all the way back to Charles Ogle's...

Happy holidays,

Pierre Fournier said...

It’s good seeing fellow fans of the once derided Monster from Hell.