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In the early 1970s Hammer Films was spinning off into oblivion, producing mostly unrewarding reworkings of its gothic horrors, or increasingly irrelevant suspense-murder thrillers. In 1973 the company made its sixth and final entry in its popular Frankenstein series, once again starring Peter Cushing in the role that had made the company known worldwide sixteen years earlier. This last sequel was also the swan song for Terence Fisher, the talented director behind many of the company's biggest successes.
Hammer's Frankenstein series follows a 'wrinkled' continuity -- in each installment Baron Victor Frankenstein arrives in a new German locale to work under an assumed name, attempting once again to build a new monster or transplant a brain. The Baron's personality varies. He's cold and cruel in one film and reasonably humane in another. Likewise, in some films he seems a victim of ignorant persecution, and in others a predatory menace. The fascinating actor Cushing makes these contradictions seem like the natural development of a scientific rebel and social outcast. The only Frankenstein series entry that shows serious weakness is 1964's The Evil of Frankenstein, and that's due to a lazy script. The Baron Doctor runs amuck partly because stuffy Burgher bureaucrats have appropriated his furniture!
When we last saw the Baron in the excellent Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he had blackmailed two young assistants into helping him perform a brain transplant, and his own monster was carrying him into a burning house. Depending on where one saw the film, Frankenstein also raped the leading lady. So it's something of a surprise to find the doctor once again behaving in a fairly civilized fashion... except, of course, for a few murders to salvage desirable body parts.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell begins with young medical researcher Simon Helder (Shane Briant) banished to an asylum for experimenting on cadavers. There he discovers that the institution's medical Doctor Carl Victor is none other than his role model Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing). Victor has blackmailed the alcoholic asylum director (John Stratten) into faking his death and putting him in charge, as sort of a Dr. Caligari with a scalpel. Naturally, the Baron is also using the mental cases as a resource for his slice 'n' stitch monster making. Simon is eager to help and learn ("I've read everything you've published!") and doesn't ask too many questions when a few key patients conveniently die just as fresh body parts are needed. Helping to harvest the brain of a mathematical genius and the hands of a violin virtuoso is Sarah (Madeline Smith), a beautiful young patient who has lost her voice due to a psychic trauma. His hands burned in the previous chapter, Frankenstein can no longer perform surgery, and so directs Simon in his complex grafting procedures. Hidden behind the walls of the asylum, the trio creates a brutish monster (David Prowse) that nevertheless thinks with the mind of the intellectual mathematician. But the creature is also terribly alienated by its misshapen new body.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell ends the series with more of a whimper than a bang, yet it's very good to see a conclusion that doesn't involve a burning castle or mansion. Our first sight of Peter Cushing is something of a shock, as he looks unusually gaunt and frail, with just his burning eyes showing the old conviction. This latest Baron has a wicked racket going inside the asylum. Yet when compared to the hypocrisy and corruption around him, Frankenstein's commitment to scientific achievement has a certain appeal. He's a dangerous egotist, but also a protective father to Sarah, and an enthusiastic mentor to Simon.
Most of the film is restricted to a few asylum interior sets, which induces a feeling of claustrophobia. When we saw the film new back in 1974, author and film historian James Ursini immediately recognized major borrowings from the 1946 Val Lewton classic Bedlam. A number of the mistreated patients align with characters from the Lewton film, who seemed to form a microcosm of the ills of society -- a man who thinks he's God, intellectuals locked up for political reasons, and a hulking brute who is harmless when well-treated. The mathematician adores Sarah, and calls her "Angel", a direct lift from Bedlam. But the script by John Elder (actually Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) arranges these mental misfits as a comment on Frankenstein the Outsider. The Baron once had magical artist's fingers (like the violinist), prefers a world of abstract science (like the mathematician) and harbors the inner desire to usurp the role of God (the religion-obsessed patient).
To compensate for the lack of larger action scenes, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell indulges in various bits of old-school Hammer gore. Simon is arrested for harvesting a beaker-full of human eyes. The monster-craft in the asylum details skulls being sawed open and brains being scooped out, with the Baron giving instructions on the fly: "Very good, now pop the eyeball back in!" Surgical details and bloody close-ups of a couple of killings are apparently longer in foreign versions, with some sources listing a six-minute difference in running times.
The Baron has kept himself on task, while intimidating the asylum guards and keeping the depraved asylum Director in line; a major subplot reveals the sordid circumstances that caused Sarah to lose her voice. The story ends with a feeling of finality that resembles exhaustion. Perhaps the plan was to have Shane Briant carry on the Bad Doctor's good work in succeeding films, should the tide of popularity suddenly turn in Hammer's favor. Previous entries have ended with the Baron already at work on a new identity, and perhaps dismissing the bloody havoc he's caused with a shrug of disinterest. This time, with his latest masterwork once again spoiled, it seems right to see Frankenstein appear to be slipping into senility.
Sort of a second-string Simon Ward, Shane Briant is actually quite good in his role as the rebel medical student, even if his silent detestation of authority seems a bit anachronistic. Madeline Smith is called on to look meek and 'angelic' and not much else, but I have to say that it's refreshing to see a '70s Hammer film that doesn't require every leading actress to go topless. Among the supporting players, old Hammer regular Charles Lloyd Pack is outstanding as the confused professor with the coveted superior brain. Another asylum patient is Bernard Lee, almost unrecognizable. David Prowse works hard to convey the new monster's confusion. His makeup consists of a rigid full-face mask, leaving little room for subtleties.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is a re-issue of an Out-Of-Print Paramount disc from ten years ago. Colors are good, much better than the dank, green prints we saw when the feature was double-billed with Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.
I'm already getting emails about foreign (German?) DVDs containing a continental cut with more surgical gore, including the footage corresponding to a scene familiar from stills. With his burned hands useless for surgery, the Baron uses his teeth to hold a suture while Simon ties off a knot. This critic would do backflips to see Warners import the BFI's new restoration of (Horror of) Dracula, especially if the color were fixed. But I can wait to see the From Hell censor cuts restored. 1 2
In a feature commentary Jonathan Sothcott hosts actors Madeline Smith and David Prowse. Both remember their Hammer heyday in full detail. We hear plenty of background about the film's technical crew, and a big discussion ensues over the condition of star Peter Cushing during filming. This was still the period when Cushing was mourning the passing of his beloved wife, and his gaunt appearance was a reflection of his general morale. Yet working as the Baron again seemed to be good therapy. They also describe a quieter, less energetic Terence Fisher. Ms. Smith leaps to tell her personal stories about becoming one of Hammer's sexy attractions. She also wonders, interestingly enough, about Hammer's tendency at this time to cast male stars with androgynous qualities. Oversexed women and feminine men is a curious combination, probably a sign that Hammer was still thinking that the Mod Style was still in vogue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hi Glenn. Add my email to your list of folks writing about the extra bits of gore for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The German disc in question -- from Anolis -- did have the extra gore (though maybe not all of it, but it's hard for me to say).
But! Our friends at New Hammer have restored the movie, premiered it not too long ago in the UK, and there's also an Australian Blu-ray coming out on October 2nd, I believe, with this "restoration" (I think it's mostly all the same footage that's on the German disc, but all from better sources). As far as a UK Blu-ray? Beats me, Hammer's playing coy nowadays. They are releasing Blu-rays of The Witches and The Mummy in October. Other Oz Blu-rays will include The Quatermass Xperiment (!!!) and Captain Kronos. I assume these will all be coming to the UK some time, but...well... Best, Ben
Hi Glenn: Just a clarification on Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. I think I'll ignore the Warner release given that I have the Anolis one which is virtually uncut.
There aren' t 6 minutes of missing gore footage. The footage missing from the Warner release is probably about 1 minute at most, mainly from the artery clamping scene.
The discrepancy of running times has arisen because the film was presented to the UK BBFC at about 99 minutes but then released in cinemas at 93 minutes. This difference is caused by last minute edits for pacing made by Hammer and a 99 minute version was never released anywhere. Wayne Kinsey's book on Hammer's Elstree Studio films has stills from some of these deleted scenes (e.g.: a scene in which Helder is attacked by the two asylum guards, and also a scene towards the end in which Frankenstein is found on the floor after being attacked by the monster which seems to have been cut to allow for the 'surprise' appearance of Frankenstein right at the end ).
PS - Have you got a copy of Corruption yet? If you haven't seen it you are in for a treat. It's completely bonkers. Regards, Tim Rogerson
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