Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) is generally regarded as one of the feeble last gasps of Hammer Films, the production company that had virtually owned the horror genre during the late-1950s, but which was in sad and rapid decline by the early '70s. The international success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula 15 years earlier was but a distant memory. Hollywood studios had once stood in line to finance Hammer's cheap but immensely profitable films, but the vogue for Nouveau Gothic horror had passed, and the company now made what little profit it could releasing movie versions of popular British sitcoms - an ironic return to the kind of fare that first helped establish Hammer in the late-1940s.
Saddled with an absurdly low budget (about $230,000, not much more than the first Hammer Frankenstein film) and varied scripting problems, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell seemed destined to share the same fate as Hammer's misguided efforts to keep the blood flowing in its Dracula films. But where that series unwisely attempted to transport the Count to swinging London (in Dracula A.D. 1972), the universe of James Bond (The Satanic Rites of Dracula) and even 19th century Hong Kong (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is Hammer horror at its most pure. It's a legitimate, nostalgic swan song with much to recommend it, and a much better film than its reputation would suggest.
The film is almost a remake of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), the first of Hammer's six Frankenstein sequels. In that film, a wanted Victor Frankenstein assumes the identity of one Dr. Stein**, hides out at a charity hospital, and creates life from the amputated limbs of his patients. In this film, he hides out at an asylum for the criminally insane, as resident physician Dr. Victor and once again fashions a monster from the amputated limbs of his patients. Yet despite this obvious similarity, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell paints a bleaker, more intimate portrait of the famous scientist – older and failing more than he succeeds, resigned to the consequences of his amorality. Denis Meikle, in his excellent book on the studio, A History of Horrors suggests Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was more for "the collector," as he puts it, than a mainstream audience. If that's so then there's a lot to keep fans of such films interested, even if mainstream viewers are put off by the talky script and threadbare production.
Most of that interest comes from Peter Cushing's ever mesmerizing Frankenstein and the much-underrated screenplay by Anthony Hinds, writing under the name of John Elder. Hammer's previous entry, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), tried to woo younger viewers by replacing Cushing with a much younger Ralph Bates, and adopting an unfortunate semi-parody attitude. In Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Hinds bring in a handsome new doctor, too, but the results are far more interesting. In previous Frankenstein films, Cushing was teamed with a fellow scientist/physician who either wants out when Frankenstein's experiments get out of hand, or is forced to assist Frankenstein against their will. This film is different. Here, Frankenstein is joined by Simon Helder (Shane Briant), a twenty-something renegade physician sent to the asylum after being caught red-handed, literally, experimenting on stolen corpses. Frankenstein sees in Helder a younger, perhaps more ruthless version of himself, and this he finds unsettling. It's almost like a Gothic Patterns, with Helder and Frankenstein trying to outdo one another. In one scene well-staged by director Terence Fisher, the two congratulate one another on their success in transplanting the brain of the mathematician into the monster's body while, in the background, the horror of their deed becomes clear. Yet the two scientists really have no idea what they've wrought; so amoral are they that they cannot see their own inhumanity. Frankenstein never suffered fools gladly, but Helder seems to revel in his arrogance. The humanity glimpsed in earlier films like Revenge and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) vaporized with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! (1969), by far the best film of the series. In Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, the bad doctor is similarly vicious, but next to Helder, Frankenstein almost becomes sympathetic.
The heavily symbolic but clever script also ties Frankenstein to his patients. One patient (Sidney Bromley) believes himself to be God, while another (Hammer regular Charles Lloyd Pack) is an insane but brilliant mathematician, whose brain becomes the Monster's (Dave Prowse). One of the patients, whose delicate hands are amputated for the Baron's creation, is played by none other than a 15th-billed Bernard Lee. (How the actor who became famous as "M" in the James Bond films was reduced to such a trivial role with no dialogue and less than a two minutes of screen time is anyone's guess.)
As writer Bill Warren notes in his book Keep Watching the Skies!, the look and tone of Hammer's Frankenstein – and of Dr. Frankenstein himself – varied quite a bit over the years, but Cushing himself clearly is playing the same character from film to film. (After the Big Operation is a success, there is a terrifically evil look on Cushing's face recalling the first Frankenstein.) Whether intentional or not, Cushing and Hinds fashioned a weary, reflective Baron in this film that not only seemed to comment on the sorry state of the Hammer and British film industry, but which also draws upon Cushing's personal tragedy, the death of his beloved wife Helen. Wiry but strong in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!, Cushing here looks alarmingly gaunt and even frail. The film seems to play on this, giving Cushing an ill-fitting Jeffersonian wig and top hat, which only serves to accentuate his thin frame and bony face.
Despite this, Cushing still brings flashes of the old doctor, especially in the still-surprising scene where Frankenstein jumps on a table and leaps on the monster's back, attempting to subdue it. What might have been comical in other hands becomes almost a tribute Cushing's (and Frankenstein's) dedication.
The rest of the cast is generally fine. Patrick Troughton appears briefly as a grave-robber, Madeline Smith, the widest-eyed of Ingrid Pitt's lovers in The Vampire Lovers (1970) is okay as Frankenstein's mute assistant and Briant's love interest, but John Stratton is unbearably hammy as the asylum's sex-crazed director. Prowse had played the singularly athletic creature in Horror of Frankenstein, but this is a better, more complex role. In Horror Prowse was just a dumb brute, but his character here is more akin to Freddie Jones's tragic monster in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!. Conversely, the monster makeup this time is truly monstrous – a very hairy, simian thing with no neck but overstuffed shoulders. The face, which vaguely resembles the Monster on the Campus (1958) is a well-crafted but immobile mask, which betrays its origins once the monster starts talking but the lips don't move.
Some have complained the film's graphic surgeries undermine its otherwise classical approach, but in retrospect the now-tame brain-swapping and jars o' eyes (which also recall Revenge) only seem to continue rather than subvert Hammer's Grand Guignol tradition of flesh and blood. (There is a wonderfully gruesome bit involving a brain plopped into a bowl only to be knocked over by Cushing, who momentarily slips on the goo).
Video & Audio
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is presented in widescreen format with a 16:9 transfer. The film begins with an alarmingly dirty and grainy Paramount logo, but the film itself is fine, except for a few process shots, which are likewise on the grainy side. The mono sound is acceptable. Hardcore fans may be disappointed to learn the film is the cut American theatrical version, which is missing about six minutes of operating room mayhem retained for release in Britain. A complete version would, of course, be preferable, but except for one obvious edit, the film didn't suffer for its loss.
The only extra is a lively audio commentary with actors Dave Prowse and Madeline Smith, moderated by writer Jonathan Sothcott. The commentary is on par with Hammer titles released by Anchor Bay.
Like Chaplin's tramp, Cushing's Frankenstein, in film after film, seems to brush off his failures, pick himself up, and move on. There's a moment in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell where Frankenstein, faced with yet another set-back, says emphatically, "I haven't given up – and I never will." Though this proved to be Hammer's last Frankenstein film, Terence Fisher's last, Hinds's last script for the company, and very nearly Cushing's last, too, I'd like to think somewhere out there in the Bavaria, the Baron is still tinkering, still trying to perfect his creation.
** Frankenstein also used the name Dr. Franck. If there had been another film, what next? Dr. Baron?