Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Assembly Line: Part four - Hertz and Soul

Forget the previous films - again.  This time the Baron is not the villain, only a chilled cat in the mood for some soul.

In Frankenstein Created Woman, once again the idea of Hammer's Frankenstein films forming a coherent series is challenged. Cushing's Baron is an altogether less malevolent and ruthless figure here, apparently more concerned with the consequences of his experimentation. Not only that, but he seems to have gone a bit 'emo', now fixated upon metaphysics and the human soul rather then the charnal house raw material of his usual stock and trade.
And full marks to Hammer for trying something new.  The Frankenstein series may be far less consistent in over-arching narrative their Dracula sequence, but turn this to their advantage by telling a greater variety and style of stories.

The Baron also appears to have lost the use of his hands, which remain gloved throughout the whole film (and even while carrying Susan Denberg around in those iconic but mendacious publicity shots).  Frustratingly, a single line of dialogue could have explained this sudden disability, and the climax of the next film certainly does, but it's a major plot point simply left hanging.
The justification for it is clear enough, however: Frankenstein wouldn't need to rely on Thorley Walter's bumbling Dr Hertz if he was physically whole, and he certainly wouldn't need someone else's Hans.

The real surprise is the way that the production treats Polish-born Susan Denberg. Despite those bandage-bikini promotional images, Hammer had yet to hit it's early 70s exploitation period, and they actually give the August 1966 Playmate a challenging acting role - a dual role, no less. Not only that, but the supposed physical unattractiveness of her initial character is also intrinsic to the plot of the film - refreshingly unpredictable writing for a beautiful up-and-coming actress. As the disfigured Christina, Denberg is an extremely sympathetic figure and her relationship with Hans is touching but ultimately tragic.
The vile intercession of three proto-Clockwork Orange privileged thugs (one of them played by a young Derek Fowlds prior to Basil Brush) begins a series of events leading to the deaths of the two innocent lovers. It also provides the Baron with a fresh female cadaver, and access to the guillotined Han's soul.

Hans regards the three sadistic Toffs warily.  Basil Brush's friend Mr Derek is on the far left.
The Baron takes care of the tricky soul transmigration business, while Hertz is able to surgically cure Christina of her previous physical ailments (which quite naturally has the side-effect of turning the previously dark-haired girl blonde.)
The result is a revived and child-like woman who unfortunately shares her perfect body with the vengeful soul of her unjustly-executed boyfriend.
Seduction and gruesome murder soon follow ...

So, there is far more to this story than the simple 'Frankenstein creates a female monster' direction which the publicity encouraged us to expect. Of all the films in this series, this one sidelines the Baron the most, the major villains being the trio who earn Christina/Han's bloody revenge, but Cushing does get a brilliant entrance and then proceeds to enliven and enrich any scene he appears in, as usual.

The Baron finds himself having to depend upon Thorley Walter's Dr Hertz.
Famously, Martin Scorsese picked Frankenstein Created Woman as part of a 1987 National Film Theatre season of his favourite films, saying: 
"I like all Hammer films. If I singled this one out, it's not because I like it the best - it's a sadistic film, very difficult to watch - but because, here, they actually isolate the soul: a bright blue shining translucent ball. The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime". 
Quentin Tarantino is obviously also a fan, owning one of the only 16mm prints of Frankenstein Created Woman.

This was to be not only Susan Denberg's only role for Hammer, but her last film.  A victim of early show business success and late sixties drug culture, she suffered a major breakdown and was hospitalised shortly before she was to star in the film which made replacement Marianne Faithful famous: Girl on a Motorcycle.

Avoiding attention and publicity to this day, Susan Denberg's iconic association with this film has never-the-less given her lasting fame in the Hammer house of horror.

Susan Denberg with her co-star in happier times.

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