Monday, 1 February 2016

Assembly Line: Part Six - Days of Suture Past

“There’s nothing more for you to see. It’s all over now, all over…”

Baron Victor Frankenstein

Unlike the swan song of Hammer’s Dracula series, which ended with an outrageous experimental fusion of Kung Fu cinema and Gothic horror, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell finished the Baron’s story with a return to form and the style of this film cycles’ roots, infused with an apt sense of melancholy finality.

Approaching 70, Legendary hammer director Terence Fisher was coaxed back for his final film. Anthony Hinds scripted this, his last Hammer (under his usual pseudonym of John Elder), and of course Cushing gave his last performance as the title character (could the Baron himself be the ‘Monster from Hell’?) Distinguished character actors from Hammer’s past like Patrick Troughton and Charles Lloyd Pack and Peter Madden were brought back for this farewell party, and even David Prowse, the only actor to play a Hammer Frankenstein creature twice, returned.

Copying from the best: The preproduction poster on the right, by Keenan Forbes, is clearly
inspired by Frank Frazetta's 1967 painting Nightstalker (detail on left).  But whatever its origin,
the art seems to have been the inspiration for the look of Dave Prowse's eventual costume.
Despite the fact that this was now 1974, and Hammer horror was fast becoming considered passé in these days of The Exorcist, Monster from Hell is a conscious return to the studios’ original style. This is evident in the fact that the gorgeous Madeline Smith, almost completely undressed in her previous Hammer appearance, is scrupulously covered from head to foot in this film and actually cast for her acting ability as the mute asylum inmate ‘the Angel’. A dialogue-free scene she shares with Bernard Lee ('M' in every Bond film up to Moonraker) is particularly impressive and affecting.

Madeline Smith (left), fully dressed but still acting her socks off.
It is a period setting, apparently an asylum some time in the Regency period - actually earlier than the previous films were set, but it works.

The Baron is sporting badly burned hands from his previous misadventure, however, leading to an infamous scene where he holds a wrist artery between his teeth while his assistant Shane Briant completes a hand transplant. Apparently Cushing’s idea, it perfectly conveys the Barons obsessive drive to achieve his goal, and become the ‘creator of man’

Frankenstein's cat really didn't like being wormed.
The fruits of his labours this time could barely be called a man, however. A hulking hominid creature, brought to life by 6ft 5-and-a-half inch David Prowse in a hairy semi-ape suit, this creation has been the target of some derision over the years. Despite this, the Baron’s last monster has become somewhat iconic, and has been represented in various kit sets and even an ‘action figure’.

Action figure and kitset model of the titular monster.
Apparently the Angel assembled him under the Baron’s supervision, so perhaps we have her to blame for the massive retrograde step in surgical skill.

Despite an unflinching amount of gore, the film is built solidly on the strength of its characterisations, none more than Cushing’s Frankenstein. Still very capable of action scenes, subduing the monster with chloroform while the much younger Briant just stands by, his descent into madness only becomes fully evident at the end of the film. Cheerfully sweeping up the mess while announcing plans for his next attempt, his assistants can only watch in dumb horror and disbelief.

There was never to be another attempt, of course. The Frankenstein film series was over, and shortly afterwards, Hammer themselves.

If David Prowse and Peter Cushing were disappointed by the response to their
first collaboration (left), their next film together gained slightly more recognition.
This film was not successful on its original run but, like many of it’s Hammer stablemates, has gained acclaim throughout the years. Perhaps because, although the values it embodies were outdated upon it’s release, this film perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the Hammer Frankenstein films, a beautifully directed and acted self-homage and epitaph, crafted by experienced veterans with most advanced techniques Hammer was ever able to bring to the screen.

Assembly Line-up

It's impossible not to make comparisons to Hammer's other great film cycle - the Dracula series.
As much as I love Christopher Lee's moonlit flits as the Count, it seems to me that the shorter Frankenstein series was more successful in bringing something new its own formula each time.
While the Count became a proto-slasher villain cypher, the Baron becomes increasingly more fascinating (if sometimes inconsistent). Cushing brings, and is afforded, far more range then Lee ever was as the Lord of Vampires.
I'll always be in the Hammer Dracula camp, but the quality and originality of the Frankenstein films has pleasantly surprised me, and I can now understand why many prefer them. 

The Baron clearly peaked in the middle of his career.

Creatures featured - by the numbers:

Appeared in Star Trek: 1
Appeared in Star Wars: 2
Were Decorated: 2 (plus Cushing was awarded an OBE)
From New Zealand: 1
Over six feet in height: 5
Appeared in Playboy: 1

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