In 1957, Hammer Studios in England came out with the first of their full-color horror creations, The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as the good doctor and Christopher Lee (for the first and only time) as The Monster. The film was such a hit that it not only spawned an entire Frankenstein series from the studio, but would also cause the producers there to begin on a Dracula series and a Mummy series, eventually leading to Hammer becoming one of the preeminent creators of Gothic horror in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Frankenstein series would extend to seven films in all: The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) (the only film in the series in which Cushing does not appear, Ralph Bates this time playing the baron/doctor), and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974). In today’s Shocktober column, I would like to focus on three of these films, each of which is a very solid example of what this series was all about. Need I even mention that any one of them would make for perfect viewing fare this Halloween season?
Fans of the old reality show Extreme Makeover may get a huge kick out of the highly UNrealistic proceedings in this, the fourth Frankenstein picture from the House of Hammer. In it, the Baron’s handsome peasant assistant, Hans, is guillotined after being wrongfully convicted of a murder. Christine, his scarred and crippled lover, then kills herself, and the Baron, using his recently perfected soul-preservation device, manages to put Hans’ spirit into Christine’s body. This, though, only after the aforementioned makeover, which makes Christine quite a confused looker indeed. And, as played by Austrian actress Susan Denberg, the August ’66 Playboy Playmate, this creation is indeed a decided improvement over Elsa Lanchester! All is well and good, until Hans’ spirit directs his new hotty body to go after the men responsible for his demise… Loopy as this plot may sound, this is actually a fairly serious, subdued entry in the Hammer series. All the performers are excellent, especially Peter Cushing as Baron F.; the sets are handsome, and the FX more than passable. Veteran horror director Terence Fisher does his usual sterling job at turning a Hammer concoction into a fine entertainment. My advice to IMDb viewers is to rent this one out along with the original Star Trek episode “Turnabout Intruder” as a warmup, and have an excellent evening of man’s soul/woman’s body fun!
The fifth of an eventual seven Frankenstein pictures from Hammer Studios, 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed has a reputation of being one of the best of the bunch, with Peter Cushing’s Baron particularly nasty this go-round. And it turns out that the rep is well deserved, too. This time, the Baron, having been driven out of his native Bohemia, blackmails a young couple (ridiculously beautiful housekeeper Veronica Carlson and her fiancé who works in a mental asylum) to assist him in his scientific experiments. In perhaps the film’s most suspenseful sequence, they liberate a former associate of the Baron’s from the asylum and put his living brain into the noggin of the head doctor there. This procedure is accomplished during a fun, not overly gory operating scene, although why the Baron feels the necessity to cut and paste (oops … I mean saw and stitch) at this stage of the game, after having perfected a seemingly more advanced spirit-into-body procedure in 1967’s fourth installment, Frankenstein Created Woman, is beyond me! Anyway, Terence Fisher directs his picture (his fourth of an eventual five Franky films) with a good bit of style, and the film has been given Hammer’s typically fine production values. The scene in which the Baron rapes Veronica is an astonishing one, and very uncharacteristic; it was inserted as an afterthought on the insistence of Hammer bigwig Sir James Carreras. Fans of the 1960 Cushing film The Flesh and the Fiends should get a nice chuckle when the Baron invokes Dr. Knox and the Burke & Hare case, just as fans of the 1990s Britcom As Time Goes By will delight in seeing Frank Middlemass, the perpetually “rocking on” octogenarian on that program, here almost 30 years younger (but sounding exactly the same). So yes, the fifth time IS the charm for this fun series indeed. Oh … another great-looking Warner Bros. DVD here, too.
In Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, the 7th and final entry of the Franky series from the legendary House of Hammer, we find the good Baron in what I believe used to be politely called “reduced circumstances.” He has been committed to an asylum for the criminally insane, which institution he nevertheless lords over as head doctor while continuing his, um, extracurricular hobbies. When a young surgeon named Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is made an inmate there for similar unholy crimes, the Baron (the always wonderful Peter Cushing) finally acquires the able help he needs to carry on his labors. The two of them, with the assistance of a mute girl, Sarah (the very beautiful Madeline Smith), use the body of a homicidal maniac, the hands of a gifted sculptor, and the brain of a violin-playing mathematics genius to put together a new creation. And what a creation it is: Vaguely apelike, it has the head of a Neanderthal, a Karl Malden nose, corrugated and scarred cheeks, and thick red lips. The monster (from Helder?), unfortunately, tends to get a wee bit out of control… Anyway, while nothing great, this entry in the Franky series sure is a lot of fun, and includes some memorable gross-out scenes: a spilled jar of eyeballs, a close-up brain extraction, and a much-deserved throat slitting. A bigger budget might have helped, but the interior sets are handsome enough, and David “Darth Vader” Prowse’s monster is truly a sight to behold. The Baron himself is a bit more crazed than usual in this outing, willing to go to any lengths to get the job done. And speaking of Hammer, might I suggest that “hammered” might be an appropriate way to watch this one…
Anyway, folks, there you have it: three wonderful Frankenstein films from the House of Hammer that might really fit the bill one dark and hopefully stormy night. As I mentioned, perfect fare for the season, indeed! Like the Frankenstein Monster itself, I think you’ll find that these films are surely more than the sum of their parts!