AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
When Simon Helder, a young doctor and an admirer of the work of Baron Victor Frankenstein, arrives as an inmate at an asulum for bodysnatching, he’s surprised to encounter the Baron himself, calling himself Dr. Carl Victor. Though an inmate, he’s been made a surgeon and has some privileges as he holds secret information on the place’s corrupt and perverted director Adolf Klaus. Impressed by Helder’s talents, Frankenstein takes him under his wing as an apprentice and together they work on the design for a new creature – but Helder is ignorant of how exactly Frankenstein is acquiring his body parts….
What with Hammer’s attempts to provide some variations on their formula failing to ignite the box office and sometimes even suffering from distribution problems, but their piss-poor updating of Dracula in Dracula A.D. 1972 having done reasonably well commercially, the studio obviously thought it was worth the risk of making an unashamed throwback to their original style. Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell brings back some of the old team, and should by rights have been very good indeed. However, while it is a considerable improvement on the previous, standalone series entry The Horror Of Frankenstein which remains probably Hammer’s worst horror movie ever, it lacks some of the old panache, with a rather tired feel about it, and like several of the later film is badly hampered by its obviously tiny budget. Basically melding aspects of The Revenge Of Frankenstein with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed plus, oddly, quite a bit from Val Lewton’s Bedlam, it’s a very gloomy, downbeat work, as if the makers realised it was going to be their last one and felt very sad about the fact, though this can’t help but make it often compelling despite its many faults. It also suffers from having a terrible looking monster, though it does have some good aspects including strong performances all round and some rather affecting moments of pathos.
This was a script Anthony Hinds had written several years before, and Fisher revised it, cutting a scene where Helder feeds human flesh to stray cats. Rank turned the picture down, but Paramount took over US distribution rights and asked for some more script changes, notably a more conventionally monstrous monster. Fisher, having virtually recovered from the two car accidents that damaged both his legs and stopped him from directing Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and Lust For A Vampire respectively, said that he was the happiest he’d been making a film since Dracula, though he still had trouble with his eyes. Caroline Munro was offered the part of Sarah, but Michael Carreras, now head of Hammer, nixed the idea because she was in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter which was intended to accompany this film on a double bill. Cushing helped design his own wig, while Shane Briant, when asked by David Prowse what he thought of his monster outfit, replied, “the feet are fantastic”, to which Prowse said, “They’re mine”. Shot at Elstree snd Borehamwood, Hertforeshire, this movie is sometimes listed as running 99 minutes, and it was this version that the BBFC, who asked for a shortening of a bottle stabbing and the monster’s demise, saw, but after that Hammer also cut six minutes for pacing including Helder being attacked by the two asylum assistants. Avco-Embassy eventually distributed it in the UK two years later to little effect. The US version suffered cuts to some of the medical gore and the monster’s death, and since then all home viewing versions were variously cut until the 2014 Blu-ray.
We open with a bit of grave robbing by good old Patrick Troughton, obviously hired by Helder. He throws a spade at a policeman who falls in the grave, one of the two out of place comic moments in the film, the other being when Helder trips over a brain that’s just gone from a head into a jar, knocking it onto the floor. After a quick visit to the emptiest inn in all Hammerdom [it’s just the landlord who’s there], we see Helder being tried and sent to an asylum. Seemingly unafraid, unflappable Helder barges his way into the head Klaus’s office before being subjected to a fire hose, but soon also encounters resident doctor Frankenstein, given a nice entry in a corridor similar to that of the Monster in the 1931 Frankenstein, who lets Helder become the general asylum while he attends to his “special work”. Could that have something to do with the corridor of the place that houses his “special patients”? What with an inmate who thinks he’s God, an intellectual locked up for political reasons, a hulking brute who’s harmless when well-treated, and Sarah being called an “angel”, it really does borrow from Bedlam, but it’s also all very slow moving, Fisher either unable or uninteresting in reviving the vigour that characterised his last two films, nor even the more methodical movement of Frankenstein Created Woman, though Hinds’s extremely wordy script that calls for little action doesn’t help.
It soon becomes obvious that Frankenstein, if not directly, is causing the deaths of some of the inmates, and eventually a “man” comprising of the body of an ape-like brute who impaled himself on some railings trying to escape [it would have been nice to have seen this] and who is still alive, the hands of a sculptor, the brain of a mathematical genius and somebody else’s eyes, is created, with more attention to the graphic details than ever before; you even see some real blood on screen that could no longer be used for transfusions. An entire brain transplant is shown in detail though the model heads are hardly convincing, Frankenstein holds up an eyeball saying, “Do you think this colour will suit our friend”?, and, with his hands burnt and useless for detailed surgery, he grips an artery with his teeth [this was Cushing’s idea]. There’s a well-staged moment when the two scientists congratulate one another on their success while, in the background, the horror of their deed becomes clear. Sadly the script fails to give the monster much to do, though he has some rather affecting moments such as when he sees his hideous reflection in the mirror [okay, we also saw this in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed] and groans “help me” to the mute Sarah, though it would have been even more affecting if his mouth had actually moved while he said it. We do really feel sorry for this composite creature though, even if in his previous ‘form’ he had a tendency to stab people with glass, something which we just know is going to come back. Frankenstein’s answer to his monster’s base nature overcoming his brain? Have him mate with Sarah, of course! The poor woman, traumatised by an attempted rape by her father who’s revelation is a bit of a surprise, can now, “fulfill her function as a woman”! Thankfully Frankenstein’s perverted scheme never comes to fruition as the monster gets torn apart by the inmates zombie-style, flesh being tossed about.
Once again Frankenstein believes that his actions are for the good of science. Causing the deaths of patients to provide body parts is okay because they suffered from conditions that he couldn’t cure. We do pity the character a little and even feel sorry for him when his latest efforts are once again going wrong. And it’s interesting how he sees in Helder a younger, just as ruthless, version of himself and finds it a little unsettling. And he has a perfect final scene, enthusiastically going on about his next try before the camera pans back to reveal frames the bars of his cell, which in a way sums up the way Hammer was lapsing into near obscurity at the time, with few seeming to be interested. Sadly the unconvincing model of the asylum, which we see on several other occasions, was not a good shot to end the film with. The film’s cheapness is evident from the small, sparse sets [even Frankenstein’s laboratory equipment is very minimal], and the interior walls of the asylum don’t always even look finished, though I know that some like the claustrophobic feel which results from the former, the film hardly ever leaving the asylum. Brian Probyn’s cinematography gives us the odd nice visual like Frankenstein partly illuminated by a blue light, but generally this one looks rather drab.
Cushing, who despite the frailness which took over him after his wife died, insisted upon performing a daring stunt which required him to leap from a tabletop onto the monster’s back, still gives it his all, and nobody could deliver lines “ah, kidneys” better as he gazes into his dinner after performing some bloody surgery, a moment clearly referencing the “pass the marmalade” bit in The Curse Of Frankenstein. He plays the part with such depth and subtlety. Everyone is good in this; Briant a touch more ‘normal’ than usual though with signs of an underlying cruelty, Madelaine Smith have a sweet presence as the silent heroine in this rare later Hammer that has little interest in being sexy, and the inmates being played by a rich variety of character actors including even Bernard Lee in a tiny part. Also very good is James Bernard’s score, which has a slightly richer sound than usual though incorporates a lot of variations on previous material – the music over Helder exploring the laboratory is a notable example, being very close to the cue in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed when the ‘monster’ returns home. There’s a poignant violin piece played by an inmate that becomes one of two themes for the monster, the other one much darker indicating his two sides, a nice motif for Frankenstein, and a fine lengthy drum based cue near the end. Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell contains some very good work in it there’s no doubt, but overall it’s a fairly lackluster swansong for traditional Hammer horror. There’s something rather depressing about it even if you didn’t know that there weren’t to be any more in this vein and only a few more Hammer films altogether.