Sunday, April 24, 2011
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell
Although the Frankenstein franchise notched up almost as many entries as Hammer’s Dracula series, it never quite captured the popular consciousness the way the caped bloodsucker from Transylvania did. Maybe because Peter Cushing wasn’t as dangerously sexy as Christopher Lee. Maybe because reanimated corpses aren’t as darkly appealing as aristocratic vampires.
What the Frankenstein films can lay claim to, however, is that they didn’t suffer the drop-off in quality that beset the latter Dracula titles, particularly when Hammer took the decision to update the Count’s milieu to a horribly psychedelic version of 1970s London. Hard to imagine Baron Frankenstein swanning around Carnaby Street in a velvet smoking jacket, doing LSD and listening to the Velvet Underground.
Just as well that the studio allowed Frankenstein to go out in fine style, unrepentant in his experiments in playing God, against a particularly apposite Gothic backdrop. Sure, ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ is saddled with a lurid title that suggests Hammer were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it scores highly in virtually every respect.
The film starts with a grubby bodysnatcher (Patrick Troughton) only just evading the clutches of a passing constable as he makes off with an unofficially exhumed corpse. He delivers said item to the house of Dr Simon Helder (Shane Briant), who greets him with a raised eyebrow and the satirical homily, “That smell: is it you or him?” Immediately, this touch of mordant humour establishes Helder as a likeable character even if his experiments are macabre.
Inspired by the works of Frankenstein, whose publications he owns, Helder is attempting reanimation. His attempts are short-lived as the bodysnatcher is promptly arrested and sings like a caged canary. The police come calling on Helder, he’s hauled up in court and the judge – who previously sentenced Frankenstein for similar offences some years earlier – loses no time in sentencing Helder to a period of five years in an asylum for the criminally insane.
It’s at this establishment, nominally run by Adolf Klauss (John Stratton), a licentious alcoholic hiding a dark secret, that Helder meets the asylum’s doctor, Karl Victor (Peter Cushing) and realizes that Frankenstein, long believed dead, is using the anonymity of the facility to continue his experiments. Initially drawn to the older man as a mentor figure, Helder eventually comes to the reluctant conclusion that playing God has its consequences.
Although beset by a budget as small as its title is misleading, ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ injects some new blood into the formula. Helder’s character arc – from arrogant and self-confident scientist to a man who discovers his humanity when faced with the greater and more amoral urge to scientific gain of his supposed hero – is contrasted with both that of Frankenstein, initially a benign presence who saves Helder from the heavy-handed treatment of Klauss’s goons, but whose hold over Klauss comes only at the subjugation of angelic mute Sarah (Madeline Smith). Frankenstein’s plans for Sarah in the last act cross a line Helder cannot tolerate.
Another interesting juxtaposition is that of the creature (Dave Prowse) to the two scientists. Created from the body of a thug, the hands of an artisan and the brain of a genius, the disparate elements rebel against each other, causing the creature physical, emotional and cerebral agonies. Never mind the horrible “monster from hell” part of the title, Prowse arguably conjures one of the most pitiable incarnations of Frankenstein’s monster put on screen; that he does so from behind a plastic mask that is simultaneously groteseque and almost laughable only proves how good a job he does. One of the best scenes segues from Frankenstein and Helder, sharing a drink to celebrate the creature’s resurrection, to the create itself, abandoned, alone and desperately melancholy.
In fact, the performances are uniformly good. Cushing never took the easy way out in playing Frankenstein: there was nothing self-deprecating about his performance, nary a wink to the gallery. He always played the character straight, and never more so than here. Briant’s Helder is not just a foil to Frankenstein, but the opposite side of the coin. Helder could easily become Frankenstein; inherit his mantle. The drama is in the dichotomy between Helder’s scientific curiosity and his sense of humanity.
The closing scenes toy ironically with the old concept of the lunatics running the asylum, a melee which it requires Frankenstein’s aristocratic air of authoritarianism to rectify. In consolidating Frankenstein’s status as both instigator and invigilator – as well as delivering a gut-wrenching climatic scene that says as much about the human condition as any art film – ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ asks some probing questions about mortality, science, advanced knowledge and intellectual responsibility. If only Hammer could have rethought the title!