In Mary Shelly's 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein, the doctor was a brooding, philosophical scientist tragically seeking out the hidden sources of life. In Hammer Studios Frankenstein movies adapting Shelly's character, the doctor is a determined scientist who always finds something new to do with a corpse.
The history of Hammer films is that they variously suffered good and bad box office results from these experiments, but with Peter Cushing having starred in six different adventures, they obviously found a good reason to put a scalpel (or saw) back into the Baron's hands each time and unleash him in a new film.
For horror-movie fans, Shelly's book cannot be adapted to death, and aside from the Karloff films of the 1930s, those with Peter Cushing is the most famous of the varied hundreds of versions that have been made. Cushing, an actor who could exude understated humor while simultaneously being grimly sincere about whatever mayhem he is causing, is always the center of these Hammer movies. That's saying a lot considering that in all other film treatments of this tale, the monster, sometimes erroneously called "Frankenstein," is usually the center of attention. Once a Frankenstein Hammer film gets moving and the monster is loose, Cushing onscreen is always a welcome respite from the carnage. It is a strange (and for Hammer, lucky) balance between Cushing's steely fragility and the clamor going on elsewhere in the script that makes these movies endurable. It also make Cushing that much more endearing to his fans.
Consequently, it is Cushing's Doctor that launches Frankenstein Created Woman along its way, as the doctor wants to discover whether there is a physical property to the human soul. This existential question will evolve, Hammer style, with the resurrection of a Playboy magazine model, Susan Denberg (Ms. August, 1966). She plays a distraught, partially disfigured tavern girl (Christina) who in shock over the sudden execution of her boyfriend, kills herself by drowning. Robert Morris portrays her boyfriend Hans, who is blamed, tried and executed for the killing of Christina's father. The father (Ivan Beavis) was actually murdered by three wealthy young men of the village, slumming at his tavern. Between their snobbery and reluctance to pay for their liquor, he is caned to death.
Though Hans was nowhere near the murder of Christine's father when it took place, and he doesn't even own a cane, he did happen to leave his overcoat at the tavern, andso he is soon in custody. A trial quickly follows, and the leader of the three wealthy young men, with a bandage around his head, provides testimony that Hans has a violent temper, the bandage a visual exhibit since Hans had recently beaten him up (a beating thoroughly merited). But the damning incrimination is that long ago Han's father was convicted and executed for murder, and as the prosecuting attorney says, "like father, like son!" It's a kangaroo court, with Hans complicity in his own demise because he dares not reveal his alibi - - he was with Christina the night of the murder. Unwilling to expose their secret love affair, Hans knows he is doomed. The film editor wastes no more time on the matter, for when the Judge gravely tells the Jury to retire to arrive at a verdict, the foreman instead jumps up with "Guilty!" and Hans is sentenced to the guillotine.
With the prospect of a dead body about to come up handy, Dr. Frankenstein becomes agitated and bullies his partner, Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) to get it back to the lab as soon as possible after the execution. But why would the authorities give it to me? asks Hertz. Dr. Frankenstein provides a short lesson in mad-doctor ethics:
"Ask? You don't ask, you demand! You've been the doctor here for the last thirty years, haven't you? You must know something about everyone in the village. Use that knowledge. I'm sure they've all got something they want to hide."
Soon, Hans body is dutifully dropped off after the beheading, and in a lab scene of bubbling gases, rubber hoses, a glass-encased tuning fork and two large wire-umbrellas that look like reverse-tanning lamps, Han's shining, glowing ball of a soul (much like the glowing, traveling balls from the Wizard of Oz) is trapped by Frankenstein. But now that he's got it, what will he do with it? The doctor thinks clearest when there is a fresh body around, and just then Christina's water-soaked corpse (a suicide) is brought to he and Dr. Hertz. Drowning, for Frankenstein, is a minor problem, and while resurrecting Christina he slips Han's caged soul into her. Revived, her hair is now Han's color, and her disfigured left cheek is smooth and youthful.
While all of this is perfectly normal to Dr. Frankenstein, it's more than a bit confusing for the reanimated Christina/Hans. With her memory gone, Dr. Hertz and Dr. Frankenstein set out with her to see the guillotine, and judging from her outraged expression when she sees it, she is now up to date on the history of the entire film until that scene. Now looking like Susan Denberg, but with Han's hot desire for revenge on the three actual killers, Christina/Hans cement their new unified identity by setting out to seduce and kill each one of the young men.
However, the villagers become impatient as these bodies pile up around the town, and Frankenstein's reputation being what it is, they blame it on him. The mob goes to his home and hurl rocks at his window, accuse him of sorcery and other dark deeds. This annoys the Doctor terribly, as he hates to have to deal with people while they are still alive. But with the local police accusing him too, it is clearly time to relocate the laboratory, and so he begins his escape.
Outside of town, he comes upon Christina/Hans at a picnic in the woods. The last surviving member of the three murdering young men has just been slaughtered, and from a hat box Christina/Hans has raised up Han's guillotined head, which conferences with Christina (this is a confusing bit of physiology, since Hans was inside Christina, but he is also apparently still inside the head, too). Christina/Hans decide that their mission of vengeance has been concluded, but then they spot the eavesdropping Doctor. They/she run to the cliff at the edge of the nearby river, Frankenstein pausing to look at the dead rich boy (I imagine he is thinking of the possibilities) but then chasing after Christina/Hans. Frankenstein finds them at the edge of a bluff overhanging the churning water, and tries to convince her/him to not jump in. Apologizing, Christina/Hans leap/jump into the waters. Alone, Frankenstein departs.
This film is sometimes congratulated for taking on more metaphysical ideas than the usual monster on the loose plot line. The script, though, is really just a series of straight lines between story climaxes, most of which are pretty grisly (for 1967). Once Han's soul is put into Christina, which is the core concern of the intellectual puzzle Frankenstein puts forward at the start of the film, the complications are barely mentioned again. The stage now set for a series of revenge-murders by the novelty of the sandwiched souls of Hans and Christina, together they are essentially just another monster roaming free, stirring up the village.
Although Frankenstein is a dangerous maniac, Cushing plays him as if he were the hero (which, I guess, he really is), and for the most part he is a benign presence in the tale, certainly the only one with a clear idea of what's happening. He takes charge of other people and leads them, and denies any ulterior motive for the havoc he causes other than the furtherance of science. Thorley Walters shows Dr. Hertz to be one part sentimental father-figure for the resurrected Christina, and three-parts befuddled putty for Frankenstein to make serve whatever crazy idea he comes up with. Susan Denberg's pitiful Christina is an innocent, scrubbed fraulein, and Robert Morris is an equally harmless Hans (aside from angrily instructing Christina to kill, kill, kill).
Hammer films are known for their luxurious art direction, and this film has a number of beautiful Victorian set-pieces and costumes on display. There is claustrophobia from the repetition of the camera positions and sets, though, and director Terence Fisher seems to have been battling a low budget, or apathy, or both, in making this film.
The tragedy in Shelly's Frankenstein novel came from the Doctor learning the reality of what he had done, and from the sad, lost estrangement of the monster. In the Hammer films the Doctor simply moves on to the next experiment, the format of the tales more like a television series, open-ended and without real consequences for the actions of the character.
The original version of this article ran on the Classic-Horror web site.
Original Page 2000 | Aug 1, 2012