Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Of No Importance

There’s a certain kind of dread missing from too many horror films these days, the sort involving characters that you know have reached the end of the line. You don’t get that with movies involving teenagers or twentysomethings where it’s all just sensation so there’s no vibe of regret there, not the kind you get in films where what happens is almost the last, final chapter in a long decline of regret. So much of what’s left is simply noise. Weirdly, that’s what I found myself thinking about as I revisited Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, a film which faces that regret and the ways it can be denied until it’s too late. It’s a small film, just as other productions from Hammer were becoming during this late period, and it’s the last in the Frankenstein cycle made by the studio as well as the final time Peter Cushing played the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein. The end of the modern Prometheus. There’s no fire left.

Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is a young doctor determined to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) whose experiments he faithfully studies and attempts to replicate. When Simon is arrested for the crime of bodysnatching and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane he is quickly thrilled and pleased to encounter Baron Frankenstein himself, now secretly working there under the identity of Dr. Karl Victor since the Baron is, as far as the outside world is concerned, officially dead. Once Frankenstein realizes that this young doctor can be trusted, he takes Simon under his wing but it doesn’t take the protégé long to discover what the baron is really doing in his laboratory where, along with mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith), is in the middle of a plan to take body parts of various inmates and bring life to a creature (David Prowse) which will justify his attempts to truly create man as he has been attempting to do for so many years.

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is a fairly morose viewing experience and yet it’s hard not to enjoy a movie where someone spills a jarful of eyeballs during the first ten minutes. The film even makes a plot point of them later on with Peter Cushing pausing to examine one using a giant magnifying glass along with extensive shots of brains being removed, stored and transplanted, none of which appear very convincing although I’d someday like to discuss the medical accuracy of all this with my neurosurgeon brother-in-law. It’s a mostly sedate film punctuated by these bits of grossness with the occasional blood splatter to underline the point. And as glum as it all is it’s hard to ignore how much the movie finds the dark humor in where the baron has wound up and his own perverse fondness for what he’s still attempting to accomplish after all this time.

Released in the States in 1974 on a double bill with CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER which is how the New York Times reviewed them (“Both are Foolish But Respectable Fun” declared the headline), it was the final film directed by Terence Fisher who helmed some of the most legendary Hammer titles including all of the Frankenstein entries featuring Cushing but one and he brings to it a quiet gravity which makes the story compelling throughout with his careful approach that means every shot has a specific purpose, every moment feels gently laid out as it takes its time telling the slim story. You could call the film compact or maybe just threadbare due to the obviously low budget and unlike the tropes we normally expect from Hammer films, here there are no autumnal forests or frightened villagers, not much of anything outside of the basic story for that matter. Once we enter the asylum (never mind what country this is supposed to be set in) represented in model shots which, apologies, always make me think of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, that’s where the film stays, never to leave, next to no disturbances from the outside world which is how the main character who chooses to learn under the tutelage of Frankenstein wants it, believing that’s the only place where the true wisdom he’s looking for can be found.

With a screenplay by John Elder (the pen name of Anthony Hinds, which he used for numerous Hammer productions) the film mostly stays with the three leads, four if you count the creature, for long stretches with very few supporting characters to get in the way; the orderlies don’t do much snooping around to disturb things, other patients only appear briefly or as needed and the asylum’s director, though given a big introduction, isn’t as crucial to the plot as it seems like he will be at first even when certain revelations are brought to light. Compared with certain other Hammer films where years later all you remember is the sheer power of its color scheme and one or two moments of, say, a sudden Christopher Lee appearance, aside from those brains and blood this is a fairly muted film with DP Brian Probyn, who also shot THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA for the studio as well as films like DOWNHILL RACER and part of BADLANDS, providing depth and layers to these few sets which gets me to forget how threadbare they probably were with the 70s look giving every scene an immediacy, unlike the fairy tale quality that used to be common in Hammer films. Even the powerfully lyrical nature normally found in James Bernard’s scores is mostly not found here with the music providing little more than atmosphere for the most part (although his notorious method of working the titles of movies into his themes appears to be in use here with the way the end title seems to pound out “Monster-From-Hell” repeatedly). Everything about it is intent on staying away from the world and living in its own state of quiet.

The film came roughly five years after Fisher’s great FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED with the non-Cushing offshoot HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN coming in between and everything about the character (as well as Peter Cushing) here seems older, slower, no longer that vicious bastard he developed into but someone with no understanding of how pathetic he’s become, only able to get the young doctor under his spell due to what he once was. These films never paid much attention to the continuing storyline from one film to the next although the burned hands of ‘Dr. Victor’ seem to be the result of the fiery DESTROYED climax and here, working with his two helpers, he seems to have no inner strength left, persisting on his mad quest because there’s nothing else in him. To be honest, a few of the middle entries in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle have always played a little dull for me but while MONSTER FROM HELL is a spare film it’s never dry, as if the limited scope and budget gave a focus to the direction and what the story is ultimately about. Fisher makes the blocking always about the character’s relationships to each other and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that this script could easily be performed on stage with only a few modifications (there’s a daydream I’m going to fixate on for the rest of the day). It doesn’t have the crass energy of something like DRACULA A.D. 1972 which had the studio desperately trying to fit into the early part of that decade but compared to other Hammers of the period which try to alter the basic formula too much this one feels like a film stripping itself down to the essentials giving it a different kind of energy, the real monsters truly shut off from the rest of the world and the creature who is unlucky to be their creation finding no one to care enough about what they’ve done to him.

Unlike other Hammer productions which increasingly tried to toss sex into the mix during this period, this one oddly has almost none with Shane Briant’s vaguely androgynous nature indicating that he doesn’t give much thought to the idea at all. And Madeline Smith’s mute Sarah is clearly a total innocent, dubbed ‘Angel’ by some, even if her unfortunate backstory as well as Frankenstein’s plan for her “real function as a woman” is consistent with other sleazy elements the studio would place into films during this period whether they made sense or not and, with the scripting not exactly always intricate, ultimately serves little purpose at all. It’s also a very small cast, slightly disappointing considering how much enjoyment in these films can come from the supporting characters and the few patients we meet that the doctor is keeping a close eye on are intellectuals and artists whose lives have led them to this end and what little we see of the outside world is mostly made up of authority figures and the grave digger who retrieves the bodies for Simon, terrified but still mainly interested in money for his next drink. Cushing, wearing one hell of a wig, commands these unfortunates with his gaunt, sunken cheekbones looking like a beacon of death over all this, helping us see how he can take over this place from the weaklings supposedly in charge. Even if he does seem visibly older than the last time he played the character, Cushing’s physicality becomes so much of the performance with even his pauses given all the weight in the world and one scene where he leaps onto the monster in an attempt to subdue him is still surprising as if the film is suddenly given a jolt of adrenaline we didn’t know it was even capable of.

The creature is made up of body, hands and the brain from those various asylum patients and the design worn by David Prowse appears to be more of an ape suit than full makeup job. It’s sort of part humanoid, part monster, at times looking just absurd and cheesy but also strangely compelling so when the monster wakes up and realizes what he is, the effect of his reaction is mostly just sad with of course only ‘Angel’ displaying any sympathy for him at all. So he’s not exactly a monster from hell although admittedly FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER UNDERGOING A SEVERE DEPRESSION wouldn’t look very good on a marquee. But the way Fisher allows those scenes to play, even giving us extended close-ups of him, allowing us a chance to ponder the creature when he’s strapped in upright as a surgery takes place, unconscious, slowly breathing, waiting for his new brain. When he finally attacks near the end it’s mostly lumbering confusion in search for the truth of what he was, using giant shards of broken glass to attack his victims, a remnant from the brute’s former life. The US cut is apparently missing some gore which is visible in other countries and at least one bloody close-up on the Paramount DVD feels cut short but there’s still plenty to see anyway in those surgery scenes along with lots of talk about the body taking over the brain, in some ways just doubletalk in the script but also a reminder of how there really is nothing being accomplished in this creation of a monster who, despite the title, isn’t actually from hell but has merely been born into it.

The arrogance displayed by Shane Briant’s Simon is of course a sign that he’s taking after what was once the behavior of Dr. Frankenstein but here that character is played as more callously uninterested in others than the flat out cruelty he displayed at his worst with the younger doctor soon realizing that the hero he venerated isn’t really much of anything; unable to perform surgery, no appreciation for the arts, lack of manners and even laughing at bad jokes with the increasing monstrosity of his actions that he blithely waves off. Frankenstein is determined that this new creature will at last make all his sacrifices worth it, never realizing that no one else cares and it’s a film with the light going out, containing a sadness for humanity and all the wasted dreams that you are sometimes left with. It even offers what feels like an ending, unlike all those other Hammer films which seem to abruptly conclude without so much as an obligatory wrap up scene and maybe this one also seemed abrupt and unrewarding when I first saw the film long ago but now it makes perfect sense. Sometimes in life you find yourself in the place you always dreamed of but then you realize too late that it’s nothing more than a prison. And that’s all it is.

Peter Cushing brings all the gravity imaginable to the role with his clipped speech and grave intonations, everything about his manner making it a true fusion of performance and film. His older nature here is invaluable with the simple reading of the line “I never shall” as his voice cracks when insisting he won’t give up is infused with more genuine emotion than the actor ever seemed to allow in his characters. There might be bad lines in the script, but never the way Cushing delivers them even when standing there talking to the monster as if it’s all perfectly normal. Shane Briant has a certain stiffness to his acting style but one that also makes clear how unafraid he is with a quietly defiant gaze, showing how ready he is to help Frankenstein in his goal. Madeline Smith of Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and also LIVE AND LET DIE plays much of her largely mute role as blankly staring innocence, kind of a living prop but the enigmatic quality works and she’s always present in the moment no matter what. A few years before he played Darth Vader alongside Cushing in STAR WARS, David Prowse brings a slovenly humanity to all that lumbering as the creature and in some odd way that mask combined with the blank expression coming from his eyes is perfect to make us wonder what he’s thinking or if he’s thinking anything at all. Among the few smaller roles Patrick Troughton, familiar as the priest in THE OMEN plays the gravedigger and brings a grubby humanity to just a few scenes while Bernard Lee, “M” in the James Bond films, briefly appears as one of the asylum patients having basically no dialogue but manages to communicate all the regret and loneliness in the world in just a moment or two.

For me, Hammer Films have always come from the past, they’ve always seemed inherently nostalgic. That’s my own perception, of course. They were older, I sought them out, I loved them for a while, but then moved on except for the occasional return particularly during the Halloween season where their autumnal nature fits the mood perfectly. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL isn’t just a final chapter of this saga, it’s an epilogue, both in the story of this character and possibly to Hammer as well, even if the studio still had a few titles like TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER to go at this point. By itself, it’s a worn down star vehicle for Peter Cushing with enough oddball touches to set it apart. But in the greater context of the people who made it and the genre which surrounds it the film is about reaching a dead end which gives it a certain power. You can waste your life, which might be the greatest horror of all. And then where will you be.

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