The House of Hammer was dilapidated and run down by the turn of the ‘70s; a modern purview had wormed its way into horror’s darkened crevices and Hammer had no choice but to adapt or perish. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), a grimy, bloody affair that was Frank’s last hurrah with the venerable house and Peter Cushing’s final bow as the Baron, is proof that even the final throes of their cinematic empire was filled with malevolent mirth.
Released at home in May with an American rollout in June, Hell received better notices than one might expect, or it at least found some interest; the injection of overt viscera into the somewhat staid stable told the world that Hammer was putting classical in the rearview to embrace the contemporary. It was also more than enough to kill the series, if not Hammer itself (at least not yet).
But the Baron would condemn me for poor manners, so let’s start off with some story: A grave robbery seems like a good place to begin; as said grave robber is busy relieving a site of its body, a local bobby spots him and gives chase. The trail leads right to Dr. Simon Helder (Shane Briant – Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter), who being a big fan of Herr Baron, has been using his books to perform his own re-animation experiments; needless to say, Dr. Helder is instead offered a one way ticket to the local asylum.
This pleases him greatly, as Frankenstein was said to have resided within its walls until his untimely death. But we know better, and so does Helder; when he discovers that the Baron faked his own death and took over the asylum as its new head doctor, he convinces the Baron to let him assist with the other patients. He also coerces him into letting him help with the Baron’s other other patients, the ones who meet mysterious deaths only to be used as parts in his insidious experiments.
Before long the Baron, Helder, and their mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith – Theater of Blood) are knee deep in parts until Frankenstein debut’s his creation – a soft spoken Neanderthal with the body of a steroid-enhanced yak and the brain of a brilliant yet erratic professor interred at the asylum. Things, as one would expect, do not go well.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is wise to start off with that humblest of horror traditions – grave robbing – to lull the viewer into a false sense of security; it isn’t too long after that we get down to brain transplants, a hands off approach to surgery, and other squeamish delights. Hammer could never go completely the exploitation route; all the trappings of their more gothic works are present – heaving cleavage here, castles and miffed townsfolk there – as a safety net of sorts, to appease the old guard. The downside was the old guard mostly had no interest in the new, more visceral regime; the upside was an element of surprise present in most of their ‘70s output – just a soupcon of danger.
Okay, Hell isn’t exactly transgressive, but it is graphic, at least by early ‘70s standards; The Exorcist (’73) showed that respectability could go hand in hand with theological iconography masturbation. Now, it certainly offers no comparable shocks to Friedkin’s film, but the brain operation alone is enough to have more sensitive patrons heading for the exits, which I’m sure they did. Today it plays as rather quaint (watching 17,000 hours of medical dramas will desensitize most anyone – as will gory horror films, but no blame here).
So, for the modern viewer looking for an inroad to a dusty oldie, the film is graphic above Hammer’s normal station (there’s even a flesh ripping finale!), while telling essentially the same story as the other films in the series; veteran Hammer screenwriter Anthony Hinds (The Curse of the Werewolf) – under his usual nom de plume John Elder – doesn’t uncover any new themes in the material but rather relies mostly on the appeal of Peter Cushing in his last turn as the Baron.
I say mostly because Hinds does make the monster more sympathetic than usual, and as portrayed by the late Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, is a hulking beast with a sweet yet unhinged professor begging to get out. While it isn’t a new take, Hinds is very clear that the treatment of the mentally ill was cruelly barbaric and misguided; there is a sense of wariness in having Frankenstein tackle mental illness that adds to the tension; surely his experiments have no downsides, correct?
This was Hammer legend Terence Fisher’s last hurrah behind the camera; he would pass away in 1980. One more feather in favor of this finale: he started the series in ‘57 with The Curse of Frankenstein. His work here is as assured as ever, making the best of a meager budget, with the style and panache he was known for. (He doesn’t shy away from the red stuff, either.) While Curse and Hell share many traits, the true connective tissue is Fisher’s muscular direction and the anchor, Peter Cushing. Quite gaunt yet with a full spark (and a frightening blonde wig to boot), he takes the Baron out for one last spin with a spring in his step and that mad gleam in his eyes. The role always was, and always shall be, his.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is far from the most dignified Hammer production; changing times and chintzy change purses saw to that. But what it lacks in finesse it makes up with muscle; while it didn’t change their fortune, it did show that Hammer could make its way in the modern age. It just needed an audience.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: GROTESQUE (1988)