“FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN” (Blu-ray Review)
Christopher Lee’s long, caped shadow may loom largest at the House of Hammer, but when it comes down to pitting the beloved British horror studio’s two biggest franchises against each other, by and large their FRANKENSTEIN pictures are inarguably superior to those bearing the DRACULA handle.
That statement doesn’t necessarily apply to both series’ maiden voyages—1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA—of course, as both of those lurid, handsomely produced films stand as landmarks. But as every Hammerphile knows, as the Dracula films progressed, the studio thought less and less about doing interesting things with Lee and his vampire character and instead turned him into a cipher, inserting him into regurgitated tales of young lovers running afoul of the good Count’s tired revenge schemes. The Dracula films—while a joy to watch and tons of fun—pale when stacked up against the intricately conceived Peter Cushing-starring mad-scientist melodramas. Even the lesser entries, like Freddie Francis’ 1964 EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, boast complex plots and deeper psychological drawers, and when it comes to the new-on-U.S.-Blu-ray fourth installment, Terence Fisher’s playfully titled 1967 FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (a riff on Roger Vadim’s then-notorious AND GOD CREATED WOMAN), the drawers are deep—and, in the case of glorious co-starring Playboy Playmate Susan Denberg, rather fetching.
Fisher’s well-documented passion for metaphysics and devout faith often elevated his work for the studio, and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is no exception, with a screenplay by John Elder (pseudonym of producer/writer/mogul Anthony Hinds) that shows as much interest in the ethereal as it does in the corporeal. The film opens with a tragic pre-credits sequence in which a little boy named Hans witnesses the violent guillotine execution of his father, whose vain attempts to spare the boy from the sight fail; the last thing Dad sees is the horrified face of his broken child. Not exactly a cheery way to open a picture, and the tone never strays from this grim beat.
Hans grows up to be played by actor Robert Morris (FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH), still haunted by his father’s legacy as a convicted murderer and serving as assistant to a recently defrosted, gloved (to mask his burns suffered in EVIL) Baron Frankenstein (Cushing, natch) and his charmingly inept right-hand man Hertz (the great Thorley Walters). In love with the local innkeeper’s unfortunately scarred but otherwise lovely daughter Christina (Denberg), Hans sees red when the town’s rich-lad scumbags make sport of her disfigurement, beating them before being carted away by the police. When the unsavory trio murder her father in a drunken stupor and Hans gets fingered for the crime, he’s executed and she dives to her death.
Again, an acutely miserable setup for a Gothic horror romp, but the tragedy of this first act is essential to the power of the film that follows. Of course, Frankenstein revives the girl, but somehow—due to the good Doc’s newfangled interest in harnessing the power of the human soul—melds the lovers together in one comely body. The problem is, Hans’ spiritual residue is at odds with Christina’s passivity, and soon, the delectable she-zombie is off to exact bloody revenge on those who wronged her/him/them.
Bizarre and restrained, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is Hammer at its most narratively and thematically sophisticated, skewering the Victorian upper class and fingering them as the real monsters in a movie that contains less overt horror than it does sci-fi conceptualism and a wallow in human misery. Cushing is at his best here, and unlike his turns in earlier pictures like CURSE and later films such as the outrageously cruel FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, is less mad and more sympathetic, less a clinical reptile and much more interested in the welfare of his fellow man. It’s an interesting portrait in a very thoughtful, beautifully produced and directed movie.
Millennium Entertainment’s sharp and sensual hi-def remastering for its Collector’s Edition Blu-ray makes the colors pop, revealing a much more vivid sheen than is usually represented in mid-period Hammer movies. Special features are ample, and include two episodes of the WORLD OF HAMMER series, one on the making of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and another chronicling Cushing’s storied career. There’s also the fantastic new documentary HAMMER GLAMOUR, a study of the lovely ladies whom the studio traded on exhibiting, featuring surviving starlets Martine Beswick (from DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, a gender-duality picture that shares certain thematic strands with this film), CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER’s Caroline Munro and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS’ Madeleine Smith. The latter especially shines, most notably when confessing regrets about the ample nudity she provided for Hammer, despite her reservations at the time.
Best of all is a jovial audio commentary by actors Morris and Derek Fowlds, remembering with often hilarious clarity every inch of making the movie, and moderated by UK critic, author and Hammer know-it-all Jonathan Rigby. It’s an educational, articulate and lively chat with two old men looking back fondly on the young men they were. More tangible bonuses are found in a sealed package of stills tucked into the case; admittedly, this reviewer has yet to open that package, lest I disfigure the beauty of the release. All in all, Millennium is to be commended for this pristine presentation of one of Hammer’s most thoughtful—and depressing—horror films.