How do you make a monster movie where the monster isn’t the monster? It’s a question that plagues every director who tackles an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frequently filmed but rarely perfected, Shelley’s novel is a tricky corpse to reanimate. Ostensibly a gothic horror, it’s more sad than scary and features a monster who is more wronged than wrong-doer. Even Frankenstein himself, often mistakenly cited as the villain of the piece, is guilty of nothing more than hubris. Devastated by the loss of his mother, Victor seeks to end death by playing God – and learns his lesson the hard way. So, a story where moral complexity reigns and the monster’s a lonely lost soul? Not really the kind of thing you can splash across a salacious poster that promises THRILLS, SPILLS AND CHILLS LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE!!! is it?
Among the most famous Frankenstein cycles is the one Hammer made between 1956 and 1974. But to look back on Hammer’s Frankenstein films is to see a history of missed opportunities. The first film, The Curse of Frankenstein, is the most well-known and arguably the most iconic. Its box office success gave Hammer license to sink their teeth into more Frankenstein films and other notorious monster properties, and were it not for Curse, it’s likely Christopher Lee would have never had the chance to dash through Transylvania in his Dracula cloak and fangs. But the film shambles along as much as the titular creation itself. It lacks the luscious technicolour swagger of Terence Fisher’s later Hammer films and features a badly miscast Lee in the role of the silent monster. Hardly a part befitting one of the most eloquent and effusive actors in the land.
Sequels The Revenge of Frankenstein and Evil of Frankenstein followed, but neither improved matters. The latter in particular was a tired and uninspired piece of cinema, directed by newcomer Freddie Francis and starring a Kiwi wrestler as the monster, and neither it nor its predecessor captured the complexity of the source or the style of the Dracula films. So what happened next was all the more unbelievable. Three years after Evil limped into cinemas, Hammer unleashed Frankenstein Created Woman, a typically salacious title for a studio already well into its Cave Girl cycle and just three years away from beginning its lesbian vampire series. But Frankenstein Created Woman was something very different indeed.
Fisher was back in the director’s chair and Peter Cushing made his fourth appearance as Victor Frankenstein – the monster though was nowhere to be seen. Taking its cue from Georges Franju’s lyrical French masterpiece Eyes Without A Face, Frankenstein Created Woman is the horror film as fairy tale, a creepy trip into the morality tale where innocence is corrupted and violence brutally and unflinchingly punished. The film finds a Frankenstein who has put aside the grave-diggers’ shovel and now believes that the secret to life lies in the soul rather than the body. Naturally, he goes about proving his theory and transposes the soul Hans, a (wrongly accused) hanged local man, into the deceased body of Cristina, his disfigured lover. The experiment, predictably, goes awry.
The film depicts Frankenstein at his most petty and crass; not necessarily evil, just deeply repugnant – like someone from The Apprentice really. The script calls upon Cushing to take delight in treating every other character as dirt and he certainly does that. In one scene, where Hans is being tried for murder, Cushing casually takes the stand bearly bothering to acknowledge the severity of the situation. He arrogantly thumbs through the Bible, notably never actually swearing upon it, and proudly answers a heckler by proclaiming that while he is unaware of a doctorate in witchcraft, he would almost certainly have one, were it to exist. It’s a marvelous performance, and it suggests a character who is no longer trying to cure death and leave his legacy to mankind, but simply to prove that he is smarter than everyone else. It’s Frankenstein at his least human, but the film is Hammer at their most humane.
If you watch Frankenstein Created Woman for blood and boobs you won’t find it, no matter what the title suggests. There’s nothing salacious about this film, no blood whatsoever, save a drop or two during the film’s trips to the guillotine, and certainly no nudity. This is a film about human nature, and Fisher is more concerned with the banality of horror than the terror of it. The evil are not those with the bolts through their neck, the film suggests, but every day ppeople, in this case, three upper class dandies who arrogantly swagger through the town and pick on Cristina and her father. Like precursers to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange Droogs, they attack his cafe, murder him and then pin the blame on Hans. The slow, deliberate manner in which these characters unpick an innocent girl’s life is malicious, sadistic and beautifully played by the actors, especially Peter Blythe as the lead thug Anton. They’re like school bullies making the nerdy kid’s life hell just because they can, just because they’re bored. When retribution eventually comes along, it’s difficult not to cheer ‘the monster’ on.
The restrained approach Fisher takes is helped by the wonderful music of James Bernard, so often the unsung hero of the Hammer studio. The main theme, a delicate violin led lament, is every bit as iconic as the bombastic Dracula theme, but more complex and satisfying, conveying the film’s dual themes of evil and innocence in one nursary-rhyme-hummable piece of music. Anthony Hinds, working under the psudonym John Elder, delivers one of the most mature scripts of any Hammer film, making his insistance on the psydonym even more curious, and Arthur Grant, veteran of The Devil Rides Out, delivers some gorgeous photography. Even the film’s ostensible weak link, Susan Denberg as the naive Christina, is a virtue, her acting inexperience (this was the last of only four film and TV appearances) contributing to her character’s frailty. There’s an element of serendipity going on here, and it makes for a overlooked masterpiece of a film.
Overlooked, that is, by all but one. When asked to chair a season of films at the National Film Theatre in 1991, Martin Scorsese made Frankenstein Created Woman a surprise choice. Scorsese being Scorsese, he picked up on the spiritual aspects of the film, describing its metaphysical elements as “something close to sublime”. He’s not wrong. Religion, spirituality, mythology and the fairy tale all play a part in Frankenstein Created Woman. It’s a remarkably un-horrible horror film, and maybe that’s why it works so well. In making murder and evil a thing of sadness and not of shock, Hammer finally discovered the elusive monster of the Frankenstein saga: death.