Terence Fisher, 1974
Starring: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, David Prowse, Madeline Smith
A young doctor, Simon Helder, is captured in the middle of some very unorthodox medical experiments. He’s imprisoned and sent to to an asylum, which is allegedly the resting place of his hero, Baron Victor Frankenstein. After meeting the corrupt asylum director and his cronies, Simon is called on to assist the asylum’s resident surgeon, Dr. Victor, though soon Simon learns that Victor is actually Frankenstein, hiding out and blackmailing the director in exchange for a place to experiment with human life. A number of the asylum patients become his subjects as he and Simon’s medical adventures spiral out of control.
After the failure of an attempted remake with the sixth film in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, The Horror of Frankenstein, the studio returned to the Baron one last time for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. This burdensomely titled affair is something of a last gasp for the studio. It reunited aging star Peter Cushing with a number of Hammer’s stock cast and crew, namely producer Anthony Hinds writing the script as “John Elder,” composer James Bernard, and director Terence Fisher — one of the studio’s best — in what was to be his last directorial effort. I’m on the fence about this film and I both understand why some people feel like it’s a great last efforts and others are disappointed. It doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, but is a competently made swan song that proved Britain’s greatest horror studio still had plenty of juice left.
Peter Cushing is, as always, the reason to watch this film. Though pushing 60, Cushing looked far older here. His beloved wife had passed away in 1971, which he never really seemed to recover from, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was actually shot in 1972 though it wasn’t released for another two years later. But he’s still full of vim and vigor, even accomplishing one heroic-looking stunt by himself, where he jumps from a table onto the monster. This film also restores the customary practice of pairing the Baron up with a close male assistant. Here it actually makes some rational sense, as the younger Dr. Helder (played charismatically by Shane Briant of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) has heard of the Baron’s reputation, followed his example, and is desperate to learn from him.
The film stumbles a little with Frankenstein’s monster, a consistent issue throughout the series. In one sense, Hammer really triumphed in focusing their series on the scientist rather than his creation and each film presents an interesting variation on the central experiment: often he is seeking to move and repair a damaged brain to a new body, repair a damaged, disfigured body, or synthesize multiple bodies. The latter case is true here in the ultimate form of Darth Vader himself, David Prowse (The Horror of Frankenstein), who was the only actor to play the monster twice. But even though this is a kinder, gentler Baron — in line with the character from The Evil of Frankenstein and also suffering with his burnt hands, which were damaged at the end of that film in a laboratory explosion — he just can’t leave things well enough alone.
The moral of the story is basically that even when he’s on the right track for some brilliant medical advancements, Frankenstein always takes things too far. He uses specific patients in his his experiments: a sweet tempered professor (Charles Lloyd Pack of Corridors of Blood) who happens to be a mathematical genius, a mentally challenged sculptor with beautiful hands (Bernard Lee of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors), and a huge man with super strength but very limited intelligence (David Prowse). Instead of harvesting corpses, the Baron harvests parts from these three men — as well as a few others — but the parts aren’t compatible and this mashup caused the creature to go insane when it realizes what it has become.
Overall, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell comes recommended, if only because Hammer nail the sympathetic monster trope the third time running (along with The Revenge of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Created Woman) and because it’s a fond, if bittersweet farewell to Hammer’s golden years, one of Cushing’s most iconic roles, and to the career of director Fisher. Despite the cheap effects, limited sets, and strange parallels with the fun but inferior Blood of the Vampire, part of me really loves Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell despite — or because of — it’s flaws. And even though not all the Hammer Frankenstein films are adequately represented on Blu-ray, for whatever reason there are multiple Blu-ray and DVD options for this one.