Written by: Anthony Hinds
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Susan Denberg, and Robert Morris
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Everything we don't understand is magic--until we understand it."
Sequels have become synonymous with repetition, especially within the horror genre. It wasn’t always like that, though—with the exception of Universal’s Mummy franchise (which was like the Friday the 13th of its day, with yearly entries that barely deviated from each other), early horror sequels tend to be a little more daring and imaginative than one might expect. Frankenstein fared quite well under the Universal banner, with each entry becoming progressively bizarre, and the franchise’s Hammer counterpart followed suit two decades later. Far from a repetitive parade of monster mashes, Hammer’s Frankenstein series is a wonderful cornucopia of nuttiness, and, taken as a whole, it’s this deranged saga of a madman who just couldn’t stop making monsters, a dogged quest that’s both horrifying and sort of admirable. You just can’t keep this mad baron down.
None of his efforts were as strange as the one found in 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman. As the fourth entry, it arrived right around the time rigor mortis begins to set in on most franchises; however, this one shook that off with an inspired lighting strike of pure weirdness. Given the oddball complexion of this entire series, it takes a lot to be the odd one out, and Frankenstein Created Woman stands as one of the most bizarre films the studio ever produced. One part fairy tale, one part deranged revenge story, it’s sort of what you might have expected if the Brothers Grimm ever reimagined Frankenstein.
Appropriately, the specter of death hangs over the proceedings in the form of a guillotine that’s haunted poor Hans (Robert Morris) throughout his life; forced to witness the execution of his father at a young age, he grows up in the care of his uncle (Thorley Walters), a local doctor who comes into the service of the enigmatic Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). At this point in his unholy quest to conquer death, he’s obsessed with soul transference—if only he had some cadavers lying around to experiment. Luckily (for him), Hans has made enemies with nearby landlord Kleve (Alan McNaughton) due to Han’s infatuation with his daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg); after a rowdy barroom brawl with a pack entitled hooligans lands him in trouble with the law, Hans becomes the prime suspect when local authorities discover that Kleve has been murdered. Unwilling to admit that he’d spent the night with Christina (and thus sparing her the dishonor of having shacked up with a guy she isn’t married to), he’s sentenced to death by the same guillotine. Distraught, Christina drowns herself, thereby serving up Baron Frankenstein with two bodies for his most unusual experiment yet.
Admittedly, the wheels for Frankenstein Created Woman are set into motion rather deliberately—that synopsis covers about an hour’s worth of the film, and the inciting, monster-making incident (the transference of Han’s soul into Christina’s body) arrives later than it does in many Frankenstein tales. The extended setup is crucial in establishing the stakes for this eventual tragedy, a concept that’s obviously not foreign to this particular series, which invariably finds Baron Frankenstein leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. Frankenstein Created Woman is arguably the most tragic and highlights the Baron’s callousness more so than other entries; what starts as a tender love story between a poor, orphaned boy and a disfigured girl (half of Christine’s face is noticeably scarred by a birth defect) degenerates into a bloody tale of corrupted innocence because the two are carelessly swept up in everyone else’s ambitions.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the two are destitute (Hans has to pay for his wine by trading in his uncle’s coat) and are especially preyed upon by the upper class. The trio of guys that fight Hans before framing him for Kleve’s murder are a sniveling, privileged set that stiff the poor landlord on their bill and ruthlessly taunt his daughter; during Han’s trial, they look on with a smug contempt for the man they’ve sentenced to the gallows. Their coldness is quite infuriating and lends an air of righteous indignation to the proceedings. Shelley’s novel featured moral stirrings, of course, but this takes her socio-economic subtexts (the Creature is essentially orphaned, left to fend for itself in a society that has no use to it before it revolts against its Bourgeoisie master) and makes it explicit through Hans, another orphan left to the mercy of his ruling-class masters.
Unsurprisingly, Baron Frankenstein doesn’t carry himself much better. He might be struggling with money at this point, but he’s still rich in entitlement. Cushing is once again fantastic in a role that forces him to be a vindictive but charismatic asshole. Han’s death—unjust though it may be—is nothing more than means to justify an end. Such outrageous bullishness all but assures that the Baron doesn’t become an antihero like so many other horror villains—in fact, you almost have to admire just how committed Hammer was to ensuring just how despicable their Frankenstein is. Upon witnessing the tragic end to this particular movie, he all but shrugs and walks away, no doubt already scheming up his next diabolical experiment. Nothing sums up Cushing’s Frankenstein quite as well as that moment—there’s no compassion, no hint of remorse--if he’s upset at all, it’s because he’s failed again. Never mind the pair of lovers whose lives he just destroyed.
Despite its thematic familiarity, Frankenstein Created Woman is a decidedly unique pass at the material, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s fucking weird. Where Frankenstein is typically concerned with the corporeal, this one goes metaphysical in a big way: the Baron distills and isolates the soul, something of a sublime concept that’s more elegant than the bloody, patchwork viscera he typically deals in. Frankenstein Created Woman features several inversions, with the “monster” especially serving as a noticeable deviation. Instead of an outwardly hideous, jigsawed creature with a kindly, misunderstood soul, we have a woman who transforms from an ugly duckling into a black swan as two souls battle for control of her body, a situation that reinforces Shelley’s notion that appearances are deceiving.
Such an inversion allows for some intriguing gender politics; women have always been integral to Frankenstein, but they often serve to somehow complete their male counterparts (the death of Victor’s mother spurs him into his experiments, the Monster later desires a mate to fulfill his existence). Frankenstein Created Woman features the reanimated body of a woman that isn’t whole until it’s inhabited by her lover’s soul, which impels her to horrifying violence on both of their behalves. As the resurrected Christina, she’s confused and meek before transforming into a sultry, predatory man-killer when her lover’s soul takes control.
Perhaps unwittingly, the film serves as a criticism of female sexuality, as it’s Christina’s place to pull an Ophelia upon learning of her lover’s death and then repeating the act when she realizes that her resurrected body has been the vehicle for bloodshed. For the in-film society (and perhaps many contemporary audience members), Frankenstein’s true abomination is crafting such a vixen, and the film concludes with a disturbing course correction that puts the female back in her place. No one is ever likely to unseat Elsa Lanchester from her iconic status, but Denberg is a respectable runner-up in the arena of Frankenstein women, as she glides between each mode with ease. A Playboy Playmate at the time of filming, this would be her final film role before she bowed out of the spotlight altogether, and she made a lasting impression in her brief career.
The gender politics (not to mention the attempt at tackling gender confusion) is admittedly messy, especially once the film hacks and slashes its way to its conclusion. Nonetheless, Frankenstein Created Woman remains a striking entry in Hammer’s oeuvre, anchored by a returning Terence Fisher who didn’t opt for a by-the-numbers return to the series. Rather than in ensconce in more moody, fog-shrouded vistas, Fisher delivers a sunnier take that still feels otherworldly in its disconnect with the proceedings. Most Hammer productions carry a macabre sense of beauty, and Frankenstein Created Woman leans towards an ethereal aesthetic that feels more like a daydream than a nightmare.
Millennium Entertainment recently entered the Hammer business, and kudos to them for tapping Frankenstein Created Woman for a long-deserved Blu-ray upgrade. The high-definition trailer grants the film a gorgeous makeover, while the Dolby stereo track is an adequate compliment. Fans who have owned Anchor Bay’s previous, somewhat paltry DVD will be pleased to discover more special features this time around. Typical promotional material (collectible lobby cards, a stills gallery and a trailer) join two World of Hammer episodes (“The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Peter Cushing”) and a commentary featuring Derek Fowlds, Robert Morris, and Jonathan Rigby. The premiere supplement here is “Hammer Glamour,” a 45 minute retrospective on the studio’s stable of female stars. Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, and Madeline Smith anchor the documentary, while Vera Day and Jenny Hanley also drop in to reminisce about their work with the studio. For a long-time fan of the film, the disc couldn’t be much more pleasing, and here’s hoping it’ll help the film reach a new level of prominence; while I would still argue that The Curse of Frankenstein is the best in this particular franchise, Frankenstein Created Woman is my favorite of the bunch, if only because it's such a successfully daring sequel. Buy it!
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