Frankenstein creates a woman... and everyone loses their head over her!
Fisher's off-the-wall outing is a fine example of spirited invention and against-the-grain genre-busting
Movies ArticleFamously given a critical boost and an ego-massage by no less a cinematic demigod than Martin Scorsese, Hammer’s 1966 entry in their entertaining and often revelatory franchise of body-snatching barons and misunderstood patchwork monsters, Frankenstein Created Woman boldly attempted something entirely new in the series. Despite its hokey but slyly hoodwinking title, Terence Fisher’s movie blended Frankenstein’s obsession with conquering death with a bizarre gender-bending saga of twisted emotions and dark pathos, by way of a Grand Guignol proto-slasher pic. The studio was too often condemned as simply trotting out the same plot over and over again but, in fact, Hammer were usually at their most incredibly audacious and original when spring-boarding ripe new ideas off of the back of their own tried and trusted conventions.
This was the fourth misadventure for the Baron whose ceaseless endeavours had not exactly met with a great deal of success, and one that saw a slight character change, something that always placed the Frankenstein cycle far, far ahead of Hammer’s Dracula alternative. Peter Cushing returns as the gaunt-faced and dedicated scientific warlock, this time aided and abetted by a show-stealing Thorley Walters as his assistant Dr. Hertz. Still shunned by the authorities and the general populace of these rural Eastern European enclaves, Frankenstein has shifted the focus of his cadaverous experiments from shocking life back into dead tissue to capturing the soul of the deceased in a force field and bringing about a more spiritual resurrection. To this end, he has certainly found some degree of triumph, as we see in a galvanising opening gambit that he has allowed himself, as a guinea-pig, to die and be brought back to life a full hour later, confirming his theory that the human soul remains in the body after death. Victorian science, eh?
Also assisting the Baron is the headstrong young Hans (Robert Morris), who also happens to be in love with Christina, the disfigured daughter of the tavern landlord. Played by the then Playmate of the Month (August, the same month that shooting began), Susan Denberg, Christina has a withered arm and a facial deformity that she attempts to mask by having her hair hang down over half her face. She is a kindly soul, and Hans is very protective of her. This devotion is put to the test when a trio of snobbish louts, the local top-hatted young bucks, cause grief by insulting and mocking her. Hans pastes the lot of them, but this only makes things worse when they return, drunk as lords, and batter her father to death.
In a perverse turn of events, Hans is framed for the murder, as unlikely as this seems, but then the threesome have influential parents, and in a highly prejudiced trial, he is sentenced to the guillotine, like his outlaw father before him. We see the much younger Hans witnessing this execution in the pre-credits sequence, an event that has haunted him all his life, although it has to be said that the child actor lets down what is a tremendously powerful opener. Despite the protestations of the Baron and Dr. Hertz, Hans is put to death on the very same scaffold. And, even more disastrous, Christina sees this take place and, in abject misery, casts herself into the river and drowns.
As ever, the Baron is swift to take advantage of such calamities, and not only does he have Hans’ body brought over straight after the chop, but the aggrieved villagers carry Christina’s dishevelled corpse to him also, rather ludicrously asking Dr. Herz what he can do for her. She is dead, after all. But then, maybe subconsciously, they realise that with Baron Frankenstein around, nothing need stay dead for long. And, in this case, they are perfectly correct. However, the Baron now has unique new methods to try, and although he saves Hans’ soul he somehow contrives to place it inside Christina’s body, alongside the remnants of her own spirit. When she awakens, unsure of exactly who she is, Hans’ spirit becomes quite dominant and, using the repaired and now beautiful body of Christina, he conspires to lure each of the three toff bullies to their deaths in a vengeful killing spree. With Hans’ severed head kept in a hat-box and telepathically commanding her, the luscious young woman embarks on a reign of terror, stalking the trio and despatching them, one by one in some cleverly structured set-pieces.The Baron had created men-things already so it followed that he might have better results trying his hand with a ladyThe villagers and the constabulary are well aware that whenever there is a Frankenstein about, the bodies tend to pile-up, and soon they are banging on his door with the trademark pitchforks. Yet, in a rout of conscience, the Baron realises what has been happening and takes off after the girl before she can slay the third lout. He simply cannot bear another one of this experiments to end so badly. After all, it has been an incredible success. Give or take a lopped bonce, or two.
Deadlier than the male
Written by Anthony Hinds under the usual pseudonym of John Elder, Frankenstein Created Woman was born as the logical next step in the canon of God-defying rebirth. The Baron had created men-things already – and a largely sorry mess they tended to be, too – so it followed that he might have better results trying his hand with a lady, and plans for it began as early as the late 50’s. The title actually hailed from a smart take-off on the notorious Brigitte Bardot nudie feature, Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, but it literally elevated the Baron to Godlike status. There are rumours that the initial idea for the film was to have Christopher Lee’s original monster return and demand a mate, but I find this very hard to swallow, especially considering how Lee’s monster ended up.
Hinds rightly believed that it would be too shallow and gutless to simply rehash Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein, and perhaps just a little too unsavoury, even for Hammer, to have the Baron dabbling with dead women hauled from the grave. Therefore, the story took a new and fresher dynamic and a tale of almost fairy-tale tragedy was developed for what would be the company’s second to last production at their home of Bray Studios. Fisher, himself, always referred to his work for Hammer as being dark fairy stories for adults, rather than as being simply crowd pleasing “horror films”. Frankenstein Created Woman, which was modestly budgeted at £140,000, clearly fits this description, with its simple narrative yet complex moral themes and strong sense of comeuppance. Nobody wins in this tale, although wrongs are put right.
In a radical departure for fans of the genre, there is no creation scene, and the Universal catch-phrase of something once dead being excitedly proclaimed to be “alive!” is actually reserved for the rebirth of the Baron, himself, revived from his frosted experimental death with smelling salts. Fisher reasoned that with the story being more emotional and revolving, as it does, more pointedly around characters other than the Baron and his laboratory, it would be better to leave this staple ingredient to the audience’s imagination. Publicity shots of Susan Denberg being unveiled in a revealing bikini of bandages thus gave the wrong impression of some titillating display of nubile awakening. For a film boasting a Playboy Playmate, there really isn’t much flesh on display … but then Hammer hadn’t yet gone for the bare-breasted approach. Still, you can’t help feeling that Fisher missed a trick here, and that the marketing led red-blooded males down the garden path.
The controversial issue of gender-bending – Christina’s divine female form is controlled and manipulated by a man in order to seduce other men before offing them – was a bit of a ground-breaker at the time. It certainly brought in more SF to the pot than usual, as well as questions about possession, but this was also a salacious means to make audiences squirm just that little bit more. All the Frankenstein films deal with the consequence of identity, at some point or other. The creations are invariably left to agonise over their predicament, lost in a flesh-sewn limbo of misery, and looked after without compassion by their coldly analytical maker. This would reach its zenith in the always underrated but fan-cherished Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, which would mark the finale of Hammer’s chronicle of the obsessed Baron. Here, it is just as touching because we definitely care about the two lovers, and pity what befalls them. Essentially having them combined in the same body provides an unusual flavour, though, and we cannot help but view the undeniably gorgeous Denberg with some degree of trepidation and a curious discomfort.The controversial issue of gender-bending was a bit of a ground-breaker at the timeInterestingly, Hammer would not let this device go. They would pursue it even further in the likes of Doctor Jeckyll and Sister Hyde with Ralph Bates’ potion-imbibing scientist turning into Martine Beswicke and savouring the delights of a voluptuous female body at his immediate disposal, and then in Hands of the Ripper, in which the seemingly innocent Angharad Rees is possessed by her father, Jack the Ripper, to commit heinous acts of depravity. This was a direction that Hammer fastened on to for a brief, but illustrious, spell in the wake of Anthony Perkins donning his mother’s clothes to slice and dice guests at the notorious motel. Taking on the likes of the highly effeminate Shane Briant in a number of films was another conscious decision to confuse gender conventions, and to create an uncanny itch that nobody wanted to scratch.
“Bodies are easy to come by. Souls are not.”
Critics snipe at the fact that the Baron, himself, has been marginalised as a character, his story playing second fiddle to the Christina/Hans revenge plot, but this is actually an essential evolution for him. Frankenstein has been a love-rat, and committed murder, his moral compass has been flung in all directions. His sympathetic side came to the fore in Revenge of Frankenstein when he used his abilities to help reconstruct a cripple’s body – sadly with disastrous results. Here, so long as we forget the narrative sidestep of the previous Evil of Frankenstein, which was simply a daft Universal homage, with even a little Bondian chutzpah thrown in, he is still attempting to do something that could conceivably better Mankind. He certainly reveals a more sympathetic side in his attempts to persuade the jury that Hans is innocent of the crime, and his knee-jerk decisions to use both Christina’s and Hans’ bodies in an attempt to restore a stolen life, as well as eradicating Christina’s deformity, are at least halfway commendable.
There is no escaping the fact that he finds this tragic turn of events a blinding stroke of luck for his work, but he is not at all the “monster” that we have encountered before. However, in the course of the series, which is often only loosely connected together, the fateful twists that, once more, consign his creations to the scrapheap of egotistical vanity, ensure that this entry leaves him as a colder, more heartless and exploitative individual, as we would see in the classy Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, in which he adds rape to his ever-growing crime-sheet. When Christina’s revenge is complete, Hans tells her that she can rest now … in response to which she drowns herself a second, and final time, her body swept away in a raging river.
The Baron clearly does not approve. He stalks away, sickened and disgusted. You would think that all this trouble and being surrounded by so much death and sadness would finally convince him to explore new avenues of scientific discovery, but Frankenstein is as trapped by his own quest as the ragged flesh he infuses with largely unwanted and infernal life. As he turns away, you know that he is mulling over how to fine-tune his next resurrection, all of his compassion once again buried beneath the weight of his own vainglorious self-belief.
Cushing is typically excellent. And, in my opinion, he does some of the character’s best and most subtle work here, perhaps in the knowledge that his character has become more of a support than a lead role, and that every second of screen time counts. For instance, watch how magnificently he conducts himself the courtroom sequence. When passed the Bible to make his vow, he gives it a cursory and dismissive flick-through, arrogantly consigning its message to the theological dustbin. His sparring with the hatchet-faced Peter Madden as the demonstrative village police chief is wonderfully written yet Cushing, taking it much further, is brilliant at revealing his undoubted superiority over these bigoted halfwits with every exquisite rebuff and verbal counterattack, and every immaculate syllable.
Sarcastically described as being a clever man, he proudly responds without hesitation, “Yes, I am.” Cushing’s eyes are all the more grave this time out. Again, the courtroom scene shows this with an icy glare of conviction and disdain. When the three real culprits make derisory comments about the Baron’s involvement of witchcraft, he smoothly retaliates with “I am a doctor of medicine, law, psychics … if they gave out doctorates for witchcraft I would, no doubt, have a degree in that too.” When the murders of the louts occur the constabulary blurt out that the Baron takes them for fools, to which he pointedly replies, “Yes!” It is one of the delicious ironies of the entire Frankenstein cycle, both from Universal and Hammer, that he is profoundly more intelligent than anybody else around … and yet his own inflated ego will prove his undoing each and every time. He knows so much, and yet he never learns from his mistakes. Even his most beautiful creation turns out to be a killing machine. He just can’t get a break, can he?Cushing is typically excellent and does some of the character’s best and most subtle work hereThere is a definite vibe of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson about Cushing and Walters. With his erudite manner and concise, cutting diction, Cushing is Basil Rathbone. Indeed, he had already played the Baker Street sleuth for Hammer in their rich and redolent adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and he would return to the detective again for the BBC. And few could argue that Walters is a deadringer for Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, dunderheaded Dr. Watson. Now, this was apparently not deliberate on the part of Hinds or Fisher, merely a happy coincidence. The Baron is certainly no altruistic combater of crime, even if he does speak out against a travesty of justice being brought down upon Hans. But the visual references and the mutual respect and admiration that the two characters have for one another, as well as their double-act exchanges, make this partnership far more comfortable and weirdly believable than many Frankenstein has had with his assistants.
Even the trust they put in Hans scores highly. Frankenstein, his hands still burned from the blazing finale of Evil and mostly hidden away beneath black leather gloves, cannot work without the skills of the good doctor and the brawn of the lackey. He even requires assistance in turning a dial early on, and we see him wince as he lifts the coffin housing Hans’ body, suggesting further of the damage this endless odyssey has wrought upon him. Other instalments would see him bribe or otherwise manipulate the aid of accomplices, but here there is much more of an even-footing between the three, and a singular goal that they work towards, despite the fact that the Baron is, ultimately, still using these awestruck innocents.
Walters seems, at first, to be quite happy as the blustering, semi-buffoonish Hertz, but there are several scenes that present him as being quite quick-witted and even more than capable of underhanded manipulation, himself. To wit, his calmly assured entrapment and blackmail of the STD-riddled prison guard to assure that Hans’ body is given over to him and the Baron. There is also the nice moment when he provides the freshly revived Christina with a mirror after the Baron has markedly refused her one. Where the Baron is cold and implacable towards the girl, regarding her as merely another test subject to be studied, Hertz is considerate and gentle. Thus, Walters adds kindly uncle to his character’s treasure-trove of traits.
But this film should also be remembered for the stalwart work from Morris and even the complete newcomer of Denberg. The 21-year old model may well have been dubbed because her Polish accent was deemed too thick, but although naïve and innocent in the ways of filmmaking, she comes across with great style and finesse. As the disfigured and brown-haired Christina she is suitably vulnerable and sympathetic. As the reformed, reborn and revenge-fuelled incarnation, she is a blonde bombshell who uses her admirable charms with incredibly sultry zest to win over her victims and lead them, like a siren, to their deaths. In both guises, Denberg exhibits raw grief and anguish as well, and is far from the stunt-casting babe that Hammer tended to rope in. This is down to the family nature of the crew. Fisher and Cushing took her under their wing, and certainly a couple of the younger cast members got to know her a lot better. Ahhh… the sixties.
Robert Morris does a fine job too. In fact, he carries the first two thirds of the film on his capable shoulders, his plot elbowing-out the Baron quest for soul-harvesting. We definitely care what happens to him, though it does seem to be rather obviously foreshadowed that he will end up under the same blade as his father all those years earlier. He could easily evade the guillotine if he actually told the truth about his whereabouts at the time of the murder – he was in bed with the victim’s daughter – but Hans is revealed to be quite a gentleman about the whole thing. He keeps shtum to preserve Christina’s dignity even at the expense of his own life.As the reformed, reborn and revenge-fuelled incarnation, she is a blonde bombshell who uses her admirable charms with incredibly sultry zest“I do not care to talk to the spawn of murderers!”
And what of the three young bloods?
Marvellously conniving and oozing rapacious aristocratic venom, the trio of dastardly dandies are portrayed by Peter Blythe (Anton), Barry Warren (Karl) and, as Johann, TV’s very familiar face of Derek Fowlds (Yes, Minister/Heartbeat) – someone you really wouldn’t expect to be wielding a cane in anger and pushing his luck with the ladies. Of the three, it is Fowlds who is the most sympathetic, although he would never dream of going against his buddies. Blythe plays the leader of this group but, in a bizarre and novel tweak of the formula, he is actually the first to go. Rather more typically, he would be the last victim and the one to put up the most fight, but Hinds and Fisher neatly reverse this, which throws our concerns to the wind. Now, we partly feel sorry for the last victim. Indeed, to reinforce this, we have the Baron racing to stop Christina/Hans from butchering him similar manner.
This element sort of reminds me of the barnstorming TV movie, Revenge for a Rape (1976), in which the avenging husband (Mike Connors of TV show, Mannix) stalks through the woods and kills the three men he believes responsible for his wife’s violation, only for us to suddenly realise that he has gone after the wrong three and that, as he closes-in on the last guy, our emotions are hauled violently in the other direction and we wish that he can get away. Very clever manipulation. Fisher isn’t exactly going for this though. All three deserve what is coming to them, but it is dealt with in a refreshingly unorthodox way. As despicable as the three are, we do, at the same time, feel something for them. The way in which they cavort around the town – which seems virtually deserted – they remind me of Lee Marvin and his cronies in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Partying rogues who exist outside the law that people really are too afraid to stand up to.
I’ve discussed many times already how Hammer was the champion of the underdog, the clarion call for the lower class and the accusatory stab in the eye of aristocracy and the upper classes. So often the villains were the landed gentry – Dracula, the sadistic nobles in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Plague of the Zombies and Curse of the Werewolf, and the antagonistic patriarch of The Reptile – and this is certainly the case here. As has been rightly claimed, the Baron, himself, could once have been classified as one of the evil rich, but the series made it abundantly clear that he would fall from grace, and basically keep on falling, until he was compelled to live hand-to-mouth, forever on the outskirts of civilisation, and never to be welcomed back to his former status.
This anxiety means that the Baron, a wanted criminal in many areas of Austria and Transylvania (Bray Studios to you and me) and their stormy surrounding environs, has a chip on his shoulder. He is a debonair aristocrat seeking to regain his standing, his continued experiments always buoyed with an indignant air of “I’ll show them!” Thus, hanging-about with peasant assistants and drunken doctors cannot disguise the fact that he is exploiting the very people who supposedly believe in him. He is a maverick and a renegade, though never at the expense of his own sense of nobility. For Frankenstein, the ends always justify the means. Yet, however fleeting his moments of compassion here may be, they are welcome, nevertheless.
Where Scorsese loved the audacity of Hammer actually showing us a depiction of the human soul – a glowing orb of light – it should be pointed out that Peter Newbrook seemed to be hugely influenced by this idea of its capture when he made the unusual and often quite silly The Asphyx (which I have also extensively reviewed), in which Robert Powell and Robert Stephens seek to capture the titular entity from within the human form and, thus, find a way to evade death and live forever. Indeed, it was hard for many naysayers to comprehend what Scorsese found so appealing about Fisher’s film. On a lurid and superficial level, it probably falls far short of many of Hammer’s productions during the sixties. But its combination of dark tragedy, Shakespearean revenge and twisted psychology is sweetly rewarding and turns a gothic melodrama into an unorthodox fantasy.
“The hands were mine … but the skill was his.”
Considering that Hammer had scored very highly with some ripe Kensington Gore already in the Frankenstein saga, it is somewhat surprising that the red stuff is only minimally splashed about in this case. In fact, what gruesome delights we do get to see are actually patently unconvincing. Makeup man Roy Ashton had good days and bad days. There are some terrific severed heads in things like The Plague of the Zombies and Twins of Evil and, especially, Countess Dracula (with a very fine reproduction of Ingrid Pitt’s lascivious noggin), but the bonce that Denberg carries around with her in the hat-box is so god awfully plastic and shiny that we should be thankful we never really get to see it properly. Mind you, the shot of the head sitting atop Christina’s bedpost is quite decent, even if it does look more like an optical effect. Plus, the retribution murders happen off-camera – something of a disappointment after the all build-up. The BBFC had already intervened at the screenplay stage, so this is not a case of footage cut from the film. But skilful editing and smart juxtapositions of imagery still get the impact across, thus the film is able to surpass these shortcomings.
It is also surprisingly cruel and callous in the young blades’ antagonistic mockery of poor Christina, which does leave a sour taste in the mouth, and also quite substantially violent. Their murder of her father, repeatedly battering him with their canes, is genuinely nasty, the three raining blows down upon his stricken form with savage, censor-baiting glee. The final stabbing of Johann is also dealt with gloating repetition and sadism. John Trevelyan of the BBFC had actually suggested that these scenes be toned-down, but Hammer had simply gone ahead with them, bestowing the film some necessary gusto. As we have seen, however, they had conceded to various other moments of brutality being pruned-out. But it is interesting and enjoyable to note that the initial fight sequence in the tavern between Hans and the three is surprisingly dynamic and well-choreographed with the four actors all performing the protracted skirmish with fists, knives, chairs and even pepper to the eyes, themselves.the film attains a languid, almost dream-like quality at timesAlthough the budget was cut, Michael Carreras supposedly having lost trust in the Frankenstein brand after the previous story’s poor reception, production values are still terrific, as you would expect, even though the original costumes assigned to the film were diverted en route and ended up crossing the Atlantic, leading to some rapid substitutions having to be found at the last minute. You wouldn’t have guessed, though. The foppish thugs are downright dapper, their canes and tweeds and top hats almost like something from Gangs of New York – perhaps another reason by Scorsese found the film so effective.
Despite a couple of concessions to the Spaghetti Western penchant for the sudden-zoom, Arthur Grant’s cinematography is superb, even though Bernard Robinson’s sets are more claustrophobic and threadbare than usual, and the film attains a languid, almost dream-like quality at times. This is especially true when Christina is in seductive, stalking mode, and can be seen bathed in surreal red and orange, shades that act as a sexual trigger, as well as a danger sign. But the new equipment that the Baron utilises – three charged metal poles inserted into a petrified wall and the whole ensemble then glowing like lava as “magical” energy is released, for example – carry a comic-book SF sensibility. It makes no sense, of course, but the commitment of both Cushing and Walters somehow enables the vision to have indelible consequence.
“Everything we do not understand is magic. Until we understand it.”
Another veering from the norm is the score. Although the ubiquitous James Bernard composes it, there is a marked difference between the music heard here and pretty much all the other scores he created for Hammer. There is little of the raucous macabre of shrill brass and the ever-mounting violin squalls of suspense because the story does not particularly warrant such histrionics. There may be some pell-mell pursuits through the muddy autumnal bracken of Black Wood during the frantic climax – another definite Hammer trademark - and some creepy stalk and slash, but this a more restrained and decorative score altogether. In fact, for those as invested in Hammer Horror as me, it feels somehow wrong to have this hailing from the same composer who gave such frightful orchestral presence and demonic grandeur to Dracula and other hellish yarns like The Devil Rides Out and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. But, as I say, this isn’t the same type of film, relying much more on dialogue and emotion to set the mood. The score is still a good one, I should add.
The following entry in the series would again have Terence Fisher calling the shots, and fans and critics alike tend to agree that 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is one of the strongest of the lot, re-establishing the Baron centre-stage and providing Cushing with some grand material to get stuck into. But Frankenstein Created Woman, bogusly po-faced and grandiose title aside, is actually top flight entertainment. It is gothic and dark, yet it has a sense of soul (no pun intended), and it quite witty and offbeat. The story is bold and original, and the performances are excellent, with each character attempting to give a damn sight more than the scripted page initially offered. Coming after the farcical Evil of Frankenstein, it was a very welcome shot in the arm.
Cushing’s tenure as the Baron was mostly exemplary, with his incarnation continuing to go through changes and attitude-swings like a genuine person engaged in such a lifelong career on the fringes of morality. Indeed, out of seven lurid and grisly escapades that Hammer produced in this series, it is only the risible Horror of Frankenstein (with Ralph Bates and a bald Dave Prowse in a nappy) and the aforementioned Evil of Frankenstein that do it, and its reputation a disservice. The rest are anchored by Cushing and by clever, yet economic storytelling. Whereas Dracula descended into walk-ons and rehashed stupidity, Frankenstein went through a huge range of convolutions and variations upon what could have been a very restrictive theme.It is gothic and dark, yet it has a sense of soul (no pun intended), and it quite witty and offbeatFrankenstein Created Woman was released on a double-bill with John Gilling’s The Mummy’s Shroud, which was the last film to be made entirely at Bray, and this could well have gone against it as this proved to be a very tired and lazy sequel indeed, and not at all a fitting swansong for the end of an illustrious era. Coincidentally, Gilling’s film, which was fairly tame by Hammer standards, also made a meal out of lurid and sexy pre-release publicity shots (of Maggie Kimberley’s ample assets being menaced by Eddie Powell’s swathed avenger from the tomb) that got the attention but never appeared in the final film, just like those scorching images of Susan Denberg.
Sadly, this was also the end of Denberg’s film career. The excesses of stardom and the partying antics of the swinging sixties would see her succumbing to a drugs overdose, curtailing what would have been a lucrative contract with Fox.
Far better than its reputation would suggest, Fisher’s off-the-wall outing for the Baron is a fine example of spirited invention and against-the-grain genre-busting. Frankenstein endorses the youthful rebellion of anti-establishment that was so prevalent during the era, and the soul-swapped zombie ethic addressed herein is almost a paean to the sexual liberation that was gaining lustful vigour at the time. The film remains an inspired addition to the studio’s Frankenstein cannon, and should not be overlooked.
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