Frankenstein Must Be Unemployed

The end of an era: 

Terence Fisher’s last film, and Peter Cushing’s last turn as Victor Frankenstein, now calling himself Dr. Carl Victor, having used up every last syllable of his name in his previous pseudonyms. Remember how there’s always a character called Karl? Now Frankenstein himself has fulfilled his destiny by becoming that Karl.

After the splashy big-budget (by Hammer standards) production of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, with it’s actual night-for-night photography and fiery denouement, F.A.T.M.F.H. is something of a chamber piece, confined after its first scenes (featuring the beloved Patrick Troughton as a grave-robber) to a lunatic asylum (The Ingolstadt Booby Hatch for Stereotypical Nutters), where the Baron has been confined, before basically taking over the place by means of blackmail.

Fiona was surprised and pleased by the film, having previously judged it by the standard of Dave Prowse’s rather O.T.T. makeup. Why hire a muscleman and then coat him in a fake muscle suit? It is a rather overdone neanderthal effect, although I’d argue only slightly more extreme than that guy in THE KILLING.

A weirdness: Madeline Smith plays a hysterical mute (screenwriter John Elder shamelessly plagiarising his own work on EVIL OF F), cured by a second trauma. Director Fisher made some of his best work after being hit by car during an inebriated stroll — his work on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED was some of the best of his career. But between those films and this one, he got drunk again, and got hit by a car again — a second trauma! — and relapsed into the more sedentary style of his early ’60s work.

Fisher wasn’t the only team member to have suffered. This is the only time Cushing played the Baron after the death of his beloved wife, Helen. Much has been written about his devotion to her, and he spent the remainder of his life in a state of mourning, requiring persuasion to emerge from seclusion to make films. To the end of his days, he would sign letters “Peter and Helen”.

Big Victor.

There’s more to this, and the first hint came from actor Brian Cox, who starred with Cushing in an episode of Hammer House of Horror. “I think there was a bit of guilt involved in all that, because he had an eye for the ladies.”

The full story, apparently: Helen Cushing was unable to enjoy sex, and told her husband that it would be alright if he wanted to seek satisfaction elsewhere. This understanding was gradually stretched until Cushing was rogering girls in the bedroom upstairs while his wife did the housework downstairs. Then, on her death bed, she told him he’d broken her heart and she could never forgive him.

Ulp.

Leaves From Satan’s Book.

The film begins: clumsy slapstick grave-robbing, grubby hamming from Troughton (he kept two families, you know), dim lighting and cramped sets and framing. Then, hope: prettyboy Shane Briant, who Hammer were grooming for stardom, plays Dr. Simon Helder, an aspiring Frankenstein who’s read all the Great Man’s works, is arrested for sorcery, although as described by the judge it sounds like something even more unspeakable: “You have been found guilty of one of the vilest of crimes. How a man of your breeding and education could fall so low as to contaminate himself with this disgusting performance…”

Actually a pretty GOOD performance!

Thrown into the nuthouse, Briant becomes Bosie to Frankenstein’s Wilde, helping the Baron with his latest bodybuilding project. Screenwriter Elder, having played fast and loose with series continuity in the past, now makes amends by giving the Baron those injured hands last seen in CREATED WOMAN, and having him attribute the injuries to “a fire… in the name of science.” Of course, regular viewers will recognise this as a little white lie, or at least a grotesque distortion. But it allows us to conclusively place MUST BE DESTROYED earlier than CREATED WOMAN, although a case could then be made for CREATED WOMAN coming after this one, but let’s not go there.

Why doesn’t the Baron have Bryant replace his hands? A mystery.

(I’m reminded why I must NEVER FORGIVE John Elder: that subplot of EVIL OF F about the Baron trying to win back his stolen furniture.)

Since he can’t operate with his scorched mitts, Doc Vic has been assisted by mute Madeline. This is a departure for Smith, since she was basically cast as an ambulatory bosom in most films of the era. Here, both her mammoth bust and tiny voice remain unexploited for most of the film (she gets a few lines at the end). It’s a touchingly inept performance, seemingly modelled on the facial expression you get on a young Springer Spaniel, all big wet eyes, but it’s powerless to mar the film. It’s kind of RIGHT. Smith seems a lovely lady in interviews, although she has a strange tendency to denigrate feminism (I guess a lot of feminists denigrated her and her work), suggesting that the entire women’s movement was the work of flat-chested viragoes jealous of her gigantic attributes (Am I distorting her argument here? Well, a bit).

The Baron is initially quite kindly here, protecting inmates from the cruelty of the warders (Ernst and the inevitable Hans) and the sexual depredations of the Director (fun actor John Stratton, not Terence Fisher). But he’s been using the inmates as a sort of talent pool, harvesting their body parts to create his latest monsterpiece, an eyeless cro-magnon lump of latex in a cage. Body of a genetic throw-back, hands of a master-craftsman, and brain of a musical and mathematical genius, as soon as Cushing can drive the brain’s owner to suicide (hanging by violin string — nasty!).

With Briant now performing the scalpelwork, we get the series’ most graphic and unpleasant operation scene yet, as the chalk-white corpse has his scalp lifted off, a literal skull-cap, and his brain (bigger than we’ve been used to seeing) deposited in the Incredible Bulk. Alone, unshaven and exhausted after the lengthy procedure, Cushing muses to himself, “If I have succeeded this time, then every sacrificewill have been worthwhile.” Add up the body count from the previous films, and those sacrifices could form quite a heap. This is the Baron’s most introspective moment in any of the films, and spoken by the haggard, aged Cushing (always gaunt, but now prematurely shrivelled at 60) it has chilling resonance.

The asylum setting, with its array of novelty inmates (the geezer who thinks he’s God, the cackling lady who spits her medicine out in a scene borrowed, astonishingly, from Kurosawa’s REDBEARD) allows both for echoes of the Val Lewton classic BEDLAM (since we spend all our time inside after the opening sequence, the madhouse becomes the world of the film and vice versa) and the life and work of Sade (and Peter Brook’s film of Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE, which featured future patient of Frankenstein Freddie Jones). It seems apt that a critic suggested a new certificate for REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “The S Certificate — for Sadists Only”.  Although arguably the willing suffering of a horror movie audience is more akin to masochism.

Pathos alert! The monster weeps, as the kindly-yet-demented violinist trapped within the hulking frame is horrified at his new pecs and hirsute appearance. Soon, a Cartesian dilemma presents itself: the body is overpowering the brain, asserting its dominance. Elder could have perhaps explained this with hormones and such, but prefers to mangle his science, as has been traditional throughout the series. But Cushing is undaunted: a more perfect specimen can be created by cross-breeding the artificial man with mute Maddy: “Her true function as a woman can be fulfilled.” This marks a new low for the Baron, who has just been sympathetically recounting the cause of Smith’s traumatic aphasia: attempted rape at the hands of her father. Now he’s proposing to make her brood mare to his orang-utan-man.

Briant, like previous assistants, rebels against this new abomination, resolving to mercy-kill the monster, now descended to subhuman brutishness. But the beast escapes, low-budget mayhem ensues, a past evil is avenged, and then poor Prowse is dismembered by excited inmates, harking back to Cushing’s fate at the hands of the poor in REVENGE. Cushing is injured but undaunted — the monster was a failure, but lessons have been learned. Credits role as he cheerfully sweeps up the debris, planning his next atrocity, with every suggestion that Shane and Maddy will remain by his side, assisting him.

Playful self-reference: Cushing recreates a famous moment from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

It’s a little pedestrian in pacing, but after the uncertain beginning, this film is more than worthy of the series. I actually prefer it to REVENGE and CREATED WOMAN. The Monster is preposterous (and not from Hell) but then, Christopher Lee’s makeup was just a lot of silly putty. The Baron’s theory that a beautiful mind would render those features agreeable was never really put to the test, was it?

What emerges most clearly of all in this film is that the Baron’s plans never work because he is incapable, being inhuman himself, of taking into account human behaviour. He never foresees his creations turning upon him, though they generally have sound reasons to do so, and he is likewise blind to his various assistants’ moral qualms. The series charts the decline of a scientific mind into a quagmire of brutishness, due to its inherent blindness to human nature, the very thing it is seeking to master.

Here endeth the Frankenthon.

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10 Responses to “Frankenstein Must Be Unemployed”

  1. Youre readout of the Baron’s major flaw is absolutely right. He seems to have blinders on about the entire world. He can’t see outside of his own demented head. Other people are simply Bodies to be Used by him to ends that are never really specified because the Using is ALL.

    Madeline Smith may have a balcony you can do Shakespeare from, but I imagine Fisher might have felt its presence would conflict with Dave Prowse’s massive hairy chest — even though the latter is there to frighten rather than arouse.

    The still of the exposed brain reminds me of Ridley Scott’s sadly underrated Hannibal — the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs that I much prefer to the original. To begin with it’s a Giallo — a highlight being a marvelous “Keeping up with the Argentos” dispatching of Giancarlo Giannini. But that’s just a warm-up to the grand finale in which arch-villain Sir Anthony Hopkins serves archer-villain Ray Liotta his own brains to eat — his head open as in the still above. With Dr. Lecter escaping yet again at the end he’s clearly the Baron’s true heir. But as with FATMFH, there won’t be another sequel.

  2. The brain-eating in Hannibal is straight from the book, a very entertaining, if morally bankrupt, bit of grand guignol. I like the Demme film too much to fully embrace any sequels, alas. I like lots of Manhunter too, but Mann does have a tendency to make sweepingly in appropriate directorial choices, and that film eventually suffocates under them, at least in my eyes.
    If I could somehow transplant Brian Cox into Silence of the Lambs in place of Hopkins, I’d be happy.

  3. Dragging things down to the cheap seats again; the self-referential magnifying glass scene here is recreated by Peter Cushing in the actually very funny Zuckers’ Top Secret. Here Cushing, playing Antiquarian Bookstore Owner, is seen in close-up through magnifying glass but when the glass is removed his eye is really VERY VERY BIG.

    I also loved how Joe Dante cast Christopher Lee as Dr Catheter in the delirously, gloriously referential and fun Gremlins II. Any other Hammer spoofs in Hollywood films you can think of?

    I once saw Brian Cox as I was coming off a plane at Prestwick Airport and my first response was autonomic fear – f*** me it’s Hannibal Lector! I did this too with Kevin Mckidd just after the wonderful Small Faces had been released – f*** me it’s Malky Johnson. I’ve obviously got reality issues.

  4. That Top Secret scene is pretty weird stuff — not only is Cushing’s appearance genuinely disturbing, but the whole dialogue scene is conducted backwards, years before Twin Peaks.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve worked behind the scenes, but I never get those reactions to actors. Upon seeing Christopher Walken at Nice Airport, my prevailing emotion was exultation, which would hardly be appropriate if I associated him with most of his roles. “His hair looks GREAT!” I declared, loudly.

    Fiona directed Kevin McKidd in his first film btw, a history we still intend to draw upon sometime.

  5. Christopher Lee has had a remarkable post-Hammer career appearing in all manner of interesting stuff including 1941 (Spielberg’s Party Girl) the Joe Dante mentioned above, and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate factory

  6. Burton’s casting of Lee is highly referential, and his presence in Sleepy Hollow (along with the great Michael Gough) stamps it as a Hammer homage. But there are surprisingly few of its kind — plenty of films directly influenced by the Hammer approach, few references — because it probably doesn’t boost a filmmaker’s credibility to pay tribute to such stuff!

  7. No need to forgive John Elder: that’s Anthony Hind’s nom de plume right there. Perhap perversely, I love the furniture subplot in EVIL. They spend ten minutes discussing how discrete they are going to have to be, and in the space of 30 seconds the Baron manages to insult both the innkeeper and arouse the anger of the police. Brisk work, but Cushing always was a sprightly fella!

    Wayne Kinsey’s book Hammer Studios: The Elstree Years has a picture of the title page of Cushing’s script in it, where the actor has made all sorts of notes, including train times and things to remember about his performance. Some of it is obvious directions to self, such as “Have confidence”, but there are also a couple of odd observances: “Use lips”, “Don’t sniff”, “Don’t grip back of furniture” and my favourite: “Please make my ears less red.”

  8. Beautiful! Am going to have to look into this book. And I can envisage a blog post about just such marginalia. Nicholas Ray used to jot the characters’ thoughts down next to the dialogue so he could help the actors with subtext.
    Yes, I knew either Elder was a pseudonym for Hind or vice versa. At any rate, I knew he was primarily a producer. It shows!

  9. Tomahawk Press ISBN-978-0-9531926-2-5

    That should be of help in finding it! It’s good, actually: just what I was looking for when I trundled int the library on Thursday. He’s done a Bray one too, apparently.

    There’s images of other script pages from Cushing that delve into the mechanics of using all of the old medical instruments and other aspects of early anatomy. Notes on how to open up a skull, for instance! Apparently he used to pop into his GP and ask how it was done!

  10. Is this the book that’s got lots of censor’s notes as well?

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