Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell
Just like the Baron’s creations, Hammer’s Frankenstein movies were always a bit of a hodge podge. Some of them were still great films, don't get me wrong, but the fact that the Baron’s science, backstory and location varied so wildly from film to film suggest that Hammer’s primary concern each time was making a great stand-alone Frankenstein movie, rather than documenting the continuing adventures of their Baron Frankenstein. This is why Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is so great; by the time of this, their last, Frankenstein movie, Hammer had figured out which parts needed sewing together to create the one thing the Baron never could - a well-crafted creation that works exactly as it should.
So the movie has the standard formula of - Frankenstein makes monster, monster gets existentially upset, monster goes bananas, and Frankenstein gets cross. And they have Peter Cushing as the Baron who is, let’s face it, the greatest Frankenstein of all time. The bit where he first appears in The Monster From Hell makes you want to bloody cheer you’re so overjoyed to see him. Because at this point we’ve been following the fortunes of a young, wannabe Frankenstein, so there’s a tickle in the back of your mind wondering whether this is all going to be Blondie’s show with Cushing only as support (a concept you can bet was pitched by some damn fool producer). But after Blondie is broken in the prison he looks up and there’s the real Baron; it’s almost as if Pete wandered into another bloke’s picture and firmly planted the flag of Cushing right in the middle of it. And it’s his damned show from there on out.
They also have a great location, a prison for the criminally insane, which appears in establishing shots as a pretty obvious model for no earthly reason I can see. I mean, I can’t believe the Hammer stock footage library was short of huge, scary buildings somewhere in Central Europe. Maybe a producer’s idiot nephew needed employment - loves making models, but he's the bane of his mum’s existence. Still, if they want to pay someone good money to painstakingly make a model just so they can have lightning on cue, far be it from me to dissuade them. I love a good model as much as I love a good set. Mind you, I suppose one of the things Hammer understood about Frankenstein movies is that the more contained the world the better, it is all about the laboratory after all. In this case, the Baron is holed up in this prison, pretending to be the prison doctor even though he’s really an inmate, through the medium of unspecified blackmail which I initially put down to the usual ‘Who cares? Let’s get to the rampage!’ method of plotting in Frankenstein movies, but does in this case does come with a nice kicker at the end. Which is another example of how by the time they make The Monster From Hell they have not only figured out what they’re doing, they have also discovered how to use the things they have to their greatest effect. Like setting the movie in a prison; because I suppose all the Frankenstein movies are about escape from confinement really aren’t they? The Baron believes science needs to be released from the confines of morality, people’s brains are always being taken out of their skulls, his creations are always breaking out of cages or chains, and the people close to the Baron are always looking to escape from the hold he has over them. And there’s this end of the rainbow that the Baron is always seeking; that if one of his creations will only, once, bloody WORK and not try and kill everyone then at last he will be free of persecution and repression. He puts everyone around him in chains of one sort or another because he honestly believes it will be worth it in the end. He will be free, the monster will be free, humanity will be free… I suppose that’s why they’re such gothic tragedies, because the Baron is doomed to never be free. But he is also doomed to believe that one day he will.
But it’s never just about the Baron, it’s also about the suffering of everyone around him. And if you tell those characters’ stories well, then you tell the Baron’s well too, because everything he does depends on the calculated destruction of other people’s lives. If you don’t care about those people, it’s very difficult to care about any of it. The nice thing about Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell is that everyone in it has a story, just like the body parts the Baron is always trying to sew together. There’s Blondie with his journey from ‘I’d like to be like the Baron because power over life and death seems like a jolly wheeze!’ to ‘Nope! Sorry! Where’s the door?’ The casting is spot on too. They haven’t hired the usual Blandy Blanderson they normally go to for the Baron’s gullibly ambitious assistant. They’ve gone for a proper Nazi SS officer looking bugger who has a sort of coldly ruthless charm just like Cushing, but his deference to Cushing as an actor as well as a character make their partnership work really well. There’s an interesting female lead too, a mute resident of the asylum who assists the Baron as Doctor and mad scientist. Usually the female lead is just a helpless relative or somebody’s true love who isn’t there to do much except scream and back away very slowly from an advancing monster, or tug on people’s shirt sleeves while imploring them to leave. But here she’s the personification of hope for every lunatic in the prison, they almost worship her. Presumably because she looks nice, as opposed to literally everything else they have to look at, and also because she never says anything, which is a nice illustration of a lunatic’s chief desire - peace and quiet. What better escape from the voices of doctors asking you questions, jailers ordering you about or the voices in your own head screaming every bleeding moment of every bleeding day, than a nice looking nurse who never says a word. Again, they know in these movies that at some point the female lead needs to be in danger from the monster, but by the time of The Monster From Hell they’re learned that there can be more at stake than just the fact that she’s a) a girl and b) in peril. So when the Baron wants to sacrifice her (in a plan so weird no-one even asks how it would work, presumably for fear of finding out), it causes an explosion of consequences that could only exist by having the female lead be a real character. It shocks Blondie into deserting the Baron, forces her to confront the tragic event that led to her being mute, helps the monster escape, and eventually causes its death when it is literally ripped to pieces when the lunatics think it’s trying to harm her.
And the poor old monster is a cracker too. Yes, it’s the bloke who played Darth Vader in a silly and not terribly convincing suit. But it’s an old monster film, so of course it’s going to be a bloke in a suit. I really like the fact that it looks like a monster not because of anything the Baron did, but because the guy looked like that before Frankenstein got anywhere near him. He sews some new hands on, and sticks a new brain in; but the horrible, hulking, hairy monster that is so terrifying Hammer feel OK about describing it as ‘From Hell’ and being at least reasonably confident that people won’t demand their money back, has always looked like that. So, presumably, he went to the shops, had a drink in his local, maybe even went out on a date or two, looking like a monster from hell. No wonder he went homicidally bananas.
I’d say, all in all, Monster From Hell is one of my favourite Frankenstein movies because they knew what they were doing, and they did it really well. Don’t let anybody tell you that Hammer in the 1970’s was lazy and tired and running on empty. Monster From Hell proves they weren’t out of ideas, they just knew sometimes you only need one idea, as long as you do it right. Speaking of which…