And we’re back! Or should I say, “We’re Alive!” ?
2018 marks 200-years since Mary Shelley‘s Gothic novel graced the imaginations of the budding genre audience. So to celebrate, we here at Retro Reviews will be taking a look back at the various versions of the creature and his eponymous creator.
First up, a must watch piece of cinema that comes from the film house that saved Gothic horror after a decade of giant monster movies. Namely, Hammer Films Ltd. U.K., the home of such favorites as Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and many other potential future subjects for this column.
But, our focus tonight comes on a neglected masterpiece of the Peter Cushing– Frankenstein films, 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman, which allowed everyone’s favorite body-stealing Baron to take the contravention of natural law to a new level. And gave gender identity issues the unique Hammer twist.
In this film, there’s no Bride waiting for a horror hunk to save the day, but has the Beauty and the Beast coexist in the same headspace. Confused? Well, that’s point, partially.
Written by Anthony Hinds and directed by Hammer regular Terrence Fisher (The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, The Devil Rides Out), this edition has everyone’s favorite mad scientist joined by genre vet Thorley Walters (best known as the 50’s version of Dr. Watson), playing caddie to the Baron and relative newcomer Susan Denberg, who takes over the screen as the double-minded monster heroine, Christina.
Following the tenor of the times, Hinds’ script stretched the thematic tone of the Frankenstein myth by letting a female version of the monster get in on the gory fun. But the movie throws us a curve-ball in its opening as it focuses on the traumatic childhood of an impoverished villager named Hans (Robert Morris), who witnessed the guillotining of his perennially drunk father at the hands of the authorities for the crime of murder.
With a backstory like that, it’s no wonder that hapless Hans ends up under the influence of Herr Baron and his endless quest to conquer the powers of death and nature. This time, the good doctor has perfected a device that captures the soul before it has a chance to leave the body (no word on that 21 gram measurement) and places into a corpse of Frankenstein’s choosing.
Hans biggest problem, however, is his frustrated quest to tie down Christina despite the objections of her sneering father, whose middle-class prejudice is ably portrayed by Ivan Bevis.
Hans is a dutiful and earnest suitor to the partially deformed Christina, who despite her purity of spirit, is mocked ruthlessly by a trio of aristocratic thugs, led by a spoiled trust-funder named Anton, played with slimy perfection by Peter Blythe. (You’ll want to punch him yourself after he calls Bevis “Landlord” for the first time.)
After a violent encounter with the Top-Hatters, Hans, who understandably has some anger issues, makes a number of terroristic threats towards them and Christina’s father. And, of course, when the trio of slimeballs kill Christina’s dad in a drunken fit, it’s Hans who takes the fall for the crime. He soon meets the same fate as his father. Virtuous Christina, without father or lover, pulls an Ophelia and throws herself into the river.
Then the fun begins, as Cushing’s Baron decides to both preserve Hans’ soul and create the perfect woman, all in one fell stroke (though why he thinks putting a man’s soul in a woman’s body equals perfection is a matter of interpretation).
True to form, the Baron’s little gender-twisting experiment starts off fine. The reborn, remodeled Christina is the perfect form of loveliness in both body and spirit. Until we discover that Hans is compelling the body of the woman he now inhabits to first seduce and then murder his former tormentors. Not quite out of the standard mad-killer playbook…
It’s this subtext that makes Frankenstein Created Woman stand out from the Hammer movies of this late 60’s period. The formula of “Brits, Blood and Boobs” was well-worn by this time, though all these elements are certainly present. And even the female monster, by this time, was not a new convention as Barbara Shelley and others had taken their turn at scaring the audience.
But the inner confusion of Christina, played with surprising efficiency by Denberg, pulls the film into some fresh ground. As you play through the mental calculus of a woman, who has a man’s soul, using her feminine wiles to seduce men, who are allured by her because she knows how to push the right sexual buttons… Well, you could spend a lot of money on the analyst’s couch over that one.
San Francisco horror host legend, John Stanley, called Frankenstein Created Woman “a horror film for transsexuals.” While maybe a slight exaggeration, it proves again my old adage that horror movies dive into subject matter other films won’t touch with fearless gusto. And does so with enough subtly and nuance, that genre fans, whatever their orientation, can understand and sympathize with the protagonist’s/monster’s suffering in a seamless fashion.
However, there’s enough conventional horror movies moments to satisfy even the most conservative of fans. (so to speak) Cushing is at his villainous best as Frankenstein, ranting about the ignorance of the villagers, ordering the frazzled Walters around, flipping through the Bible with icy contempt in an inspired courtroom scene.
Denberg is also very good in the Christina role, pitiable before her transformation and smoldering after it. Unfortunately, her career in film after 1967 was short and not so sweet, as the Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll ethos of the decade soon overwhelmed the German-born beauty. She retreated to the land of her birth and has spent the years since in quiet seclusion, away from the glare of the movie lens.
It’s too bad as Frankenstein Created Woman stands as an under appreciated film in the annals of horror. Trust me, fright fans, this little gem makes for better late night brain candy than Victor, Victoria ever will.