Blu-ray Review: Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974)

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell BR CoverDistributor: Icon Home Entertainment

BBFC Classification: 15

Director: Terence Fisher

Starring: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, Dave Prowse, Madeline Smith, Patrick Troughton, Bernard Lee

By the time Hammer got round round to making Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell it was very clear that the tide had turned in terms of what audiences wanted from their horror films. George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead had done much to change the landscape back in 1968 and since then horror films had moved into a modern world setting, making most of Hammer’s early ’70s output look outdated and old-fashioned. The Exorcist upped the ante again in 1973 and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would emerge a year later, cementing the 1970s as the era for grittier, grimier and more realistic horror films, but in amongst all of these game changers Hammer decided they had one more Frankenstein story to tell and, after the misstep of 1970′s The Horror of Frankenstein – a sub-par reboot of the franchise with Ralph Bates replacing Peter Cushing as the Baron – would bring back a few familiar faces to try and put some of the old magic back into the series.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell sees Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing – Dracula/The Curse of Frankenstein) operating under the name of Dr. Carl Victor and working as the doctor in an insane asylum. He has information on the corrupt warden and is allowed free reign amongst the patients to do as he pleases, and when new inmate Simon Helder (Shane Briant – Captain Cronos – Vampire Hunter) reveals he is a doctor and a follower of Frankenstein’s work he is taken under the Baron’s wing as his assistant in looking after the other inmates.

Helder discovers that Frankenstein is still conducting his experiments in trying to create a man and is killing off the other inmates to supply the body parts needed. However, once the ape-like creature receives it’s new brain, helpfully donated by a brilliant professor who was tricked into suicide by Frankenstein, and begins to remember certain things from it’s former life it goes on a rampage throughout the institution.

There is a feeling throughout Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell that the film is marking the end of something; in fact, it was marking the end of a few things, not least the career of its director Terence Fisher. Fisher had worked for Hammer long before they had gotten involved in making horror films but had been the man they turned to when The Curse of Frankenstein had gone into production in the mid-1950s and ever since then he had become one of Hammer’s most prolific directors, putting his name to several classics such as Dracula, The Mummy, The Devil Rides Out and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Since directing Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed in 1969 Fisher had become ill and Hammer had gone with other directors to keep up their catalogue of work but he returned for this picture, which turned out to be his last.

It was also the final time that Peter Cushing would play the role of Victor Frankenstein. His last appearance had been in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, a brutal film that saw the Baron fully embrace the evil side of his character, resorting to rape to get what he wants. Since then, Hammer had turned to Ralph Bates for their next Frankenstein film and Cushing had gone through the trauma of losing his beloved wife, after which the actor took a step back from leading roles for a while and also saw his physical appearance change as his features became more gaunt. However, after a couple of turns playing Van Helsing to Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Cushing returned to play the Baron again and, despite his aged appearance and mildly comic wig (Cushing commented on the Hammer Films documentary Flesh & Blood that the wig made him look like actress Helen Hayes, although there is also a similarity to Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious from Universal’s The Bride of Frankenstein), the actor proved he still had the chops to deliver a top-drawer performance.

The film itself is a deliberate attempt to tap into the grisly Gothic horror of 1957′s The Curse of Frankenstein which, when you consider the campy quasi-comic direction that The Horror of Frankenstein was aiming towards, wasn’t a bad idea. On the most part the film succeeds in recreating the Gothic atmosphere of Hammer’s early horrors and the lack of humanity in the character of the Baron is reflected in the stark surroundings of the asylum. As you would expect, the performances from the main cast are all excellent, with Cushing displaying all the grace and cunning that he had given to the role over the previous sixteen years, and both Shane Briant as Simon and Madeline Smith as Frankenstein’s female assistant Sarah both proving to be a likeable pair of characters.

The only real letdown, and it was pretty much the same for all the previous Hammer Frankenstein films (with the exception of The Curse of Frankenstein), was with the creature itself. Dave Prowse (Darth Vader in the original Star Wars films) was the only actor to play the creature twice in the Hammer series and his appearance here was very different to the way he looked in The Horror of Frankenstein, the crude attempt at recreating the classic creature look in that film replaced with a very fake-looking ape man costume. Quite why it’s appearance is how it is never really gets explained and although the film needed to have a creature that was more than just a man with a scar on his head – which Hammer had favoured in the previous few films – it was a little too pantomime-looking to really compete with the emerging horror icons from the US, like Leatherface or Romero’s flesh-eating zombies.

But unlike Universal’s films in the 1930s and ’40s, Hammer’s Frankenstein series wasn’t necessarily about the creature and was more about the Baron, and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell saw the character bow out in a fitting finale. The film itself is one of Hammer’s most gruesome and bloodiest and the Blu-ray transfer does the film justice, the previously trimmed scenes fully restored to give you the maximum amount of gore, and the two featurettes on the disc make for interesting viewing, giving some detailed background to the production and a touching tribute to Terence Fisher. With regards to where it ranks in the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell sits roughly in the middle but as a swansong to the series it is a better film than you would probably expect so if you’re a Hammer fan then you owe it to yourself to pick this disc up to add to your collection, although newbies may find it a little grim for an introduction to the franchise.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell

Special Features: Audio commentary by stars Shane Briant and Madeline Smith, Taking Over the Asylum: The Making of Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell featurette, Charming Evil: Terence Fisher at Hammer featurette, animated stills gallery.

UK Release Date: 28th April 2014

Icon Film Distribution – Website
Hammer Films – Website

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