Wednesday, October 31, 2012


HAPPY HALLOWEEN! You didnt think a Hurricane would stop the empire, did you? There was no way in HELL I wasnt gonna have Pink Smoke contributor; Ian Loffill as a guest writer for this Halloween-themed special. Dont get me wrong, the horror genre isnt the only thing Ian knows about (just read his recent write-ups on Henry Fool & Out For Justice on the pink smoke). But thanks to his old myspace page and his current blog (Notes & Scribblings) I've been put on to quite a few forgotten about/underrated and/or misunderstood horror films over these last few years.

By the early 1970s things were looking bleak for Hammer. Besides the British film industry going through one of its routine crisis periods, Hammer were facing competition in their own Horror market in the form of Amicus and later Tyburn and Tigon. Cinemas were closing across Britain and US distribution money had dried up. Hammer’s style was unfashionable at this stage and other Horror films of this era were moving away from castles, cobwebs and cemeteries to present day settings in films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hammer were trying to keep up with trends and a sign of how clueless they were in this respect manifested itself in the unintentionally funny Dracula A.D. 1972. Their biggest grossing efforts by this stage were appalling sex comedies like On the Buses. It was a desperate time and yet during this period some truly excellent films emerged under difficult circumstances, notably Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Vampire Circus, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. Sadly a lot of this good work went unheralded as the studio drew closer to its eventual demise.

Initially Monster from Hell was regarded as a failure. Finished in 1972 but released in 1974, it’s never been entirely clear why it sat on the shelf for so long. It was granted an X certificate and opened to dismal box office and got generally dismissive reviews which cited it as too grim. For me it’s a case of a great film that came along at the wrong time, being released in the same year as the Mel Brooks spoof Young Frankenstein amongst other things. Of all the Hammer Frankenstein pictures it’s the hardest to get hold of and is quite often seen in a cut version with certain gore scenes trimmed. A frequent criticism is that the Victorian mental asylum setting is too restrictive and confined for the action taking place, obviously a budgetary factor. Peter Cushing even joked that his wig made him look like Helen Hayes. Most agree it’s “the one with the crappy looking monster” and the film’s major defect is indeed the Neolithic monster itself. The monster was quite often an afterthought in these films, as it was the doctor himself who was the real focus of the films. David Prowse had already played the monster in The Horror of Frankenstein and only fares slightly better in the role here. This is no Monster From Hell but a pitiful, suffering and hideous creation. No one goes to see Hammer films for high quality monster make-up effects but Prowse does look particularly feeble next to the iconic performances of Christopher Lee, Michael Gwynn and Freddie Jones as the Baron’s creations in previous films in the series. Depending on whom you ask the film is either a nice low key finale (my view) or a tired, overdue farewell from a studio at the end of its tether. Hammer scholars are divided on the films merits. David Pirie in his book ‘A New Heritage of Horror’ and Sinclair McKay in ‘A Thing of Unspeakable Horror’ both give damming assessments of the film, seeing it as unfortunate failure and the “dying croak” of the series. More favourable opinions are expressed in Jonathan Rigby’s ‘English Gothic’ and Barnes and Hearn’s ‘The Hammer Story’.

Although he was the central focus of the series, it wasn’t just about the Baron and the series would have memorable additions over the years. The old Hammer crew weren’t all there in Monster From Hell but there were some mainstays returning. The script was a dusted off effort by Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder), who had left the studio a few years earlier. The script is full of humorous touches and certain ironies. Hammer stalwart James Bernard provides an effectively dour score. There are some surprisingly sensitive portrayals of the mental patients, played by the likes of Charles Lloyd Pack and Lucy Griffiths. Among the new faces, Madeline Smith as mute patient Sarah effectively becomes the conscience of the film while Shane Briant as Simon Helder is a very effective protégé. His confidence and disregard for conventional society is reminiscent of Cushing’s performance in the original Curse of Frankenstein and as the film goes on you get the sense that the Baron sees something of his younger self in Helder; his boundless curiosity and recklessness. Even Helder though begins to question Frankenstein’s methods as the story progresses.

The Hammer Frankenstein series evolved in interesting ways, although I prefer to think of the other two Hammer Frankensteins which didn’t involve director Terence Fisher (1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein and 1970’s atrocious prequel Horror of Frankenstein) as misguided detours. The 5 films by Fisher with Peter Cushing starring are all excellent but their stature is far from equal in filmdom and even amongst Hammer fans. The Curse of Frankenstein has rightfully attained classic status and along with 1958’s Dracula, established Hammer’s identity and brand name. Frankenstein Created Woman won the wholesome praise of Martin Scorsese at an NFT season. The Revenge of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also have their admirers and are regarded as fine continuations of the series but Monster from Hell clearly stands apart from the other 4 in reputation. As good as they are individually the Cushing/Fisher films have a cumulative value that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Memories of earlier films in the series add texture. The films now seem to play off each other, add layers and distinction and by this final chapter achieve a poignancy that is remarkable. A wonderful understated scene has the Baron admitting to not having felt so elated since the events of the first film but admits “that was a long time ago.” Like all great macabre entertainment it’s riveting but at the same time hard to watch, seeing the all too human error that brings about these ruined efforts. Peter Cushing’s performance as Baron Frankenstein is one of cinema’s greatest extended character studies. Callous, witty and amoral, he’s one of the most compelling antiheroes to ever grace a Horror film. The subtle touches he added to the character over the course of the series are remarkable. Thanks to Cushing’s performances we are compelled by what drives the doctor but are repulsed by the consequences of his actions. The Baron is almost a mythical figure at this stage, many daren’t speak his name. In this film he has faked his death and is conducting his experiments in a Victorian State asylum for the criminally insane. The doctor chastises the director of the asylum for maltreatment of patients, showing the contradictory nature of the character. His introduction is certainly striking; clad in black he is almost synonymous with death by this time. Known as the “gentle man of Horror”, Freddie Francis felt that Cushing was the best thing that ever happened to Hammer. The early 1970s was a period of grievance for the actor, having lost his wife to emphysema. Trying to cope with the loss he took on an increasingly prolific workload. Cushing looks shockingly gaunt here, tired and overworked like his character. This stage of his career contains some of his finest work, including his performance in Monster from Hell, his obsessive puritan witch-hunter in Twins of Evil, the malevolent shopkeeper in From Beyond the Grave and perhaps best of all, his unforgettable turn as Arthur Grimsdyke in the “Poetic Justice” segment of Tales from the Crypt. There’s an unmistakable melancholic quality to Cushing’s performances at this point (and his performance in Tales from the Crypt is downright heartbreaking) but also a very dark humour creeps through. His obsessive Baron has become an outcast, coming to terms with past failures and trying to salvage something from the wreckage of his life’s work. He remarks, “If I succeed this time then every sacrifice will have been worthwhile”.

Director Terence Fisher was nearing 70 when he made the film. Low on confidence, allegedly prone to heavy drinking and in poor health, it would prove to be his final picture. Fisher and Cushing both contested with Hammer on certain issues – specifically the title, aspects of the script and the appearance of the monster (which Fisher had wanted to be more human but clearly he lost the argument) but their objections went largely unheeded. The ending hints at further adventures for the Baron and Helder but from the tone of the film Fisher and Cushing surely knew that this would be their last in the series. One of the last lines “It’s all over now. All over.” speaks volumes as does Cushing’s mournful expression. It perhaps was meant to signify Frankenstein’s tireless, obsessive nature that he is already planning his next experiment.
When the horror genre’s practitioners decided in the 1970s to largely reject the past the effect was sadly a lasting one. I still find contemporary genre films are too rooted in the present to be wholly effective - many already seem dated within a couple of years. There’s no shortage of contemporary anxieties to examine but by ignoring the genre’s gothic roots they tend to lose the timeless appeal of horror tales, something that you can still find in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. It never got the recognition it deserved and while some of the shortcomings detractors point to are valid, they all too often ignore its strengths. Considering the circumstances – an anachronistic picture made with Cushing grieving, Fisher ailing and Hammer itself in terminal decline - it’s the unlikeliest of triumphs and somehow fits the themes of the film itself. The history of the series on and off screen is part of its identity, making it a dignified and relatively subdued farewell. For me it provides perfect closure to a classic series, and how often does that happen? The disdain that some have for this film is slightly baffling, given that it seems to be a classic case of Hammer doing what it so often did best: Gothic Horror with a Home Counties flavour, made with meagre resources but also a tireless spirit, ingenuity and enthusiasm.


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