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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ Ended an Era With a Masterful Fairytale for Adults [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect Frankenstein Created Woman (1967).

The Context

During the production of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), the producers at Hammer Studios were already hard at work planning a third entry in what was promising to be a very lucrative franchise. After creating multiple male monstrosities, it was decided that the next logical step for the Baron would be to turn his sights on the opposite sex. Drawing inspiration from a French film that had been paired with Hammer’s own Quatermass 2 (1957) called Et Dieu Créa la Femme (1956) (And God Created Woman), a sequel was proposed under the working title And Then Frankenstein Created Woman.

The approaching decade brought significant change to the studio and, despite their intentions, it would be another six years before Hammer returned to the tale of Baron Victor Frankenstein. However, due to a newly inked production deal with Universal Studios, Sangster’s female twist on the monster was pushed to the side in lieu of realizing the classic, more iconic look of the Baron’s unholy creature on screen. Instead of turning the series in a bold, new direction, The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) brought the Baron back to his castle, threw away the bulk of the series’ continuity and provided Hammer with the opportunity to realize the classic Hollywood look of Frankenstein’s monster through their own lens, without the fear of a lawsuit from Universal.

By the time Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) came along, Hammer had traversed most of the 60’s, altering its approach to classic material in an effort to maintain its former bite and relevance. Much of its slate had begun to push more toward the erotic and lewd in response to the loosening censorship and changing tides of popular horror cinema. It wasn’t just the creative landscape that was changing either, as financial instabilities had made Hammer’s Bray Studios homestay a liability. Indeed, Frankenstein Created Woman and its partner film, The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), would be the final two films shot at the iconic studio, marking the end of an era for Hammer that spanned back to the early 1950s.

The film reunited the brain trust behind the first two Frankenstein films: director Terence Fisher, producer Anthony Hinds (writing under his John Elder pseudonym) and the Baron himself, Peter Cushing. Hinds’ script represented a radical shift in the direction of the series, as though in response to the ways in which the previous installment had played it so safe with the character and themes. Venturing away from the purely physical aims of the series’ past, the story explored the spiritual, conceptual and preternatural elements of life and death, pitting Frankenstein’s intellect against the existential philosophy of existence, desperately trying to take hold of that which humanity has never truly been able to grasp.

At a time of significant genre experimentation, Fisher and Hinds seized the opportunity to pull away from the sleaze and exploitation the studio was so expected to deliver and crafted a smaller, simpler entry that managed to delve deeper into the mind, body and soul than any other Frankenstein film that had come before it. Fitting too that it was one of the last to shoot at Bray Studios, the home of Hammer and the walls that saw the birth of its first horror franchise— for what better way to acknowledge the end, than with the Baron’s insistence that the end is simply a state of mind.

The Film

“For one hour my body had died. And yet, my soul remained. Now, why? Where was it? Was it- was it… trapped… within me? Could it be trapped forever? Could I- could I… trap it myself?”

A guillotine towers over the frame, just as one did in the opening moments of The Revenge of Frankenstein. Despite the memories this image seems to intentionally call to mind, the instrument of death is not awaiting the arrival of the titular Baron this time, but rather a small town resident who has been branded a murderer. The blade slams downward and the man in question appears struggling in the arms of two policemen amidst a dreary field of fog and sparse grass. The man cackles drunkenly as he’s ushered to his demise, shortly thereafter joined by a Priest and, to his chagrin, his young son.

The doomed’s demeanor shifts; gone is the delirious drunkard, in his place a sincere father shouting at his son, demanding that the boy run. His son obeys. The execution proceeds to its inevitable end, but not before the youth makes his return. He and his father lock eyes just as the blade releases, sliding swiftly down its wooden track leading to the exposed skin of the accused man’s bare neck. The son turns and flees as the bloodied blade is reset, primed for the next poor soul to place their head before its unyielding path.

Right from the start, Frankenstein Created Woman is something different than what has come before, its ghostly introduction ushering in a fairy-tale like set up exploring the nature of justice, fate and inherited social standing. Director Terence Fisher employs an elegant simplicity to the storytelling and visuals that allows the film to feel more at home amongst the Brothers Grimm’s dark outings than it does Hammer’s output at the time.

The years pass quickly and, as though he’s been ethereally standing before the instrument of death that took his father for over a decade, the boy is grown. His name is Hans, played as an adult by Robert Morris in a ceaselessly compelling performance, and he is in the employment of a doctor named Hertz and the infamous Baron Victor Frankenstein. In the nearby village, Dr. Hertz, played with equal parts aloofness, wonderment and deceiving adeptness by Hammer regular Thorley Walters, is on the cusp of completing an experiment, desperately eyeing his watch as though life were on the line.

Hans joins Dr. Hertz and together they throw open a compact, square door to reveal a wave of mist and a frozen metal coffin. Inside, covered in frost as his hands shield his face, is Frankenstein, once again portrayed by the inimitable Peter Cushing. More of a myth than a man at this point, it’s the Baron’s first act of the film to be resurrected from death through the actions of Dr. Hertz, signaling a significant shift in his own supreme ambitions. Resurrection could now be achieved by following simple instruction— still, life was far more than bodily sentience.

The scene proceeding Frankenstein’s emergence from his frozen grave is simultaneously a nod to the three films that have preceded this one and an opportunity for the Baron himself to explain why such laboratory exploits needed to evolve. In the wake of Dr. Hertz and Hans’ familiar act of electrifying resurrection, Frankenstein rises from death and, instead of celebrating the success of the experiment that might’ve been the culmination of his labors in previous films, spends his time pontificating on the illusive nature of the human soul.

It’s this ideology that makes it necessary for the character of Frankenstein to take a backseat in the narrative. Given the intangible nature of that which Frankenstein is attempting to harness, the Baron must observe, know and even nurture the inherent goodness and personalities of those around him to succeed. In this way, he can identify the human soul and uniquely position himself to capture and transport such an entity should the opportunity arise.

Terence Fisher had dealt with the soul in multiple films before this one, exploring its capacity for good and evil in films like The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and The Phantom of the Opera (1962). But it’s in Frankenstein Created Woman that his findings are most potent, allowing for the narrative’s god-like overseer, perhaps a proxy for the director himself, to bear witness and take action in equal measure. In this way, the film sets out to distill the essences of its characters while calling attention to civilized society’s staggering inability to nurture them.

Hans’ story exists separate from the Baron’s for a time, the opening of the film serving as a darkly beautiful monument to his trauma and the small-minded expectations that the little town has boxed him within. Still, he has made his way in life and even found love with an innkeeper’s daughter named Christina. With half of her face disfigured and the left side of her body partially paralyzed, Christina too has met with discrimination, cruelty and a lack of acceptance, even from her own father. However, with Hans she feels whole, almost normal. Indeed, in the quiet of their bed together, if only for a moment, she feels beautiful.

Christina is played by Susan Denberg in one of Hammer Studios’ best, most sympathetic performances. Her pain and frailty is etched deeply in her eyes and as she transitions throughout the film into something more and more sinister, the path she weaves is made all the more authentic by her poignant work. While Denberg’s dialogue had to be looped in post-production by actress Nikki Van der Zyl due to her Austrian accent, her turn is defined by her physicality and her mannerisms, even the subtlest glance carrying with it a well of unspoken emotionality.

As in most fairy tales, the town has its wolves as well as its lambs. Anton, Johann and Karl, played despicably by Peter Blythe, Derek Fowlds and Barry Warren respectively, are the progeny of the small community’s upper crust. These men are the embodiment of what is wrong with the aristocracy, not only refusing to acknowledge their fellow man as equal but going so far as to treat them as servants, indentured to their arbitrary status.

Hans’ tale comes to a climax when the three malicious dandies openly disrespect Christina. He fights them off, scarring Anton’s face in the process. And when the three later sneak back into the inn and accidentally kill Christina’s father in a fight, they take the opportunity to frame Hans, leading to the fruition of a fatal fate long been promised to him. Meanwhile, Frankenstein has been experimenting in his lab, not with bodies, but with energy. He has moved beyond the physiology of man and set his sights on the power of the celestial. In line with the film’s fairy-tale leanings, his science here is akin to a Fairy Godmother’s magic wand and, in many ways, just as powerful.

Hans is put to death in the same spot as his father, and, like his father, in the presence of that who it is he loves the most. For just as Hans’ head is placed beneath the blade, Christina emerges from an approaching carriage. Again, in a film more interested in cruelty than it is in scares, this scene marks the fracturing of not one, but two souls, as the abrupt loss of her lover leads Christina to the edge of a bridge and the decision to take her own life.

It’s here that Frankenstein begins to take a more active role in the story. Acquiring both the bodies of Hans and Christina, he extrapolates Hans’s soul and, with the help of Dr. Hertz’s capable hands, rebuilds and repairs Christina’s body. As it is often suggested in stories of the deepest romance, the two lovers become one in body, soul and mind— only here, the sentiment is anything but metaphorical.

Christina acquires the perfect face and functioning form she’d always dreamt, but at the cost of those same dreams. That is, her price for beauty is her memory and, in many ways, her mind. What becomes of her is a soul trapped between worlds, dominated by an angry and damaged spirit driven toward revenge.

Christina’s actions fluctuate between those of an innocent child and a murderous seductress, her body being used to lure Anton, Johann and Karl to their demise in precisely the way a man would think to use it. Again, Susan Denberg proves an invaluable component of the film’s impressive machinations, ushering the gender-bending nuances of Christina’s inner turmoil to endlessly fascinating narrative ends.

While the final act of the film offers most of the “horror” advertised in the trailers, even Christina’s scantily clad exploits of bloody vengeance are photographed in subtle, provocative ways. Fisher crafts the attacks with heavy shadow and striking hues of colorful light. Each attack on one of the men who condemned Hans is an assault on Christina’s damaged soul, cautionary tales of what it is to disrupt the natural order of life and death, even in the name of the soul.

Frankenstein Created Woman is an amalgam of all of the themes Terence Fisher had been exploring throughout his career, a visually lyrical fairy-tale for adults that hews more closely to “Cinderella” than to its franchise brethren. With a stellar score from James Bernard, beautiful, naturalistic photography from cinematographer Arthur Grant, transformative sets from Bernard Robinson and Hinds’ stellar script, the film was a reminder of what Hammer Studios and its talent could accomplish with a shared vision that harkened back to their “Golden Age”.

In the end, not a guillotine but the precipice of a cliff faces down Christina while the Baron is forced to watch. Having reckoned with her true identities, Christina seeks the fate she and Hans were ordained to live out, not the one unceremoniously forced upon them. There’s a natural order to things and the soul is no exception to that. Frankenstein must once more face the truth of both his success and his failure. Like a boy watching the demise of his father, so too must Frankenstein face the kind of distinctly human choice that his own inhumanity precludes him from grasping.

The Bonus Features

This release comes equipped with a new 2K scan from the original film elements from Shout! in a big step up from Millennium Media’s 2014 transfer, presented in its original 1.67:1 aspect ratio. Detail is sharp and colors stand out (particularly reds), accentuating Arthur Grant’s naturalistic lighting style and giving the movie a more filmic look than the prior transfer. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is sharp as well, allowing the score to flourish while maintaining dialogue and sound effects making for an altogether immersive experience. As is typically the case, Shout! Factory’s presentation equals the majesty of the film and provides its definitive home viewing experience.

Audio Commentary, by Derek Fowlds, Robert Morris and Jonathan Rigby

(2014, Millennium Entertainment)

Actors Derek Fowlds and Robert Morris sit down to discuss their recollections of the production and their time with Hammer as historian and author Jonathan Rigby moderates in this informative track ported over from the 2014 UK Blu-ray release of Frankenstein Created Woman.

The actors talk about the trials and tribulations of filming, the stunt work, the attractive co-stars and the constant battle raging with the censors. While their memories can get a bit hazy, the conversation is a delightful and illuminating one for fans of the film. Jonathan Rigby is a wealth of knowledge, adding invaluable insight and contextual history to the chat, making the track an engaging listen from start to finish.

Audio Commentary, by Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr

(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

Film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr return for another Hammer commentary track, this time heaping praise and providing an in depth analysis on Frankenstein Created Woman.

Calling it one of Terence Fisher’s best movies, the two explore this “dark fairy tale for adults” from every cinematic angle. With an original, annotated script in hand, this track breaks down the entire creative process of the film, showing how ideas and performance decisions evolved from the page to the screen. Peppered with fun anecdotes, like Cushing being referred to as “props Peter” on set due to his proclivity for producing his own props and Terence Fisher’s refusal to storyboard in lieu of allowing the actors to block themselves in a space, this commentary is an informative, entertaining and scholarly way to experience the film.

In the absence of a “making of” documentary, this is the most essential feature on the disc and the best way to break down and digest the film’s heady thematics. It’s a conversation infused with a deep love, understanding and respect for Hammer Studios, the creatives involved and the film itself.

Interview with Robert Morris (11:19)

(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

Actor Robert Morris reflects on playing Hans in Frankenstein Created Woman in this casual and informative interview. He talks about bringing a method mentality to the character, offering insight to the part that Fisher himself admitted he hadn’t considered. He laughs about the bedroom sequence with actress Susan Denberg and how nervous the “nude” scene had made him. He goes on to discuss the elaborate choreography of the fight at the inn, the multiple sessions it took to make a mold of his own head and the two extra days of filming he got paid for to lie on a slab as a headless corpse since Hammer was uninterested in paying to have a double of his body made. The interview is a bite-sized window into the production and an enjoyable one at that.

Creating Frankenstein Created Woman (12:13)

(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

Camera Assistant and Clapper Loader Eddie Collins and 2nd Assistant Director Joe Marks each share stories about their roles and working conditions on Frankenstein Created Woman as well as in the industry at large during the time the film was made.

They talked about their average working hours (8:30am – 5:30pm) and the process that was in place to “call a quarter” to finish a shot or to move to overtime, i.e. 7:30pm. They wax a bit about the strength of the unions at the time and the more sensible ways in which the industry was run. They largely discuss the more technical aspects of making a movie and the harmonious working relationship much of the crew had with Hammer Studios and the creatives who ran the sets.

It’s a fascinating way to explore the production of the film and a time capsule for an artistic industry that is almost unrecognizable today. For those interested in film production, this feature comes highly recommended.

Hammer Glamour (44:10)

(2013, Flashpoint Media Production for Hammer)

Ported over from the 2014 UK Blu-ray release, this documentary seeks to explore the many beautiful women who appeared in Hammer’s films over the years as well as the impact of their “sex symbol” status on their psyches and careers.

Featuring interviews with Valerie Leon, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, Madeline Smith and more, the feature serves as a companion piece to Marcus Hearn’s book of the same name. The documentary covers a multitude of films and women in its brief runtime, ultimately tracking the important role these women played in Hammer’s success and the increasing pressure both the actresses and the studio were under to further disrobe as the decades wore on.

Ultimately, the feature is a bit too brief to reach too many grand conclusions, but it does raise some interesting questions about the long term cost of dedicating one’s body to public glamour and the obligations, constrictions and mental toll that takes on the person beneath the beauty.

World of Hammer – Peter Cushing (24:44)

(1990, Hammer Film Productions)

One of two episodes of the 1990 World of Hammer TV series included on the disc, this one is focused on the work of Peter Cushing.

Narrated by Oliver Reed, the episode serves as a clip show plucking sequences from films like The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959), She (1965) and more. The voiceover is incredibly difficult to make out due to a poor audio mix, but including the episode is a fun way to see how kids in the early 90’s might’ve first discovered Cushing’s impressive oeuvre.

World of Hammer – The Curse of Frankenstein (24:46)

(1990, Hammer Film Productions)

Another episode of World of Hammer, this time focused on the Frankenstein franchise.

Scenes from all six Frankenstein films are included here, as well as one from 1953’s Four Sided Triangle which served as a direct influence on the laboratory scenes in The Curse of Frankenstein. Oliver Reed’s voiceover is equally difficult to discern here but the standard-definition episode is a fun, nostalgia-infused way to quickly traverse Peter Cushing’s iconic franchise.

Theatrical Trailers (4:36)

Several trailers are presented here. In the first, green lines outline Peter Cushing’s visage as a voice states: “Frankenstein: the name stands for fear.” Visions of his laboratory and a bandaged face accompany the threat that, “His most terrifying experiment comes to life!”

Images of the various players who will appear in the film flash across the screen and the audience is promised “a new kind of SHOCK”, presenting a feature that in no way resembles the tone or story of what Frankenstein Created Woman would turn out to be.

The second trailer starts in the same way, but segues into a “DOUBLE SHOCK PROGRAM” as it advertises the double bill of Frankenstein Created Woman and The Mummy’s Shroud. It concludes by telling audiences to not miss the “gruesome twosome in color”, again playing up the violent absurdity the studio wanted their audiences to believe they were in for.

Television Spots (1:24)

Presented in full frame black and white, these brief TV spots for the film are charming in their own way and equally as misleading as the trailers. Quick flashes of Frankenstein and Christina bearing a knife grace the screen as viewers are told of “a beautiful woman with the shroud of the Devil”. A second spot is also presented, this one only seconds long with just enough time to flash Christina and the Mummy for a double that pairs the woman with “terror from the tombs”.

Still Image Gallery (5:38)

A collection of lobby cards depicting scenes and characters from the film, behind the scenes photographs, striking, production photographs highlighting characters and sets, glamour photos and even photos of the cast at the wrap party make up this fun slideshow capturing the various personalities that created the film.

Poster and Lobby Card Gallery (5:34)

A second slideshow focusing on the advertising material of the film. This one is comprised of original theatrical one-sheets of various sizes, international posters, concept art, additional lobby cards, newspaper ads, theatrical flyers and promotional color on-set photos can all be found here and, like the Image Gallery, are an amusing way of viewing the film through the lens of the time of its release.

Radio Spots (1:44)

Radio waves pass over the static image of a bandaged face, presenting the radio spots in a manner far more engaging than simply playing them over a static image. A voice announces:

“Horror, horror, HORROR! The masters of horror present the masterpieces of screen horror!”

The announcer tells of a “double shock show” and the ultimate evil of the two films combined. Two more spots follow this one, growing increasingly brief and adhering to the format of the prior each time, repeating the word “horror” over and over again. As with the television spots, these radio advertisements are delightfully antiquated examples of a bygone age that is incredibly fun to revisit in this format.

Final Thoughts

Although it began life in 1958, it would be almost a decade before Frankenstein Created Woman was realized on screen. Like Hammer Studios itself, writer and producer Anthony Hinds and director Terence Fisher had many creative highs and lows in the years that followed the film’s inception, watching the industry and audience change around them as they worked to hone their craft. The final product was in many ways the antithesis to the thematic tides of the genre at the time, trading in the lurid and the lewd for the emotional and introspective.

Beginning renewed life as Fear of Frankenstein, the film was rejected by 20th Century Fox, Hammer’s US distribution partner at the time. However, once Hammer again adopted their original title and treatment that had been languishing in a drawer since the late 50’s, the American studio was swayed. For, from Fox’s vantage point, the title, poster and trailers for Frankenstein Created Woman invited the sort of exploitative expectations that would undoubtedly sell tickets, regardless of the movie that would actually appear on the screen.

This somewhat backward advertising strategy had become the norm by the late 60’s, particularly when it came to the work of Terence Fisher. In many ways, Frankenstein Created Woman was not only the culmination of his thematic work as a director, but the unfortunate way his work was misunderstood by the studios that handled it and subsequently by the audiences those studios sold it to.

Regardless, Frankenstein Created Woman is a masterwork; the sort of gothically trimmed fairy tale that Fisher had spent decades perfecting, distilling the good and evil present in mankind and exploring the essence of what makes us human. Unlike any Frankenstein film that had come before or would come after, Anthony Hinds, Terence Fisher, Peter Cushing and, indeed, everyone involved created something truly special that easily sits beside the absolute best work that Hammer produced in the studio’s long, celebrated run.

Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition offers a wonderful home presentation of the film along with a host of features that enhance an understanding of its context and themes. While an in-depth “making of” feature would have been welcome, the commentaries provided offer a deeply fascinating point of view that more than makes up for the absence of a true behind-the-scenes documentary. As has been the case with all of their Hammer output, Scream Factory has once again crafted a must-own release for Hammer and genre enthusiasts alike.

The horror film industry had changed dramatically in the lead up to this film and still more significant change was soon to come. Bray Studios would shortly be in the rear-view mirror and, with it, a large chunk of Hammer’s shared history. The style and content of Hammer’s films continued to press more toward the realm of exploitation, despite the studio’s resistance to the kind of grittiness that would so shortly dominate the horror realm. The gothic classiness of Fisher’s best works was growing increasingly irrelevant in distributor’s eyes and had the pieces not fallen perfectly into place, it’s likely Frankenstein Created Woman would’ve stayed the unrealized idea that it had been for the nine years that led up to its release.

Frankenstein Created Woman is the perfect example of the kind of prescient, timeless filmmaking and storytelling that Hammer Studios was so uniquely positioned to foster. Given the time when it was made, the film is a testament to the trust, respect and malleability the studio provided to their creatives and, much like the darkly hewn fairy tale that it is, a reminder that, despite the ever-changing course of artistic opinion, endings are, indeed, nothing else but a state of mind.


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