Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell' (1974)
The final movie in Hammer's Frankenstein series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell brings back Peter Cushing to the title role, although as has become customary, it doesn't follow on the continuity of any previous entries. Looking a bit haggard (still recovering from the death of his wife the previous year), Cushing plays a slightly more subdued version of Baron Frankenstein, here sharing screen time with his latest protege, a young doctor named Simon Helder (Shane Briant) who is a devoted disciple of Frankenstein's theories. Attempting to replicate Frankenstein's experiments (albeit unsuccessfully) lands Simon in trouble with the law, and he's convicted of sorcery and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane, where Frankenstein is conveniently the head doctor, practicing under an assumed name. Simon quickly figures out the doctor's true identity, and soon the two have teamed on the latest effort to give life to dead tissue.
The broad strokes of the story are familiar, and some of the ideas are recycled from previous Hammer movies, including giving Frankenstein a mute young woman as a reluctant assistant. But director Terence Fisher, who helmed Hammer's best Frankenstein movies, screenwriter John Elder and Cushing himself know how to give this material an air of class and style, even if the monster (played again by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, returning from The Horror of Frankenstein) looks completely cheap and ridiculous. For reasons that are not quite clear, Prowse plays a sort of Neanderthal man and looks like he's wearing an ape outfit from a '50s monster movie. That makes it tougher to take the movie's ethical quandaries seriously, but Cushing, Briant and the other actors play everything straight, and there are some genuinely disturbing moments.
Many of those come from the movie's setting in the mental institution, where both Frankenstein and Simon live and work (partially because, technically, they're both inmates there). Fisher stages some pretty grotesque scenes involving disturbed patients as well as the asylum's lecherous director (John Stratton), who only tolerates Frankenstein because he's being blackmailed. There's actually a somewhat powerful storyline about trauma for mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith), who doesn't speak because she was shocked into silence when her father attempted to rape her, and only finds her voice again when the monster is being threatened. She still ends up standing in the background most of the time, but at least she has a character arc of sorts.
The other inmates are more cartoonish, and the movie forgets them for long stretches as it focuses on Frankenstein and Simon's experiments, but they help contribute to the atmosphere of danger and unpredictability. Frankenstein here is more sympathetic than he's been in the past, expressing genuine concern for his patients and even admonishing Simon that he would never commit murder in the name of his experiments (which of course he has done in nearly every previous Hammer movie). He's still obsessive and arrogant, but there's a tinge of melancholy and regret to the performance that is appropriate for what would turn out to be his swan song. Although it's not Hammer's best effort, Monster From Hell still sends the series out on a high note.