EDITED BY: MARK GORDON PALMER

Thursday, 25 July 2013

THE BARON'S FINAL BOW ~ 'FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL' (1973) / BFI SCREENING WITH JOYCE BROUGHTON, DAVE PROWSE AND MADELINE SMITH

 
 

 

*There may be some plot spoilers in the lab ~ please watch before dissecting*


The British Film Institute (BFI) screened the final Peter Cushing-starring Frankenstein movie (from Hammer film studios): FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL in a fully restored version as part of the 2013 Centenary celebrations of the birth of Hammer's iconic star, who died in 1994 at the age of 81.


 
 
Appearing at the screening were some very important guests, most notably Joyce Broughton who was Peter Cushing's secretary for 35 devoted years and beyond. She told a full house, at a brief introduction to the movie, that the man she used to call, affectionately - "Sir", was one of the kindest, gentlest people she had ever met, with never a bad word to say about anyone. Genuinely - never. She missed him, very much, Joyce told a hushed cinema - as her voice cracked and tears, had I been sitting closer to the stage (and I was at my customary very back) were clearly welling up in her eyes.

Helen and Peter Cushing
 

Peter Cushing lost his wife, Helen, to emphysema. He never fully recovered, although it did mean that after 1971 the actor hurled himself into his film work, often increasingly gaunt and harrowed on screen, but never less than mesmerising. Broughton tells us that after Helen's death Cushing attempted to kill himself by increasingly odd ways - poisoned mushrooms, running up and down stairs in the hope of a heart attack, or climbing up an electricity pylon. In the end, he didn't go through with the deed, because, we hear: "He was worried that others would have to clear up the mess he would leave behind." Cushing waited, decades, to die and be with Helen again. That was all, ironically enough, he lived for.

 
 
 
Also on stage - two stars from the movie; Dave Prowse and Madeline Smith. Prowse (the man who also played Darth Vader and the Green Cross Code Man for British televised road safety commercials and who I had met at a lunch celebrating road safety campaigns a month or so previously - quite a switch from real horrors on the road to perhaps less realistic horrors on the operating table) plays the monster 'from Hell'. Coming across rather like a stone age man, more hair than you'd find on the chest of a young Burt Reynolds and Hammer's most horrifically ugly and brutish monster - this creation is the very definition of 'beast'.


Deliberately so - this was Hammer's final Frankenstein's bow and the monster had to fit the occasion. Had to be literally as if from Hell itself, not more recognisably human - as Christopher Lee, say, had been in the role before (despite also being a quite horrific sight; like  an iconic ageing pop star with plastic surgery gone 'paper bag on the head' kind of wrong). Unrealistic then, Frankenstein's latest  - but wonderfully awful and a suitably horrific monster for the increasingly crazed scientist to end up with.


 
Prowse tells us how he would go to the canteen still clad in the monster suit and that although it may look an uncomfortable thing to wear, it was actually very comfortable and he even enjoyed wearing it. Slightly kinky maybe - I'd like to know how he felt wearing the all leather and jackboots outfit of Darth Vader now (he starred alongside Cushing in the original STAR WARS for a rather more gentlemanly evil partnership). Prowse also comments on how he was determined to play 'the monster from Hell' as a sympathetic creature - more a victim, not something only hideous and evil. The end fate of the monster in the movie remains both horrific and tragic; death being an almost welcome release for the creature, but clearly not in the way it happens here. Prowse really does bring a sense of pathos to his role.


 
And then on to the lovely (then and now) Madeline Smith who plays the mute Sarah. Frankenstein's muse and very nearly the monster's mate. Perhaps better known for shedding clothes in other movies, notably Hammer's own THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) or as a memorable brief Bond girl in 1973's LIVE AND LET DIE. Madeline laughs about this being one of the few films where she is entirely covered up and tells us that playing a mute wasn't that hard - in fact it was pretty easy, no lines to learn and focusing instead on conveying emotion through the eyes.






She remembers Peter Cushing as still being wounded by the loss of his wife a few year's previously and the production having a sombre edge (mainly as it was a final fling for Hammer's traditional gothic costumed horror that was increasingly finding itself isolated among more extreme horror such as THE EXORCIST filmed that same year). Most revealing of all, she tells us how Peter Cushing was so thin and gaunt that she was convinced he was trying to kill himself on a diet of endless cups of black coffee on set and nothing else. She remembers him as being a kind, lovely, gentle man as ever - despite the tragic cloud that was, from now on, dominating his life.





FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL winds up the saga in the setting of an insane asylum, where the Baron has an unusual status as part asylum doctor and part inmate. A young surgeon - Simon Helder (Shane Briant) and a follower of the Baron's work, is arrested for using the bodies of the grave-robbed dead to experiment upon and try to create life. Helder is sent to the local asylum where he soon makes friends with the man he admires most - Baron Victor Frankenstein who is under cover and working on his own secret projects within the asylum as Dr Carl Victor.

The two banished scientists are soon working together, alongside the mute daughter of the Asylum Director - Madeline Smith as Sarah, to create a monster from the body parts of the deceased inmates of the asylum. When Frankenstein mixes the body of a brutish criminal (with a fetish for stabbing with broken glass) with the mind of a classical musician - the result, like it was once in the TV series Hart to Hart, is 'moider'! Worse is to come when the inmates decide to inflict their own horrific brand of justice on the evils of the asylum.




 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CASE STUDY: THE PETER CUSHING SCRAPBOOK (from PEVERIL PUBLISHING)/ Notes on 'Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell' . .

The Peter Cushing Scrapbook is an essential collection (published to celebrate the Centenary of Cushing's birth) of annotated scripts, pictures and reviews of all Cushing's movies and other areas of his life - including his model-making, artwork and life with Helen in his beloved Whitstable.

The section on THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is extensive and collects pages of Cushing's own script, scrawled over with notes on how to play the role; including his usual scribbles to self that throughout his career reminded him of how to speak the lines in the movie, where to place his hands, and the things he must never do - such as mumble his words, open his jaw too wide, stroke his beard the wrong way. Most revealingly, for the film Monster From Hell, there are pages featuring detailed drawings of brain surgery from Cushing and notes on how such a feat as a brain transplant could really be accomplished. These detailed diagrams of the human brain are based on interviews Cushing held with a local surgeon (he would also interview police inspectors  from Whitstable and other places throughout his career to bolster the authenticity of his roles). Cushing's research was always impeccable and the resulting scenes of surgery in the movie are never less than convincing.

One of the most self-referential and best loved lines in Horror of Frankenstein also appears on Cushing's script as a possible addition of his own (as he was often likely to do with his scripts, crossing out words and phrases he knew he couldn't say and replacing them with his own words or discussing with co-stars how they could play a scene and rewrite the dialogue if needed) with the Baron's glinty-eyed observation that he had once done the same kind of thing before ...but that was a long time ago now! A clear reference to the actor's previous movies in the role of Frankenstein, presumably written knowing that this film was the good doctor's last cut of the flesh.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


 


There is much to love about THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN as a worthy entry in the Frankenstein saga (along with FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, it's my personal favourite). From the opening scenes of grave-robbing featuring a 'one more time' turn from grave-robber Patrick Troughton, to the especially lurid scenes of open surgery in the lab, the most horrific monster of all the films and the wickedly spiteful portrayal of Cushing himself as the iconic Baron - this is a Hammer production to savour from the start and results in being the most finger-licking and scalpel-wielding good time ever had in a Frankenstein flick from this studio and a worthy exit from the classic horror arena.

It's also the most gruesome and bloodsheddingly bloodthirsty of all the Hammer Frankenstein's. In the lab, a skull is sawn into, and the brain removed. Placed on the floor, Frankenstein steps in the container and - while dissecting the monster's hands - bites down on an artery to stop the bleeding. There is also a particularly bloody attack with a broken glass vase by the monster on the Asylum director. Blood spurts from the carotid artery - this is Hammer doing real horror; doing what it does best. And then the film's closing scenes where a main character is literally ripped apart, are upsetting in both idea and execution.


 
 

In the introduction to the film by the BFI we are told that Hammer is presenting the film in a complete - and rarely seen - cut. In most prints, and in the UK theatrical version, the artery-biting/ explicit brain removal/ stepping on the container by the Baron/ grisly glass shard murder or flesh ripping at the end of the movie are either toned down or removed. The effect of the uncut version - the grisliness of the gore scenes presented - are equal to many a 70's nasty, though as always with Hammer, a fondness and perhaps slightly old-fashioned respect for the horror genre tempers the disgust and shock. Still, I thought the neck-shredding with broken glass sequence was about as gruesome as horror cinema often gets, with blood spurting out all over the place - especially holding its own (and not just to stem the flow) in a modern era where the dreaded '18' certificate is often avoided in mainstream horror for a more teen-friendly, bums on seats-worthy'15'.

If you think Hammer horror films are a 'soft touch' - you may well be watching the cut version that many of the studio's movies were tarnished with; film censors not taking kindly towards scenes that may deprave a corruptible British movie-goer. It's important that complete uncut prints of films such as THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN become the norm, not the exception, to stop judgements being made on films that may be viewed not as the director intended - anaemically.




The screening at the BFI of a full-bloodied version is gratefully received by the rabid Hammer fans in the audience on the night -  with even a few cheers and a round of applause greeting the news. In the post-film chatter in the foyer after the event, it was jokingly agreed there would be no eating of kidneys at the BFI's restaurant that night after the Baron's bad taste gag in the movie (after an especially bloody bout of brain surgery) that he was suddenly hungry for a plate of offal. Bad, bad man!

The film doesn't stint on the bad taste and controversy in other ways and heads into very prickly territory when mute Sarah (a girl Frankenstein has been as good as donated with after discovering the abuse she has suffered over the years from her own father - the Director of the asylum) is lined up for some mating experiments (all supervised by Frankenstein) with the monster, an idea not unlike the kind explored much further in the far stronger 1977 'nasty' - THE BEAST IN HEAT.

THE BEAST IN HEAT

 
MONSTER FROM HELL boasts a fine performance from Shane Bryant too as the wet around the ears medical school graduate Simon Helder. Starting out almost as monstrous as the Baron himself, the error of his ways when faced with the horrors and madness of the man he once idolised, evaporates almost as an apology, and he becomes something of a hero - with reservations; you would never trust this man with your scalp and a nearby hacksaw while sharing a drink.

 

 
 
John Stratton as the asylum director though, steals the show. A drunken nervous wreck of a man, entirely free of authority and power, bringing girls back to the asylum with the boast of being in charge when in fact he is anything but (you can count on the Baron being the one with the keys to every cell) - the bloody fate that surely awaits this man is almost welcome.



FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is directed by Terence Fisher who gave us some of Hammer's most enticing movies, from FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) to THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961). This was his last Hammer movie and the last theatrical film he ever shot. Scriptwriter Anthony Hinds, who had written similar Hammer classics as TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970) and RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) was to go on to write less than a handful of other movies following MONSTER FROM HELL. Little wonder this film, according to so many of the cast who worked on it, had a real sense of 'shutting up shop'.
 

 

 
Two scenes stand out for me in the movie. Towards the end of the film the monster is loose, and through the windows of the asylum - in deep blue darkness, a shuffling horrific figure can be seen staring at his own grave. The creature is on the rampage. In the Asylum Director's study, a terrified man in fear of his life bolts the windows in a supremely claustrophobic sequence that has faded, ugly, brash, orange wallpaper glowing with yellowy lamplight as we know the creature is approaching those windows, those doors, that room - never has a monster's approach from out of the night been quite as scary and threatening as it is here.
 
And then, there's Cushing's final fling of the cloak. A terrific performance of wit, charisma and mean-streaked monstrosity - cruel, bloody, exacting madness. The first moment we catch sight of Cushing's return is the most striking - at the end of a fast zoom towards his lip-twitching face and glaring eyes, perhaps the single greatest shot that Hammer films ever came up with. Frankenstein, the human,  terrifies us far more than any monster he creates, even the kind that comes straight from  Hell - I guess that was the whole point all along, and a fine way to say goodbye.
 

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
markgordonpalmer@aol.com

Hammer's 'FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL' @ the BFI was introduced by film historian and Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby. Following a congratulatory message to him the following day demanding similar nights at the BFI in the future, he promised: "I'll see what I can arrange!". I am still holding him to this promise... and ready to send a horrible monster to his office should he resist!








No comments:

Post a Comment