‘Bodies are easy to come by. Souls are not.’
Hammer’s fourth entry in the Frankenstein series is also one that’s been damned with faint praise over the years. Speaking at a National Film Theatre season in 1987, curator Martin Scorsese declared it to be one of his favourites, discussing the metaphysics behind the Baron’s ability to isolate the human soul, which to him was ‘close to something sublime.’ Like many American Hammer fans, the young Scorsese visited many a drive-in screening with his friends, and loved the films for their ‘dark fairytale’ qualities, of which Frankenstein Created Woman is a prime example.
The realism pervading the new crop of American horrors – Rosemary’s Baby was released a year after this one – had no place here, where the action takes place in a fictional central European village. The locals are pitchfork-wielding dullards, the lawmakers prone to sweeping generalisations and kangaroo courts. Even the village doctor, the wonderful Thorley Walters’s Doctor Hertz, is a self-confessed muddlehead, utterly in thrall to Frankenstein. At the centre of it all is the good Baron himself, unashamedly up to his old tricks after three previously failed attempts and still in absolute conviction about his own abilities. It’s to the considerable credit of Peter Cushing that he breathes some credibility into his character. Anyone else would have given up long ago. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein realised the error of his ways after the consequences of creating his first monster, a trait copied by Colin Clive in Universal’s series. Yet Cushing has no such qualms, pursuing his dream of creating life from dead flesh with the kind of single-minded obsession that could only work in a formulaic sequence of films underwritten by American distributors that were happy to cough up for more of the same old magic.
Cushing gives us a softer-edged Baron here. Whilst as clinical as ever, he has stopped killing to get what he wants and even displays the odd moment of kindness. Yet there’s nothing altruistic about Frankenstein. When he takes to the dock to defend the doomed Hans (Robert Morris), his generous words about the boy are tempered by a desire to get back to his work with the merest interruption. In a delicious moment that was presumably inserted by the actor, he thumbs critically through a Bible whilst waiting to give his evidence, as though it’s just another textbook for which he has little time. In his harsher moments, he’s quite unkind to Hertz, railroading the addle-headed doctor into procuring corpses for him and doing much of his dirty work. It’s also clear that he genuinely has little time for Hans, defending him because he’s a servant and losing him would be an irritant in the relentless work schedule.
The other gem of the film is Susan Denberg, a former Playboy Playmate who turns out to be far better than the usual pretty face recruited by Hammer to put the glamour into their pictures. Denberg plays Christina, the disfigured daughter of a local innkeeper. Pathetically, she brushes her hair over the deformed half of her face and allows herself to be bullied by the local, drunken toffs (Peter Blythe, Derek Fowlds and Barry Warren). The latter are nasty pieces of work, mercilessly teasing Christina and allowing their liquor addiction to take over, breaking into the inn after closing time to continue their party. The innkeeper returns and is beaten to death for his trouble. The rich bastards get away with their crime, and instead blame falls on Hans, partly because he’s left a coat in the inn but mainly as a consequence of being the son of a guillotined criminal and the court duly convicts him due to the old mantra - like father, like son. Hans soon loses his head and the tragic Christina, who has been carrying on a touching love affair with him, takes her own life.
The Baron sees all this death as an opportunity. Capturing the soul of Hans via a procedure that fortunately isn’t explained but results in a suspended ball of light, he transfers it into Christina’s body, both restoring her to life and repairing her damaged body. Now looking every inch the blonde bombshell, Christina can’t remember anything about her previous life until the Baron tests her by showing her the guillotine, which activates the ‘Hans’ inside her and sends her on a spree of hot vengeance. Christina/Hans starts killing the dandies, using her looks and newfound sexuality to first ensnare and then butcher them. They have no idea who she is beyond a vague recollection, and in fairness Christina looks little like the broken woman she was before the Baron got his hands on her.
Denberg effectively plays three parts – the deformed, pre-suicidal girl, the reanimated beauty with no memory, and the possessed murderess. A lot hinges on her performance and she’s equal to it, even if the script – by John Elder, producer Anthony Hinds’s nom de plume – doesn’t allow her much room beyond what she needs to do in order to advance the plot. Indeed, the complicated Baron aside, none of the characters exist beyond their stereotypes, generics that can be summarised in quick words and phrases. Fortunately, in Cushing exists the beating heart of the film, a driven man whose quest for scientific answers reduces everyone around him to pawns in the grand game. Frankenstein might be less murderous than in previous episodes, but it’s obvious to him that Hertz and Hans are there to help him get from A to B, and even Christina is a means to an end. In the film’s final scenes, when the Baron looks at the body of one of the murdered toffs, one gets the impression he’s wondering whether the corpse – like the others he’s used – can serve his purposes.
Uber-Director Terence Fisher was back in charge of Frankenstein Created Woman. In one of the last Hammer productions based at Bray Studios, budgets were tight and consequently, Fisher was forced to confine his filming to the small village set built for the film. It isn’t bad, featuring the splendid design work that defined these films. What it does achieve is a degree of claustrophobia, a feeling that the characters are trapped in their little world and the small-minded people who dwell therein. Fisher also makes good use of lighting, particularly in a scene where the unleashed Christina lurks in a darkened room, cast in shadow yet the cleaver in her hand is clearly visible. The village is otherwise dominated by its terrible guillotine, left handily atop a hillock as though to remind everyone what could await. Chillingly, whilst there are two uses of it in the film, no decapitations are shown - all we get is the stark clunk of the blade hitting wood, and a shot of it being hoisted up, now covered in fresh blood.
Where this film deserves its plaudits isn’t so much in Scorsese’s comments but rather the infinite possibilities surrounding Frankenstein’s legend. Elder could have trotted out the usual tale, in the way Hammer generally did with their Dracula franchise, and no doubt the film would have clawed back its money. Yet the decision to explore different facets of the Baron’s science takes the story down an interesting and fresh route. The exploitative title isn’t mirrored by Frankenstein Created Woman’s content, and the film suggested that the only limits to what the genius might get up to next were the imaginations of its writing team.