Though their reign as the Empire of British horror had surely diminished by the time of its release in 1974, Hammer Film's FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL marked a return to their familiar gothic traditions. Not only did it mark the last performance of the gaunt and fancy-wigged Peter Cushing in his most famous role of Baron Frankenstein, it was also the last film directed by Terence Fisher, the man who pretty much made the series his own. Also back were Anthony Hinds doing the writing choirs (under his "John Elder" pen name), composer James Bernard, and a bevy of familiar Hammer supporting players (Patrick Troughton, Charles Lloyd Pack, Peter Madden, Sydney Bromley, etc.).
The plot has Simon Helder (Shane Briant), a young doctor inspired by the work of Victor Frankenstein, being sent to an asylum for practicing "sorcery." There he meets Dr. Carl Victor (Cushing), who apparently harbors secret information on the underhanded director Klauss (John Stratton), and is able to run the place his own way. Young Helder quickly realizes that Dr. Victor is actually Baron Frankenstein, who wants the outside world to believe he is dead. Helder knows that Frankenstein could never give up his experiments, so after doing some snooping, he discovers his secret laboratory and his latest project.
The Baron's new experiment is the hulking, ape-like Herr Schneider (David Prowse), a homicidal inmate whom Frankenstein has kept alive after a violent suicide attempt and has grafted on the hands of a recently deceased sculptor (Bernard Lee). Since Frankenstein's hands were badly burnt in the name of science, the shabby stitch-work was done by Sarah (Madeline Smith), a beautiful mute girl who is nicknamed "Angel" who assists him. When Simon tells the Baron that he is a surgeon, the problem is solved. Soon new eyes and a new brain are given to the creature (allowing this to be a gorefest as far as Hammer is concerned), but he ultimately runs amuck in the asylum.
Filmed in late 1972, Hammer's final Frankenstein entry is one of those films that has divided appreciation among fans, some who think it's masterful and others who deem it a low point. The ultra low budget does show in Scott MacGregor's claustrophobic sets, unconvincing miniatures, and the monster's get-up is obviously a pull-over mask designed by Eddie Knight (though the monster is unique in the annals of Frankenstein cinema). But Fisher's direction and Cushing's consummate performance (adding complete madness this time to the character) display a true dedication to this kind of cinema, and the confinement of the asylum only adds to the doomed, somber mood. Prowse, who essayed the role of the monster in HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, is able to give the part some empathy--more so than any other Frankenstein monster in the Hammer camp. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL may be nothing groundbreaking, but it's certainly entertaining and a worthy end to an important chapter in British horror.
It's great to see that Paramount is the latest studio to unleash Hammer films on to the DVD market, but they have released the R-rated U.S. theatrical version which is missing some scenes only found thus far on an atrocious-looking Japanese laserdisc release from the early 90s. The footage not found on this DVD is as follows (those who haven't seen the film may want to view it first before reading this, as I'll reveal some plot points): a few seconds of a sequence where the Baron damns his useless hands and grasps an artery from the monster's wrist with his teeth, followed by his rinsing his mouth out with water; when Briant inserts the monster's eyeball, and Cushing says, "Pop it in," a brief side view of this procedure is replaced in the American version with a reaction shot of Madeline Smith; a second split-second shot of Bernard Lee's character's handless arms in his open coffin (looks to be the same exact brief shot as the first, so perhaps the Japanese just wanted to repeat the bloody sight); after the asylum director has his throat mutilated by the monster, the gushing of blood that comes from his neck is a split-second longer on the Japanese version, and; a few seconds more of the inmates tearing apart the monster during the climax, most notably missing in action is a shot where his guts are being squashed by someone's feet.
Quite simply, Paramount went back to the original negative for this transfer, and these scenes were never meant (or were demanded to be censored) for the U.S. version. Getting past that, Paramount's DVD of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL looks terrific, and far better than ever before. The film is nicely presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. As usual, the studio has done an excellent transfer. Sharpness and detail are very solid, and dark scenes that were once hard to make out are now clear as day. The print source is free of any major blemishes, and the somewhat subdued (for Hammer) colors appear greatly corrected, as do the various fleshtones. The audio is the original mono--there is some audible hiss present, but dialogue is generally clear and James Bernard's score is adequately robust. Optional English subtitles are also included.
The DVD has one extra feature
(no trailer), and it's big one. A running audio commentary with actress Madeline
Smith (Sarah) and actor David Prowse (the monster) moderated by genre historian
Jonathan Sothcott. The commentary is rather energetic and quite funny, as both
actors are never at a loss for words or a story to tell. They have plenty to
say about the film, Cushing, Fisher, and the other players--which eventually
leads to anecdotes about some of the other films of the period that they were
involved in. This is very fun stuff, remaining interesting until the end, and
you'll hear a lot of scoops you've probably never heard before in written interviews.
(George R. Reis)
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