Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Slicing up eyeballs: Peter Cushing in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (dir. Terence Fisher, 1973).

The final Frankenstein film from Hammer. Cushing's wife had died shortly before it was made, and it's hard not to acknowledge that this lends a particular melancholy to his performance. He's terribly frail and gaunt--so much so that one senses he is near death himself (though he would live another twenty years). The ultra-low budget shows sorely in places: Dave Prowse looks just ridiculous as the monster, like a cross between Bigfoot and a Morlock. There are some fine supporting performances, though, and the whole production has a distinctive, dusty, gothic feel that is different from any of the previous films. The ending is either ineptly flat or chillingly open-ended--I'm not sure which.

Having now seen all the Hammer Frankensteins with Cushing (though not Jimmy Sangster's The Horror of Frankenstein, a 1970 prequel starring Ralph Bates that is currently unavailable on Netflix), I'm especially interested in one narrative element: the odd discontinuity of the series. The second film takes up exactly where the first left off, but from then on, the backstory gets erratic and almost contradictory. In addition, Cushing's personality is subtly different from movie to movie. At times, his evil amounts to mere self-absorption and a certain callousness, and at other times he's practically Hannibal Lecter. It's not a smooth progression, either; he wavers in and out. The cumulative character that emerges as a result is a moral patchwork. What's most frightening about Baron Frankenstein is that you can imagine yourself being drawn into his confidence over long stretches of time, like his various assistants who appear and disappear without explanation, but if some of his actions appear occasionally to reflect a complex sensibility that borders on humanity, these revelations do not resolve themselves into any sort of psychological or emotional growth. You're essentially starting over with each new movie, and what you saw last time is little indication of what you'll get this time. This instability of character is probably more the result of Hammer's (and Fisher's) erratic aesthetic integrity as it is of any deliberate artistry on anyone's part. And yet this very shoddiness of conception is part of what makes it psychologically compelling. Cushing's portrayal of Frankenstein is a fifteen-year-plus, time-lapse study in moral chaos. He is Nietzsche's superman satirically rendered as a chronic failure who doesn't learn from his mistakes. Shelley's original modern-day Prometheus looks too deeply into the abyss and is tragically humbled; Cushing's doctor likes what he sees and keeps looking, even though it continually brings disaster upon him and everyone around him.

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