Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was the last of the Hammer Frankenstein series, as well as Terence Fisher’s final film. It is generally regarded as a weak swansong. At first glance, it seems a remake of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), but with a noticeably reduced budget.
Peter Cushing, in his final portrayal of Baron Frankenstein, inexplicably sports a curly blond wig which makes him look a bit like a deranged Shirley Temple, and he looks alarmingly emaciated. Off-screen, the actor’s wife had died, after a long illness, only the previous year, in 1971 (Monster from Hell was filmed in 1972 and remained on the shelf for two years). Cushing was openly despondent and in intense mourning. He later admitted to having had suicidal tendencies during this period. Cushing never remarried, nor did he ever fully recover from the loss. The toll of that recent personal tragedy is clearly visible on him in this film and, despite all of the atrocities committed by his character, that off-screen blow adds a layer of wearied pathos revealed in the actor’s eyes.
Despite the many elements working against this film, its bad reputation is mostly hyperbole. Like nearly all of Fisher’s films, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is stamped with the director’s assured composition and electric editing. The opening sequence, with a grave robber (Patrick Troughton, from Doctor Who and Scars of Dracula) being pursued by a constable, is nearly as kinetically paced as the tense opening of Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Later in the film, the Baron, momentarily young again, springs to his old self in a leap atop the creature’s back. The creature’s eventual fate is gruesome and frenzied. These are diversions from a prevailing, fatigued bleakness. Indeed, a desolate milieu permeates this culmination of Fisher and Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein saga.
David (Darth Vader) Prowse plays the monster, and he is as encased in his rubbery, hairy ape-like latex as he was in black armor. Prowse attempts to inject sympathy into his monster, much the same way that Freddie Jone’s monster did in the superb Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Prowse, however, was at the mercy of an immobile costume which defeats his efforts.
The Baron himself is a complicated mix of ruthlessness and an occasional “weak”, but not wholly sincere, moment of pity. While Frankenstein always had assistants since the introductory film, they normally aided him under coercion (Curse of Frankenstein, 1957), worshiped him without sharing his ruthless traits (Revenge of Frankenstein, 1958 & Frankenstein Created Woman, 1967 ) or did outright battle with him (the previously mentioned Curse & Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed). This time, the Baron, working under another alias in an asylum, has a dedicated, recently convicted disciple in Dr. Simon Helder (dependable character actor Shane Briant), who is as amoral as his master and, at times, seems on the verge of surpassing the Baron in sheer lack of human empathy.
Both Frankenstein and Simon echo their inmate patients. Their egos and delusions of godhood are clearly in intense competition. A heavily symbolic scene has the two scientists engaged in self-congratulatory songs of praise for having transplanted a musician’s brain into the hulking monster. All while the monster, upon awakening and seeing his new state, pathetically pleads “why? why?” The two doctors are totally oblivious. Yet, Simon is not as completely barren as the Baron. The apprentice comes to disagree with some of Frankenstein’s methods, even if both of them succumb to an “end justifies the means” mentality. In the right hands, the Simon character could have been an interesting and exploratory development. Of course, it was not to be.
The poetry of math, the beauty of music and art are spirits which eludes Frankenstein. Yet, Frankenstein is relentlessly driven to succeed, consequences and casualties be damned. The inevitability of his hollow, abject failure is forever denied and it is here that the Baron, despite being irredeemable, strangely evokes a degree of pity.
Anthony Hinds wrote the script (under his usual pseudonym, John Elder) to which Fisher responded with enthusiasm, knowing it to be his last film. Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell parallels its main character. It projects a tired spirit,one that is weighed down with a Bunyanesque burden, but moments of youthful charisma rise to the surface, in revolt against the final outcome of the process.