Monday, November 05, 2007


Terence Fisher's FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) had its HD premiere last night on Monsters HD. I've seen the movie countless times over the years, as I have all of the Hammer Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing. I've always liked it, but have always harbored an odd ambivalence about the place it occupies in the series; sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down in my estimation. I tend to agree with David Pirie's assessment (in A HERITAGE OF HORROR) that it's the most poetical and successfully metaphysical of the series, and it contains arguably the most understated finale anyone will ever find in the genre, but there is a lingering feeling that it is ill-served by some rough edges and narrative obliqueness.
Seeing the film in HD certainly raised it in my estimation, as also happened when I saw Hammer's EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964) in high definition a couple of years ago on Universal HD. Seen in HD, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN becomes a far slyer, more tactile film and not without purpose. For example, all of the wine poured in the movie (apart from the Baron's celebratory champagne) is a very thin, transparent red -- unconvincing, like cherry Kool-Aid. I made a note to myself every time it appeared onscreen: "Looks fake, I shouldn't be noticing that." However, when Karl (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE's Barry Norman) -- the second of the young pre-A CLOCKWORK ORANGE thugs -- is sitting in the tavern, rattled by the murder of his friend, he hears the ghostly voice of Hans (Robert Morris, for whose guillotine death he was partly responsible) and nervously knocks over a glass of the same pale red wine positioned in front of him... and there's a change of camera angle as the wine flows out of the glass over the white tablecloth and looks unmistakably as thick and red as blood, the Kool-Aid having been replaced with what looks like real wine, perhaps mixed with a bit of Kensington Gore! I don't think it was Fisher's intention that I be distracted by the unconvincing wine earlier in the film, but by making those earlier glasses and decanters of wine look so watery, this shock cut more pointedly communicates the idea that blood will soon be spilled. And consequently, we no longer have to see that blood spilled when it is. The image has been planted; we can supply the rest.
The killing of Karl -- which shows Christina (Susan Denberg) emerging from the backroom of the tavern with a cleaver, Karl falling to the floor, and the downswing of the cleaver cutting to Christina chopping wood -- has always looked in deteriorated quality compared to the surrounding footage, and it's like that in the HD presentation as well. What I don't know is whether the original negative of this footage was somehow lost and so had to be recreated from a coarser element, or if the change in quality was done for more, shall we say, Brechtian purposes -- to add to our sense of disturbance about the scene by altering the look of the image in unexpected fashion.
There are also scenes early on, when Hans first visits Christina's bedroom, for example, where the pinecone-shaped spears of her bedposts occupy a compositional focus. Hans actually caresses one of these and scratches at it absent-mindedly while talking to the girl he loves, subtly drawing our attention to it. The camera dwells on these ornamental spears again when Anton, the leader of the thugs, is led there by the remade/remodeled Christina. And it wasn't until seeing this HD version that I ever noticed this thread, or that one of the movie's key shocks -- the revelation that Christina has stolen Hans' severed head from its burial place and mounted it on a similar spear-like protrusion atop a decorative mirror, in order to converse with it -- was, in effect, its pay-off.
It's this sort of delicate mastery, this ability to lead the eye by the nose (so to speak) that is the essence of Terence Fisher's genius; this, and also his profound interest in people. Seeing the film again, I was struck with admiration for the way the film delved into the lives of its characters, not only into their superficial relationships but also into their social classes, their aspirations, the causes for their inclinations toward good and evil, and also their psychological motivations. And, also for the first time, I understood the essence of that dumbfoundingly abrupt ending, which is dumbfounding precisely because it is true to the essence of the main surviving character: Baron Frankenstein himself (Peter Cushing). What engages us about this film and its story is precisely its human element, and it is this element for which Frankenstein has neither time nor appreciation.
When Christina requests a mirror following her miraculous restorative surgery, the Baron refuses it, having no concept of the young woman's starvation for any kind of vanity; he tells her that she doesn't need the mirror because she has his word that the scar tissue has healed perfectly and goes back to the work that separates him from all human contact and understanding. It is left to his "muddle-head" assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) to bring her the mirror, to dote on her, to kiss her like a grandfather -- to do all the things essential to a child's well-being that Frankenstein himself has been blinded to by his work. He's a great man, as Dr. Hertz takes care to tell her, but, as he fails to say, he's also a miserable human being.
When the film ends with his work once again in failure, it fails this time because there is something in the shattered, duplex, human element of Christina (who contains her own soul as well as that of her dead lover) that cannot permit it to succeed. The finale has no resonance because Frankenstein cannot understand what has happened and is unwilling/unable to bend to that human understanding; all he can do is shrug his shoulders and return to his drawing board. This is the first premonition the series gives us of the character's final downfall in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974). His projects are doomed to failure because he is, himself, only the shell of a man without the soul.

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