Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Soul of Frankenstein

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967)

Austrian model/actress Susan Denberg is best remembered for her role in this delirious Hammer release.

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN - scripted by Anthony Hinds - is the most eccentric and metaphysical of all Hammer Horrors, with the incomparable Terence Fisher returning to the Baron’s cycle after Freddie Francis’ controversial departure THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964). Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is engaged in a series of experiments to determine whether or not the soul departs the body at the point of physical death, assisted by alcoholic Doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), and dogsbody Hans (Robert Morris). In a local tavern, three young bloods taunt Hans’ disfigured sweetheart Christina (Susan Denberg), and are forcibly expelled by Hans and her landlord father Kleve (Alan MacNaughtan). When the trouble-makers return, they bludgeon Kleve to death and Hans - the son of a convicted murderer - is unjustly accused and executed. Distraught, Christina drowns herself. When the Baron succeeds in placing Hans’ soul in Christina’s reconstructed body, the combination fuses the woman’s emotional scars with Hans’ vengeful rage, resulting in a dangerous split personality bent on using her new-found beauty to seduce and kill the murderers.

Cushing is uniformly excellent as a more multifaceted Baron, and seldom better than the trial scene, which includes a priceless thumbing of the Bible. Rapier-witted, Frankenstein is clearly an intellectual giant compared to the inhabitants of this rural Balkan setting, where his arrogance seems justified. Although Denberg does not have the presence of a Barbara Shelley or an Ingrid Pitt, the dubbed actress holds up remarkably well on screen. Morris recalls Denberg as sweet and friendly, yet caught up with the Roman Polanski “crowd,” often appearing on set under the influence. Her acting career was brief, and over the years rumours circulated that Denberg died of a drug overdose in 1967, or that she had mental health problems due to an addiction to LSD.

Martin Scorsese selected FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN as part of a National Film Theatre season of his favourite films in 1987.

Rigorously circular in structure - its first phase framed by two decapitations, the second by two drownings - the miserable events of FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN take on a tragic inevitability. The film’s low-key finale has been greatly criticised, but as Christina recreates her suicide, she is at once putting Hans to rest and reclaiming her individual soul. What most engages the viewer is the human identification, and it is this element for which Frankenstein has neither time nor appreciation. With his work once again in tatters, it fails this time because there is something in the fragmented Christina that cannot permit it to succeed. The Baron is unwilling or unable to accommodate this humanity, providing the first clue to his vengeful disintegration in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969), and eventual downfall in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974). His projects are doomed to failure because he is the man without the soul.