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Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (German Blu-Ray Review)

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Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973) has already seen two superlative blu-ray releases—one in Australia and one in England from Icon Home Entertainment, (with the UK release being the more comprehensive of the two, in terms of extra features). Now, comes an English-friendly German BD release from Anolis Home Entertainment, and, as expected, it proves the most comprehensive release of all, not just in terms of extra features, but also in terms of image quality. As a foundation, the Anolis release uses the same HD scan as the two previous releases, but there is a subtle difference. According to Hammer Historian, Marcus Hearn, the original restoration was done from Hammer’s own CRI print, (a Color Reversal Intermediate, made directly from the cut negative). The print predates the film’s submission to the BBFC and is therefore the most complete version ever seen. Fans will be happy to know that all the gory bits that were cut from the various theatrical and VHS/DVD releases are here fully intact. The subtle difference in the Anolis release is a slightly more visible patina of film grain which makes the previous two BD releases seem a bit too “clean” by comparison, and thus gives them a little less filmic believability. It’s a small, but important difference. Other than that, the image on all three releases looks identical.

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Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell can be a bit of a schizophrenic experience for those who know their Hammer Horror. On the one hand it’s a throwback to the old “Gothic” days of Hammer, when Terence Fisher’s stately direction and James Bernard’s dissonant, melodramatic soundtracks ruled the day. On the other hand, it’s one of the goriest films to ever come from the British studio, which just 16 years earlier touched off the “Silver Age of Horror,” with their very first Gothic genre entry, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). With Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, the Gothic Horror costume drama had effectively come full circle, to be replaced by gorier, more modern, more visceral horrors of the 70’s, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

That Hammer conceded so much to the demands of the gore-hungry 70’s marketplace, all the while trying to recapture their Gothic glory days, reveals a production company in decline, trying this and that to stay relevant to its audience. And indeed, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell exudes a valedictory feeling from first to last, with Peter Cushing doing his best to make logic out of the moral ambiguity of the title character, in the face of an uneven script. Hammer’s own Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)—a film to which …From Hell’s plot is often compared—develops Frankenstein’s moral duality with greater consistency. It is a bit of a jolt to hear Frankenstein proclaim (in …From Hell), “I’m not a murderer, Simon.” Didn’t anyone watch the previous sequel?

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The sets by Scott MacGregor are appropriately dreary—the film being set in a mental asylum—but frankly, I always thought his art direction in general lacked imagination. Certainly, he couldn’t hold a candle to Bernard Robinson, Hammer’s long-time art director who passed away after completing work on Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). That film also had dreary-looking sets, but Robinson’s artistry was on an altogether different level, filling every shot with visual interest.

Terence Fisher was nervous about returning to the director’s chair after a 4-year hiatus, but he gives us his vintage best in telling, what is essentially a rather static story. His imaginative camera moves and blocking almost manage to disguise the drab, four-square quality of the sets, giving the film consistent visual variety which is always at the service of the story’s emotional logic. Shane Briant is perfect as Frankenstein’s young admirer, intent on following in the master’s footsteps. His laid-back arrogance in the face of the law is a glorious touch. Bond Girl and “Vampire Lover,” Madeline Smith, as Frankenstein’s mute assistant, gets to act for a change, instead of being used as window dressing, and she is really rather good. Her character’s hidden traumatic past is a nicely Gothic touch and she conveys it with admirable restraint. No doubt she would have been even better had the script allowed us to get to know her character beyond just what is said about her. David Prowse as Frankenstein’s monster is more convincing here than he was in the same role in Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and the rest of the cast, (playing mostly asylum lunatics), is filled with the best British character actors of the day, including Hammer veteran Charles Lloyd Pack, and a brief but very touching performance by Bernard Lee, on a break from playing M in the Bond films.

Composer, James Bernard’s latter day style had grown less bombastic than it was in the late 50’s / early 60’s, but his ability to convey tragic emotion had not diminished, and he was still at the height of his powers.

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The film is presented here in the 1,66:1 aspect ratio. As stated above, the base visual restoration is superlative in all three releases of …From Hell, with the present Anolis release having a slight advantage in terms of the filmic believability of the image. This is due to a slightly less “cleaned up” look which retains a bit more natural grain. The only downside to the new HD clarity—in comparison to the old DVDs—is that it makes all the more obvious the limitations of that preposterous miniature model pretending to be the asylum exterior. A handful of innocent shoe boxes must have been sacrificed in making it.

The LPCM 2.0 Mono track is pleasingly full and clear, allowing Bernard’s dramatic score to expand fully. Tape hiss and crackling are not an issue. The disk defaults to the original English track.

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There is a lovely set of extra features which goes above and beyond even the previous Icon Home Entertainment release of the film. My favorite of these is the audio commentary with Shane Briant and Madeline Smith, moderated by Marcus Hearn. The trio reveals a surprising amount of behind-the-scenes information, with both actors obviously nostalgic about their experience working on the film. The commentary is ported over from the previous BD releases. There is also a second audio commentary with Dr. Rolf Giesen and Uwe Sommerlad which is in German only, so unfortunately I can’t comment on it.

My other favorite extra is “Taking Over the Asylum: The Making of Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell,” a 26-minute making-of documentary directed by Marcus Hearn, and starring Hammer experts, Jonathan Rigby, Denis Meikle, and David Miller; plus actors, Madeline Smith, Shane Briant, Philip Voss, David Prowse, and Janet Hargreaves. As per their usual standards of excellence, the doc is well directed and produced, and provides a wealth of information. Next is “Charming Evil: Terence Fisher at Hammer,” a 13-minute documentary from the same team. Again, this is very well directed and produced, and sheds light on the career of Hammer’s most respected director. Interestingly, Micky Harding, the director’s daughter is one of the interviewees.

Unlike the Icon release, the Anolis includes the original theatrical trailer from Paramount, two image galleries; a traversal through the US press book; video interviews with Cushing’s and Briant’s original German voice dubbing actors, David Nathan and Friedrich Schoenfelder (which are both in German only, with no subtitles); and a 39-minute video conversation (in English) between film historians Dr. Rolf Giesen and Uwe Sommerlad, sitting across from each other, not unlike Siskel & Ebert, discussing Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell and many other things. It’s a highly eclectic and entertaining master class which wonderfully contextualizes the film at hand, not just in terms of Hammer Horror, but in a very broad cultural and historical scope.

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Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell may not be one of Hammer’s greatest Frankenstein films, but it is well worth seeing and forming an opinion on. If you’ve never seen a Hammer film before, this is not where I would start. But, if you are already a Hammer fan and are able to play region B blu-rays, then I would urge you to seek out this Anolis release, not only for the slightly more truthful image quality (compared to previous BD releases), but also for the extra features which go beyond what we’ve been offered before.

About Dima Ballin

Dima is the founder and publisher of Diabolique Magazine and the co-founder of the Boston Underground Film Festival. He is currently working on several screenplays and trying to attain enlightenment through Buddhism.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for that review – I’m almost bereft of all words.

    Almost, I say, because I’d like to point out that Friedrich Schoenfelder and David Nathan were/are not film historians, but the voice actors for Cushing and Briant. Schoenfelder was Cushing’s more or less regular voice since 1963, and here – at the age of 87 – he dubbed him for the last time, for the German track was done for the first Anolis DVD release of the movie in 2004. The movie was never screened over here.

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