Partly poignant, partly grotesque, 1973's Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (FatMfH) is like its subject a mosaic of contrasting elements. It was the last in Hammer's multi-installment Frankenstein series (almost all of which starred Peter Cushing as the titular Baron Frankenstein) and the swan song for the studio's most triumphant director Terence Fisher.
The story begins not with Frankenstein himself, but with Simon Helder (Shane Briant), a young doctor desirous of emulating the missing baron's experiments (with an illustrated book whose title tells as much). It's a rip-roaring beginning with a policeman discovering the handsome doctor's study which houses among other things a fresh cadaver and a jar of eyeballs. Shane Briant is a strikingly beautiful actor, almost effeminate, and his Simon displays a chilling level temperament even when sentenced to a 5-year stretch at an insane asylum. It is at the asylum that he encounters his idol Baron Frankenstein, hiding under the not-so-clever pseudonym of Dr. Viktor. Cushing makes a dramatic entrance emerging out of the shadows to stop Simon's hazing by the crude asylum warders. He then takes him on as assistant to the task of administering to the patients' medical needs. You see, the asylum director is a wasted hedonist and Frankenstein himself runs the place (rather more humanely than the official warden), and is in return provided the space and means to conduct his "experiments".
Initially you feel this may be a different kind of Frankenstein film, in which the apprentice proves more eager than the baron himself to learn about and help with his work. Simon's almost creepy admiration and Frankenstein's initial hesitation gives it something of an Apt Pupil feel. But once the corpse is out of the bag, the baron quickly reverts to original form, and Simon finds that he may have got more than he bargained for, with inmate deaths occurring all too conveniently when the baron needs specific spare parts for his latest 'creation'. The monster of the title is played by muscleman David Prowse, famous as Darth Vader and trainer for Christopher Reeve's Superman physique. Prowse is encased in a hairy rubber suit, looking more like a badly shaved ape than a resurrected cadaver. But in his limited way his character suggests both savagery and pathos. There's also the beautiful but mute nurse Sarah (Madeline Smith), dubbed Angel by the inmates - in an early on-the-nose scene, an inmate sculptor (Bernard Lee aka James Bond's M) even gives her a winged angel figurine.
Unlike previous Terence Fisher entries for Hammer, the script (Anthony Hinds) is curiously free of character drama or tension for the longest period, devoting much time to the mechanics of the transplant procedure (since this is the 70's, blood and offal are on blatant display). The sequence of events leading to the climax come up quite abruptly: the baron hatches an absurd plan of having the creature mate with Sarah, which is vehemently opposed by Simon who then tries to destroy the monster. In turn the monster gets loose and...well, a good deal of mayhem occurs.
Prior to FatMfH the studio had tried to adapt to the more liberal time with explicit nudity, lesbianism and gore in their films (and awkward ventures like Dracula AD 1972). But this film is a return to the classic Hammer recipe, as if they knew that time was up for the studio, and wanted to go out with the sort of film that audiences first noticed them for. Both Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing were dealing with tough times - Fisher had had two automobile accidents in rapid succession leaving him in serious doubts about his ability to work, and 60-plus Cushing was still enervated from the death in 1971 of his beloved wife Helen. But they bring their game to the table, and the scene where Frankenstein smashes a bottle of anesthetic ether into his coat and then leaps onto the monster's back to smother him with the fumes, flailed around till the massive creature finally falls, undoubtedly brings nostalgic cheer to Hammer fans. Briant's Simon is a worthy player against Frankenstein and Smith is sincere as Sarah. A trove of classic Hammer actors serve in the supporting cast for this last hurrah to their alma mater.
Of course, FatMfH was damned to fail, appearing almost laughably quaint in the face of such ferocious competition as William Friedkin's The Exorcist, but the film has its own weaknesses. Hammer was always a tight-fisted studio, and in the absence of the American co-funding they previously enjoyed, the budget for this one seems to have been tighter than for earlier films. The penury is partially mitigated by being set almost entirely in a single location, but apart from the costumes and some of the props, it looks a little threadbare and the very obvious miniature showing the asylum and its surrounding is an eyesore. The lighting is blander than usual in large swathes of the picture. The creature's appearance is not justified by its origin. There might have been some desperation to up the gore content with some brutal blood-soaked stabbings, and the climax appears unnecessarily inspired by Night of the Living Dead's zombie carnage.
But flaws notwithstanding FatMfH is a fond farewell to an era of thrilling horror films from that classic British studio.