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Hans (Robert Morris) is a young man accused of murder. The only "evidence" against him is the fact that his father was executed for a similar crime, but in the parochial imaginations of this ill-identified European backwater it can be reasonably assumed "like father like son." Hans has an alibi, but it's problematic and he doesn't want to say it aloud: on the night in question, he was in bed with the dead man's disfigured daughter Christina (Susan Denberg), whom he had just rescued from cruel torment at the hands of some rich wastrels. Those bullies are in fact the real killers, but their reputations will remain unsullied while this innocent boy is punished in their place.
It may seem confusing, but hold on, it's about to get much more complicated. Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) sees this monstrous injustice as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All he has to do is extract Hans' soul from his corpse and transfer it to a new body. Why? Well, for the same reasons people climb mountains--just because he can. Finding a new body for Hans takes less effort than expected, when Christina throws herself into a lake in despair at witnessing her lover guillotined. Other people might blanch at transplanting one person's soul into another's body--much less transplanting a boy's soul into a girl's body. But if Frankenstein let such conventions hold him back from transplanting Romeo into Juliet's body, we wouldn't have much of a movie, would we?
Oh, and what a movie it is. Although the ludicrous plot of Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) boils down to "boy meets girl, boy becomes girl, together they go on killing rampage," everyone involved brings an enormous gravitas to the production. The gender-bending plot belongs to a late-1960s pop cultural emphasis on androgyny -- Baron Frankenstein's half-male sexpot monster taking its place alongside David Bowie and Twiggy as emblems of a society throwing off the traditional, limiting, definitions of man and woman.
Before you make too much of that last assertion, bear in mind that Frankenstein Created Woman was made quite some time before the counterculture's Summer of Love. Pop culture's interest in androgyny really blossomed the following decade. Far from riffing on social revolutions of the day, screenwriter Anthony Hinds had actually written the story back in 1958, as the originally mooted sequel to 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein.
A bit of history is in order here. Hammer Films was founded in 1932 and spent its first few decades doing the same thing as other British film concerns--that is, struggling to find an audience. Their farce comedies and crime thrillers were competently made, even fitfully brilliant, but remained stubbornly local. Then, in the mid-1950s, the studio's management noted that a few of their science fiction offerings were performing better at the box office than anything they'd done before--and had even started to crack the elusive American market. Hoping to chase that success, the studio produced a pair of horror films adapted loosely from the stories of Frankenstein and Dracula. These were not like the gothic horror films that Universal Studios had made their bread and butter. Instead, The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula (1958) were ripe with sexuality and Technicolor gore. They were instant sensations, earning back more than thirty times what they cost to make, and establishing "Hammer Horror" as an internationally-recognized brand name for a special kind of screen entertainment.
The producer of these breakthrough hits was Anthony Hinds, son of one of Hammer's founders. In addition to being a producer, he was also a writer--a fact he concealed by use of the pseudonym John Elder. In a playful nod to Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman (1956), he sketched out a story for an immediate sequel, to be titled And Frankenstein Created Woman -- but decided to set the script aside in favor of another approach. That script would simmer on a back burner for years, maturing like a fine wine.
In the interim, stars were minted. Terence Fisher, the director of both The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, quickly became the studio's principal director of lurid monster movies. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing became the faces of Hammer's most enduring and popular franchises. That all three of these men were dignified gentlemen completely unlike the monsters they created on screen only added to the sense that they were making a "veddy veddy British" kind of horror.
In 1966, the studio was publicly celebrating "Ten Years of Hammer Horror," which they intended to cap with the release of the fourth Frankenstein picture, once again uniting director Terence Fisher with star Peter Cushing. Ten years of anything risks devolving into creative exhaustion. In recent years, Hammer had come to face fierce competition from upstarts like Tigon and Amicus, smaller studios that aggressively copied Hammer's business model and gothic horror aesthetics--not to mention poaching Cushing, Lee, and Fisher. As Hammer came to its tenth anniversary celebration, it was under increasing pressure to differentiate its product and maintain some sense of novelty for a genre in danger of overexposure.
In this environment, Hinds' preposterous story was just the ticket, full as it was of perversion and scandal. More than that, Hind's script is taut, clever, wicked, and strange. It functions as a tragic fugue. The film opens with a guillotine blade hoist into the sky--that image will return repeatedly in a story marked by numerous beheadings. Christina drowns herself twice. Frankenstein removes the distinctive facial scars from Christina when he revives her corpse, but those same injuries are copied onto another character's face. Wine is spilled as a prelude to violence--twice. The same dialogue is repeated by different characters in back-to-back scenes. Fate has made sure these people can never escape their peculiar trap.
One of the most striking aspects of Frankenstein Created Woman is its resolute amorality. The most caricatured villains of the story are each given moments of genuine human sympathy, while the ostensible protagonists are presented bluntly. The filmmakers simply expect that the audience will ally its loyalties with those characters whose point-of-view is maintained (Frankenstein, Hans, and Christina) even if those characters do nothing to earn that sympathy.
Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein had become an icon of counter-cultural revolution to teenage fans of the series, who admired his defiance of authority. Like Clint Eastwood's Man Without a Name, Cushing's Frankenstein was a defining anti-hero of the era. In a telling moment, Cushing objects to being asked to justify if his actions are right: "Right? What has right got to do with it?"
Cushing steals every scene he is in, and Thorley Walters as his alcoholic assistant delivers one of the finest and most humane performances of his distinguished career. It is Christina, though, who anchors the film. It was a demanding and multifaceted role--the actress was called upon to differentiate between the original Christina, her reanimated duplicate, and the murderous revenge-driven personality that Hans creates within that reanimated corpse. And to tackle this tripartite role, the wise stewards of Hammer turned to a Playboy centerfold named Susan Denberg (well, her real name was Dietlinde Zechner, but you won't find that name on any movie credits). She was just 21 years old as filming began, and the studio held a birthday bash for her at London's Playboy Club as a goodwill gesture/publicity stunt.
She was certainly a pretty girl, but it is hard to evaluate her performance from the finished film because her voice was redubbed by another, uncredited, actress. This was a common practice for Hammer, and the studio clearly felt that her appearance was of more importance to the film's success than her thespian skills.
Sadly, this exploitative attitude was something poor Denberg never outran. Her ambition to be a star was never realized. Dr. Frankenstein's attitude towards Denberg's character Christina served as a cruel paradigm for Denberg's dealings with Hollywood ever after: powerful men were more interested in her body than her mind. The film even acknowledges that her sex appeal is an act choreographed by men: men remake her body to emphasize curves and blonde hair, men compel her to act like a slut. Tabloid papers claimed that Denberg later developed a drug habit; she eventually committed suicide.
Despite the tragic pall Denberg's fate casts retrospectively over Frankenstein Created Woman, it is a remarkably accomplished creation. Terence Fisher knew perfectly how to temper the craziest aspects with a sense of reserve so that the affair never feels tawdry or exploitative, no matter how kinky it gets. It was paired on release with the more conventional The Mummy's Shroud as its companion feature in England. It is a sign of Frankenstein's comparatively greater success that its brand of gender-confusion started to become a recurring Hammer trope. Crescendo (1970), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Countess Dracula (1971), Twins of Evil (1971), Vampire Circus (1972), and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) continued to mine the commercial prospects of sexual perversion and gothic monsters.
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: James Bernard
Film Editing: Spencer Reeve
Cast: Peter Cushing (Baron Frankenstein), Susan Denberg (Christina), Thorley Walters (Doctor Hertz), Robert Morris (Hans), Duncan Lamont (prisoner), Peter Blythe (Anton).
By David Kalat
Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography
Howard Maxford, Hammer, House of Horror: Behind the Screams
Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema
Gary Svehla, "The Evolving Worlds of Hammer's Baron Frankenstein," Midnight Marquee Presents a Tribute to Hammer Films
Gary and Susan Svehla, editors, We Belong Dead: Frankenstein on Film