In recent years, Hammer Horror films have become synonymous with cheap thrills and haunted house style scares. But such a reputation does not cover the entirety of the studio’s output, and reduces the impact of the great company. For proof that Hammer were as much masters of dread and torment as they were gory, low budget action, one need only take a look at Frankenstein Created Woman, a terrifying, genuinely powerful film concerned with nothing less than the human soul. Though it features some of the effects work that Hammer is now famous for, and was filmed on the modest budget that became a staple for the studio, it’s intelligent, nuanced stuff, with some strikingly lofty thematic aims.
The plot centres around Hans, the assistant of cinema’s most famous scientist, one Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing.) Hans is haunted by the execution of his criminal father and desperate to prove himself as a fine upstanding citizen. Indeed, though Cushing does fine, stately work as Frankenstein, Hans is the emotional fulcrum of the film, providing a surprisingly accessible entrance point to the action. His struggles, and his tragic, desperate desire to escape the sins of the past, provide an emotional grounding to the proceedings that stops the increasingly fantastic elements of the movie’s final third from flying off into the ludicrous.
What really sets Frankenstein Created Woman apart from the rest, however, is its Miltonian obsession with the soul. The film extends the source material, and begins to explore the idea that the essence of one’s being can be manifested itself physically. Indeed, it almost becomes proto-Cronenbergian when it begins to assert that one person’s personality can exist within another person’s body, and the way the characters begin to swap forms towards the end adds a surreal yet wrenching aspect to the tragedy.
Remarkably directed by Terence Fisher, there’s a pervading sense of eeriness that hangs over the entire piece. The prologue in particular is striking, as the young Hans watches his father die. It’s the kind of subtle, almost mythic filmmaking that has paved the way for generation after generation of filmmakers, and the imagery can be seen replicated in both The Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.
In essence, Frankenstein Created Woman is the film that flies in the face of preconceptions, one that proves Hammer were more than just quietly effective monster movie makers. It’s a stunning picture, that, by the time it is over, has taken on all the dimensions of a Greek tragedy, as the players meet their doom and the credits slowly begin to roll.