In 1967, Hammer released its fourth Frankenstein movie: Frankenstein Created Woman.
Instead of giving the public the same old regenerated storyline, Terence Fisher and John Elder (Tony Hinds) opted to experiment thematically with their creation, offering film goers an interesting meditation on inherited violence, ambiguous gender, and the concept of a metaphysical soul.
And while the experiment is ultimately flawed, it remains one of the better Frankenstein movies of the period, simply because Fisher and company did take a risk by not drawing up a traditional Frankenstein monster as the center-piece of the narrative.
All the other Hammer trappings are left intact, however: the never-never, Mittel-European town where everyone speaks with English accents; the gothic and morbid intrigue of dead bodies and grave robbing; the titillating waft of sexually tension; and of course, the cruel, upper-class male who feels entitled to all around him.
The first image we see in Frankenstein Created Woman is one of death: a guillotine awaits its next victim. The victim in this case is a career criminal who has been sentenced to death for his crimes. Only his beheading is witnessed by his young son, Hans.
Years later, we discover Hans (Robert Morris) is in the employ of Dr. Frankenstein (played with his usual learned arrogance by the great Peter Cushing), who is now experimenting with the metaphysical concept of capturing the soul of the recently dead.
The Doctor believes the soul does not immediately exit the body upon death, and if caught at a certain time, may be contained. With the help of Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), his bumbling assistant, the humble doctor appears close to a breakthrough in his experiments. He’s even willing to experiment on himself. We first find the doctor in a deathly state where he has been frozen in a cold chamber, simply to prove he can be brought back to life.
To celebrate his success, Frankenstein sends Hans the local public house to buy a few bottles of champagne to make this occasion. Hans is told to let pub owner know that the alcohol should go on his tab as the trio are a little short of ready cash—not much money to be made in mad science.
At the pub we meet Christina (Susan Denberg), a shy, disfigured, and crippled waitress. Hans, being the sweet kid he is, sees beyond Christina’s flaws and claims his love for her.
Enter the trio of bad boys, the arrogant upper-class men Hammer so loves to hate, led by Anton (Peter Blythe), and followed by his sycophantic friends Karl (Barry Warren) and Johann (Derek Fowlds). The carousing group proceed to humiliate and torment Christina as she attempts to serve them. Hans defends his lady’s honor by attacking Anton, then slashing him with a knife. In the meantime, the pub owner (Ivan Beavis) exits to fetch the law, leaving the poor waitress behind. Nice guy.
Upon his return, the pub owner disarms Hans, but in the heat of the moment, and still angry about the confrontation, Hans threatens the life of the owner. The police don’t press charges and Hans walks away, much to the chagrin of Anton and his cohort.
We know there’s revenge on their minds. We can see it in their eyes.
In her room, Christina glances in the mirror at her reflection (a nice play by Fisher with the idea of identity and the double, which will be developed soon enough), until Hans arrives, and they make love.
In the meantime, Anton, Johann, and Karl sneak back to the pub to help themselves to some alcohol, only to be discovered by the owner, whom they promptly kill. Who do you think gets the blame? Never threaten to kill someone, even in the heat of the moment, because it only comes back to haunt you. No pun intended here.
Hans is brought before a judge for the murder (even though he was in Christina’s bed at the time, he says nothing of this), where he is castigated for being just like his father and sentenced to the guillotine.
The spurious evidence supplied by Anton doesn’t help the situation and he and his three friends walk away, leaving poor Hans to his fate. Poor Christina witnesses Hans beheading (a nice parallel with Hans witnessing his father’s execution at the opening) and proceeds to commit suicide by drowning herself. Perfect.
The good doctor, seeing a chance to put his experiment and philosophy of the soul to good use, and manages to get hold of Hans body, traps his soul with a couple of umbrella like tools (don’t question the science, just go with it). When the drowned body of Christina is discovered, it is brought back to Dr. Hertz’s house, where our creative doctor transfers Hans’s soul into the repaired body of Christina.
When she awakens, as a beautiful and blond, Christina has little memory of who she is (again, a nice play on the theme of identity crisis) and her past. Hertz and Frankenstein become father figures to the new Christina, where Hertz is clearly the more maternal, despite Frankenstein being the one who gave her life.
However, we soon learn the consequence of playing in the God’s territory, as Christina, under the manipulated force of Hans’s soul, stalks, seduces and kills the men (first Anton, then Karl) responsible for killing her father and sending Hans to his death.
Frankly, Christina’s cleavage does a lot of the work here. And so Hans becomes what he most feared: a killer and a criminal like his father.
Pretty soon, Hans’s body --which has been buried after the extraction of his soul – is dug up, and his head taken. At this stage Christina/Hans has had a complete break with reality, as she sits in her room, talking to the impaled head of her dead (yet living) lover, as he continues to request further deaths in the name of revenge.
Upon realizing what Christina has become, Frankenstein races to stop his monster making the final kill: Johann—as he leaves town after the death of his two pals.
But he's too late. He finds Christina in the forest holding the decapitated head of Johann, speaking with Hans’s voice, telling her the revenge is now complete. In her guilt, Christina walks to the edge of a cliff and jumps into the racing river below.
Another happy ending. Typical of Hammer: no tidy wrap up, just straight into the end titles.
On the production side, the gang’s all here. With Fisher at the helm, the movie is in safe hands.
While Bernard Robinson’s sets are not as lavish as previous Hammer productions, they nevertheless contribute greatly to the world being created. Arthur Grant’s cinematography (as with many of Hammer’s productions) is one of the reasons we love these movies; his color composition and fluid camera accommodate the story-telling as much as Fisher’s direction.
Critics have pointed to Thorley Walter’s bumbling Dr. Hertz (pun intended?) as Watson-like, and they are not wrong. As you watch his character try to figure out Frankenstein’s abstract concepts and deductions of the soul, you both wonder how he ever became a doctor, while sympathizing with his confusion, as you are right there with him.
Walter’s has some nice fatherly scenes (or motherly, as he, as mentioned above, is certainly the maternal figure in his little bizarre family), which balance nicely with Frankenstein’s ‘father must work’ attitude.
Denberg, as both Christina the ugly duckling, and then as the naïve (and stunningly beautiful) ‘monster’ has become so iconic to Hammer fans, it is hard to fault her. Publicity shots for Frankenstein Created Woman of Denberg in that white bikini outfit are forever burned into my mind.
Denberg does not of course appear in this outfit in the movie, leaving male viewers to ponder on a director’s cut or missing scenes that someday may surface. Denberg didn’t have a huge career, yet she remains respected more as an image than as an actress.
Not only was she a Playboy Playmate of the month in 1966, she also starred in a classic episode of Star Trek called Mudd’s Women. A trivia treat for any geek. As a young woman, she took to the London drug and party scene of the swinging 60s, and ended up rubbing shoulders with Polanski and his crew.
Quoted in the Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn, Robert Morris (Hans) said Denberg was “sweet”, but would “often arrive on set in the mornings somewhat the worse for wear.”
Initially, Denberg kept her Austrian accent during the shoot, but was dubbed post-production—much like the Collinson twins four years later for Twins of Evil. Over the years, rumors surfaced about Denberg’s mental health, and ultimately her suicide. Apocryphal, as it turns out. She presently lives in her native Austria, but no longer has a career as an actress.
As mentioned, Frankenstein Created Woman (a titled cribbed from Roger Vadim’s 1956 God Created Woman with Brigitte Bardot -- indeed, as the transformed Christina, Denberg blatantly resembles Bardot), is not your typical Frankenstein movie.
Here the monster is both male and female, a confused fusion of both seductive beauty and violent beast. But in this fusion, Fisher, Elder, and company, open up some interesting ideas (such as: is violence inheritably male?), that while unfulfilled in the final execution, contribute greatly to this flawed piece of classic Hammer.