Saturday, April 18, 2020

Hammer Time: Frankenstein Created Woman and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

I'm not a big Hammer guy in part because I'm just not a big horror guy. I've grown to like horror movies well enough, and appreciate what you can say with them, but I've never quite gotten into horror for the sake of horror. I will watch your zombie movie if it helps me fill every slot at Fantasia, or if it looks like you've got style or a new twist or point of view, but I don't need endless sequels or mythologies or the like. I'm full up there with Marvel, Star Trek, etc.

As a result, I've never really done any sort of deep dive into Hammer, just sort of checked them out when individual films were part of other things that interested me, which is how these two particular discs wound up on my (somewhat) recent arrivals shelf: A Hammer/Shaw Brothers crossover is the right combination of logical and bonkers to be interesting, and I have loved gender-bending stuff since I discovered Ranma ½ in college, even if I do recognize that most of it kind of problematic at best (including and maybe especially the well-intentioned material). I will, by the time we are once again able to see movies in theaters like nature intended, spend a week going through various movies along those lines, but we are not there yet.

At any rate, I wonder if these oddball Hammer films do better for Shout Factory than the regular ones, because they attract niches that the other six Hammer Frankensteins don't.

Frankenstein Created Woman

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It is roughly an hour into this 86-minute movie before Frankenstein creates woman, and it's not like that first hour is doing something terribly new on the way to that moment. The horror genre has certainly seen more wasteful slow burns than this, of course, and it's entirely possible that someone who had seen the previous Hammer Frankenstein movies would be more engrossed. Still, it's an odd thing to save the movie's central idea until the point where you can't do that much with it.

Having been caught up on the series might explain why Baron Fraknenstein (Peter Cushing) starts the film in some small Swiss village, hands damaged to the point where he must depend on local doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters) and assistant Hans (Robert Morris) to actually execute his experiments in cryonics and force fields and all manner of other things. Hans loves Christina (Susan Denberg dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl), the scarred and handicapped daughter of the local tavern owner, though she is the target of ridicule from three cruel toffs (Peter Blyte, Barry Warren, Derek Fowlds). Suspicion for the murder of Christina's father falls on Hans, due to his firey temper and executed father, and though Frankenstein's testimony at the trial hurts more than it helps, his latest experiments in capturing the soul may save Hans… in a way.

Given the title of the movie, you can see where the filmmakers are going with this, and while there's certainly a desire to move it along to the good stuff, there's also a certain perverse comfort on how writer Anthony Hinds (using the pseudonym "John Elder') and director Terence Fisher put everything in place. There's not a character that the audience doesn't recognize as horror stock right away, played broadly but generally a step or two back from actual ham, performed on sets that are cramped and garish rather than ornate, and maybe feel a little grounded and believable for that. It's meticulous in going through all the steps that must happen before Hans is in a new body and seeking revenge, and mostly does okay with that, with the admittedly large exceptions of Hertz seeming like the most empty-headed physician since Nigel Bruce played John Watson, the better for Frankenstein to explain things to him in a step-by-step manner that consists almost entirely of unfounded assumptions.

If the first hour is standard but capable, the last act is rushed but interesting. Sure, it's where all the exploitation raw meat is, the bloody murders and the costuming designed to remind you that, despite how Christina was presented earlier, Susan Denberg is very attractive indeed. It's also where Frankenstein's utter lack of human perspective as he tampers with the very stuff of life and death is presented at its sharpest - where, despite the monster being beautiful, this finally feels like a Frankenstein story. The filmmakers almost completely sidestep playing with the idea of a man's soul in a woman's body, which is probably for the best - a lot of more high-minded movies with fifty years' more perspective make a mess of this - often instead presenting the new Christina as a blank slate haunted and sometimes possessed by Hans's ghost. An interesting idea of itself, but not the film has much time to play with. Mostly, it lets the audience get a bit of a thrill out of how the men who actually killed Christna's father are now lusting over a woman with her body and the soul of a man they despised like cartoon wolves.

That's good stuff with a nasty, twisted kick to it, and the cast to its credit all seem to get what makes this a nifty cross between the traditional Frankenstein story and a revenge flick, but they could use more time to dig into it: Frankenstein's monsters, at their best, are intelligent enough to recognize and rail over how they don't fit into the world, and Christina doesn't get that sort of introspection. On the other side, the three targets of her rage are a dull, interchangeable bunch, her vengeance suitably bloody but not quite thrilling. It doesn't quite become a rote slasher movie, but it seldom lives up to what it could be.

Less interesting things have been done with both Frankenstein and avenging-angel flicks separately, and the folks at Hammer didn't really mess up the combination. You can see the good ideas and Hammer being a factory of sorts works in the movie's favor. They don't mess up lurid horror, even if they aren't exactly the guys to make it into something greater.

Also on EFilmCritic

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was the only product of a mid-1970s team-up between Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers Studio, but ill-fated action flick Shatter (coincidentally due for a home video release in about a week) likely doesn't have quite the same sense of being a crossover that this does. It's recognizable as both the sort of horror movies Hammer and Shaw Brothers made, with a healthy dose of the latter's martial-arts action, more for better than worse.

It opens 1804, with Kah (Chan Shen) arriving in Transylvania from China to beseech Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) for his aid in helping his village of Ping Kwei's seven golden vampires once again spread terror through the countryside, which the Count accepts, in his own way. A hundred years later, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is giving a lecture on vampirism in Chungking, hoping to learn of China's undead only to be dismissed by all but Hsi Ching (David Chiang Da-Wei), who has come from Ping Kwei to seek Van Helsing's assistance in destroying the vampires that still plague his village. It's an expensive expedition, but Scandinavian widow and adventuress Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) is intrigued, and with a party including Van Helsing's son Leyland (Robin Stewart) as well as Ching's six brothers and sister Mei Kwei (Shih Szu), they set out, pursued by gangsters and heading toward monsters.

Christopher Lee opted not to return as Dracula for what is little more than a cameo rule (though John Forbes-Robertson as dubbed by David de Keyser is a fair substitute for a couple of scenes), and truth be told, this film would probably work better without him. Aside from how the story would seem to make no sense in established Hammer continuity, there's something downright charming about it as a sort of spin-off, with Van Helsing touring the globe and learning about the various legends of the undead that can be found outside of his central-European expertise. Those initial scenes play Van Helsing as an eccentric academic, with costumes and attitude that remind one as much of Peter Cushing's short-lived stint as Dr. Who as the hard-bitten vampire hunter of the early Hammer Draculas, with an enjoyable (if unfortunately noteworthy) respect for the Chinese setting, from how Cushing's first scene flips the script on the familiar trope of the European scientist lecturing superstitious locals to his genuine curiosity discussing vampires with Hsi Ching and the party later.

And he should be humble, because he is definitely in Shaw Brothers territory as much as Hammer turf. The seven vampires and their undead army are covered in an almost absurd amount of prosthetic makeup so that they come across as bizarre, uncanny monsters, with garish bat medallions just to make sure the audience gets it. On top of that, the Hsi family leaps into action like this was any other kung fu flick, and the fights are the real deal: Legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh may be uncredited, but he oversaw much of the martial-arts scenes, with Tang Chia and Liu Chia-Liang (who would later go on to direct his brother in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and its sequels) choreographing the action. These battles are big and sprawling, with a great many fists, feet, and silvery weapons flying without it ever being too much. The violence in Hammer horror movies is always enthusiastic, but this movie drops big fast-paced battles in without missing a beat. They even do a nice job of making sure that Robin Stewart, presumably brought in as a younger Van Helsing to minimize the amount of strenuous work for Cushing, comes across as not skilled in the same way as the Hong Kong cast without looking like a fool.

For all that the Shaw Brothers action can be dropped into a Hammer horror movie without seeming out of place, neither studio tended to see these movies as a whole lot more than vehicles for sex and violence, which this one delivers, if often with as much glee as style. Peter Cushing and David Chiang Da-Wei are good enough in their parts to make scenes move smoothly, but the need to have a cast big enough that some can fall in battle means there's not really enough material for anyone to be terribly interesting individually, from the frequently anonymous brothers to how Julie Ege is mostly filling costumes until literally her last scene. Neither John Forbes-Robertson nor Chan Shen gets much chance to do much as a villain between the very start and very end of the film.

But if you're going to mash Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers together, you can't exactly expect that which neither prioritized to suddenly be great. Instead, you just hope that each part brings something that they do well, and if 7 Golden Vampires winds up being just a good example of each label's product, that's a sort of success a lot of other crossovers don't manage.

Also on EFilmCritic

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