Take a sideways glance at that picture of Baron Frankenstein with his lovely lady monster. It’s sex and surgery, mad science meets morbid eroticism, right? Wrong. Despite having a Playboy playmate as its star and a title that riffs on the legendary Brigitte Bardot sex opus And God Created Woman (1956), the fourth Hammer Frankenstein movie contains nary a hint of skin. What we have instead is something far richer, a lyrical, philosophical horror film with a bewitching fairytale atmosphere and deliriously twisted revenge plot.
The story, written by producer Anthony Hinds under his usual pseudonym of John Elder, has Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) revive the dead body of the disfigured Christina (Susan Denberg), who committed suicide following the wrongful execution of her lover, Hans (Robert Morris). Frankenstein also succeeds in transferring Hans’ soul into Christina, which drives the now scar-free, blonde bombshell to seduce and kill Anton (Peter Blythe), Karl (Barry Warren), and Johann (Derek Fowlds - yes that’s right: “Mr. Derek” from Basil Brush!), the three rich bastards responsible for Hans’ death.
With evocative direction from veteran Terence Fisher and a stronger script than most Hammer product, Frankenstein Created Woman is a better movie than its cheesecake-baited premise suggests. The film actually begins with a young Hans seeing his father guillotined, then segues into his blossoming relationship with the afflicted Christina. Two outsiders bonded together against a world that cruelly despises them. A cycle of violence is established, wherein one trauma feeds another; something even the calculating genius of Baron Frankenstein could not have anticipated. Some critics cite the far fetched “soul transference” concept as a major weakness, but the idea is in keeping with Frankenstein’s willingness to transgress the outer limits of science. Note the scintillating courtroom scene where the Baron reels off his qualifications as a doctor of “medicine, law and physics”, and when Johann cries out “And witchcraft!”, dryly replies: “To the best of my knowledge, doctorates are not awarded in witchcraft - but in the event that they are, I shall no doubt qualify.”
It’s almost redundant to say so, but Cushing is awesome in this movie. While certainly callous and manipulative (He doesn’t think twice about experimenting on his late assistant), he spars winningly with the slightly foolish Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) and adds a touch of poetry to the film’s end, as Frankenstein sadly walks away from yet another failed experiment. Plus the scene where Frankenstein puts the toffee-nosed villains firmly in their place is delivered with great panache. In her only film role, Susan Denberg (real name: Dietlinde Zechner) actually holds her own as the tortured femme fatale. Denberg did not lead a particularly fortunate life following her stint as Hammer glamour gal, but happily rumours that she died of a drugs overdose in 1967 are untrue. She is apparently alive and well.
Christina’s murders lack that sado-erotic frisson François Truffaut brought to The Bride Wore Black (1967), or Jess Franco managed with The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965) and She Killed in Ecstasy (1970), and the narrative unfolds a shade too leisurely at times. Yet Fisher and Hinds deserve praise for pushing the series into intriguingly metaphysical waters. Hammer would revive the “man in a woman’s body” theme for their outlandish Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971), but it was the Frankenstein movie Martin Scorsese chose for a National Film Theatre season of his favourite films: “If I single this one out it’s because they actually isolate the soul. The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime.”