Thursday, 16 October 2014

Frankenstein and The Monster From Hell

Locked up for dabbling with 'sorcery', a young doctor finds that he shares the asylum with his hero in science, Victor Frankenstein, who has faked his own death in order to continue with experiments and effectively control the weak-willed corrupt manager of the place.  Together the two scientists use various pieces of dead prisoners to construct a monstrosity that eventually awakens to produce dire consequences.

This film marked the end of an era for Hammer and horror films generally, as well as the career of its director and the man at the very birth of the studio's Frankenstein series, Terence Fisher.  The gothic literary adaptations and mutations of the 50s and 60s came to an interesting conclusion here, and they couldn't go on when across the water the Americans were delivering the likes of The Exorcist and Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  Frankenstein's monster failed to shock audiences any longer, although this particular epitaph was actually quite nasty in many ways, with some strong moments of gore and violence though oddly absent nudity (something which had become a staple of Hammer's output during the early 70s): the female lead, a mute played by Madeline Smith (The Vampire Lovers) remains fully clothed up to the neck throughout.  Peter Cushing, once again in the role of the baron, looks decidedly skeletal here but continues to deliver his usual perceptive portrayal of the character.  Taking FATMFH out of its difficult context in the history of horror it's not a bad film at all, with a beautifully grim setting (almost entirely in the asylum), an ugly, tragic creature at the heart of the tale, and some unprecedented brutality.
Released on Blu-ray in the UK as a dual edition pack, the three disc set contains two DVDs alongside the Blu.  On the Blu (and spread across the other two discs due to the substantially lower storage capacity of DVD) the film is presented as you would have seen it theatrically (my favourite ratio, 1.66:1) and, as an optional extra, in its un-matted 35mm form at 1.37:1 (i.e. more information seen at the top and bottom of the screen), accurately moving at 24 frames per second in either case (sped up to 25 fps on the DVDs, naturally).  Obviously if you're viewing on a 16x9 widescreen display then the 1.37:1 version will have thick black bars at the sides, whilst the 1.66:1 version will have very thin black bars at each side.  Preference will depend on the viewer ultimately, and one can argue the virtues of each until the full moon sets, but it's fantastic that we're actually given the choice and the viewer can sample each before settling down to the enjoy the film.  Detail on the 1080p Blu-ray transfers is set at an excellent standard, whilst the DVDs can't compete but still look reasonably good considering they're Standard Definition.  On the audio side, the mono (uncompressed LPCM on the Blu-ray, compressed Dolby Digital on the DVDs) is clear and as decent as you can expect.

What else do you get?  There's a commentary track with two of the main actors (Shane Bryant, who plays Frankenstein's protégé, and Madeline Smith) moderated by classic horror lover Marcus Hearn.  Secondly you get a great documentary directed by Hearn about the making of the film, with plenty of interviews from surviving participants incorporating some enticing anecdotes about Cushing (including some images of his extensive notes on the script).  This runs for 25 minutes.  The next documentary focuses on the director himself, again a fine piece and this time running at 13 minutes.  A 7 minute animated gallery features shots from the set, some lovely posters/advertising materials, promotional stills of the likes of Smith, make-up work-in-progress of the monster (David Prowse), etc.  All of these extras are on both the Blu-ray and one or the other of the DVDs, the only extra remaining that is not on both is a PDF of a 30 page booklet, which is only on the second DVD and accessible via a PC of course.  I would have preferred a printed version of this but I guess they saw this as a cost-cutting measure.  There's a lot of information about the production of the film and reactions to it post-release, and overall it's a nicely presented companion.  The booklet also goes into significant detail on how the film was restored for high definition presentation, and makes one appreciate the work involved.

The initial pressing of this Icon-released set back in May 2014 was flawed with some stalling issues on the Blu-ray.  This was corrected quite quickly and the versions available now are fine to watch, resulting in this now being the definitive presentation of quite a reasonable and gruesome latter-day Hammer.

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