Hiding behind one of the worst titles to ever grace a Hammer horror movie is one of the best of the company's long running series following the grisly adventures of Baron Victor Frankenstein.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was Hammer's seventh, but only Terence Fisher's fifth, in the series and it is a fitting high note to both Hammer as a studio and Fisher as their signature director. Fisher was always a solid director with a great eye for setting shots and an ability to get the most out of sometimes underwritten scripts. With this film he showed his considerable strengths one last time in a dark, grisly tale that could have pointed toward a revitalization of the gothic horror genre. By casting a young, handsome man to accept the mantle of Dr. Frankenstein and allowing the always wonderful Peter Cushing to return to his greatest horror role, it should have worked perfectly. Alas this was not to be. Hammer was suffering from financial problems and by 1976 was closed as a viable production house. There would be no more Frankensteins from the studio that reinvented the horror film — in living color — less than 20 years before.
Dr. Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is an eager young man following in the footsteps of the legendary Baron Frankenstein. In a small apartment he is using Frankenstein's published works (?) as a guide for his experiments and is slowly constructing a creature out of parts taken from various cadavers. His procurer is a local grave robbing drunk (Patrick Troughton) who — when he's finally nabbed by the constables — is more than happy to inform on his employer in hopes of a shorter jail term. Simon is promptly arrested for "sorcery" and sentenced to 5 years in the nearby asylum for the criminally insane. It's exactly this institution where the notorious monster maker himself was incarcerated years before. Upon his arrival Simon appeals to the warden for information about Dr. Frankenstein. Momentarily unaware that Dr. Helder is an inmate rather than a visiting physician, the warden explains that the man died some years before and is buried on the grounds. Placed in the hands of the asylum's keepers Simon is brutally welcomed with a high pressure water hose until the resident doctor appears and disperses the watching patients. The medical man attends to Simon's wounds and explains that he is (as suspected) Victor Frankenstein, now going by the name of Dr. Carl Victor. He has the warden under his thumb for various unsavory reasons and runs the asylum with a free hand. The older man is in need of an assistant and makes the young fellow an offer of the relative freedom of the institution if he will help with the general care of the inmates. Simon agrees and soon enough has also joined his mentor in a new attempt to create a more perfect creature (played by David Prowse) from pieces of dead bodies.
Following the template set out by the earlier films in the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell gives us a villainous mad scientist and a sympathetic monster but also throws in the younger protégé as a wild card. Carefully the script shows us Frankenstein's cold-hearted nature barely covered by a veneer of humanity. Even his kind attentions to his mute female assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith) are shown to be matter of necessity. He has cultivated her as a nurse because of his inability to perform delicate surgery with his injured hands.
Several times the film makes the point that Frankenstein is a rather uncultured man unable to appreciate music, mathematics, or even love itself. If fact, it's these finer aspects of humanity that the good doctor tramples completely in his blind quest to play God. He can only see these finer capabilities as indicators of good components for his work. He covets an inmate's brilliant, talented mind and pushes him into suicide to gain it for his experiments. He is focused so completely on his goal that he's become not just misguided or evil, but inhuman. He consistently destroys anything in his grasp to further his experiments but has no understanding or concern for what he leaves in his bloody wake. Frankenstein's life work has destroyed untold numbers of lives and by the end of this movie it's quite apparent that he will never comprehend the cruelty of his actions. He is irredeemable.
The only bright spot for the future is seen in Helder's revulsion at his mentor's eventual decision to mate Sarah with his failed monster. At this point her nickname of Angel evokes the idea of saintly purity soiled by human malice and could be called the perfect metaphor for this movie series — the beauty of the creation of a new life corrupted by horror of science used without compassion. It's only in Helder's break with Frankenstein over Sarah that we see the possible end to the years of horror carried out by the older man. If there had been another film in the series with Helder as the main character it would have been interesting to see if this element of humanity was kept. But I suspect such niceties would have been tossed out for more of the same. Still, this film did a good job of injecting some new ideas into the old Hammer formula.