Frankenstein Created Woman and the modern horror film

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on January 23, 2014.

‘Subversive’ film from 1960s originally snipped to pieces by Ontario censors.

Eat your heart out, Aaron Eckhart. I, Frankenstein, a film inspired by Mary Shelley’s oft-adapted novel, isn’t the only Frankenstein tale opening in Toronto this week.

On Thursday, Frankenstein Created Woman screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Rue Morgue Magazine’s monthly Cinemacabre series. But when the film — in which Dr. Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing, transfers the soul of a falsely accused man beheaded by a guillotine into the body of a young girl who committed suicide — originally premiered at the Downtown Theatre on Yonge St. on March 15, 1967, it wasn’t shown in its entirety. The prudish, scissor-happy censors at the Ontario Board of Censors, as they were then called, cut seven sequences from its running time, some just seconds long.

“I can understand why they would have made some cuts. It’s a very subversive film,” says Rue Morgue writer James Burrell, who over the years has written extensively about Hammer, the British studio that produced the film. “Watching it again, it’s kind of out there for a mainstream ’60s horror film.”

When the deformed and ridiculed Christina leaps to her death, she is revived in swanlike fashion through Frankenstein’s godlike ministrations. But Frankenstein’s new monster, played by former Playboy Playmate Susan Denberg — who bears no resemblance to Boris Karloff’s electrode-protruding monster from the ’30s — seeks revenge on her former tormentors. “In a way it prefigures the slasher genre and the revenge film, the way she seeks out these three wealthy, arrogant, cruel young men and gorily dispatches them.”

In one particular scene, Christina scrawls a character’s name in blood. “That struck me as something out of the Manson murders, although the film was released two years before that event. That’s pretty disturbing,” adds Burrell.

By 1967, Hammer had long been synonymous with horror. Arthur Zeldin, then the Star’s film critic, wrote that “it’s been widely known that the name Hammer leading off the credits in this type of film usually stands for something special in the field.”

With the release of Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and Horror of Dracula the following year, Hammer pushed the creature feature into the modern era, influencing everything that followed. “They evolved the G-rated Universal monster films that had been popular since the 1930s into something more explicit,” says Rue Morgue editor-in-chief Dave Alexander. “They got more bloody, especially with Technicolor, and some of the characters got markedly more evil.”

“They paved the way for other filmmakers to go even more graphic with their films,” says Burrell, adding that Hammer also created a successful sequel formula still used today with modern franchises. Seven Frankenstein films — of which Frankenstein Created Woman is the fourth — nine Dracula films, five mummy films, among others, were released between 1957 and 1974. “They were so prolific.”

By the early 1970s, with films like The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, they became more sexual. But despite the gore, Frankenstein Created Woman remains relatively tame.

Screenwriters, aware that censors cut their films, would write the more horrific themes into the screenplay — the stuff that can’t be censored, adds Alexander. “The idea of gender-switching was really disturbing for the day, and it’s that sort of conceit that I think makes the film a little more horrifying than some extra stage blood.”

On Thursday, the film will be presented uncut at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St. West), 9pm.

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