Sunday, April 29, 2012

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) dir. Terence Fisher

Logline: Baron Frankenstein returns as a benevolent freeloader working on the transference of souls. His first successful experiment places the soul of an executed man into the body of his female lover. Gender-bending mayhem ensues.

Note: This entry is the opening section of a much larger paper on sex, gender, and the female Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Therefore, it's not the usual type of analysis I do here (it also necessarily eschews much of the film), but I think it's fine enough reading nonetheless.

Of the sundry adaptations and reinterpretations of the Frankenstein myth, one of those most deserving of feminist critical evaluation is the 1967 British film Frankenstein Created Woman. Produced by the renowned Hammer Film Productions and directed by Terence Fisher, Frankenstein Created Woman is the fourth Frankenstein film of the seven that Hammer would create between 1957 and 1974, and—significantly—the only to feature a female Creature. This Creature, named Christina (played by Susan Denberg), is an intriguing and ambiguous figure, simultaneously monstrous and sympathetic (much like Shelley’s own Creature). For the film’s first hour, Christina is not yet the product of the experimentation by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), but a hideously scarred and disfigured young woman, the daughter of an innkeeper, working at the inn that they maintain together somewhere in 19th century Europe (probably Switzerland). In her naturally scarred and disfigured state (although we are not given the cause of her deformities, we are informed that they were present from birth), Christina presents a sort of monstrous corporeality that others find repellent. Tellingly, a group of three foppish Dandies, who represent the film’s materialization of institutionalized culture, cruelly torment her with teases and insults concerning her natural visage. Although her appearance is the product of natural processes, the manufactured society that the Dandies represent will not accept her: Christina does not adequately fit the role of what a “natural” woman should look like. Instead, she is the result of actual nature at work, with all of its inconsistencies and abnormalities. Nor does Christina act as society would have her. She is loyal to her father out of love, but is not afraid of disobeying his orders. She is sexually liberated, sleeping with the man whom she loves, though they are not married and her father forbids their meeting. Moreover, she makes the tragically autonomous decision to take her own life after her lover has been wrongly executed.

It is at this point in the film’s narrative that Baron Frankenstein’s revivifying, unnatural science steps in to rectify Christina’s unfortunate situation, making of her a “healthy young woman.” Through unknown means, Christina is brought back to life and, more notably, cured of her physical deformities through Frankenstein’s surgical knowledge. She emerges from her bandages as a make-up caked bombshell (a blonde one at that, Frankenstein’s science having also somehow cured her of her naturally auburn hair color). As an aesthetically “natural” member of society, Christina has been robbed of her outsider status and the liberties it afforded her, leaving her permitted to do little more than stay indoors and prepare Frankenstein’s breakfasts. But it is this permutation of Christina, not the one who looks monstrous, that becomes the monster as she embarks on a crusade of vengeance against the three Dandies who wronged her executed lover. Fittingly, she destroys them by first seducing them, turning the more broadly accepted sexual import that has been implanted into her back on society. The Dandies find the artificial woman that Christina has been warped into utterly irresistible, failing to discern that she is the same woman they mercilessly mocked. She murders them all, and—her mission completed—reasserts her own autonomy however fleetingly by again throwing herself off a cliff into a rushing river in order to drown. We plainly see that her enculturation has gone awry: the “natural” woman of society that Frankenstein’s patriarchal science has made of her stands in direct opposition to the true processes of nature (those of Christina’s original body and unrestrained, independent female identity). She becomes a strictly codified and delineated female body, which her true feminine nature rebels against. Unfortunately, she cannot rebel through a refusal to acquiesce to male demands, but only through brutal violence. Christina is a tragic character and Frankenstein Created Woman is a tragic film, one that appears to lament the expectations society places on women, forcing them to act and appear totally against their own natures in order to appear “natural.”

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