Susan Denberg (aka Dietlinde Ortrun Zechner) was blond, beautiful, and unapologetically curvaceous. A German-Austrian Kim Novak look-alike with strong sex appeal and an endearing screen presence. Like Novak, Denberg dated Sammy Davis Jr. while some of her other romantic conquests included Stuart Whitman, Sidney Poitier, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and director Roman Polanski. Following a few television appearances and a role in the Oscar-nominated film AN AMERICAN DREAM (1966), Denberg posed for Playboy magazine and soon afterward she was offered her first and last starring role in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967). The 21-year-old actress was positioned to become another Hollywood ‘it girl’ but the stress of sudden stardom, abusive boyfriends, and excessive drug use combined with her swinging lifestyle took its toll and sent Denberg spiraling into a self-destructive cycle that prematurely ended her career.
For years rumors circulated that Susan Denberg was dead; a victim of suicide following lengthy stays in psychiatric hospitals but this was only partially true. She was hospitalized in 1967 after suffering a drug overdose followed by a mental breakdown that was eventually linked to the sexual abuse she had endured as a child. Although suicide attempts may have occurred, Denberg managed to overcome her personal demons and survive her brief brush with the darker aspects of fame and fortune. The long-retired and reclusive actress is still alive and celebrated her 76th birthday recently so I thought I’d celebrate Halloween by taking a closer look at Denberg’s memorable performance in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN where she starred opposite Peter Cushing and earned her rightful place in Hammer film’s pantheon of glamour girls.
FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN has fascinated me since my first viewing some 30 odd years ago and it’s only gotten better with each consecutive screening. I’m particularly taken with its weird, wonderful and radical premise involving a disfigured crippled girl named Cristina (Susan Denberg) who works at her father’s inn and is continually bullied by a group of boisterous, over-privileged, and incredibly cruel young men. She finds love and acceptance with a sensitive outsider named Hans (Peter Morris) who eventually comes to blows with her tormentors but things turn tragic when Christina’s father is killed and Hans is wrongly blamed for his murder. After Hans is executed, Cristina decides to end her own life but even in death, the two doomed lovers can’t find any peace together. Doctor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) manipulates their corpses in an arcane experiment involving the transfer of Hans’s soul into Cristina’s surgically enhanced body. In the process he creates a gender defying monster with an appetite for revenge.
If the plot sounds bizarre and somewhat convoluted it is, but that’s one of the reasons the film is so engaging. It refuses to conform to viewer’s expectations and keeps you constantly questioning your allegiances to its unbalanced characters.
Film writer and critic Jonathan Rigby has referred to FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN as having, “Perhaps, the most downbeat ending in all horror films” while director Martin Scorsese has singled it out as one of his favorite Hammer productions proclaiming that, “The implied metaphysics is close to sublime.” I’m inclined to agree with them both and although the film also contains some of Hammer’s most gory movie moments, including a particularly vicious knife murder and numerous shots of Han’s decapitated head, director Terence Fisher and scriptwriter Anthony Hinds (using the pseudonym John Elder) managed to create a compassionate and truly unique horror fable while remaining true to many of Mary Shelley’s original ideas.
At first glance the film might seem at odds with earlier films in Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN cannon but FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN has all the tragedy, terror, and pathos found in the best Gothic horror fiction. It’s a strange and incredibly quirky addition to Hammer’s filmography that seems to gain more critical respect with every passing year. It’s also one of the few Hammer films that provided its female lead with a, particularly juicy and noteworthy role.
The film went through numerous title changes during production but Twentieth Century-Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck enthusiastically endorsed this cheeky parody of Roger Vadim’s widely popular international hit AND GOD CREATED WOMAN (1956), which eventually made Brigitte Bardot a household name. I’m sure that the producers of FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN hoped that Susan Denberg would eventually have the same kind of success that Bardot achieved. Although they’re two very different actresses with individual appeal I can’t help but wonder what course Denberg’s career would have taken had she been able to successfully maneuver down Hollywood’s hazardous road to success. Denberg and Bardot were of a similar age when both films were made and undoubtedly faced many of the same obstacles but Denberg’s complicated past and personal demons would eventually overcome the budding actress and derail her career.
While critics and horror fans have continued to debate the lasting importance of FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN in Terence Fisher’s oeuvre few of them have pointed to Susan Denberg’s performance as one of the film’s highlights. The general consensus seems to be that although she was incredibly beautiful, she didn’t bring much to her role except her good looks. It’s also been pointed out that Denberg was dubbed by Hammer because her Austrian accent was too thick. Hammer regularly dubbed their films, which is unfortunate, but it doesn’t change the overall quality of the picture in question and it didn’t impede Denberg’s sensitive portrayal of the ill-fated Cristina.
She was asked to deliver a particularly nuanced performance here as an emotionally damaged young woman with painful physical defects who blossoms into a seductive killer possessed by her dead lover. This would be a challenging task for any actress but when you consider the fact that it was Denberg’s first starring role her performance becomes even more impressive.
“It seemed like the break I had been waiting for when I got the lead role with Peter Cushing in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN . . . during the filming I shunned the bright lights. I was determined to work my hardest to make a success of the biggest chance I’d ever had . . . I played a beautiful girl who comes back from the dead to avenge herself on the three youths who killed her lover. A bit of a change from the the days when I played an angel in my school plays in Klagenfurt, Austria . . . The film opened and I was hailed for my looks, not my acting. It didn’t matter. Parts were flowing in and it was just a matter of selection. Or so I thought.”– Susan Denberg in an interview with News of the World (1969)
This macabre and melancholy tale could have easily fallen apart with a lesser actress playing Cristina but Denberg was able to convey deep wells of unspoken sadness, sudden shock, bitter anger, and a lust for revenge that turns positively sinister without uttering a single recorded word. This is an achievement usually credited to actors of the silent film era and in retrospect, it proves that she had the ability to become a sublime talent given that this was her first and last starring role.
While watching FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN again recently I was constantly reminded of Susan Denberg’s personal pitfalls and the unfortunate direction her life took. It’s impossible to watch Terence Fisher’s film now without wondering if Denberg was unintentionally unlocking her private turmoil during the making of the movie. Like Denberg, the character of Cristina is brutalized both emotionally and physically by the men in her life. Crude medical practices largely concerned with surface appearances offer her some form of escape from the mediocrity of her existence but it’s fleeting. And death, which promises some final peace, ends up betraying her when she’s most vulnerable. This phantasmagorical film manages to coincide with the darker aspects of Susan Denberg’s very real existence so that they’ve become eternally intertwined.
During the movie’s final terrible moments when Doctor Frankenstein attempts to reconcile his relationship with the female monster he created it’s almost too easy to see the real Susan Denberg standing in for the fictional Cristina when she tells the doctor, “I know who I am and I know what I have to do. Forgive me.” Her dramatic plunge off a cliff into the gloomy waters below is an unforeseen and inauspicious example of how art both reflects life and unconsciously imitates it.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on August 2, 2012 and updated in 2020 for Halloween.