Written by: Jimmy Sangster (adaptation), Mary Shelley (novel)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court and Robert Urquhart
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Let's let our friend here rest in peace... while he can"
It didn’t take long for the general public to begin mixing up what the name Frankenstein referred to: the mad genius or his monstrous creation. This happened long before any film adaptation, with writings dating back as far as the first decade of the 20th century noting how the name had indeed come to wrongly signify Frankenstein’s monster instead of the doctor himself, a fact that further belies the question of who the true monster is at the center of Mary Shelley’s gothic parable: the man or his pitiful, unnamed creature who never asked to be born? Shelley’s own answer to that question is rather complex--her Victor Frankenstein is essentially man-turned-metaphorical monster bred out of unchecked ambition, with his creation being a corrupted soul driven to violence after suffering through it himself, and this dynamic has been reworked dozens of times on screen.
James Whale’s adaptation was the first memorable take, one that mostly dispensed with Shelley’s overwrought, prosaic narrative, distilling it down to a broad, Romantic fable while keeping Shelley’s tragic, underlying sensibilities--Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is merely an ambitious scientist who loses his way, with Boris Karloff’s monster being dealt with like an unruly teenager that eventually needed to be punished. There is an element of sadness for each, but the film ultimately reinforces a return to order, ending with a toast to the house and health of Frankenstein.
By 1957, this was the definitive cinematic version of the story, but this didn’t prevent Britain’s Hammer Films from giving it their own pass that would do more than give it a Eastmancolor and widescreen makeover. Instead, they crafted a film that, like Universal’s original, cuts straight to the heart of Shelley’s tale, while also dispensing with any sort of ambiguity over who the real “monster” is, its opening title card referring to “a man whose strange experiments with the dead have become legend…still told in with horror the world over.” Before he’s even properly introduced, Hammer’s Frankenstein is the stuff of sordid legend, a madman whose name is rightfully associated with the horrors he propagated, and even the title of this film--The Curse of Frankenstein--paints him as a blight upon the world.
When we properly meet this Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), he’s already on death row for his horrible deeds, but he’s all too eager to relate his story to the prison’s priest. He takes us back to his days of being a child baron (having inherited the title after his father’s untimely death), particularly when he enlisted Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to be his academic mentor. As the years pass, the two collaborate climatically, their work climaxing when they reanimate a dog from the dead. Only this isn’t the climax--not for Victor, who wants to take their work a step further by creating a man, and the pursuit consumes him, not only threatening his friendship with Paul, but also his engagement to cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court).
There are brief moments where we consider that Cushing’s Victor might be as sympathetic as his precursors; a hint of desperation and remorse clangs about in his confessions to the priest, but this is before we’re revealed the full breadth of his wretched life. Even when we’re introduced to him as a child, he’s shuttling his aunt and young Elizabeth out of his manor, and he never quite shakes the persona of the spoiled, entitled private-school kid. He eventually grows up to be sneering and contemptuous--but completely indomitable and magnetic. You can already sense how he would eventually become the anti-hero of this series, which would stretch on into the 70s; he’s clearly the villain here, though, and quite a pompous one with a serious mean streak at that. He begins as a grave robber like any other Dr. Frankenstein, but soon decides that he wants his monster to be the Best Monster Ever, going so far as to murder the living, scavenging them for parts the same way a gearhead scours a junkyard.
His sleaziness extends beyond this, though, revealing himself to be morally reprehensible in almost all aspects of his life. When a (very) full-grown Elizabeth shows up in his living room, she is summarily ignored in favor of his work; she is understanding of this, perhaps because she presumes out loud that it’s always been Victor’s greatest wish to marry her, a notion that’s instantly deflated when we cut to him making out with his maid, Justine (Valerie Gaunt). We eventually see that even this isn’t a very passionate romance, instead serving as a chance for Victor to get his rocks off, and he dispenses of her as soon as she also becomes an inconvenience. This of course happens when she becomes pregnant with his child, which is both scandalous and redundant for Victor because he already has a child that he’s created with his own hands.
Women in Frankenstein are typically intertwined no matter what medium--in the novel, his mother’s death serves as the inspiration for his work, and the character of Elizabeth typically tethers Victor to his humanity in some way (this is especially true in Whale’s version). Here, though, women are expendable, and it takes an especially brash man to brush someone like Hazel Court off to the side. At one point, Victor considers bringing Elizabeth in on his work, but this merely seems to be out of utilitarian purposes, or perhaps so she will idolize him even further. He certainly doesn’t ponder it out of mutual respect, a fact made most evident by the film’s climax. Curse of Frankenstein takes a beat from Universal’s film by climaxing at the Frankensteins' wedding gathering; however, whereas Clive’s Henry reluctantly resolved to destroy his creature after it threatens his bride-to-be, Cushing’s Victor, quite frankly, doesn’t give a damn and only chooses to act when he’s in mortal peril himself.
In many ways, Cushing is more of a weasel in the vein of Dwight Frye’s Fritz, showing little compassion towards anyone, man or monster. If he had a mustache to compliment his mutton chops, you can imagine he’d be right on the verge of twirling it at times, as Victor certainly seems to be enjoying himself. When asked how he’ll go about getting a brain for his creature, he slyly insists that he’ll get it. Cushing’s range as an actor is never more evident as it is when you consider this turn here along with the one in Horror of Dracula just one year later, where he assumed the role of one of horror’s all time virtuous good guys in Van Helsing. In that film, he’s noble almost to a fault; here, there’s nary an ounce of redemption to be found in him, and he is unquestionably the monster of the tale. He’s not so much blinded by his ambition as much as driven by it, shrugging off any questions of the immorality of his work--he insists that he’s doing the world a favor, but we also sense that his work is self-aggrandizing as well. Even at the end of the tale, it’s not so much the specter of the guillotine that haunts him--it’s the notion that his work will be refuted and denied.
At first blush, it’d be easy to remark that Cushing finds himself in the same place here as he does in Dracula--opposite of a monstrous Christopher Lee. However, the presence of Frankenstein’s creature is rather understated in Curse, spending much of the film being basted in faux-amniotic fluid before being animated. Ironically enough, he’s actually a bit of an accident, coming to life only after a freak lightning storm sets Frankenstein’s apparatuses in motion. One can read this as mother nature having the last laugh; Victor attempts to play God, but God mucks with his work, prematurely unleashing him as a tool of Victor’s comeuppance. As such, Victor and his creature’s antagonism isn’t the good vs. evil sort that defines the conflict between Van Helsing and Dracula; instead, it’s one that mimics the resentment experienced between a disappointed parent and a child (one that, again, never asked to be born). Cushing’s Frankenstein is an overbearing patriarch, insisting that he’ll fix his child (compare this to Clive’s doctor, who tossed his away down in the basement). As such, Lee’s monster is appropriately child-like, his gangly, mechanical mannerisms not too far off from Karloff’s, though the creature’s design is more deformed and hideous. Lee’s version of the monster is one of the most intriguing, if only because he does feel like a literal force of nature; some moments (such as when he startles Court’s character) reveal a sense of sentient playfulness, but, mostly, he’s like wanders about like a pitiful dog that needs to be put down.
This wasn’t Hammer’s first horror production by a long shot, but, for all intents and purposes, it is the First Hammer Horror, at least in terms of establishing the company’s distinctive style that would come to define an entire era. In addition to Cushing and Lee, this production also had key people behind the camera in cinematographer Jack Asher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and director Terence Fisher, a trio who combined to make many of Hammer’s hits. It’s remarkable how well-defined their vision was here, even in their first time out creating one of these high-art Gothic productions. Curse of Frankenstein of course glows with robust color, with the color red being most problematic in 1957; by today’s standards, Curse is obviously not very explicit, but for a camera to linger on bloodshed like it does here was ghastly at the time. Hammer’s budget here was actually rather modest, in some ways making the film feel smaller than its Universal predecessor, which was huge; you can see this in how Frankenstein’s lab is presented here as a quaint little basement in a mansion away in a small, Swiss village--contrast this with Whale’s gigantic, Gothic chamber, and you see a subtle difference in how Frankenstein is presented. Whereas Clive was a madman in a castle up on a hill, Cushing is tucked away right in everyone’s backyard, operating right under everyone’s noses.
This motif extends to the ornate, almost baroque production design; this is a beautiful film about lurid subject matter, a notion that falls right in line with Shelley’s original intent with her novel. Frankenstein was largely written as the Gothic reaction to an otherwise Romantic age fuelled with optimism over both the scientific and spiritual advancements of both the 18th and 19th century. For Shelley, Goya’s insistence that “the sleep of reason produces monsters” meant that the unfettered imagination of science would result in a atrocities, and Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein is that writ very large. This is hardly the most faithful adaptation of the original novel, but it’s an amazing work of translation that manages to eliminate nuance without losing Shelley’s most enduring warning against playing God. Technically speaking, this classic has only been released once on DVD, by Warner Brothers about a decade ago; their transfer is fine, if not a bit soft, though the colors remain appropriately vibrant, while the mono track will suffice. Special features are non-existent with the exception of a trailer, and this disc eventually found its way into a few box sets and multi-packs over the years. If you haven’t tracked it down yet, patience could be a virtue since Hammer recently announced a massive HD restoration effort, and you have to believe this is near the top of their list. And with good reason--it perhaps isn’t as iconic as Universal’s effort, but it’s nonetheless Essential!
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