Curse of Frankenstein, The (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Not recommended for people of nervous disposition

Baron Frankenstein is locked inside a prison for murder, awaiting the guillotine and telling his story to a priest. He and his assistant, Paul Krempe, managed to bring a dog back to life after years of experimenting. So the Baron decided that the next logical step would be to create life from scratch. Using the body of a dead highwayman and perfecting it with body parts stolen from other victims, the Baron plans to implant it with the brain of a genius. Unfortunately the brain is damaged during an argument with Krempe, who objects to this sinister new direction that Frankenstein’s work is taking him. The resultant damage causes the creature to become a hideous abomination of science.

 

In 1957, Hammer changed the landscape of horror – hell, film in general – forever with The Curse of Frankenstein. It pushed the boundaries of horror like never before and brought a welcomed new lease of life to the genre with a feast of vivid colour and a lavish Gothic atmosphere that would forever be synonymous with Hammer. People were sick of Hollywood producing the same cheap and lacklustre black and white horror pictures and Hammer’s declaration of its intent was like a rallying battle cry. American horror films from the 30s and 40s always hid their gory and graphic details off-screen yet here we have a film which opens up the doors of on-screen violence and sexuality and changed the way that studios approached horror films. No doubt some film would eventually have pushed the boat out and broken free of the shackles of the old school horrors but The Curse of Frankenstein can lay claim to being the first.

Let me just state that this is not a great re-telling of the novel. There were plenty of changes and additions to the script in order to avoid potential lawsuits from Universal who had made the old black and white Frankenstein films in the 30s. It’s so hard for anyone to try and film Frankenstein because let’s face it, every time someone mentions Frankenstein and you think of the flat-top, bolt-necked lumbering brute with his arms outstretched. This version of Frankenstein marks a noticeable change in the story in that it is now the Baron himself who is the main focus of the film, not the monster or its creation.

In making it about the man and not the monster, the script opens itself up for an amazing transformation of character. Peter Cushing, a screen legend and horror god, is simply fantastic as the charismatic Baron Frankenstein. His descent from being a talented man of science and logic to a ruthless, results-driven murderer is one of horror’s greatest tour-de-forces. He’s not evil or deranged, just obsessed and extremely misguided and this is what makes him so dangerous. Cushing knows how to play the role with bluster when he needs to or restrain himself in other scenes. Watch as Cushing smugly grins as the creature kills his former chambermaid behind a closed door. It’s only a small effort on Cushing’s behalf but one which makes him so deliciously sadistic. He leads a double life, bossing around his assistant and conducting his shady dealings to acquire body parts but then pretending everything is perfectly fine when he entertains guests. It’s a thin veil of deceit he uses to manipulate other people into unwillingly cooperating. His Frankenstein is always thinking, always plotting and always one-step ahead of everyone else. Truly a legendary screen performance.

The Curse of Frankenstein gave debuts to two of the genre’s most influential figures during Hammer’s heyday: actor Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher. But not only are they both on board, there’s the A-list of Hammer’s on and off camera talent on show. Alongside Cushing, screen writer Jimmy Sangster slams new life into the Frankenstein story, production designer Bernard Robinson creates some marvellous Gothic sets and composer James Bernard stirs the ears with his rousing score.

The creature itself only turns up about two thirds of the way in, such is it’s insignificance to the overall story in this version. Christopher Lee hides behind a ton of vivid make-up to bring the creature to life. It’s a different performance to that of Boris Karloff’s iconic monster and the creature is in turn dominating and overpowering but also pitiful and feeble. Lee gives each of his limbs a different movement so that he truly looks like a patchwork creation, a marionette with it’s strings cuts if you will. The make-up looks a little cheap today but remember the black and white era from which this had sprung. Audiences hadn’t seen such gruesome sights in full blown colour before. Critics derided it. The censors blocked it. But the audiences loved it. Hammer couldn’t obtain the rights to the original design of the monster and so they created their own. Its first unveiling is hideous – you can clearly see the sew marks where Frankenstein has stitched together his creation. Bright red blood is also splashed around the screen and into it. The scene in which the creature is shot has an effective spurt of red blood fire off right towards the camera lens. Frankenstein is shown wrapped up a severed hand and popping some eyeballs into a glass bottle. Such sights may have been common in black and white but they took on a whole new daring approach in colour.

 

Gothic horror at it’s finest, The Curse of Frankenstein is an outstanding film. It may not have that much in common with it’s source material but Cushing’s brilliant performance and some early gore effects make this one a must see for any casual fan of the genre. It’s a classic film and one of the best, most influential horror films ever made.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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