Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
In honour of the recent passing of Sir Christopher Lee (Anythinghorror’s obituary is here), I have gone back to some of his earliest, most significant film offerings in the horror genre, some of which I haven’t seen in decades.
1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the movie that not only launched Lee into international stardom, but also Peter Cushing, Hammer Films, and indeed the horror film genre itself had been revived like the Creature itself, after a sharp decline in favour of sci-fi movies filled with bug-eyed aliens and giant insects.
The story is probably familiar to you already, but it’s the background that’s fascinating. In the mid-Fifties, producers Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg brought one of Hammer’s executives with a script that was faithful to Shelley’s source material. The script was purchased, but then promptly discarded and another one written (a trend that bizarrely continues to this day). Although Shelley’s novel was in the public domain, Hammer wanted to avoid any possible connections with Universal’s 1931 movie, so plans to cast the aging Boris Karloff as Victor Frankenstein, and to use the iconic flat-topped, neck-bolted makeup by Jack Pierce, were discarded, in favour of a more realistic post-surgical look.
In this revision of the story, an attempt to avoid lawsuits resulted in a reinvention of the classic tale – and to its benefit. It opens with a priest visiting the soon-to-be-executed Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). Frankenstein isn’t interested in saving his soul, but rather start the flashback: as a boy, living alone in his manor, Frankenstein hires a tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart, DUNKIRK) to teach him the sciences. Over the years, they become collaborators in Frankenstein’s obsession to restore life, first to recently-deceased puppies, then by stitching together some disparate corpse parts and making himself a Creature (Christopher Lee). Of course, It All Goes Wrong…
It’s the script revisions, however, that make the movie distinctive from its 1931 predecessor. Cushing’s Frankenstein is not some naïve seeker of knowledge, but a pathological obsessive who demonstrates he’ll stop at nothing to bring his work to fruition (Cushing once said of the role, “I try to base Frankenstein on a man who is, fundamentally, trying to do something for the good of mankind….”).
To that end, he steals bodies and body parts (“I’ve harmed nobody, just robbed a few graves!”), murders an old physics teacher of his in order to get an educated brain, arranges for the murder of his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt) when she threatens to tell his fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) that they’ve been playing Hide the Scalpel, and blackmails the increasingly-reluctant Paul (who at least is not some demented hunchback) to continue assisting him, or Frankenstein will employ the naïve Elizabeth…
Lee’s performance as the Creature is sadly limited, once the shock horror of his appearance is offered, and doesn’t really offer the pain and pathos that Karloff did. He’s murderous, yes, from the moment he sees Frankenstein (what did Frankenstein expect, really, given it’s the brain of the man he himself murdered in cold blood?). Lee competed for the role with a contemporary actor named Bernard Bresslaw, a huge fellow with a flair for comedy (the British equivalent of Fred Gwynne), but Bresslaw asked for ten pounds a day, and Lee only eight pounds, so Lee went on to international stardom…
Admittedly, it’s Cushing’s dynamic performance which carries the movie (and would return him to the role another five times). Although they had both previously appeared in HAMLET (1948) and MOULIN ROUGE (1952), Lee and Cushing met on the set of this film for the first time, when Lee stormed into Cushing’s dressing room, complaining that “I’ve got no lines!” Cushing kindly responded, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” Afterwards they would pass the time between shots by exchanging Looney Tunes phrases, and quickly developed a fast friendship, which lasted until Cushing’s death in 1994.
Robert Urquhart’s performance as the assistant (and the ignored voice of reason) is fine, as is Hazel Court as the hapless fiancée. The film was shot in Technicolor (the first horror movie to receive such a treatment), and James Bernard’s score offers effective accompaniment to the scenes.
At the time of its release, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was vilified by many critics (R. D. Smith proclaimed, “For all lovers of the cinema, only two words describe this film – Depressing, Degrading!”), and though tame by today’s standards, offered blood and horror (or at least the frisson of blood and horror, with audiences imagining more than they actually saw).
It became the most profitable British film ever made, and held that title for a long while, as well as gave Hammer a direction in which to take for the following two decades, bringing back to life a buttload of classic monsters. Including a certain bloodsucker…
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is available from numerous sources, and the trailer is below.
Director: Terence Fisher
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. Classy.