Horror legends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are on hand for a Hammer favourite. Oscar gives it another look.
Artwork by A.D. Black
Who made it?: Terence Fisher (Director), Jimmy Sangster (Writer), Anthony Hinds, Max Rosenberg (Producers), Warner Bros./Hammer Films.
Who’s in it?: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Christopher Lee, Melvyn Hayes, Valerie Gaunt.
Tagline: “The creature created by man and forgotten by nature!”
IMDb rating: 7.2/10.
The Curse of Frankenstein: a film that deserves more love and attention from casual movie fans aware of Hammer’s lineage of horror classics. Not only does it boast a fittingly gothic production design and atmosphere, but it has perhaps one of the most chilling and unnerving portrayals of Dr. Victor Frankenstein on film, taking many liberties with the source material but still appropriating the right beats to create a sense of genuine revulsion with this story’s hubris of science.
After the death of his mother, young Victor Frankenstein (Melvyn Hayes) is the sole inheritor of the Frankenstein estate. He agrees to continue to pay a monthly allowance to his impoverished Aunt Sophia and his young cousin Elizabeth. Soon afterwards, he enlists a man named Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to tutor him.
After several years of intense study, Victor (Peter Cushing) learns all that Krempe can teach him. One night, after a successful experiment in which they bring a dead dog back to life, Victor suggests that they create a perfect human being from body parts. Krempe assists Victor at first, but eventually withdraws, unable to tolerate the continued scavenging of human remains, particularly after Elizabeth (Hazel Court) comes to live with them. For the brain of his creation, Victor seeks out an aging and distinguished professor so that the monster can have the intellect of a genius. He invites the professor to his house in the guise of a friendly visit and pushes him off the top of a staircase, claiming it was an accident. After the professor is buried, Victor proceeds to the vault and removes his brain. Krempe attempts to stop him, and the brain is damaged in the ensuing scuffle. Krempe also tries to persuade Elizabeth to leave the house, as he has before, but she refuses. With all of the parts assembled, Frankenstein brings life to the monster (Christopher Lee), but the Creature is savage and Krempe suggests it be destroyed, only for it to escape into the wilds.
As with any role he takes to, Cushing is a mesmerising Frankenstein, going through a gauntlet of emotions; gentlemanly charm, ambition, insanity, and remorse, slipping into cold psychotic zeal superbly well. This marks the first time that Cushing plays someone so heartless and manipulative, as he normally played good characters in his early career, creating a definite sense of unease. Urquhart is an excellent straightman figure to Cushing’s mad scientist, effectively demonstrating the strained and eventually hostile relationship between the two. Court is sweet and beguiling as Elizabeth, but a bit bland in areas. Before his iconic Dracula role, Lee cut his teeth on Frankenstein’s Monster, making for an intimidating, sympathetic and unnerving iteration of the Creature. As the younger Victor, Hayes bears a striking resemblance to Cushing and Valerie Gaunt as Justine, the focus of Victor’s lust, does fine in her limited capacity, but particularly sells the moments of horror and fear.
Thanks to the cinematography of Jack Asher, the spurts of blood look especially bright and garish. The photography and the set work contribute to that staple of Hammer, with the red bursts of blood popping on screen, and the opulent halls of the Frankenstein manor starting out bright and full of life before gradually getting darker as the film progresses. The score by James Bernard is quite beautiful, as it delivers on elegant cues and ominous ones to help drive the horror of the story. The makeup on Lee as the Creature is astounding and horrifying, something like a melting mass of pale flesh, while the makeup on Cushing and Urquhart is more mixed; aging down the former reasonably well but the latter, due to being nine years younger than Cushing, never feels like he was Frankenstein’s mentor and tutor, but working rather well as his colleague and friend.
Jimmy Sangster’s script has as little in common with Shelley’s original novel or the Universal classic as possible, but still adapts crucial plot points of the book. Right from the beginning, there are many alterations from the story, including the nature of the death of Frankenstein’s parents, his childhood relationship with Elizabeth, as well as the fact that he is far more inhumane here than in other films. Krempe assumes the three roles of Clerval, Waldman and the original Professor Krempe, and the birth of the Creature is conducted in the Frankenstein mansion rather than Ingolstadt. Yet, for all these changes both big and small, it still works as an adaptation of the book because all the key elements are translated distinctively and memorably, taking on on unique meaning in Hammer’s version. The main underpinnings are similar to the book: the story is told in flashback with Frankenstein in prison awaiting execution for murder, where he tells his life’s story to a priest, vaguely echoing the way the story is told in flashback in the book. A lot of detail is given as to how Frankenstein concocts his Creature, and the meticulous contraptions built for the unholy process. Above all, it addresses the theme of man playing God and the consequences of going against the order of nature.
In merging three characters together, it does create a more nuanced and interesting relationship between Frankenstein and Krempe, starting out amicably enough before the inevitable decline. Even with all the terrible deeds Frankenstein commits over the course of this film, it’s Krempe’s loyalty to his former student and friend that gives their relationship a good deal of heart. The core dynamic here is not actually Frankenstein and his creation, but rather with the Doctor and his longtime friend/confidant/teacher Paul. I like how the film sets up Frankenstein as a lying manipulator early on as a teenager when he hires Krempe under false pretenses, omitting the fact that his father is dead for convenience. This makes his descent into evil feel less contrived. While quite dry for humour in many scenes, the film certainly takes a surprising turn when Victor proposes to eat after operating on a robber’s corpse. A bit of dark comedy goes a long way.
It isn’t quite the best of Hammer’s horror catalogue; the first half is bogged down with chat around the dinner table, and Krempe spends a lot of his time disagreeing, arguing and then assisting Frankenstein in his experiments, which gets repetitive after a while. A lot of time is spent in slow conversational scenes that don’t develop the supporting characters and detract from the film’s pacing. Because the Creature is just a bloodthirsty monster that never learns to speak or intellectually challenge Frankenstein, the film is unable go into the level of thematic depth that the book does and places far more emphasis on Frankenstein’s psychotic mind, but that doesn’t detract from the film too much for me.
The main horror aspect of the film comes from one man’s hubris and how much his humanity is destroyed in his quest to play God. Cushing’s Frankenstein is noticeably tactless, arrogant and unlikeable, befitting the role of an antagonist. The horror aspect of this film comes from observing how far a man will go to further his perverted ambitions, along with his lack of humanity. Hammer’s Baron is a chilly scientist, forerunner of the conscience-free obsessives who pioneered rocketry under the Nazis and nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. Another key element of the horror is the unpredictable nature of Lee’s performance, containing incredible raw power and capacity for rage behind such an emotionless face. Much of the gore is suggested and takes place off-screen, being merely hinted at and left to the vivid imaginings of the watcher. Still, the film does elicit strong feelings of discomfort in its gore and blood, most notably when the monster gets shot in the eye.
Though it’s not particularly scary by conventional horror movie standards, The Curse of Frankenstein is still a shocking and unsettling viewing experience to this day thanks to its character study of a particularly unsettling Victor Frankenstein, as well as an exercise in atmosphere and gothic imagery. It has the quintessential allure and theatricality of the great Hammer horror films, and a delectable combination of solid talent behind and in front of the camera makes for an intriguing take on the enduring Frankenstein tale.
Here are some ghoulish highlights.
- For many years this held the distinction of being the most profitable film to be produced in England by a British studio.
- Although they had both previously appeared in Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952), Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing met on the set of this film for the first time. 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.
Lee’s monster make-up was almost literally done at the “last minute.” After previous attempts to design a monster make-up using a cast of Lee’s head had failed, make-up artist Philip Leakey made the final design the day before shooting began, directly onto Lee’s face, using primarily cotton and other household materials. Since he didn’t use any latex or molds, the make-up had to be recreated from scratch every day.
Melvyn Hayes explains in the Blu-Ray “making of” how producer Peter Rogers told him about the casting process of the monster. According to Rogers, a memo went out indicating Hammer was looking for ‘someone big’ to play the monster. In the end, it boiled down to Lee and Bernard Bresslaw. Both their agents were phoned, asking them how much money they wanted. Bresslaw’s minimum fee was ten pounds a day, whereas Lee’s was eight. And so, for the sake of two pounds, Lee became an international star.