Why yes, it has taken me an inordinately long time to watch this movie – Hammer’s first gothic horror, and a film that arguably kicked off the horror boom that would blossom in the 60s. During my younger years, this was understandable, since the local TV channels seemed to have no problems showing Horror of Dracula (and especially Brides of Dracula) over and over again, but the Hammer Frankensteins seemed to rarely crop up. In Curse‘s case, never. So, when it was finally released on DVD in 2002, I snatched it up – and proceeded to ignore it for 12 years.
Don’t judge me, ye’ve not had my life.
Rather famously, Universal threatened to sue this upstart British company if they dared to imitate their 1931 tentpole, and this was actually a good thing. I’ve read accounts that claim that the initial concept was to do a black-and-white movie with Karloff as the Monster – hell, Hammer even calls it “The Creature” so they couldn’t be accused of ripping that off – and the threat of litigation forced them to create something unmistakably their own.
First of all, the movie is in color – a semi-big deal in 1957. It starts the Hammer look of a subdued color palette against which any bright color – especially blood red – really pops off the screen. Costume designer Molly Arbuthnot has a ball with some amazingly textured fabrics. There are no lab coats and rubber gloves in this milieu, our mad scientist does his bloody work in frock coats and cravats, white cotton gloves.
The movie begins with a desperate Baron von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) telling a priest his tale on the eve of the Baron’s execution; the extended flashback which forms the movie proper takes its time, beginning with Victor Frankenstein as a young man, the last of his family, inheriting a vast fortune and hiring a brilliant science tutor, Paul (Robert Urquhart) who eventually becomes his collaborator in fringe science. After successfully bringing a dead puppy back to life, Paul is ready to publish, but Victor wants to go even further – to create life itself, using pieces of corpses as a framework.
Now, that is a hell of a leap, and if anyone doubts Peter Cushing’s skills as an actor (PS, if you do, you’re an idiot), the fact that Cushing actually pulls this off should provide more than adequate proof. His Frankenstein is quite the amazing portrayal, in fact – a rich nobleman used to getting his way, capable of great charm but so cocooned within his wealth and privilege that he can’t see the potential harm in anything he does, and in the pursuit of his ultimate goal, it becomes no surprise that murder becomes just another tool.
Paul, at first uneasy about his former student’s new experiments, eventually refuses to have anything to do with this horror, but Victor forges on, even when Paul deliberately tries to sabotage the process by damaging the brain of a brilliant, aged scientist Frankenstein has killed so that his creation can have the brain of a genius. Frankenstein’s first attempt to animate the Creature fails because his equipment – a riot of pre-Victorian galvanism and colored bubbling liquids – was built to be operated by two people. While he tries to convince Paul to help him, a lucky lightning strike surges through the equipment, and a surprised Victor Frankenstein is soon confronted by his own success – which instantly tries to murder him.
This is also one of the best fruits of the threatened lawsuit from Universal: the creation of a new visage for the Monster. Apparently in complete desperation, makeup artist Phil Leakey created this new version directly on Christopher Lee’s face at the last minute, using traditional supplies like cotton and spirit gum, very much in the tradition of the classic Universal monsters. Striking, horrifying and completely its own… creature.
Christopher Lee was cast as the Creature largely due to his impressive height (they almost cast another actor, Bernard Bresslaw, who was two inches taller than Lee). Now, I have the utmost respect for Christopher Lee: he has led an amazing life, recently turned what? 92? And is still kicking ass. But. I have always considered him an actor of limited range, but undeniable and truly impressive presence, That is a quality which must not be underestimated. And sadly, this role would not have given him an adequate showcase anyway: that lawsuit again, and though Lee’s Creature does have its moments of pathos, it falls to him to simply be murderous – there is no trace of Karloff’s incredible, often sensitive performance in 1931.
The story does get a bit meandering: the Creature escapes, kills a couple of people (the first one being a blind man, the polar opposite of a similar sequence in Bride of Frankenstein – take that, Universal!), and Paul shoots it through the head. This is no obstacle to Frankenstein, however, who simply resurrects it again after, once more, repairing the brain Paul had damaged. Victor uses the monster to rid himself of a troublesome maid attempting to blackmail him into marriage; it is for that murder that Frankenstein will be remanded to the guillotine at movie’s end, the monster having escaped once more, attempting to murder Victor’s bride, and finally winding up in the scientist’s convenient acid vat, erasing all evidence of the brute who actually killed the maid. Paul keeps quiet about the Creature, too, realizing death is the only way to stop the obsessed Victor.
Having mentioned Victor’s bride, I should take a moment for Hazel Court, who plays Elizabeth. Lovely and talented, Court appears in several gothic horror movies, and she is, sadly, particularly wasted here; Elizabeth exists only as a reason to keep Paul in Castle Frankenstein, hoping to protect her from the horror of Victor’s experiments. Like Lee and Cushing, she was a veteran actor at this point, and probably used to such things. Check out her filmography at the IMDb – her talent was recognized, at least.
Speaking of Cushing and Lee – this is the movie that kicked off a close friendship that would last the rest of their lives, reportedly sparked into existence when Lee complained he had no lines and Cushing responded, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” They had appeared in the same movie at least twice before, but never on the same set on the same day. Both were devoted fans of Looney Tunes, and I don’t know about you, but the idea of these two men imitating Sylvester J. Cat and Tweety-Pie between takes is something that keeps me warm on cold winter nights.
The last thing that sets Curse of Frankenstein apart from its Universal forefather is an interesting reversal: both spawned many sequels, but in the Universal series, it was the Monster that remained the same, while the doctors around it changed. It was the exact opposite in the Hammer series: the monster would change, but the doctor (with one notable exception) was the constant: Peter Cushing, building on this complex, nuanced performance over the course of the next fifteen years.