Daily Archives: May 4, 2023

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

*. A landmark film, at least within its lane. The Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer’s first attempt to cash in on the famous Universal monsters of the 1930s. It would be followed by six more Frankenstein movies, as well as various Dracula and Mummy features, as Hammer went all-out in mining this rich vein of cinematic ore. And some of these movies were actually pretty good, so it’s worth acknowledging where it all began.
*. There were other firsts as well. It was Hammer’s first horror film in colour, and the colour certainly impressed contemporary audiences. It’s not a gory movie — even, I think, by the standards of the time — but seeing any blood on screen must have been more upsetting when it was actually red. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in the same film (though not together on screen) as far back as Olivier’s Hamlet, but this was Cushing’s first leading role on the big screen (he’d been on television a lot) and Lee was still relatively unknown (he was cast here mainly for his height, and the fact that he was cheap). They’d go on to be quite a team.
*. Fun film anecdote: Apparently Lee complained to Cushing when he found he didn’t have any lines (he wouldn’t have many as Dracula or the Mummy either). Cushing told him he was lucky, as he’d read the script.
*. Along with Cushing and Lee the rest of the classic Hammer gang was here too. Meaning it was directed by Terence Fisher and written by Jimmy Sangster. Apparently Sangster hadn’t seen the Universal Frankenstein movies but adapted Mary Shelley’s book directly. Though this is a long way from Shelley’s Frankenstein.
*. There are two big changes made to the classic story (Shelley’s and Universal’s) that are really striking. First of all, this Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is a dark figure. He’s not just a mad/obsessed scientist but a truly bad man. He’ll screw around with the help right under his fiancĂ©e’s nose. If he even thinks the old professor is going to get in the way of his experiments he’ll throw him over the balustrade. Or through the balustrade. A shocking scene, but not one you’ll want to pay close attention to as you can clearly see where the balustrade has been prepped to break before it does, and when the professor hits the floor below you can see it (the floor) bounce. In any event: Victor here is pretty awful, and deserving of his date with the guillotine. Though his friend Paul’s betrayal at the end was an unexpected twist. That Paul is a sketchy figure too, isn’t he? Sending his buddy to the razor while walking away with his girl? That’s cold.
*. The other change is in the monster’s appearance. I’m not sure, but I think they had to give him a new look because Universal had the rights to Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. I think what they did here, apparently at the last minute, is great, with Lee’s face being a ghastly fish-belly white and one eye clouded over. I’d also add that the tank the monster is revived in was inspired. I don’t think that had been done before.
*. Both of these changes are bold and I think both work wonderfully well. This isn’t a remake or rehashing of the old story but a new invention that made a ton of money and set Hammer on its way for the next decade-plus. Today I think its boldness is harder to pick up on, and I imagine most people see it as downright stuffy. But it made quite an impact at the time, and not just in Britain. John Carpenter is one director who considered it a formative work, and Guillermo del Toro has said it’s one of his favourites. I don’t think it’s a great movie, suffering from Hammer’s inability to quite overcome period stuffiness, but for genre fans it’s a now classic work in its own right that deserves searching out.