The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
4 stars out of 4. Immortal film, and truly an ingenious classic.
Without a doubt, this film is the sole reason for the horror film’s survival past the 1950’s. By this time, horror films had become nothing more than mere exploitation fodder for the lowest of double bills and had no critical or commercial interest whatsoever. Hence no major studio wanted to actively pursue anything in the genre.
And so after producing a string of moderately successful pictures, and the adaptations of the Quatermass serials, a small studio called Hammer decided to tackle Mary Shelley’s classic novel of one man’s attempt to play at being God. The idea was sound, and it was certainly time for a fresh approach to the story, but there arose one small problem: they could use no element whatsoever from the Universal film cycle.
This along with an extremely limited production and budget provided the necessary spark for extreme creativity, which is something that abounds in this, a horror classic.
The Curse of Frankenstein, despite what the scathing reviews of the time would contest, is an intricate and eloquent horror film for the mind. It so richly detailed in characterization, direction, execution and screenplay that the experience is not one of supreme terror but moreover one of complete entertainment of both mind and spirit.
For 1957 audiences this combined with the Creature in lurid dripping color was almost too much too bear. The Eastman color usage by the early Hammer horrors is justly legendary, as it was the first time these horrors has ever appeared in color. Terrence Fisher’s direction firmly established the Hammer mission, and with his expert hand the film’s execution is essentially effortless allowing the master shot to encase the ongoing drama and then moving in gradually to accentuate that particular dramatic moment to an almost fever pitch.
Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is truly remarkable in both construction and execution. Taken on its own, the script is very literate despite deviating wildly from Shelley’s novel. But it is the reality inherent of Baron Frankenstein’s mad dream to create a man, that firmly wins the audience over and moves quickly past the realm of disbelief. You truly believe that the Baron must have a simple laboratory in his attic, that he is workmanlike in his approach to creating a man, right down to rolling up his own sleeves to get the job done no matter how dirty or bloody… The construction is absolutely ingenious, and once considered plays with the mind long after the film has ended. The opening shows the Baron (Peter Cushing) in prison under penalty of execution, where he begins to recount his tale to a priest in the hopes of convincing someone of his sanity despite sounding like a raving madman. This flashback forms the narrative, and begins with the young Victor just after his mother’s death.
Victor is now the Baron, and hires a new tutor to instruct him in advanced sciences. Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) performs this task admirably and they quickly become close friends and probe the unknown for years to come. As adults, their work quickly turns toward advanced medical sciences and eventually with the manipulation of conscious life. The first of these experiments shows a small scale version of the eventual apparatus and in a truly invigorating sequence, the experiment works and a small puppy is restored to life from the dead.
Paul wants to turn their knowledge into the medical convention as he feel it could be used in operating procedures as what we would eventually know as anesthesia. However, the Baron refuses to hear of it and proclaims that they have only opened the door of possibilities with this discovery. The manic gleam in Cushing’s eyes belays it all, now the Baron has seen his true goal of creating a being and nothing will stand in his way. And so it begins, with the abduction of a highwayman’s corpse, a new head, fresh eyes, the hands of a sculptor, the brain of a genius, and ends in unspeakable acts that provoke Paul to refuse further participation. However, Victor’s cousin and fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives to live in the estate which provokes Paul to remain for her protection.
Frankenstein is absolutely possessed by his mad dream to create life. This is no exaggeration as he ignores everything, even his own fiancée in pursuit of his self-destruction. Painstakingly everything is procured and finally it is time. The process works, and after an agonizingly built-up reveal, The Creature (Christopher Lee) breathes life for the first time. This Creature has nothing to do with Boris Karloff’s characterization, and is in fact extremely lifelike in both presentation and performance. This abomination is a mismatch of body parts and animalistic in that its actions are all confused primitive urges. It is truly a thing to be pitied instead of feared. The makeup is quite original and resembles more of deformity or accident than the classic Universal look.
The Creature slowly wreaks havoc on the Baron’s life unbeknownst to the glory-mad scientist. Paul’s repeated attempts to subdue this madness and destroy the Creature culminate in his shooting of the escaped creation and its burial. Now it is done and the film has nothing to go on with…but of course our Baron cannot give up so easily, and continues his work on his creation.
Cushing gives the performance of a lifetime and would go on to portray the increasingly mad Baron another five times. It is his intensity, his energy, his body language that make the Baron come to life before our eyes, and he absolutely makes the film what it is. He infuses the Baron with the necessary flaws of someone of power in that time period, right down to an elitist coldness to others not of his class as best seen in the deliciously evil treatment of his servant girl mistress. It is this coldness that truly frightens when it surfaces and perfectly foreshadows the later atrocities he will perpetrate. And in the Hammer series, it is not the Monster that is to be feared, but the Baron himself. It is rightly so the scientist who is the monster and not the deformed creation, for despite the Baron’s cultured outer appearance he is actually a demonic monster far worse than anything even he could create.
The cinematography is exquisite in both detail and providing a glimpse into the more realistic version of Frankenstein and his experiments. The use of color is exploitative and subliminal, with vibrant red blood being very prominent yet always used in ways to complete the overall scene. The film is mostly comprised of deep browns, blacks, and ambers which perfectly compliment the story’s autumn setting. The skin tones are brilliantly rendered in that hauntingly plaid redness that goes with true Eastman color.
James Bernard’s score is strikingly effective, and helps to perfectly underline the conclusion of the film which returns to the Baron’s recount in prison. Because of the way the story is setup, this ending can be taken a number of ways. It may indeed be as the Baron recounts and that he did create a monster that ravaged, killed and caused incalculable harm. Or he may be truly insane and likely committed the murders himself. In either case Paul refuses to help and may have a set of motivations all his own. It is a strikingly multifaceted ending that can be taken however the audience wants to, and it fits with the studio’s later psychologically minded film thrillers, all spearheaded by Sangster.
The film was a runaway success, to the complete surprise of all involved. In the UK and distributed by Warner Brothers in the US, The Curse of Frankenstein singlehandedly revitalized the horror film and thrilled shocked audiences in countless packed theaters. Today it remains the clarion call that announced to the world that Hammer had arrived.
EDITIONS: primarily there are now two versions of note. The 2004 Warner DVD and the new Hammer Blu-ray. The DVD is grain reduced; edge enhanced a bit, lacks in color and is framed at 1.78:1 with no extras. The new BD comes from a supposed “restoration” but was actually taken from a fresh 4K scan of the interpositive held by Warner. The results are mixed when they should have been exemplary. The image is richly colored, with most of the deep Eastman color look restored. The contrast has been unfortunately tweaked, which effects shadows and gives an overall impression of too many whites blown out. But the big problem is grain and detail. The transfer is horribly soft, and the grain reduction is so prevalent that is absolutely reprehensible. The included PAL DVD version actually has better contrast levels. And to compound these issues, the aspect ratio has become an issue. The film was obviously shot open matte with a widescreen image the intended result. There were still a large amount of theaters that were not widescreen equipped, and so the academy full frame could have been presented as such. Hammer has taken the position of the full frame being the intended ratio and the 1.66:1 matting as inferior. They have presented both as separate encodes (thus limiting the transfer’s space and space for further extras), but poorly framed the 1.66:1 version so there are numerous instances of heads being lopped off and important elements being cropped out of the frame by incompetent matting.
So one has a choice of a featureless DVD with tight cropping and over-sharpening, versus a BD which is riddled with noise reduction but has some better color, along with a lossless rendering of the original mono soundtrack, but with an incompetent rendering of the widescreen version. The BD is Region 2 locked, so one would need a Region free player to view it. Oh, and it does restore the censored eyeball shot, so that’s at least one point in its favor.
At some point I hope to review to letterbox laserdisc version.