Terence Fisher, 1957
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart
After his mother’s death, the young, voraciously intelligent Baron Victor Frankenstein is in total control of his family estate. He agrees to support his aunt and cousin Elizabeth, and hires a tutor named Paul. After a few years, Victor and Paul become intellectual equals and begin a number of medical experiments. These soon take an unorthodox turn. They bring a dog back to life and Victor immediately begins work on a new human being, crafted from dead body parts. Elizabeth’s arrival in the household — and Paul’s refusal to continue participating — does nothing to deter Victor, who goes through with the creation of his creature, though its brain is accidentally damaged and things go horribly wrong.
The first major Hammer horror film and one of the first important horror films in color — and it is indeed highly stylized and garishly colorful — The Curse of Frankenstein is the movie that put British horror on the map. It changed the face of genre cinema in the ‘60s with eye-popping sets and costumes that were allegedly handed down from earlier productions, effectively disguising its low budget. Gorier and more sadistic than films that came before it (though not by today’s standards), Hammer’s adaptation worked hard to provide a fresh take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel, if only to avoid being sued by a watchful Universal Studios, who didn’t want their 1931 masterpiece imitated.
But if anything makes the film so fantastic, it’s undoubtedly the lead performance from Peter Cushing. A well-known TV actor before this film, Cushing plays the role with a sense of gentlemanly class and refined sensibility that would follow him though out his career. His Victor Frankenstein is like an early Hannibal Lector. He’s brilliant, but sociopathic and the film is less concerned with the moral transgressions of playing God, but more invested in the concept of unchecked ambition. He dehumanized everyone around him and, throughout the seven film series (where all the films but one have Cushing cast as Frankenstein), there always seem to be women wildly in love with him who are totally blind to his egomania and often cruel, violent misdeeds. The series as a whole can’t seem to decide if he’s an asexual genius, focused only on his experiments, or an opportunistic bastard. Here he callously murders a brilliant professor, a venerable man who is also his old friend, in order to harvest his brain for an experiment.
Victor Frankenstein’s emotional coldness, aloof intellectualism, and sociopathic tendencies are contrasted by his monstrous creation. Played by actor Christopher Lee, who got the part of the monster sheerly because of his enormous size at 6’5”, Frankenstein’s creation is more animalistic and ghoulish than Universal’s imagining. The greenish makeup is admittedly a little cheesy, but he appears almost pre-human, stitched together, and possibly still decaying. Lee’s lumbering performance is highly physical, though this is the last time he would return to the series. Regardless, The Curse of Frankenstein is an important footnote in horror history, because it’s the first time genre fans would see Lee and Cushing together — though they would go on to form one of horror’s most enduring partnerships and a warm off-screen friendship that lasted decades.
The Curse of Frankenstein also set up Hammer’s general horror formula: it involved the company’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, as well as actress Hazel Court, who would go on to appear in The Man Who Could Cheat Death and a number of Vincent Price films. It also united director Terence Fisher, arguably Hammer’s greatest, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and cinematographer Jack Asher. In a complete break from the sci-fi themes that dominated the genre cinema of the ‘50s, the film embraced a lush period setting with heavy bosoms and a literary origin. There are also the themes of classism — Frankenstein’s wealth and breeding are linked to his monstrosity — and a sense of confused sexuality — the Baron only seems capable of real intimacy with his male associates despite the many women in his life — that would continue throughout many Hammer films and all of the Frankenstein series.
Perhaps against the odds, this film was very successful and, as I mentioned, put Hammer on the map permanently. The studio would go on to fill out the series with six more films: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), a loose remake of Curse without Cushing, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973). Though they retread many of the same themes, I think these are all worthwhile films, though Curse is obviously the ideal place to start. Pick it up on DVD or Blu-ray, though I’m hoping someone will release a full Blu-ray set of the whole series at some point soon.
And also, Peter Cushing is so handsome and debonair that if you haven't seen this movie yet, break out the smelling salts because you're going to swoon a few times.