Written by Jimmy Sangster, based on a novel by Mary Shelly
Directed by Terrance Fisher
A Hammer Picture
Starring: Peter Cushing (Baron Victor Von Frankenstein); Robert Urquhart (Dr. Paul Krempe); Hazel Court (Elizabeth); Christopher Lee (The Creature); Valerie Gaunt (Justine); Paul Hardtmuth (Professor Bernstein); Melvyn Hayes (Young Victor); Fred Johnson (The Blind Old Man)
The words “Hammer Horror” can conjure up different images for different people. For this reviewer, those two words conjure up images of classical costumes, heaving bosoms and blood… deep, red blood. Two faces also spring to the mind: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing and Lee made dozens of horror films together (I could look up the actual number, but I’m too lazy and you don’t care anyway, so let’s just leave it as an impressive amount of films). They didn’t work exclusively for Hammer, but the films they appeared in together for Hammer (usually as adversaries) are by far the best known and best received. Although the two are probably best known for their turn in Dracula (where Lee played the Count and Cushing played Van Helsing), their initial paring in Terrance Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein is just one of the many factors that propels the film into the realm of one of the all-time great genre pictures. The film was a smash success and ushered in not only years of success for all of its main participants but also cemented “Hammer Horror” in the minds of viewers as a separate genre of film, one that promised gothic thrills, classy performances and bright red gobs of blood. The film itself spawned five sequels, all starring Peter Cushing as the ever-maddening scientist, forever trying to bring life to the dead without having his best efforts blow up in his face.
Today, it’s a different story. With Hammer ceasing production for the better part of thirty years, its breakthrough film is largely ignored by modern viewers, who tend to view nearly all films made before “the horrible 70’s” as amateurish and cheesy (a verdict that can be rightfully laid against American International Pictures, which produced films concurrently with Hammer). It’s a shame considering that, even viewed today, The Curse Of Frankenstein is still undeniably the classic that audiences of 1957 deemed it to be.
While the bare bones of the story are well known (mad scientist brings life to cadaver), The Curse Of Frankenstein fleshes out the story in a way that the original Universal film never attempted. Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, in a star-making performance) and his former tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) are two brilliant scientists who simply want to find new discoveries for the benefit of medical science. They successfully bring life back to a dead animal, but while Paul sees their achievement as advancement in surgery, Victor wants to go further, to create a whole new man and bring it to life. Paul is skeptical at first and eventually becomes hostile to Victor’s plans, especially when Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) moves into the mansion. Fearing for the girl’s safety, Paul refuses to have anything to do with the experiment, and when Victor finally succeeds, we find that Paul had good reason to fear.
The Curse Of Frankenstein is a story told by Victor himself, to a priest, as he awaits execution for a crime he didn’t commit (but was nevertheless responsible for). The contrast between Cushing’s haunted and frightened features during the prologue and his calm demeanor during most of the film even during the greatest crisis is striking: it is like watching two different actors. Cushing is a likable figure and it is important that we are at least partially sympathetic to Victor (at least during the first act). There is nothing initially wrong with his motives: he simple wants to learn, to discover, and to pass his knowledge off for the betterment of medicine. He even uses his newfound knowledge to resurrect a puppy (Awwww…). At first, Paul’s objections seem a bit run-of-the-mill; he automatically tosses off that Victor’s experiment could only lead to evil and Victor reminds Paul that skeptics have always voiced similar objections to every scientific discovery. And Victor’s right… for a while.
But little by little, Victor shows himself to be something less than model citizen. Directly after Elizabeth has stated that Victor has always wanted to marry her, we are treated to a secret tryst between Victor and Justine the servant girl. This is a surprising moment, especially since Victor has not shown any evidence that he ever thinks about anything that doesn’t concern the success of his experiment (and certainly not about anything as common as sex with the housemaid, especially when he’s treated Elizabeth with mild indifference). This is the first moment in the film where we see that Victor is something of a bounder: he barely takes notice of his fiancé, betrays her for a serving wench and sports a devilish smile at the thought of his mistress in service to his fiancé. Things go from bad to worse when Victor invites the kindly old Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) to dinner. Victor is looking for a benevolent brain for his creature and coldly murders the professor to get it (in the film’s most shocking scene, Victor pushes the old man off the second-floor landing where we see him land right on his head on the floor below). The matter-of-fact way he addresses Paul afterwards is gruesomely off-putting: when Paul tells Victor he can’t take the old man’s brain, he responds “Why not, he has no further use for it.” He is even colder when he lures Justine and (presumably) his own unborn child to their deaths at the hands of the creature when she threatens to expose him. If Cushing had still been a young actor in the 1990s, he would’ve made a great Hannibal Lector.
With such a tour-de-force performance as Cushing’s is, it is easy to say less of the efforts of Lee as the creature. Lee has no real dialog and very little screen time as compared to the rest of the cast and yet, like Boris Karloff before him, Lee makes the part his own. Unable to utilize Universal’s famous flat-headed look, Hammer reinvented the creature as a true mix of cadavers with green, rotting skin and stitches that look like they’re about to burst. And although the creature is made to do some truly dreadful things (mostly off-screen, such as the murders of the child and his blind grandfather), Lee’s most memorable moment is when Paul returns to Victor’s lab on the eve of his wedding. The creature has been brought back to life again and his hair has been partially shaved to accommodate Victor’s brain surgery. When the creature sees a new presence in the lab, it instinctively turns the shaved half of his head to the wall, ashamed of his appearance. More than any other moment in the film, it is this moment that reminds that, as damaged as it may be, Professor Bernstein’s brain is inside that hideous creature’s head, horrified at what it has become and frightened at what it cannot understand.
These two horror giants are well balanced by the performances of Robert Urquhart as Paul Krempe (his benevolent face making one wonder why Victor didn’t try to use Paul’s brain for the creature) and Hazel Court as Elizabeth, whose maturity may be at odds with the naïve role that she’s called to play, but who exudes an innocence with her soft speaking voice and her gliding movements. The only member of the cast who doesn’t fare too well is Valerie Gaunt as Justine, who is quite obviously not French, as anyone with ears can tell after listening to her accent. The scene in which she tries to bluff Victor, threatening to tell the authorities about what goes on in his lab, isn’t the best written scene in the film and Gaunt’s performance doesn’t help. Justine obviously has no idea what Victor’s doing in his lab (which is necessary to the plot, prompting her to sneak into the lab to find incriminating evidence and thus meet her doom), but one can hardly watch Justine’s vague and feeble attempts to blackmail Victor without snickering. It’s a shame that the character of Justine, who in the original novel was a poor innocent victim of circumstantial evidence (eventually executed for a crime that the Creature committed), ends up in this film as a tawdry floozy who doesn’t hold a candle to the radiant Ms. Court. We unfortunately don’t feel much sympathy for her as the Creature skulks towards her to break her neck (we feel more sympathy for the murdered blind man and his grandson, who are hardly characters at all), but the film needs to end with Victor being executed for something, so Justine needs to be murdered to give us a satisfactory ending.
And the film does indeed give us an ending that is far more than just satisfactory. In the end, we are left with Victor, formerly dapper to the point of foppishness, dirty and unshaven in his jail cell. When Paul arrives and refuses to corroborate Victor’s story about the existence of the Creature (Paul and Justine were the only one’s besides Victor to have seen it, and we all know what happened to Justine), Victor leaps on his former friend in a rage. Cushing’s performance here is extraordinary; most of the film saw him calm and speak in measured tones even in the most dire of consequences (I loved the way he says, “I don’t think I shall ever forgive you Paul… ever,” after Paul shoots the Creature), but now he begs and pleads in the hysterical tones of a raving maniac. This is to say nothing of Robert Urquhart’s performance in the final scene: Paul is a good man who has tried his best to do the right thing (protect Elizabeth and save Victor from madness) while trying to make sure that his friend and former pupil, who he has known since Victor was a child and has probably felt a fatherly kinship for, is not hurt. Up until the final scene, Paul has kept Victor’s secret safe and has only tried to reason with him, and this road has led to the deaths of Professor Bernstein, Justine, two innocent villages and the wounding of Elizabeth (not to mention the degradation and the killing of the Creature itself – twice). Things have gone too far, Victor has made his bed and now, to protect Elizabeth and anyone else who might cross Victor’s path, Paul decides to keep Victor’s secret a little bit longer and seals his friend’s fate. It must eat the poor man up, though he puts on a brave face for Elizabeth’s sake, to walk away from that cell with Victor’s broken voice howling his name. When Victor emerges from his cell for the last time, and looks up through the window at the guillotine that is only a few steps away in his future, his sunken eyes and ragged face are the visages of a shattered man, one who was destined for greatness, who found out that he wasn’t God and must now pay the price for trying to be the one who decides who lives and who dies. Now the decision is in the hands of others and it is Victor’s time to go, so he walks out of shot to his fate.
That is, until it is revealed in The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958) that he had a cunning plan to fake his death, but that’s another film (one of six official sequels to The Curse Of Frankenstein). Whether you choose to join Peter Cushing throughout his long ride as the mad Baron Frankenstein or not, there is no doubt that his debut take on the character, in The Curse Of Frankenstein, is a masterful performance and the entire film, from the supporting cast to the writing and costumes and direction, supports him well. It is a film that must be seen more than once, and not just every October when the ghouls come out for candy. It is a great film for any time of the year.