This is the mad scientist’s experiment that resurrected the Gothic tradition in cinema and created the second great wave of monsters movies. (In the 1930s and ’40s, Universal had given us black-and-white horrors like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.) The first of many reinventions of classic movie monsters by Britain`s Hammer Films, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN established new style for horror – bold, bloody, beautiful – that completely broke tradition with the cobwebby classics of the 1930s and 1940s. The film also gave us two new horror stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who – along with director Terence Fisher – would go on to redefine the genre for the next decade and a half. Some of their subsequent collaborations (notably 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA) equaled or surpassed their achievement here, but this remains their original classic, the grimoire establishing the magic formula they would use again and again.
In the mid-1950s, aspiring producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg approached one of Hammer’s executives with a script Subotsky had adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the archetypal tale of a man-made monster. Hammer purchased the script (which, according to Subotsky, remained faithful to the source material), discarded it, and had Jimmy Sangster write something totally new.
Apparently, the original idea had been to create a fairly traditional horror film, possibly casting the aging Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein. Fortunately, Hammer realized that, although Shelley’s novel was in public domain, the 1931 film version of FRANEKNSTEIN, starring Karloff as the monster, was still under copyright to Universal Studios; therefore, any similarity to that horror classic, particularly the famous flat-head makeup devised by Jack Pierce, could result in a lawsuit.
Consequently, Sangster’s screenplay discarded most of the familiar elements. About all the remained from the novel was the concept of creation, some character names, and a few bits and pieces, stitched together into something almost entirely new. Only two points were carried over from the Universal films: Frankenstein is still a Baron (he had no title in the novel), and his creation is mute (unlike Shelly’s articulate creature).
Frankenstein (embodied perfectly by Peter Cushing) is no longer the nervous inventor who creates a man in a fit of enthusiasm and immediately regrets his rash action. Cushing’s Baron is precise and cold as a scalpel, a handsome blue-eyed dandy who has a way with women (at least with the maid) and never blinks or hesitates in pursuit of his goal. In truth, he is the real source of the horror in the story; his completely amoral detachment from the consequences of his work is more disturbing than the actual gore (which, though shocking for its time, is actually mild). And this moral horror is accentuated by the fact that Cushing’s performance (his dapper air and smiling confidence) actively invites the audience to identify with him even as the film tells in no uncertain terms that what he is doing is evil.
In this context, Christopher Lee’s creature has no chance of attaining Karloff’s stature. He’s a bit more of a simple monster, with less emphasis on his suffering and misunderstanding. His real function is as a sort of silent rebuke to his creator: all of Frankenstein’s grand dreams of perfection have resulted in a pathetic patchwork that barely seems stitched together. As in most Frankenstein stories and films, the creation is, ultimately, a kind of dark doppelganger to his creator, even acting out Frankenstein’s murderous intentions. (The Baron locks the maid in a cell with the creature when she gets to nosey. The scene is all the more effective for its suggestiveness, dissolving away as the woman screams when the creature reaches out for her, leaving it unclear whether his intention is murder or rape. The juxtaposition with subsequent scene, with the Baron enjoy a convivial breakfast, is so incongruous that the result is an excellent piece of black humor: when the Baron asks his fiancé to “pass the marmalade,” as if nothing untoward had recently happened, the viewer is forced to laugh in wicked admiration of Frankenstein’s cheek.)
The film is also notable for the way it re-imagines one of the genre’s most overused clichés: the mad scientist’s assistant. In the 1930s films, such characters were named Fritz or Igor; they usually had hunched back, and their purpose was usually to wander around looking creepy—an added bit of visual unpleasantness during an era when physical deformity was much on the public mind (thanks to soldiers returning home after being maimed on the battlefields of World War One). In CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the “assistant” is actually Frankenstein’s former teacher (the pupil becomes the master). Played by Robert Urquhart, Paul Krempe is the voice of decency, moderation, and restraint—the conscience that Frankenstein refuses to heed. He is also a sort of emotional barometer for the audience, his reactions to Frankenstein’s work expressing the moral outrage we are meant to feel.
If the film has any weaknesses, they lay in the somewhat slow pacing of the early scenes, which also feature a less than assured performance by Melvyn Hayes as the young Victor Frankenstein. Perhaps his fresh-faced innocence is supposed to supply a contrast with the steely-eyed determination of his adult self, but the effect backfires, providing too little foreshadowing of what is too come and leaving the early scenes feeling empty, without the galvanizing impact of Cushing’s presence. Fortunately, once Cushing arrives on screen, the film sparks with energy, and you have to watch in awe as he ruthlessly establishes a new standard for mad science on screen, one that is all the more horrible for looking so attractive, so assured, and so unperturbably cool.
The film was shot in Technicolor by Jack Asher, under the direction of Terence Fisher, working on a budget of 65,000 pounds (approximately $150,000). The script eliminated all of the novel’s globe-trotting, so Bernard Robinson’s production design could concentrate—quite brilliantly—on the Baron’s luxurious castle, creating an almost decadent sense of a polite aristocratic facade presiding over the “workshop of filthy creation” in the basement. James Bernard supplied the first of many effective musical accompaniments.
The result is a timeless classic that stands up as well as the best of Universal’s 1930s horror films. The film’s novel approach changed the face of horror, replacing black-and-white shadows with colorful grue. The huge (and unexpected) success launched Hammer into the horror genre for most of the next two decades, creating numerous new versions of classic movies monsters (THE MUMMY, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, etc), not to mention numerous Frankenstein sequels (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, etc), some of which were as good as (and possibly even better than) the original.
If anything, time has been kind to CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was chastised in its time for being tastelessly explicit and for failing to establish an effective atmosphere. (Critic R. D. Smith proclaimed, “For all lovers of the cinema, only two words describe this film – Depressing, Degrading!”) Decades later, the shock of Technicolor gore has long worn off – which is ultimately a good thing, because it proves that Smith and other contemporary critics, who derided the film for its graphic violence, were completely wrong. The true horror of in Sangster’s screenplay is moral in nature, and it continues to make the skin crawl today, thanks to the incisive performance of Cushing as the Baron – never flinching from his purpose, despite the accumulating atrocities he must commit. The appalling lack of conscience is underlined director Fisher’s careful use of reaction shots emphasizing the disgusted reactions of the mad scientist’s former mentor.
Subsequent viewings also benefit Lee’s performance as the creature. Often viewed as little more than a killing machine, lacking the soul of Karloff’s monster, Lee’s interpretation reveals a surprising sense of sympathy for the shambling being. And the color makeup by Phil Leaky may not match the iconic stature of Pierce’s work on Karloff, but it does suggest a more believable result of surgery—a creature that really does seem to have been stitched together piecemeal by Frankenstein.
Ultimately, the enduring appeal of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN rests in Cushing interpretation of the Baron. The late actor, who professed to having “a tremendous amount of affection for Baron Frankenstein,” said that, besides Mary Shelley’s novel, he based his interpretation of Frankenstein upon Dr. Robert Knox, the anatomy teacher who suffered a scandal when it was learned that the cadavers he used to teach his students had been illegally obtained –and in some cases murdered – by Burke and Hare. Many believed that Knox must have known what was happening, and simply turned a blind eye in the name of science. “I try to base Frankenstein on a man who is, fundamentally, trying to do something for the good of mankind, as indeed Knox was, but against all odds….”
Indeed, the odds always thwart Frankenstein, not only in this film but also in the sequels, eternally depriving him of the success he so ardently desires. There is some dark fascination in this eternally fruitless quest, enough to keep the Frankenstein franchise fresh until its conclusion in 1972’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. But CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains the classic film that started it all, like a burst of electricity that still gleams to this day, forever illuminating the mad scientist’s lab equipment—and the awful results—in our minds.
Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, the duo who had sold their unfilmed Frankenstein script to Hammer, later formed Amicus Films. The company became Hammer’s chief English competitor in the horror genre during the 1960s. Subotsky and Rosenberg produced numerous terror titles like HORROR HOTEL, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, and TORTURE GARDEN, usually starring Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing.
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Uquhart, Hazel Court, Valerie Gaunt.