Supernal Dreams: Christopher Lee on "Horror of Dracula" & "Curse of Frankenstein" – showing at the "Shock it to Me!" festival

Christopher Lee is featured in two of his Hammer Horror classics at SHOCK IT TO ME! San Francisco’s annual horror film festival, this Saturday afternoon, October 19, when a double-bill of Terence Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) will be presented at the historic (and haunted) Castro Theatre.
Get full details on the two day event here:
To celebrate this classic revival, here are some excerpts from an interview with Christopher Lee talking about the two films, conducted in 1984, when Mr. Lee was still living in Los Angeles.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you first played Dracula had you seen Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 version?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, I was determined not to see the Lugosi film, and I didn’t for years. I didn’t want to do any of the things he’d done, and I thought the idea of someone in the wilds of Transylvania, in full evening dress, a little bit incongruous. That’s not a reflection on Lugosi, who I never knew. He was a man of immense demonic power as an actor. As a young man he was a great romantic lead in his native Hungary. Among other parts he played Christ. All sorts of things like that – Hamlet, Romeo. The man had an enormous wealth of experience long before he came to the United States. He never learned to speak English properly; he only learned to speak it more or less phonetically. He was a gently, kind and understanding person. He had great tragedy in his life, there’s no secret about it, he became a drug addict, and was in and out of various institutions. He made many films, and played many parts that were not worthy of him. He was buried in Dracula’s cloak, that is true, it is something he asked to be done. I know this because his widow told me. His widow was at one time married to Brian Donlevy, with whom I did a picture in Hong Kong, called Five Golden Dragons. I knew Boris Karloff, he was a very close friend and he always used to tell me about Lugosi and the pictures they made together. He always used to say, “Poor Bela, poor Bela,” and he meant it very sincerely. He was a haunted man, but I think haunted and tormented by the fact that the pictures he did in the latter part of his life were simply not worthy of him. He was as tall as I am, I understand. His voice, of course, is one of the most imitated in the history of movies. We all know it, we’ve all done it, just for fun, at one time or another. (Imitating Lugosi), “Good eve-ening.” So I never copied him in any way. I played the part by reading the book, by reading the script and putting into it what I thought needed to be done. First of all, he is a nobleman, so he must be noble in his physical presence, and impressive. I believe that Dracula was not only mortal, but very much to be pitied. The sadness of a man who would very much like to be free. In Stoker’s book, there is a great look of peace on his face when he is killed. So many aspects to a character like that; very dangerous, very fierce, superhumanly strong, irresistible to women, much respected by men, who wish they could be like that, and so on. All these things were in the book. Of course, nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest we ever got to the book was when I did Count Dracula in Spain, with Klaus Kinski. I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons. So the first time I played it, I enjoyed it, and we had a lot of fun. Peter Cushing and I used to giggle a lot, and behave disgracefully. You have to keep your sense of humour in situations of that kind. All the time we’d keep saying to each other, wouldn’t it be marvellous if I could do this, if I could do that, because it would get a big laugh, and the director says, “That’s not quite the intention of the picture!” Then there was one instance where I had to pick up this girl, and charge across the graveyard, where I’ve conveniently dug a grave, and throw her into it. The lady was a stunt lady, because I had to really throw her into the grave, although there was a mattress in there. So I rushed over and picked her up, and then rushed across with her and flung her into the grave, and went straight in on top of her! (Laughter.) The director said, “It’s not that kind pf picture either.” So that happened, and there were times with those wretched contact lenses in my eyes I couldn’t see a thing. I’d start to cry, and charge past the camera, knocking everybody over, tears falling down my cheeks. That wasn’t intended. We made the second one, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, about eight years later. I didn’t speak in that picture. The reason was very simple. I read the script and saw the dialogue! I said to Hammer, if you think I’m going to say any of these lines, you’ve very much mistaken. They were quite appalling. So gradually it began to lose its impact. The qualities of the scripts deteriorated, and the demands made on me were virtually nil. All I was asked to do was sort of stand around, and do things occasionally. I lost interest, and I’m sure the public did. I did the last one in 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and said, “That’s it!” When they started putting a character like that in a modern day period, it was pretty ludicrous. Sitting in a high-rise, calling himself D. D. Denham, and playing it as a cross between Dr. No and Howard Hughes. It was absurd. So that was the reason I stopped. I suppose it became too easy for people, and I as an actor didn’t want to go on doing the same thing. So I said, “Enough is enough. You’ve spoiled a great character.” Do you know how many actors have played that since I’ve stopped? Between 10 and 20! Jack Palance, Louis Jordan, Klaus Kinski, David Niven, Frank Langella.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you see the Frank Langella Dracula film?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No. I’ve only seen Langella once, and that was in Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs. John Badham directed Langella’s Dracula – a very good director – and I understand Laurence Olivier played Van Helsing. But it’s still not the Stoker story. The only thing that would ever tempt me into playing that part again, would be if it was totally and completely faithful, word for word, line for line to the book. It may never be done. I imagine it would cost a fortune.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Were you ever approached about doing the Broadway version of Dracula in 1977?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, a man came to see me at my hotel in Washington, and asked me to read it. He told me it was based on the original play, presumably that would have been the Hamilton Deane script. I read it, and made up my mind that it was extremely dangerous, because in today’s day and age, if the original was done exactly as written, it would get a lot of unintentional laughter. The language is very Victorian, and outdated, and is very, very dramatic. So I didn’t think it was possible to do it, and I said so. What I didn’t realize was, that the way they were going to present it was, for lack of a better word, high camp. So it worked extremely well, and was an enormous success. But I was under the impression that they intended to do it seriously, as a faithful representation of the original play, which is why I said no. I thought it would get a lot of laughs in the wrong places.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You have also done a documentary on the real-life Dracula, Vlad Tepes.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, called In Search of Dracula, directed by an American living in Sweden, Calvin Floyd. We went to Transylvania, which is both Romanian and Hungarian, and very beautiful, too. It’s exactly like the book – mountains and mists, castles and bats – quite extraordinary. We ended up in a very old town, Pojana, with a great ruined castle, and it was cold and dark, and the moon came out as we were approaching the doorway of our lodge, and a bat flew straight across over my head. The director said, “They know!” (Laughs.) He was known as Vlad the Impaler, and was a real-life monster. He impaled thousands of Turks after one battle, and then ate amongst the corpses! Vlad’s father was the Transylvanian ruler of the province of Wallachia, Vlad the II, and was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon. So he was called Vlad Dracul, which meant dragon. Vlad the Impaler simply signed his name, Vlad Dracula, with an “a” on the end, which meant son of the dragon. Stoker knew this, and he also knew the Romanian word for devil was also Dracul. So he based the book on the historical Dracula.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I understand you’re not particularly fond of The Curse of Frankenstein.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: The only reason I didn’t enjoy that was because of the great discomfort of the make-up. As somebody said, I looked like a road accident, which was not far from the truth. The problem we had with that particular make-up, is that the original, unforgettable make-up that Boris wore, was the copyright of Universal. So we couldn’t even attempt to imitate it. So Phil Leakey, the make-up man, and I got together and tried out some of the most unbelievable looking things you’ve ever seen! We ended up with something that did look vaguely like a human being. That was in 1957, and of course, now look what we’ve got: heart transplants, kidney transplants, arms being sewn on. The mind really boggles at what lies ahead. Who knows? The secret of life itself may be just around the corner. So that was primarily why I didn’t like the picture, purely in terms of discomfort. Also, on the first day of shooting, I rushed into Peter Cushing’s dressing room with a rather alarming effect, with all that make-up on, and said to him: “Look at this, I’ve got absolutely nothing to say in this film, nothing at all!” He said, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script!”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s strange how genre films were treated back then with great condescension by the critics. It was certainly the case with many of the Hammer films.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think that’s true. I think there’s a regrettable inclination on the part of the press, to treat this kind of picture as if it’s less than top-class. It doesn’t rank up there with the great comedies, the great Westerns, the great dramas. That’s nonsense, of course. Absolute nonsense! As I mentioned before, something like Rosemary’s Baby, or Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein, is work of sheer genius. So it’s absurd to downgrade this kind of film. I believe that this kind of film is most certainly amongst the most popular kinds of pictures anybody ever goes to see. So the people who work in it, the writers, the directors, the actors, and so on, have, to be honest, never received the recognition that, I think, they deserve. I really mean that.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Certainly director Terence Fisher was vastly underrated by the critics.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, Terence, who is, alas, dead, was a tremendous director. I’ll tell you, the direction he gave in those pictures, and the performances in some of those pictures, are a hell of a lot better than they are today! It was more difficult then. You didn’t have all these ancillary devices that they have today. He was a dear, dear man. He used to keep me awake all night long, when we were shooting on location, because he smoked non-stop, and coughed non-stop, all through the night. He was a delightful person, who never did get the recognition that he deserved.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I get the impression that the early Hammer films were made special, by everyone working together as one big, happy family.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, we were a very happy group of people. The technicians, the actors, and everybody. It was a tiny studio on the river Thames, near the town of Windsor, where the castle is. I used to drive down there at four in the morning, usually in the fog, during the winter. Originally, it was a private house converted into some very small sound stages. That was for The Curse of Frankenstein. Then they built the stage for Dracula, which was gigantic by their standards. They really did regenerate the whole genre of fantasy film, as I prefer to call it, and they should take credit for that. The real stars of the Hammer films were the technicians. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but it really is true. Bernard Robinson, the art director, worked miracles on a budget which was alarming! Jack Asher, the first cameraman, his work was brilliant. Together all these people really created the results that you see in these films.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: There was also an ongoing use of the same character actors.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, we had our repertory company. They were all so good, and so versatile. Two who come immediately to mind are Michael Ripper and Miles Malleson. I remember Michael as the drunken poacher in The Mummy. He sees me and can’t believe his eyes. Somebody says to him, “Maybe you’ve been seeing the little people.” He says, “It’s the biggest little people I’ve ever seen!” (Laughter.) Then Miles Malleson was also very, very funny. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, when he came in as the Bishop, it was very difficult not to laugh.
While looking at the second issue of of Cinefantastique, from January, 1971, I was astonished to find it also featured a beautiful two-page photo spread on Christopher Lee’s (at the time) upcoming version of COUNT DRACULA. Here’s the brief text for the five photos featured. The text is obviously incorrect, as it was probably confusing Hammer’s upcoming DRACULA A.D. 1972 with Lee’s Spanish production of COUNT DRACULA, but it was clearly based on the conflicting information available at the time:
Scenes From DRACULA ’71, currently in release through AIP and formerly titled COUNT DRACULA. Christopher Lee appears a mustachioed Dracula, more faithful to Bram Stoker’s original conception than any other. Through the course of the film, Dracula becomes progressively younger and mouths dialogue much the same as Stoker wrote it.
Looking at the COUNT DRACULA stills featured in that second issue of CFQ, one can only wonder why the production turned out so badly. Well, in retrospect, it’s quite obvious. Mr. Lee had a bad script and a really bad director, Jess Franco. Let’s face it, Franco isn’t exactly a Terence Fisher or a Francis Coppola, is he? What’s even more astonishing is that Franco would attempt to even dare edit fragments of the greatest American director of all time – Orson Welles – into a supposedly completed movie.  I’m speaking of course of DON QUIXOTE, and what Franco did to this footage of Orson Welles should ban him forevermore from the world of movies, for committing “crimes against the arts and humanities.”
In any case, as Christopher Lee states above, through no fault of his own, Jess Franco’s COUNT DRACULA turned into a real “mess” of a movie. But, even today, looking at the marvelous stills on display in CFQ, I would think COUNT DRACULA could have been quite a good film, if only a competent director had been at the helm.
But as Christopher Lee notes, “there is no point in going over the past.” However, the concept Francis Ford Coppola used in his version of the Stoker novel, did feature some of the same elements Lee wanted to use in his definitive version of the Stoker novel. So here are some of Mr. Lee’s more recent comment’s about the Coppola version of DRACULA, recorded in 2002 when I spoke to Mr. Lee about his role in Peter Jackson’s THE TWO TOWERS.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Ian McKellan said you startled him in one scene, where you sneaked up on him and then snarled at him, as if you were playing Dracula.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, no, not at all. That’s quite a good story, but I didn’t sneak up behind him. What he said was to be within three feet of a Lee snarl is rather unsettling.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So you didn’t try to scare him by playing Dracula?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, not at any time. That part was last played by me over 30 years ago! I have no connection with it whatsoever. Nor do I wish to have.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Actually, I thought it would have been marvelous if Francis Ford Coppola had used you to play Dracula at the beginning of his version of the movie. You could have played the Count in Transylvania, exactly the way Stoker described him, as an old man with a mustache. Then, when Dracula arrives in London and starts drinking blood, he would grow younger and be transformed into Gary Oldman!
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, there’s no point in going over the past. These things either happen or they don’t and it’s too late now. I did see Coppola’s version, and while he’s done some wonderful films, his DRACULA was not the Stoker novel. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got, was when I did COUNT DRACULA in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it turned out to be a real mess. In Coppola’s movie, Gary Oldman did not have a mustache, and he was wearing what looked like a red dress! He also had a hairstyle that I thought was absurd. It certainly wasn’t how Stoker described the character. In the book, Stoker describes Dracula as wearing black from head to toe, without a single speck of color about him. But as far as I’m concerned, that character is very much in the past for me, and I’m really not all that interested in talking about the past. Only the present and the future.

Antecedents of Igor: The History and Etymology of Mad Scientists' Assistants

The very title of the new computer-animated film IGOR represents a sort of final proof – as if any were needed – that the most mysterious example of mistaken identity in the history of horror cinema is firmly embedded in the public consciousness beyond any hope of repair. The mystery: How did the name “Igor” come to be the generic designation for a mad scientist’s hump-backed assistant? In fact, how did mad scientists come to have assistants at all?

The famous scientists and semi-scientists of fiction tended to be loners. Dr. Moreau had Montgomery, but Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Griffin (the Invisible Man) worked in isolation. It is really the movies that established the concept of the deformed, grave-robbing assistant, thanks to 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. But that character was called Fritz – not Igor. How did he come to be, and how did he his name come to be replaced?

Looking for literary antecedents, one might cite Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (more popularly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Quasimodo does not serve a scientist, but he is a second banana to a villainous character, Claude Frollo, a religious man corrupted by his lust for the gypsy girl Esmerelda. IN 1925,  Universal Pictures, the company that later made FRANKENSTEIN, turned The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a film starring the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney. Although not actually a horror film, the elaborate Gothic sets and the makeup for the misshapen title character served as an influence on Universal’s horror classics of the 1930s, and one cannot help suspecting that a bit of Quasimodo found his way into Fritz.

When Universal made FRANKENSTEIN, little of Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel remained; the film was heavily influenced by intervening stage productions, some of which included an assistant. The dramatic reasons for this were obvious: in the book, Frankenstein could tell us his story directly, revealing what was going on in his mind; on stage and on film, Frankenstein’s character could be better revealed to the audience by giving him another character with whom to interact.

Frankenstein (1931) Karloof and Frye
Fritz (Dwight Frye) torments the Monster (Boris Karloff) in FRANKENSTEIN.

Another influence on Fritz was undoubtedly Renfield, the vampire’s obsessed acolyte in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The film version had been a hit for Universal in 1931, directly leading to the production of FRANKENSTEIN later that year. In the earlier film, Count Dracula is served by a dangerous lunatic, played by Dwight Frye; attempting to recapture DRACULA’s successful formula, Universal cast Frye as Fritz. Frye brought along the nervous qualities of his Renfield performance, playing Fritz, like Renfield, as a character who is subservient in the presence of his master but eager to dominate when on his own. In fact, the sadistic hunchback inadvertently causes his own death, torturing Frankenstein’s creation until the artificially created man lashes out in self-defense.

It is safe to say that the popular image of the mad scientist’s assistant derives almost entirely from Fritz: unpleasant, uncouth, ugly, possibly dangerous but for the most part loyal to his master. Frye played a slightly cleaner variation on the character in the 1935 sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but the next big step in the evolution from Fritz to Igor was 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. In that film, Bela Lugosi co-starred as a broken-necked shepherd who used to steal bodies for Frankenstein.

Bela Lugosi as Ygor with Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster.
Bela Lugosi as Ygor with Boris Karloff as the Monster.

Lugosi’s character is named Ygor (with a “Y”), but he is not quite the assistant as we commonly know him. For one thing, he has his own agenda: using the monster to kill off the people who sentenced him to be hanged. He works with Frankenstein’s son, not out of loyalty but only out of a desire to restore the monster to full power. Nevertheless, in other regards, he fits the mold: he’s a lower-class peasant whose shaggy appearance and unkempt clothing visually distinguish him from the upper-class scientist he serves.

How the name “Ygor” (respelled “Igor”) came to replace “Fritz” in the public consciousness is a bit of a puzzle. Subsequent Universal FRANKENSTEIN film featured assistants and/or hunchbacks, but none of them were named either “Ygor” or “Igor.” Over a decade latter, when England’s Hammer Films made THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) – and, later, its sequels – they avoided the cliche of the deformed assistant. The Italian horror film BLACK SUNDAY (1960, originally La Maschera Del Demonia [“The Mask of the Demon”]) featured a character named Igor Yavutich, but he served at the leisure of a vampire-witch, not a mad doctor; in any case, his name was shorted to simply Yavuto in the Americanized release prints, omiting his first name, so he had little influence on American perception that “Igor” equates with sinister servant. Eventually, the stop-motion kid-flick MAD MONSTER PARTY (1969) featured a creepy assistant named “Yetch,” which seems to be almost a conflation of “Ygor” and “Fritz.” (This film also popularized the notion of the assistant speaking in a nasal voice reminiscent of actor Peter Lorre.)

However it happened, the name Igor (if not the precise identity) seems to have been embedded in the public consciousness by the late 1950s, by which time it was appearing in pop culture spin-offs. The 1958 novelty record “Dinner with Drac” – by the “Cool Ghoul,” John Zacherle – has the narrator admonishing a waiter, “Igor, the scalpels go on the left, with the pitchforks!” The line suggests a bumbling assistant but not a mad scientist’s assistant, since Frankenstein is never mentioned.

Four years later, Bobby “Boris” Picket vamped a line or two during the fade-out of his hit single  “The Monster Mash,” using the name “Igor” to refer not to a hunch-backed helper but to Frankenstein’s Monster. However, the follow-up album, The Original Monster Mash, contains several tracks identifying Igor as a lowly assistant, including “Irresistible Igor,” which specifically mentions the grave-robbing activities associated with the character in the old Universal Frankenstein films. Igor himself is even heard grunting, “Master!” once or twice – a line borrowed from Dwight Frye’s Renfield, but which has since become thoroughly associated with Igor and his ilk.

Universal Movie Monsters lunch box Frankenstein
Look close: Fritz has been renamed Igor!

Perhaps what really sealed the deal was the kids’ lunchbox that Universal Studios licensed in the 1960s, featuring images of their classic movie monsters. Beside Frankenstein’s creation stood a very Fritz-like hunchback – identified as Igor! Presumably, Universal had decided that “Fritz” was too prosaic; let’s face it, “Igor” is a better name for a sinister servant. Or perhaps the then-current Universal brass simply did not recall that the character had originally been called “Fitz.”

Mary Feldman as Igor (pronounced Eye-gore)
Mary Feldman as Igor

Whatever the reason, the name was so firmly established that, by the time Mel Brooks got around to spoofing the genre with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), Mary Feldman’s character (clearly modeled on Frye’s Fritz, not Lugosi’s Ygor) is named “Igor,” and the name itself becomes the subject of a joke, when the character insists on pronouncing it “Eye-gore.”

Since then, the humpbacked assistant has been a bit of a joke; his very familiarity evokes laughter rather than fear, as when one wanders briefly into TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, huffing (in a Peter Lorre voice), “Master! The plans, the plans!” By the time Hollywood got around to making a film specifically about the mad doctor’s servant, it was inevitable that the title would be IGOR; nobody would know what the film was about if it were named “Fritz.” While IGOR  turns the concept of the loyal assistant on its head (the title character wants to be an inventor, nore a mere helper), it is interesting to note that the film’s very title represents the culminating step in a similar inversion, the rechristening of a classic horror movie character with a name not originally his own.

This article was updated on May 6, 2014, to include mention of “Dinner with Drac” and “The Monster Mash.”

Curse of Frankenstein (1957) – Horror Film Review

Foreign language poster for the British horror filmThis 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.

Horror Filmmakers & Authors Pick Their Favorite Horror Movies

Last month, we ran a list of the American Film Institute’s nominees for the best Fantasy and Science-Fiction Films of all time. Many readers were angry over the exclusion of horror from the genres under consideration; some were unhappy about certain titles that made or did not make it onto the A.F.I.’s lists; a few were offended by our caustic comments about the more dubious inclusions.  Well, we all have our favorites. Neither the A.F.I. nor Cinefantastique Online is the sole arbiter of what constitutes the best of the best in movie magic. Therefore, we thought it would be a good idea to present a gallery of expert opinions from people working behind the scenes. What films rank as favorites among industry insiders who made your favorite films? What films frightened or amazed the directors, writers, actors, and authors who make a living in the genres of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror? What films stirred their sense of wonder or made them want to make movies? You’ll find a sample of their answers below
The horror films that I admire are ROSEMARY’S BABY, ALIEN, DIABOLIQUE, PSYCHO – that’s about it. I would say those are horror films, but they totally transcend the genre. They’re every bit as good as stories as horror films: the stories are believable; the characters are believable; the situations they’re put in, the style of performance, is believable. There’s also a Japanese film that I love called Onibaba, another wonderful film of fantasy and imagination, worked very carefully into a fairly realistic story. Whereas in something like Nightmare on Elm Street or Jason, it isn’t believable. There’s an automatic distance there—between what’s on the screen and the audience’s perception of real people in real situations.
I like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I applaud its ingenuity. It was something different, and it was pure to what it was—it did not break the focus. It was a documentary. When people set the camera down, all it showed you was shoes or sometimes nothing. I have to tell you, I sat there with my then fourteen-year-old son, and it scared the hell out of us. That picture scared me. I thought it was really good, because I love documentaries. I love that somebody took the horror genre, and did almost a pure documentary with it. I think Blair Witch is a helluva a film, a good film.
Creature from the Black LagoonThe thing I always worried about doing a monster movie—I was frightened that the monster wouldn’t be good, because they very rarely are. Probably the last great monster before that was the little girl in the bed in The Exorcist. But all you had to put on her was the voice—of Mercedes McCambridge—and that one trick was chilling. I decided to see THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THEM and IT [THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE]—which actually were good fun at the time, used to scare the living daylights out of me as a kid, and now are kind of collector’s items. Funnily enough, as a child, I was always brought up not to see horror movies, because my parents classified them along with sex movies, so I wasn’t allowed to see them. I saw this poster in Piccadilly of this guy standing there with the face-mask on and the buzz saw, and I just decided not to see the film—that [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ] was pretty tough stuff.
Martin is my all-time favorite. When you make films, it’s hard to decide which among them is your favorite. When and if you make a choice, there are many factors that go into it—the experience, memories of the people working with you. On that film I had my first chance to work with Tom Savini, John Amplas. The crew numbered fifteen, including the cast. We had no money. A handful of people made it possible for me to make the movie. We made it on spit and a prayer. I think it’s my most successful effort, in that it comes closer than anything I’ve done to what I intended when I wrote the script. It turned out almost exactly the way I originally envisioned it.
I read my share of Poe. I collected EC Comics, and I’m old enough to have seen FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA on the big screen—when they were re-released. I’m not that old! I saw THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD in its first run, also on the big screen The movie that made me want to make movies is—you’ll probably be surprised by this—is The Tales of Hoffman, an adaptation of Orfenbach’s opera. It’s sung in English, but the words don’t matter much; it’s the imagery that grabs you, and it never lets go. I was one of the few who saw this particular film when it played in a theatre on a big screen and in color. The film has action and adventure, and it was way serious to an eleven year old. It was released in the same year as The Thing from Another World—big competition—but this film made more of an impression than James Arness ever could. I love some of Dario Argento’s early ones, Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Those were probably my favorites, and Suspiria—it’s operatic and beautiful—like The Tales of Hoffman. Repulsion is the most frightening film that I’ve ever seen. Lapsed Catholics—not practicing Catholics, but those who have strayed—like me—stained our jockeys when we first saw The Exorcist. As far as I’m concerned, that is the only film that dealt with Pure Evil and managed to pull it off.
My favorites of my own films are PAN’S LABYRINTH, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, and HELLBOY.
I started watching horror films without caring much about their origin. We got some Mario Bava films. Of course, we have the Mexican wrestler/masked avengers type of horror film. Then every Sunday there was a local channel that showed all the Universal monster movies: everything from the classics Frankenstein to Bride of Frankenstein and so forth. Then at the matinee, my mother took me to see the Hammer films: DRACULA, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, all of them. So I really got every single thing on the spectrum fed into my brain at this very tender age.
I am influenced by lots of filmmakers and movies, so it’s hard to name everything. I like art films like Decalogue and big-budget Hollywood movies like SPIDER-MAN 2, but I fell asleep in SPIDER-MAN. Sorry, Sam! (referring to SPIDER-MAN director Sam Raimi, who produced THE GRUDGE)
In cinema, you have to be crazy [to make an exorcism film] after THE EXORCIST. It’s my favorite horror film; I think it’s the best horror film ever made. You’re not going to make a better movie than that. People who tried to imitate that movie have pretty notoriously failed. It’s daunting.
ADAM GREEN (Writer-director of HATCHET, whose festival tag-line was: “It’s not a remake; it’s not a sequel; and it’s not based on a Japanese one.’)
In fact I like Japanese horror films, and some of my favorite films are remakes. John Carpenter’s THE THING is my Top Five of all time, and I love THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE [remake] –  as much as a lot of people would want to kill me for saying that. I wanted to hate that when I saw it, and I really liked it. Even the second time – because I thought, ‘Maybe it’s just Jessica Biel’s boobs,’ but it wasn’t; it was really that good.
HALLOWEEN to me is still [great] – nothing will ever touch that one. [Slasher films] created villains with great mythologies behind them that were very simple stories that you could easily explain to your friend while you’re lying on the floor in sleeping bags at night, having a sleepover. That was the real joy of these films for me. The villains were these anti-superheroes; they were just these total bad-asses. As much as you were afraid of them, you were kind of rooting for them because they were so cool.
The confrontation between Belau Lugosi (left) and Boris Karloff (right) is interrupted by the shadow of the titular BLACK CATOf recent ilk, one of my favorites was ALIEN, which is just a brilliant movie. I still love CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: there’s something evocative about it that really works. I love things like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and FRANKENSTEIN, which is a wonderful picture; the original still really holds up. MAD LOVE is a really cool movie, with Peter Lorre. And some other stuff has been overlooked like PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, the Mario Bava picture, which I think is a wonderful film. I was heavily influenced by THE BLACK CAT [1934], which is one of my favorite films. I love that movie. When I first met Geoffrey [Rush, whom Malone directed in House], he’d just gone to see THE BLACK CAT, and he talked about how much he loved it. It’s got this perversity, this weird, dark undertone. What’s great about it is that you can’t put your finger on it, except if you actually look at the plot of that movie, you could never do that today. It’s too twisted: the fact that Karloff kills Lugosi’s wife and then keeps her body preserved in the basement, and then marries her daughter! I’m a big fan of [director Edgar G.] Ulmer’s work.
I love American Beauty, Memento, Happiness. I have two films in my life: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from Stanley Kubrick and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. I saw it when I was a teen, and I couldn’t eat or sleep for three days. My parents were, “What? What? Are you sick?” “No no, you can’t understand!”
The first GODZILLA (1954) … [is] a masterpiece, but KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is my favorite.
I saw Frankenstein and all the monster movies when I was four years old, but I became a huge horror fan when I was fourteen, when I really started watching horror films and seeing all the conventions and the clichés. All the really good horror films were – except when the studios decided to stay out of it, like THE EXORCSIT – they were not studio films. They were independent films: HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
LEONARD WOLF (Author of Dracula: A Connoisseurs Guide)
I am very drawn, curiously enough, to the silent film, NOSFERATU (1922). When Count Orlock comes to—her name is either Nina or Ellen, depending on the subtitles—they exchange looks across the areaway. It is so charged with complex implications. Clearly, he is now going to be in the role of the demon lover, making love to a woman who sends her husband away—it’s got elements of French comedy in it. At the same time it’s a ghoulish moment, when this guy who’s not really living shows up in her bedroom and crouches at the side of her bed. You never know what they’re doing, but whatever they’re doing is so silent and so horrible and so Christian and so appalling—I’ve said somewhere in my book that the silence is intensified. We know we’re in a silent film, but somehow that scene takes on a terror because it’s so utterly still.
SUZY MCKEE CHARNAS (Author of The Vampire Tapestry)
I think that one thing that happens when you are raised as a reader rather than a visual consumer is that when you do go to films, they’re really pretty overwhelming. I remember being really impressed by silly things like ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. It is wonderful, but it shouldn’t send you screaming! It did influence me, to put it mildly. For a very long time, the whole vampire thing was very tightly attached to the Hungarian actor whose name we all know. I still kind of balk when people get too far away from a basic sort of dignity. I don’t really go for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER-type of vampires, and the punk rocker ones really turn me off.
BARBARA STEEL (Star of BLACK SUNDAY, a.k.a. Mask of the Demon)
Barbara Steele as the revived witch in BLACK SUNDAYBlack Sunday is the best of the genre films I made—the final result was most perfected in terms of the whole film, but I don’t feel it was best for me as an actress. I never saw a completed script for BLACK SUNDAY. We were given the pages day to day. We had hardly any idea of what was ever going down on that film. We had no idea of the end or the beginning, either. I’m sure he [director Mario Bava] had, or maybe he hadn’t. He really geared it to play out all his cinematographic-visual fantasies, and I think that one of the strongest points of the movie is the look of it. It’s just fortuitous for an actress to find herself in something that well structured.
I’ve always loved [Tim Burton’s] movies. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is one of my favorite movies of all time. His movies are so different. His movies are so beautiful and really elegant. They’re also told with such an innocence and a goodness. People say his movies are dark, but they’re really about Good and Evil, and the Good is always so good and so strong—they’re actually really sweet stories.

You just can’t get a more stunning film. My darling wife and my friends sat there watching it like that [grips the armrest of his chair and forms his mouth into a silent scream to demonstrate]. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film. Now all my other films— THE CREATURE WASN’T NICE, LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS —I have been in more movies of that type. I’m not saying we weren’t good in them, but they were movies you never see again, hopefully. When Dennis Bartok [of American Cinematheque] said, ‘We’re going to do a retrospective of your movies,’ I said, ‘Which one? There’s only one worth seeing, and this is it!’
There are too many monster movies for me to pick. I spent a misspent youth watching monster movies, and then I spent a misspent adulthood making them. So I would refer you to any list of decent monster movies, and I’m sure my favorites will be on there.