1955’s Quatermass clued the folks at Hammer in to the fact that maybe they had something on their hands with this horror and sci-fi business. They rushed out two more horror-scifi amalgamations, then in 1956 went to work on what was to be their first in a series of films that were, depending on who you are, either adaptations of classic works of British gothic horror, or remakes of old Universal Pictures horror films. The four biggest films in the Universal pantheon of horror were Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, The Mummy again with Karloff, and The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. For their first crack at the legends, Hammer went with Curse of Frankenstein. It was a bit of a gamble, what with the Karloff film being one of the great iconic films not just of horror, but of movies in general. Hammer was going to have to figure out a way to do something just as good but totally innovative, something that would at once hearken back to and be largely different from its legendary predecessor.
To start things off they assigned studio director Terence Fisher to the project, then furnished him with well-known television star Peter Cushing to portray Frankenstein. A good start, but if the Karloff film had taught anyone anything, it was that whoever plays the Monster will be the focal point of everyone’s attention. Hammer had a long series of auditions for a variety of big, hulking men before finally deciding on a tall but relatively lean actor by the name of Christopher Lee. Lee already had a decently long filmography under his belt, but most were small parts in small films, so he was more or less an unknown at the time. So an unknown director directs two seasoned but obscure character actors in a film based on a character that had more or less been made into a parody by the time Universal was finished with it, all at a time when interest in old Gothic horror was at an all-time low in favor of whiz-bang science fiction adventures. No problem.
There were other hurdles to clear. Universal was none too happy about someone making a new Frankenstein film. Although they didn’t create the character, they reasonably argued that when the average moviegoer heard the name Frankenstein, they didn’t think of Mary Shelley’s novel; they thought of the Universal movie. Hammer could have argued back that nothing they were going to do could have been any worse than some of those Frankenstein sequels that Universal pumped out during the 1940s. But that would have been rude to bring up. Universal threatened to sue Hammer if their monster came out looking anything remotely like the Karloff Monster, so Hammer went about stitching together, if you will, an entirely new look for Frankenstein’s frightening creation. Hammer also decided that, rather than focus on the tragic tale of the Monster and “tampering in God’s domain,” they’d focus, like the book, on the title character and his obsession with research.
The gambles paid off. Christopher Lee’s monster, while never the icon that Karloff’s was, looked hideous and creepy because, for the most part, it looked so real, like a ghoulish, pallid man who had been created out of sundry body parts from other corpses. And the focus on Frankenstein himself allows Peter Cushing to shine and give audiences a doctor who is as memorable as the creature was in the original film. At the center of the film is Frankenstein’s own mania regarding research. As one character points out in the film, minutes before being pushed to his death by Frankenstein so the mad doctor can have a fresh, genius brain, some scientists have trouble with becoming obsessed with research then quickly growing bored with the outcome. Cushing’s Frankenstein is obsessed with research to the point that he really doesn’t care about the outcome. When he and his assistant Paul revive a dead dog, thereby making the single greatest achievement in the history of science, all Frankenstein is concerned with is taking the research to the next level. And when that next level is achieved, when he has created a man from the parts of dead men, all Frankenstein is interested in is yet more research, further pushing the boundaries of what he’s doing all day and night locked up in that lab.
Cushing’s portrayal is brilliant. He plays the doctor not as a mad scientist who turns remorseful and attempts to atone for his transgression, as was done by Colin Clive in the original, but instead as a man so engrossed by his research that he completely lacks any concept of the notion of good or evil. He doesn’t willingly violate taboos; he simply doesn’t comprehend that they even exist. Everything he sees is either an aide to or obstacle in his research. He is utterly amoral, but never evil. Cushing strikes the proper blend of British reserve and over-the-top histrionics. A role of this nature requires one to go over the top at certain moments, but there are a lot of different grades of over the top. Lesser actors simply ham it up and look ridiculous. Cushing, however, pushes it to exactly where it needs to be. The story revolves around him, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying its weight.
He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Robert Urquhart is wonderful as Paul, first Frankenstein’s mentor and later his colleague, a man torn between a sense of decency and morality and a sense of curiosity about just what this brilliant madman can achieve. He suffers the car wreck syndrome, wanting to turn away but unable, too enticed by the doctor’s bizarre experiments just as he is repulsed by them. Hazel Court, who would go on to star in a handful of the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that came from AIP and Roger Corman, is featured as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s hapless bride-to-be who finds herself loyal to the baron even as he ignores her utterly in favor of his research. And then there’s Christopher Lee, charged with turning in a world-class performance as the monster without uttering a line of dialogue beyond “Arrhhh!” Karloff was able to do it in 1931, and Lee repeats the feat by giving us a monster that is not nearly as gentle and innocent as the Karloff creature but still plenty pathetic and tragic.
His make-up and outfit are truly ghoulish and eerie. I remember seeing a picture of him long before I’d ever seen the movie, back when I was in the second or third grade and bought a set of monster movie books through that Troll Book Order thing that made us so happy at the end of every month. There were four books in the set: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and then a general one about space monsters. I don’t recall there being one about mummies, but I could be forgetting, though everything else about the books remains vivid. I was already a huge monster movie fan by that time and had devoured the old Universal movies and Godzilla, but these books opened up a world I’d never seen. I was particularly impressed by the woodcut print of Vlad Tepes with all those impaled guys around him – you know the one. It shows up in any and every book or documentary about Dracula. But the thing that really scared the heck out of me was the full-page picture of Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s Monster, in that black coat with the ragged skin and the misty eye. Freaked me out, and I still think it’s the most effective Frankenstein make-up there’s been. Man, I sure wish I still had those books. I remember they had black covers with a picture of the signature monster on them. There was this picture in the space monster volume of some guy in a weird black spacesuit kneeling over another guy in a black spacesuit who has been reduced to a skeleton. I’ve looked for years for that movie, but I have no recollection of the title, and that one photo isn’t much to go on.
The appearance of the creature is, of course, of thematic importance and always has been. Frankenstein goes on about how he will create man from scratch, perfect in every way, with the hands of an artist, the body of a hero, and the brain of a genius. And in every adaptation, this one included, the best he can do is a shambling flesh mound with homicidal tendencies. For Curse of Frankenstein it’s a symbol of the fact that the doctor doesn’t care about the ends so much as he does the means. All he wants to do is build and research. He’s created life, after all, and he’s blind to the eventual repercussions or its position as something of an abomination.
The attention to set dressing is wonderful as well. The film looks gorgeous and would set the high standard that would become one of the trademarks of Hammer films. If it’s not historically accurate down to the very last detail, it’s at least suitable convincing and complex. Frankenstein’s lab is, naturally, filled with all manner of scientific gadgetry, including a spinning turbine that makes that “mad scientist lair” whir, though I can’t help but think his experiment might have ended up better if he’d had a Jacob’s Ladder on hand. Fisher’s shot composition is wonderful as well. The scenes of Lee’s monster ambling through bleak, yellow-and-brown fall forests is still incredibly creepy, as the scene in which Paul takes aim and blows off a goodly portion of the monster’s head remains shocking.
The script by Jimmy Sangster is wonderful, literary feeling without being slow, and with several nods to the Shelley source material, though like all adaptations of both that and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it plays it pretty loosely with what was in the book versus what goes up on screen. Curse of Frankenstein manages to be suitably bombastic with subtle touches, and because like subsequent Hammer Gothic horrors it takes itself so darn seriously, it never devolves into the arena of camp. This is, after all, a film based on a famous work of literature, and so it is lent the proper weight and respect. The film never lagged for me or got boring, and this is a testament to Cushing’s command of the screen and the sharpness of the dialogue and pacing. It’s a film that realized you don’t have to pack in a generic “thrill a minute” to keep audiences interested so long as what you are saying is reasonably intelligent and engrossing.
Curse of Frankenstein was a smash success. Audiences went wild for the film’s brazen mixture of Gothic horror, vivid Eastmancolor, and gore. It opened the door to several sequels and established Hammer as the preeminent name in horror the world over. It revived the entire concept of the Gothic horror movie, paving the way for such coming innovators and history makers as Mario Bava and Corman’s Poe films with Vincent Price. It launched the careers of both Lee and Cushing into the stratosphere, though it would be several more movies before Christopher was allowed to really use that theatrical, booming voice of his on more than a few lines. The success of Curse of Frankenstein also convinced Hammer to try their hand at reinventing a couple more classic Universal monsters thought flogged to death during the ’30s and ’40s. And once that started, everything else at the studio was put on hold as they became the Hammer House of Horror.