Hammer Studios had dabbled in fear before, but their first colour monster movie, made in 1957, inaugurated the age of Hammer Horror. From the late 50s to the early 70s they revisited the territory carved out by Universal Studios, adding lavish colors, blood, gore, and sex in increasing amounts, linking the old, elegant horror classics with more visceral films of recent vintage.1
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The Curse of Frankenstein
Cast, Crew, and Other Info:
Directed by Terence Fisher
Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein
Hazel Court as Elizabeth
Christopher Lee as the Creature
Robert Urquhart as Paul Krempe
Melvyn Hayes as Young Victor
Valerie Gaunt as Justine
Paul Hardtmuth as Professor Burnstein
Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb
Baron Frankenstein, awaiting execution, recounts either the fantastic events that led to his conviction—or lunatic ravings developed to conceal his crimes.2
Terrence Fisher would direct most of Hammer’s horrors and his distinctive style and strengths become apparent in this film. Curse of Frankenstein features a number of suggestively gruesome and disturbing shots: the monster hangs on a hook, Cushing plays in his old-tech mad lab, and shadows fall over an asylum.
The acting, traditional-style staginess and the music, traditional overdone horror themes, overwhelm the film in some places. Even those audiences familiar with the conventions of older films may find The Curse at times overly campy.
Originality: 2/6. The film adapts Shelley’s novel, of course, and owes a considerable debt to Universal’s film. Frankenstein holds a Barony and his creation receives a damaged brain. Like Karloff’s monster—but unlike the literate antihero of the novel—Lee’s creature cannot speak. Even the make-up, deliberately designed to be unlike Jack Pierce and James Whale’s copyright-protected icon, still allows Lee to occasionally recall Karloff.3 Other scenes directly recall the Universal movie; the stumbling creatures encounters both a blind man and a child playing by water. The film does feature an interesting and (for a Frankenstein film) original framing device.4
Effects: 4/6. Hammer knew their limitations, and created memorable, low-key effects using traditional methods. Some of their later productions would be less mindful of the fact that a convincing small visual works far better than a monumental but unconvincing one. Victor’s lab features lots of bubbling fluids and sizzling low-tech. It works, in a haunted-house kind of way, but proves less impressive than Universal’s classic lab equipment, created by Kenneth Strickfaden.
Story: 5/6. This film lacks the power and breadth of the source, but its unreliable narrator and plot ambiguity make for an interesting take on the old tale. Hammer diminishes the source’s moral ambiguity, however. The monster kills because of his damaged brain, and Frankenstein himself steps beyond accepted boundaries because he’s obsessive and sociopathic.
Acting: 4/6. Hammer’s acting tended to be stagy and old-fashioned, even hammy, but some performers do well with the material, and Cushing would become the iconic Dr. Frankenstein for a generation. He’s less the good man tempted to meddle in those things that we must leave alone, and far more the mad scientist.
Production: 5/6. Hammer establishes the style of its horror films here: elegant period costumes, old-world sets, brightly-colored blood, and an overwrought score.
Emotional Response: 4/6.
Overall: 5/6. I gave this film one additional point because of its place in horror history. Old-style Gothic horror had retained some popularity; kids loved reruns of the old Universal films. Hammer revived the genre with this film. The success of The Curse led to Hammer’s monstrously influential cycle of spooky films.
In total, Curse of Frankenstein receives 29/42.
1. Their early 70s films often carried significant occult overtones, reflecting the peculiar sensibility of the age. Though few have commented on it, Rupert Giles’ first flashback to his “Ripper” days in Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a definite 70s-Hammer vibe. A more famous and obvious echo of this particular film can be seen in Rocky’s creation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
2. The studio would hammer out six more Frankenstein films, most tied together in loose continuity and all but one starring Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, who makes new and different monsters each time. The second entry necessarily undoes the ending of this first one. Their final Frankenfilm, the grotesque Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) features both the future Grand Moff Tarkin (Cushing) and Darth Vader (David Prowse) as the (now utterly mad) scientist and his latest creation.
3. Hammer would later strike deals with Universal, permitting them to reimagine some of their properties and, in two instances, use make-up that recalls their iconic Frankenstein monster.
4. While the original novel features a complicated first-person narrator, we receive confirmation that Frankenstein’s basic tale happened– assuming Robert Walton isn’t lying. Here, we only have the Baron’s word, and we have reason to question his claims. The first sequel, of course, undoes this ambiguity, and also rescues Frankenstein from the gallows.