Friday , September 25 2020
Return with us now to the days when a pair of bloody eyeballs in a jar was big stuff. . .

Curse of Frankenstein

A few months back, I revisited one of the great early Hammer horror pics, Horror of Dracula, thanx to a Warner Bros. DVD reissue. Last weekend, I took a step further back to the Hammer release that sparked the studio’s successful run of low-budget blood-and-thunder gothics, 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein.
I was happily surprised in my viewing of the WB DVD: my first experience viewing this seminal film was an airing about ten years ago on Cinemax. The copy that the cable net had showed was so faded that the full-color film looked like the sepia opening to Wizard of Oz. The 2002 Warner Home Video reissue is much more vibrantly colored. This is no small selling point. When Curse first debuted, the primary pallet for horror flicks was black-and-white: the moment Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) first nonchalantly wipes the blood off his hand and onto his lab jacket is a touchstone in the evolution of horror cinema. That small bit of business (should we credit Cushing, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster or director Terence Fisher?) changed the movie landscape forever. . .
To be sure, the shift from b-&-w to color isn’t the only thing that separates Curse from its predecessors. Scripter Sangster took a substantively different approach to Mary Shelley’s gothic novel than the makers of the Universal Frankenstein. Where the thirties era take on the book’s protagonist was to treat young Baron Frankenstein as an obsessed but ultimately decent guy, Cushing & Fisher’s antiheroic Victor Frankenstein is a ruthless bastard from the outset. He pushes an elder professor off a balcony so he can steal the guy’s brain (only to have it damaged when an ambivalent assistant wrestles him for its glass container); he’s shtupping the maid (Valerie Gaunt) even as his fiancée (Hazel Court) is under the same roof; and, after his creation goes on the inevitable murderous rampage through the Swiss forests, he revives the monster a second time even though the creature’s been shot in the head. Tampering in God’s domain? Hell, this guy is tromping through the flowers in heavy boots!
Victor’s monster (Christopher Lee) is nothing at all like the flat-headed Karloff version that’d been designed by Jack Pierce for the earlier Frankenstein. Universal Studios, which had trademarked the makeup designs of all their creatures, was not about let a bunch of upstart Britishers use their look, though seven years later Hammer would bring a version of the standard model to the series in Evil of Frankenstein. The Hammer model (designed by Phil Leakey), scarred and white-faced with disheveled black hair, looks more like a maimed mime than anything. At one point in close-up, you can see a spot on his neck where it looks as if either the rot is seeping in or the makeup is peeling up. Unlike the Karloff version, Lee’s creature is given little to do except suffer under the chains of his creator. (It wouldn’t be ’til Horror of Dracula that this imposing horror film actor would really be allowed to strut his stuff.) When he escapes, there’s no time wasted in establishing any empathy for the brain-damaged creature, though two brief moments – one involving a young child by the river, the second concerning a blind peasant – appear deliberately designed to confound our expectations by recalling similar moments from the James Whale Frankenstein flicks.
By today’s standards, Curse of Frankenstein is pretty restrained: its primary redness is found in bottled body parts, while most of its killings occur off-screen. The dialog can be talky, even down to repeating basic plot points (as when Victor blames his colleague Paul on two separate occasions for the creature’s mental failings), while future Corman scream queen Court is never given enough to do. Yet Cushing is so marvelous in his first full movie villain role, and the movie is presented with such whole-hearted (screw post-modern irony!) commitment that you go along with it even as you note its peeling makeup. Hammer Studios would produce better horrorflix in the years to come, but none was ever so groundbreaking. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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