1957/ Director: Terence Fisher/ Writers: Jimmy Sangster , Mary Shelley (novel)
Cast: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Christopher Lee, Melvyn Hayes, Valerie Gaunt, Paul Hardtmuth
The Curse of Frankenstein is truly a history making movie. Prior to Curse Hammer had had some success as a film studio and with the Quartermass films and X The Unknown found a niche in the horror genre. Curse was their first color film, and what a first it was. The scenes are lush and vibrant as well as chilling and nightmarish. Under the direction of the brilliant Terence Fisher the movie single handedly revives the Gothic horror film. While it was a return to the classic, atmospheric horror themes established in the 30's by Universal studios, but Hammer would certainly tell the stories with their own style. Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster would turn the focus of the story on the character of Victor Frankenstein rather than the monster. The obsessed doctor and his hideous creation are played by Hammer first timers Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee got the role basically because of his 6'4' height, a feature that almost prevented him from landing the role he would make legendary, that of Count Dracula. However it is Cushing that shines as the driven and insane Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He does frequent himself with hunchbacks as he robs graves but he aligns himself with his brilliant tutor. In later Hammer Frankenstein films the Igor type hunchback is eschewed for career driven young men who fall under Frankenstein's evil charm. Cushing is dashingly handsome and his face conveys the doctor's charisma and madness. He is a sociopath really who will let no one stand in the way of his ambitions.
While all of Paul's and Victor's experiments are going on the house Victor's cousin Elizabeth (the lovely Hazel Court) has come to stay following the death of her mother. She and her mother have long been cared for financially by Victor and now the two are to be paired in an arranged marriage. But the ambitious Victor has been dallying with the house keeper Justine (Valerie Gaunt) and whispering sweet nothings in her ear¡ sweet nothings that while rear their ugly heads and spell Justine's doom eventually. Paul grows fond of Elizabeth and pleads with her to leave and while she senses his sincerity she is intend on wedding Victor. And Victor in the meantime had solved the problem of how to get a brilliant brain into his patchwork ubermensch, he will simply invite the gifted Professor Bernstein up for dinner and chat, then push him over the banister and kill him in a truly amazing scene that does not look like a dummy was used. Paul is over wrought with disgust at Victor and a conflict ensues in the crypt and the brain is damaged, but Victor continues his experiment to success. But his success nearly kills him. After pleading with Paul for assistance in operating the apparatus he returns to his laboratory to find the creature has been brought back to life in his absence. There is a fantastic scene where Lee quickly unbandages his face and reveals the hideous features of Victor's dark labors. This scene totally scared the daylights out of as a ten year old staying up and watching this late at night all alone. Hammer was careful not to provoke powerful Universal studios with the monster's makeup and what they did was a creature that looks bloodless and grotesque, with clumps of mangled flesh hanging from its neck rather than neat stitching scars. Lee's monster has little time on screen in comparison to Karloff's, and the time spent is in anguish and despair. The creature looks disgusting and shows its homicidal rage instantly upon seeing its creator. The thing escapes and rather than befriending an old blind man kills him. Paul shoots it in the face and in a rather gory scene for the time.
Victor will not give up and digs the beast up and in the last parts of the film it kills the scorned Justine and is discovered by a desperate to understand Elizabeth. While there is moral ambiguity with Cushing's Frankenstein, a feature not to found in his Van Helsing or other Vampire hunters, he tries to save Elizabeth in the end from the beast he has to destroy. He comes to his senses far too late and in the end he is deserted at the guillotine by Paul and Elizabeth. Could Paul have saved him by verifying the existence of a monster? Or would he have only implicated himself? Did he take it on himself to be Victor's judge for his horrible crimes? Did Paul fall in love with Elizabeth and see this as a solution to more than one problem?
The film ends with this questions and as we know the story continues in more fine Hammer Frankenstein films. I have the next three in the series and I will get them in due time. Before closing I want to comment on two more things. One is on Terrence Fisher's marvelous use of interior shots. He does this well in all his films (The Brides of Dracula for another example) and his use of cluttered rooms and exotic interior camera angles is a quality I have long loved in his work. In fact his exterior shots are often bland unless his is using studio sets. The other thing I found noteworthy of this true classic was the score by James Bernard, who scored some of Hammer's best soundtracks. But this one is simply thrilling and you cannot help but feel Victor's anguish and fear all the more because of this score.