Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Curse of Frankenstein

This is a loathsome story and I regret that it should come from a British team...the writer of this script seems to think that the X category is a depository for sewage

An unnamed BBFC reader's summation of Jimmy Sangster's screenplay for
The Curse of Frankenstein

It's almost a cliché nowadays to talk about it in such terms, but Hammer's 1957 film really did usher in a new age of Gods and Monsters. It was the first British Horror film to be shot in color, and tested audience nerves with an unprecedented level of violence and gore, significantly some 2 years before Mario Bava unleashed La Maschera del Demonio. The film was a breakthrough in the careers of Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher; Cushing had been up to then a television actor of some renown but had yet to make his mark on the big screen, while Fisher had been a journeyman director with over 25 films to his name. The fortunes of both men, Hammer studios, and indeed the evolution of Horror and Fantasy Cinema would take a remarkable turn with The Curse of Frankenstein.

For such a pivotal moment in the Hammer story, The Curse of Frankenstein had a surprisingly complicated birth. A film of Mary Shelley's novel was first mooted as a Hammer project in 1956 when James Carreras was sent a screenplay entitled Frankenstein - The Monster penned by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg (ironically the duo who would go on to establish Amicus Productions, Hammer's most significant rival). Hammer were initially keen to mount a grand production of the Frankenstein story, but the project faced an immediate obstacle in the shape of Universal, who jealously guarded the rights to make a Frankenstein film. When the Subotsky and Rosenberg screenplay was given to producer Tony Hinds, the project seemed fraught with potential legal problems, and began to lose momentum, with Hinds scaling back the production to a 3 week shoot and in cost-effective black & white. It was only when Jimmy Sangster produced a screenplay which was carefully tailored to avoid any ideas and elements of the Universal series - a significant achievement considering Universal having thoroughly mined the property with no less than 8 outings for the monster, that the project was revitalised and planned as Hammer's first film to be shot in color.

The film opens with Baron Frankenstein awaiting his execution for the crime of murder. In an attempt to save his life, the Baron explains to a priest the events which resulted in his incarceration, and so begins the film proper, as Frankenstein obsessively tries to engineer a living being from a collection of dead body parts... Despite sharing the basic framework of Shelley's story with James Whale's 1931 classic, The Curse of Frankenstein is a radical departure from the Universal film, with the emphasis placed on the mania of the Baron rather than the creature. If nothing else it was a practical move, as Hammer were expressly forbidden to emulate Jack Pierce's iconic stylized make-up for Boris Karloff's monster. Arthur Edeson's shadowy expressionist photography which in part established the look of Universal's Horror films, was now replaced by Jack Asher's gaudy experimental color photography. Sangster's screenplay was very much a contemporary reflection of ideas and concerns of the late '50's - if Colin Clive's Frankenstein was committing an act against God, Peter Cushing's Baron was challenging the natural order of life itself, a position the post-war scientific community were increasingly adopting with radical advances in medicine and emergence of the contraceptive pill. With The Curse of Frankenstein, the Baron emerged as a truly modern Prometheus.

Directed with a skill and vibrancy by Terence Fisher, the film contains a number of memorable visual flourishes, like the the incredible first appearance of the monster, ripping off his bandages to reveal a tortured patchwork of stitches and dead tissue, or the monster's spectacular fiery demise. The film made a star of Peter Cushing (who went on to play Frankenstein in all but 1 of the 7-film series, briefly sidestepping the role with The Horror of Frankenstein in 1970), while Christopher Lee playing the monster patiently waited in the wings until the arrival of Dracula - here he is almost unrecognisable but does a fine job, at once imposing due to the monster's impressive height, but also pitiful with its awkward, uncoordinated movements caused by a bullet lodged in it's brain. When the film was released in the summer of '57, it scored a huge hit with audiences worldwide, and Hammer set Jimmy Sangster the task of resurrecting the Baron for a sequel, which would be tentatively titled the Blood of Frankenstein before settling on the more sanguine Revenge of Frankenstein. Clearly the Baron's work was far from over...

Warners 2002 DVD of The Curse of Frankenstein can be difficult to get hold of these days, the title often lapsing in an out of print. As with their DVD edition of Dracula, the studio has paid little respect to this important film in the way of extras, but at least the Warners DVD delivers a solid presentation with a sharp and vibrant 1.85 anamorphic transfer and good robust audio. Some throwaway production notes and a battered trailer are offered as extras. Until Warners roll the film out on Blu-Ray, this DVD if you can find it, remains the best way of seeing this Hammer masterpiece. Essential viewing.


  1. Agreed Wes completely and utterly essential, this needs a lovingly restored blu ray release right NOW. Great review.

  2. I love this movie - and I think it has been released on Blu-Ray now - though my limited means have been keeping me from any of the Hammer entries in that format.