“We’ve restored life where life was extinct. It’s no longer sufficient to bring the dead back to life. We must create from the beginning…”
Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Robert Urquhart, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, Valerie Gaunt, Melvyn Hayes, Paul Hardtmuth, Alex Gallier, Fred Johnson, Claude Kingston
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, based upon the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Synopsis: As he awaits execution, Baron Victor Frankensten (Peter Cushing) is visited by a priest (Alex Gallier). Although he brushes aside the offer of spiritual comfort, Frankenstein begs the priest to listen to his story, and then help him to convince others of his innocence… Left an orphan in his teens, Victor takes charge of his own education by hiring as his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). The two work closely together over the following years, with the precociously brilliant Victor quickly outstripping his teacher, who becomes in effect his assistant. The two begin to probe into the mysteries of life and death, inventing an apparatus that permits them to bring a dead dog back to life. Paul feels that this achievement is an extraordinary breakthrough, particularly in the implications for surgery, but to Victor it is merely a first step. To Paul’s disbelief, he proposes creating life—building their own creature… Passionately, Victor argues against Paul’s contention that doing such a thing would be going against Nature, pointing out that with the dog experiment they already have, and eventually Paul allows himself to be persuaded. Even so, he is shocked when Victor proposes that they obtain their first raw materials from the local gibbet, where the body of an executed highwayman has been left to rot. He goes along with it, however, as Victor begins, piece by piece, to build the body of a man. It is only when Victor’s cousin, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), arrives unexpectedly to stay that Paul takes a step back from the gruesome experimentation. He tries first to persuade Victor to give up the work, then Elizabeth to leave, but both refuse: the latter because, as she informs him, she is engaged to Victor and has, besides, nowhere else to go now that her mother is dead. Meanwhile, the maid, Justine (Valerie Gaunt), reminds Victor of his promise to marry her… After a period of estrangement, Paul again visits Victor’s laboratory, but is appalled by what he is shown. Unmoved by his arguments, Victor outlines his plan to install in his creation the brain of a genius—but brushes aside Paul’s demand to know where such a thing is to be obtained. Shortly afterwards, Victor and Elizabeth receive a visit from the renowned Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth). Elizabeth in particular welcomes the famous scientist warmly, both on his own account, and because of the change it brings in Victor’s behaviour. The Professor responds to her tacit reproaches by agreeing that there is a danger of science becoming an obsession, that the work itself sometimes overwhelms all other considerations. The conversation is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Paul, who was not due back until the following day. Paul reacts in some concern to the Professor’s presence. The party breaks up, with Victor escorting the Professor upstairs. On the landing, Victor invites his visitor to inspect a painting purchased by his father, advising hin to step back to the railing in order to see it better… After the funeral, Victor slips down into the vault and opens the Professor’s coffin, setting to work on the body. He is interrupted by Paul, who tells him grimly that he expected this. As the two men struggle for possession of the Professor’s brain, the jar containing it is smashed, driving glass fragments into the delicate tissue…
Comments: As was the case with the production of Universal’s iconic 1931 version of Frankenstein, the 1957 release of Hammer’s The Curse Of Frankenstein marked an epoch in the development of the genre film. Not only did the success of this film initiate a shift away from the science fiction that had dominated the decade – though, of course, the film is still science fiction in essence – it also ushered in a new approach to horror, one in which the boundaries of what was acceptable on film were to be pushed again and again.
As with most breakthrough productions, it is questionable how far these consequences were foreseen. Predominantly, of course, Hammer was in search of a profitable motion picture. In 1955 the company had achieved a startling degree of critical and financial success with the release of The Quatermass Xperiment, which shocked and thrilled audiences with the gruesome transformation of its beleaguered victim / villain. Hammer had taken a significant risk in producing that film at all; this was perhaps the first time in nearly twenty years that a genre film had seriously challenged the stifling and unimaginative grasp of the British Board of Film Censors. The “X” in the title was a nose-thumb of sorts, indicating the rating that the Hammer people felt the film was likely to attract—and they were right. But the film was a smashing success anyway, both in Britain and in the US. This suggested that, the finger-wagging of the BBFC notwithstanding, viewers might be ready for something “harder” than men in rubber suits; and on the whole, so they were…though it is doubtful that anyone expected Hammer’s first venture in this direction to go as far as it did.
Hammer took a significant cue from reaction to The Quatermass Xperiment: the film was science fiction, but it was the horror elements that captured the imagination of the audience. The studio began looking for another vehicle with similar qualities, and eventually took the daring decision to go back to the roots of the genre film by remaking one of its earliest, most successful, and most iconic representatives: Universal’s 1931 production of Frankenstein.
In fact, the idea of remaking Frankenstein had been kicking around for some time—initiated by, of all people, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who would later found Amicus. An early version of their screenplay got as far as a once-over from the BBFC, who predictably condemned it for “exaggerat[ing] what is brutal and nauseating” and recommended a significant tone-down. The production seemed destined to subside into a cheap, black-and-white programmer when, thankfully for all of us, Anthony Hinds got wind of it. He took hold of the situation personally, giving Jimmy Sangster the task of rewriting the screenplay. Sangster’s efforts not only re-enthused the Hammer higher-ups about the project, but his delivery of the revised script coincided with the studio’s brainstorming over where to go with their follow-up to The Quatermass Xperiment: a question to which the answer now seemed self-evident.
(This script, too, was submitted to the BBFC, who condemned it as “infinitely more disgusting than the first”…at which point, you’d think, Hammer must have known they were on the right track…)
Of course, Universal didn’t take Hammer’s decision well. The studio was obsessively possessive of its classic monsters, and mighty quick to bring out the lawyers at the slightest hint of anyone trespassing on what it regarded as its exclusive turf. The fact remained, though, that Mary Shelley’s novel was in the public domain, so there was nothing Universal could do about it so long as the new production distinguished itself sufficiently from the earlier one.
To this end, Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds and Anthony Nelson-Keys sat down and made a series of critical decisions. The first was to shoot in colour, partly as a way of announcing their determination to bring something fresh and new to the screen, partly as a deliberate break from the sombre black-and-white that was the hallmark of the science fiction film at that time—and partly to increase the shock value of the film. Combined with the direction of Terence Fisher, the cinematography of Jack Asher and the production design of Bernard Robinson succeeded in creating the seemingly contradictory “colour-Gothic” look that became the hallmark of Hammer at its peak.
Secondly, the producers embraced Jimmy Sangster’s suggestion of shifting the focus of the Frankenstein story from the Creature to Frankenstein himself—not least as a way of negating some of the threat from Universal. This philosophical alteration was necessarily accompanied by a visual one. Above all else, Hammer needed to steer clear of Jack Pierce’s famous makeup job for Boris Karloff. This was not as difficult to achieve as, perhaps, might have been anticipated. The new conception of the story, with the Creature as the embodiment of Frankenstein’s obsessions rather than a character in its own right, pointed out the direction finally taken, with the Creature fulfilling the twin tasks of representing the logical endpoint of the Baron’s piecemeal experiments and adding significantly to the shock-value of the film by looking in truth like a walking corpse.
Then there was the casting. Here Hammer had some serious choices to make: for all the studio’s ambition, the budget for The Curse Of Frankenstein was limited, and a lot of it had already been earmarked for the look of the film. What they needed, in particular, was a leading man who was talented, reliable, capable of working quickly, and not too pricy. They chose Peter Cushing, who by this time had a number of studio roles under his belt, but was best known as an established television actor, with a significant resume of TV movies and drama productions to his credit. And as it turned out, Cushing had already heard about the new Frankenstein adaptation and spoken to his agent about it, so the two parties came together with ease.
This choice, made predominantly for practical and economic reasons, turned out to be a stroke of genius: Peter Cushing is brilliant in The Curse Of Frankenstein, his interpretation of the obsessive scientist not only achieving all of the producers’ ends in respect of distinguishing their film from its famous predecessor, but creating a new and different Victor Frankenstein, a characterisation that in time would carry a further five films upon its shoulders.
Meanwhile, a second casting call had gone out for “tall actors”: the producers wanted someone who was physically intimidating in his own right. John Redway – coincidentally, also Peter Cushing’s agent – sent along an aspiring young actor with only small roles to his credit so far, but who stood six-foot-five in his bare feet…
The Curse Of Frankenstein was not the first time that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had worked on the same production. Three times before they had been involved with the same film – Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948, Moulin Rouge in 1952, and the previous year’s Alexander The Great – but such were the vagaries of their respective casting that they had never actually crossed paths, despite sharing an agent.
It was on the set of The Curse Of Frankenstein that the two met for the first time, with Christopher Lee bursting into Peter Cushing’s dressing-room and throwing the very first but by no means the last of his Hammer-related temper-tantrums in the wake of a belatedly revealing conversation with the producers…or at least, that’s how Lee himself tells it in his autobiography:
Christopher Lee: “I haven’t got any lines!?”
Peter Cushing: “You’re lucky – I’ve read the script.”
And with that moment of wry humour (one a bit unfair on Jimmy Sangster, I must say!) was formed both a professional partnership that would extend through some twenty-two films over the next thirty-five years, and a deep and abiding friendship that ended only with Peter Cushing’s death in 1994.
The Curse Of Frankenstein also marked the beginning of Christopher Lee’s love-hate relationship with Hammer. Here, his disappointment over being offered a dialogue-less (and makeup-heavy) role was somewhat offset not only by his meeting with Peter Cushing, but by the opportunity granted him to collaborate in the development of the Creature’s look. After several abortive efforts, makeup man Phil Leakey eventually sat down with Lee to talk through the interpretation of the Creature, with the two finally agreeing that it should look truly like it was patched together on the surgical table, all seams and scars and mis-matched parts. Leakey, who came from a family of doctors, applied his knowledge with what many subsequently criticised as too much accuracy, creating a visual horror disturbing in its own right, and a very comfortable distance from the Karloff model.
In early years of the 1950s, there was a perception amongst British film critics that home-grown cinema had become stagnant and unimaginative. Again and again they cried out for a visionary to come along and revitalise the British film industry with a fresh look and fresh ideas…
What’s that line about being careful what you pray for?
The Curse Of Frankenstein was released on 2nd May, 1957, to a storm of criticism beyond anything a British film had previously attracted, and which would only be surpassed with the release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom three years later. Most famously, perhaps, C. J. Lajeune declared in his review for The Observer that it was, “Among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have encountered in the course of some 10,000 miles of film reviewing.” (Wouldn’t you love to know what were the other five?) Most of the other reactions were along the same lines—and to be fair, even at this distance we can see why. There is deliberate provocation in almost every scene in this film, with the camera lingering upon bloodshed and body parts for as long as contemporary censorship would allow.
And then, of course, there’s the sex—and it is worth remembering that, for all the outrage expressed over the violence and gore scattered through this film, there was almost as much of an uproar over Valerie Gaunt’s see-through nightie, and Hazel Court’s décolletage. What had been, since the clampdown of the Hollywood Production Code in 1933, merely implicit in the genre film was suddenly right out there in the open—and in an anti-authoritarian framework, too. No wonder the establishment critics went berserk…
The main story of The Curse Of Frankenstein is told in flashback. With his execution imminent, Baron Frankenstein has sent for the village priest—although not for the conventional reason, as his first words make clear. It is a dirty and dishevelled Baron who lies on the hay scattered on his cell floor, but one whose arrogant spirit remains untouched by his situation: with his very first words, the character is captured:
Frankenstein: “Keep your spiritual comfort for those who think they need it.”
The priest, apparently not without a certain arrogance himself, shrugs and turns away, which brings Frankenstein to his feet. (We note, too, that the priest has been sent for; he has not come voluntarily, out of a sense of duty.) Frankenstein insists that he is innocent of the charges against him, and wants the priest to carry his version of events to the authorities. Though he discourages any thought that he can help, the priest agrees to listen…
The story proper begins after the death of Frankenstein’s mother, which leaves him alone in the world. Unbothered, the boy promptly begins making his own arrangements—once he has chased away the relatives who have come for the funeral. Melvyn Hayes, who plays the young Victor, does a rather splendid job in conveying in embryo the attitudes of his adult counterpart, in particular with respect to the mixture of boredom and cynicism with which he views his aunt, fishing for a continuation of an allowance made by his late mother, and the obedient gratitude of his young cousin, Elizabeth.
Scarcely has Victor managed to close the door behind them than it opens again to admit Paul Krempe, who Victor as chosen to be his tutor—the local school being wholly inadequate for the requirements of what he himself designates as his “brilliant intellect”. Paul is somewhat amused by Victor’s precocity and self-satisfaction, but soon discovers he has on his hands a scholar of astonishing ability. In two years, the two have switched positions: it is Victor who guides their research, and Paul who acts as his assistant. More time passes, with the two probing the secrets of life, until they develop a piece of apparatus capable, through a mixture of electrical and chemical impulses, of raising the dead; or at least, a dead dog…
Though for the most part the Hammer producers pertinaciously stood their ground during the inevitable skirmishes with the BBFC, there were two points upon which they gave in. One was the notorious sequence involving a severed head and an acid bath, which exists now in more subtle form; and the other was this scene with the dog. The implications of the latter are both fascinating and hilarious: fully prepared as they were to shock people with corpses and body parts and blood, the producers didn’t want to lose their audience altogether; so they soft-pedalled, not the general bloody mayhem, but—the dead dog—dancing very lightly around the fact that the reason Victor and Paul have a dead dog in first place is that they killed it themselves, and bringing the viewer in, effectively, only at the Awww – puppy! moment.
The other important aspect of this sequence is that it is where Bernard Robinson and Jack Asher’s use of colour really kicks in. Laboratory scenes are frequent and wonderful in The Curse Of Frankenstein – so many Conical Flasks! – so many Mysterious Coloured Fluids!! – so much SCIENCE!!!! – and along with all the electrical apparatus, the scenes are punctuated by a veritable rainbow of test-tubes and beakers. However, it is red and green which predominate; and while both are used symbolically, it is the latter that assumes significance in the development of Victor’s relationship with the Creature. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is subtly marked as something apart from Victor’s real life, by being associated with blue.
Paul is filled with excitement and plans after this triumph – and, like all good scientists, he really wants to write a paper – but Victor is already looking forward to the next step: a desire which he voices in deeply significant terms:
Frankenstein: “We’ve only just started; just opened the door. Now is the time to go through that door, and find what lies beyond it…”
In short, restoring life isn’t enough for Victor: he wants to create it…
The character of Paul Krempe is a peculiar one—the more peculiar, the more you think about it: he occupies none of the traditional film roles. He isn’t Good, opposed to Victor’s Evil (from one perspective, Victor isn’t really evil at all, as we shall discuss presently); he certainly isn’t the film’s moral centre—he goes along, and along, and along, far too much for that; he’s not even Victor’s romantic rival, though he seems to fancy himself in the part. He insists almost instinctively that Victor’s proposed new line of research must have an evil outcome, but has no answer when Victor asks him why it must; nor can he articulate why building a creature is “going against Nature” any more than resuscitating a dead dog. He is fascinated and repelled by Victor in about equal measure, which leaves him basically paralysed, morally if not physically; and when he does finally take some independent action, it is in a manner more disturbing than justified.
So we are not altogether surprised to find Paul putting aside his own very worthy ideas for the surgical application of their discoveries, in favour of a spot of grave-robbing…
…or at least, gibbet-robbing. It is with both disgust and disappointment that Victor inspects the corpse, and the damage done to its head by carrion birds. That portion of the remains being no use to him, he wastes no time in removing it…
Hammer may have lost this battle with the BBFC, but the sequence that remains is quite confronting enough as, under Paul’s shocked eyes, Victor calmly detaches the head with a scalpel, bundles it up in a rough piece of cloth, and disposes of it in his laboratory’s acid-bath, lowering it in carefully by its hair.
And yet…the most worrying thing about this sequence is not its overt horror, but a tiny, almost throwaway gesture: that moment in which Victor Frankenstein absent-mindedly wipes his bloody hands on his coat…
Despite the passage of time, and our presumably jaded horror-palettes, there are still some jolting moments in The Curse Of Frankenstein. However, perhaps the most jolting thing about it these days is Peter Cushing’s performance as Victor Frankenstein. We have, I think, and in spite of the length and variety of his career, more or less internalised the image of Peter Cushing in his savant / mentor roles, like Dr Van Helsing; as an immovable force for good; partly because he played those roles so well, and partly, perhaps, because those characters seemed to reflect what we felt of the man behind the actor.
With Cushing’s interpretation of Victor Frankenstein, however, we are on a completely different point of the spectrum, as he portrays a man arrogant and domineering both by birth and the scope of his intellect; a man wildly imaginative but dangerously focused, and driven to the point of being obsessive; a man completely amoral with respect to his work and, when it comes to the female sex, a thoroughgoing scoundrel. It is an astonishingly complete performance from Cushing, with meaning behind every gesture and expression, and not a wasted moment onscreen.
One of the most significant such touches occurs here, as Paul launches into a speech meant to persuade Victor to give up his new line of research. Behind him, we see that Victor is looking into the distance – weighing Paul’s arguments, we might think – but when he starts to talk, it is of something else entirely. We understand that he has literally not heard a word that Paul has said. He also goes away without telling Paul where or why.
At this point, The Curse Of Frankenstein opens up slightly, introducing two characters who will allow us yet again, and still more disturbingly, to measure the character of Victor Frankenstein. The first is the maid, Justine, played by Valerie Gaunt, who would soon become a familiar Hammer face. Gaunt gets a wonderful introduction here, telling the audience volumes in three subtle touches: first, her primping when she hears a footstep she thinks is Victor’s; second, her worried reaction to the arrival of Elizabeth, and her announcement that she has come to stay; and third, her long, measuring look at Victor himself when he does return, gazing at him as he gazes at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is another of this film’s curiously conceived characters; in a way she is the female version of Paul, never fulfilling the role you would expect. Of course overtly she is the romantic lead, the threatened female, but on a more subtle level she is here for a very different purpose: to reveal the dark heart of Victor Frankenstein.
As I have intimated, it is not in his work that Victor displays the latent cruelty of his nature – or at least, not at first – but in how he treats both Elizabeth and Justine. It is soon enough revealed that the Baron is exercising his droit de seigneur with respect to Justine, who he has seduced under a promise of marriage (though we find it difficult to believe that such a shrewd girl would have fallen for that); while Victor’s attitude to Elizabeth is, if anything even more callous. When Elizabeth tells Paul that she is engaged to Victor, and that this “arrangement” was made between Victor and her mother, Paul is outraged (thus revealing his more plebeian outlook). Elizabeth makes excuses and insists that she is happy with her situation, but it is very clear to the viewer that Victor is here again exercising his aristocratic viewpoint and privileges, albeit in a different way from his relationship with Justine. Victor is both a baron and the last of his name. Naturally he will marry—and in choosing Elizabeth he acquires a wife of suitable breeding, and one who is both penniless and alone in the world; in other words, a woman with no choice but to put up with whatever treatment is meted out to her.
And this is, perhaps, at least thematically, the most daring aspect of The Curse Of Frankenstein, with Victor’s behaviour and attitudes linked explicitly to his aristocratic background, and made evident less in his behaviour in the laboratory – although that progressively assumes a greater significance – than in his treatment of women.
Victor wastes no time in giving Elizabeth a taste of the future, either: he has barely greeted her before he is excusing himself and dragging Paul away to the laboratory (which, most refreshingly, is located not in the basement, but in the attic).
As Paul locks the door, Victor unpacks the contents of his little black bag: a pair of hands which used to belong to a famous sculptor, who died during the last week. “All it needed was a little bribery,” he explains casually.
Paul then attacks Victor on two fronts, the impossibility of continuing with Elizabeth in the house, and “the horror of what you are doing”—to which, he admits, he has been blind, too; but now he sees, and cannot go on. It takes a while for his sincerity to sink in with Victor, but when it does he simply shows Paul out—asking him to make his excuses to Elizabeth, as he, of course, will be busy…
The first of several disputes here occurs between Elizabeth and Paul, with him urging her to leave, and she refusing on a number of grounds, but not the most basic one. It is now that Elizabeth reveals her engagement to Victor to him, making the best of it. “It has always been my dearest wish,” she insists, not meeting Paul’s eyes. “His, too.”
Cut to Victor canoodling with Justine…who, by the way, he insists address him as “Baron”, not “Victor”, even in the throes of passion.
And if that’s not bad enough, a thoroughly unnerving moment follows, with Victor going away again – little black bag in hand – and Elizabeth trying to work him up to some interest in the domestic details. When she responds with an enthusiastic assent to a joking remark of his about helping him in the laboratory, he replies that, “Perhaps you will – one day.” As he speaks he reaches out and tilts back her head, giving her the same kind of detached and calculating look that we have seen him bestow upon his specimens… and we wonder if he has plans for Elizabeth’s future beyond a loveless marriage…
Victor’s latest outing takes him to the local charnal house where, for the price of a few coins, he acquires a pair of eyeballs…
(“AHHHH-OHHHH-EWWWW!!” I shrieked, peeking at the screen through my fingers.)
As Victor examines his new possessions, there is a knock on the door. Victor smirks when Paul announces himself, but lets him in, taking his re-engagement with the project for granted:
Paul: “I told you – I will not help you.”
Victor: “In that case, why do you continue to live here?”
But apparently Victor still needs, if not an assistant, an audience: Paul is in the laboratory at his invitation. And in spite of his protests, Paul inspects Victor’s progress – and one of this film’s more interesting re-workings of its source occurs: it is Paul who recoils from the Creature’s appearance, and Victor who shrugs it off as unimportant; it is Paul who equates ugliness with evil, and Victor who counters that a person’s face reflects the brain behind it: that the Creature’s scars will heal in time and, with a benevolent brain, it will soon take on a benevolent expression. Paul, naturally, latches onto the salient detail in this argument, demanding to know where Victor plans to get a benevolent brain…?
Victor and Elizabeth receive into the house Professor Bernstein, one of the most celebrated scientists in Europe. Elizabeth in particular is thrilled, because the visit lures Victor out of the laboratory. The Professor takes her side in the laughing dispute:
Professor Bernstein: “There is a great difference between knowing that a thing is so, and knowing how to use that thing for the good of mankind. The trouble with us scientists is, we quickly tire of our discoveries. We hand them over to people who are not ready for them, while we go off again into the darkness of ignorance, searching for other discoveries; which will be mishandled just the same way, when the time comes.”
That speech is…true and not true. The moving on happens, but it’s more a matter of practical necessity than boredom. It takes so long to get a paper published that by the time it is, its authors have almost certainly has moved on, either further down the same path, or to another project; or maybe the grant’s run out, and they’re looking for other jobs. And with modern intellectual property arrangements, the “handing over” is unavoidable, whether they like it or not… We should note, however, the Professor’s contention that it is not science itself, but the mishandling of science – by non-scientists – that is the real problem.
However, when it comes to Victor the Professor is absolutely right. We saw that with the dog: while Paul was only just beginning to think about the practical implications of their first discovery, Victor was already onto the next thing – and the next – and the next… It is knowledge for the sake of knowledge, discovery for the sake of discovery. And of course, Victor doesn’t give a toss about the good of mankind. There is, nevertheless, a flicker of the eyelids from him here, which suggests that he recognises the truth in the Professor’s words; or perhaps he’s just contemplating the old man’s benevolence…
An interruption – an unwelcome one to Victor – occurs in the arrival of Paul, who wasn’t expected until the following day. As introductions and greetings are exchanged, we get the impression that Victor is making up his mind about something… The Professor decides to retire for the night, and his host guides him upstairs, inviting him on the way to examine a painting that hangs on the landing. (Amusingly, it is Tulp’s The Anatomy Lesson.) Victor sends one worried glance down at the closed doors of the drawing-room, but then encourages the Professor to step back for a better view…
Professor Bernstein being all alone in the world, Victor arranges for him to be interred in the Frankenstein vault…a convenient arrangement for a bit of midnight brain-stealing. Paul catches Victor at it – Victor’s relief when he realises that it’s only Paul is significant – and a struggle between the two men ensues—in the course of which, the jar containing the precious brain is swung against the wall and smashed. The confrontation ends with Victor agonising over the possible damage while Paul, perhaps thinking that he’s done enough to thwart him, slinks away for another futile argument with Elizabeth.
Tsk-tsk-ing and sighing, Victor does his best to pick the glass fragments out of the brain, and decides to proceed with the operation. (This is far less inexcusable than it is with other Frankensteins, with the uncertainty over the damage and the lengths to which Victor has gone to acquire this particular brain offsetting the obvious risk.) The next thing we know, it is a dark and stormy night – although note, this does not appear to be necessary: Victor has his own turbine – and Victor is preparing for the climax of his lengthy experiment. The bandaged Creature is in a tank that is a scaled-up model of the one used on the dog, and all seems to be going to plan…except that the equipment was really designed to be used by two people…
Exasperated, Victor is reduced to begging for Paul’s help. He declares himself delighted to hear of Victor’s troubles, and declines to lift a finger. Victor counters with a mixture of pleading and threats, and finally raises the spectre of involving Elizabeth, at which Paul capitulates.
Not that his help is needed: during Victor’s absence from the lab a lightning strike has played havoc with his equipment – the turbine in particular – with all sorts of consequences…
It is difficult to get a fix on Christopher Lee’s contribution to The Curse Of Frankenstein. The need to distance this film from the Universal version marginalises his Creature, both because of the focus upon Victor, and because the script has no interest in giving it a personality. There is no real intent here to get beyond the surface, to allow the actor to show through the makeup, as there was with Karloff (with hindsight we wish there had been, of course), and no attempt to suggest that the Creature is anything other than a killer by instinct—whether because of its damaged brain, or for some other reason. Then, too, the makeup is designed to be wholly repellent; it is hard to take this Creature to your heart.
And yet despite all this, Lee has an impact, building a sense of pathetic victimisation around this jumble of body parts. In fact, he probably cut his own professional throat here by demonstrating to Hammer what he could make out of a dialogue-less role. The Creature’s jerky, uncontrolled movements, reminiscent of a broken toy – particularly after his second resurrection – and its air of bewilderment and fear evoke sympathy from the viewer as well as apprehension.
And while they couldn’t do as well by Lee as Universal did by Karloff, his first appearance onscreen is still pretty shocking, as the camera zooms in upon the now-ambulant Creature just as he rips away the bandages covering his face…
The Creature’s next independent action is to take Victor Frankenstein by the throat and make a concerted effort to choke the life out of him. The belated arrival of Paul, who stopped to get dressed, saves him, but only just. Struck down from behind with a chair, the Creature collapses, while Victor gasps for breath. His first words, when he can speak, are, “I did it, Paul…!”
You can imagine the argument that follows—during which, Paul utters those immortal words:
Paul: “Don’t you see? – you’ve created a monster!”
Victor counters that the act of creation is all that matters; and that anyway, it was Paul who damaged the brain, so it’s his fault the Creature is the way it is; but that can be fixed, a little brain surgery…
But before Victor gets the chance to try, the Creature bursts its bonds and escapes through a window, leaving a shambles in its wake. Victor rushes to Paul, whose first thought is to send to village for help. Victor says hurriedly that he’ll send word, but the two of them must get after the Creature as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, a blind man and his young grandson have chosen exactly the wrong moment to walk through the woods…
The encounter between the Creature and the blind man, who cannot see his physical deformity and reacts to his character, originates in Mary Shelley’s novel. Universal displaced the scene to Bride Of Frankenstein, as a means of showing the Creature’s developing humanity; while Hammer here use it for exactly the opposite purpose. There is no hesitant seeking of friendship here, no accidental killing; although it is not simply a matter of instinctive violence, either, with the bewildered Creature taking the old man’s reaching hand gestures and increasing panic as an attack upon itself. But in the end, the Creature’s savagery spares neither a disabled old man nor a child.
Victor and Paul manage to track the Creature through the woods. As it staggers towards them Victor moves forward, still caught up in contemplation of his achievement; while behind him, Paul raises his gun. A shotgun blast, a gush of bright red blood, and the Creature drops…
Victor is furious, of course, but Paul is unrepentant—particularly when Victor reveals that he never did get around to alerting the village. But anyway, it doesn’t matter now, the Creature’s dead, and they’ll bury it and it will all be over…
Oh, Paul, Paul, Paul…are you really that stupid?
Anyway, this moment finally does bring about a rupture between the two men, and Paul makes his preparations for departure. Victor makes no move to detain him, but on the contrary sends him on his way with a sneering reference to Elizabeth. And as soon as his friend and companion of twenty years has gone, Victor returns to the locked room behind his main laboratory, where the poor Creature is hanging like a slab of meat from a hook in the ceiling. “I’ll give you life again,” says Victor softly as he contemplates his battered handiwork.
Preparations for the wedding of Victor and Elizabeth now begin, which prompt a frantic Justine to remind Victor of his promise to marry her. She is laughed at for her pains—and retaliates by announcing her pregnancy. This wipes the smirk off Victor’s face, and Justine follows up with a series of wild threats – to tell Elizabeth about them – to tell the world about what Victor hides in his laboratory. Naturally, it is the latter upon which Victor focuses. He lets Justine see that she has his attention, but follows up by telling her dismissively that she can do nothing against him without positive proof—a challenge which, as he foresees, leads to Justine making a secret foray into the laboratory in the middle of the night, where the Creature is once again up and around.
Justine screams in mortal terror and runs for the door, which Victor slams and locks against her…
The critics of the time had plenty to say against The Curse Of Frankenstein, as we have seen, but there were two moments above all others which attracted their ire: viscerally, the shotgun blast to the Creature’s face; and morally, the shockingly callous cut between Victor’s face as he listens to Justine’s dying screams, and a moment of quiet domesticity at the breakfast table, with Victor politely requesting Elizabeth to pass the marmalade… Today we laugh, of course; I wonder if audiences in 1957 laughed too? – since it is evident from this film’s success that the critics and the general public were on two very different pages.
Further breakfast table conversation reveals that Justine has now been missing for a week. Victor allays Elizabeth’s concerns by suggesting that she eloped: “She always was a romantic little thing,” he says laughingly. (This, mind you, on the back of his repudiation of paternity, on the grounds that “any man in the village” could have been responsible.) The conversation then shifts to the wedding, with Elizabeth revealing hesitantly that she has invited Paul. There is a silence, with Elizabeth watching nervously for Victor’s reaction; but in the end he smiles, expressing the hope that Paul does come. “There’s something I’d like him to see…”
On the eve of their wedding, Victor and Elizabeth have a formal evening-party, which all of the local dignitaries attend. (There is a brief comic scene, here with Andrew Leigh as the Burgomaster, which carries this film closer to its Universal forebears than anything else.) To Elizabeth’s dismay, the evening ends with Victor heading for the laboratory, after giving her a perfectly passionless peck on the forehead. There is more emotion in his expressed regret that Paul has not come. Elizabeth gives him a curious look here, as if sensing something beyond a desire for reconciliation.
Elizabeth returns slowly to the drawing-room – where we discover, cleaning up, a middle-aged and rather plain new maidservant – only to have her unhappy thoughts interrupted by a knock at the door, late as it is. Paul has come, of course, moth to the flame. Elizabeth greets him warmly, but soon sends him upstairs to see what Victor has this time behind locked doors. Victor says only that he has “started on brain surgery”, and takes him into the back room where the Creature, its head partially shaved, and any number of new scars on its face, is chained to the wall. It shies in fear at the sight of Victor, and turns away as if ashamed of being seen.
If there is one moment in The Curse Of Frankenstein that points forward to the direction taken with the character of Victor Frankenstein in this film’s sequels, it is this one, with detachment giving way to brutality and an overt determination to exert total dominance, to conquer through force and terror. We do not wish to inquire too closely into how Victor has brought the Creature to the point of obeying simple voice commands—its fear of him speaks for itself. As for Victor, the physical condition of his creation and its stiff and uncoordinated movements, like those of a puppet with tangled strings, clearly mean nothing to him when compared to his ability to control it.
Paul speaks jeeringly of Victor’s early ambitions for the Creature, prompting Victor, naturally enough, to point out his culpability in the Creature’s current condition: that he’s the one who twice damaged its brain. Warming to his theme, he tells Paul that he will continue on; and that if he can’t fix the brain surgically, he’ll get another one – and another one – and another one…
(And while the point is never followed up, I can’t help wondering if this was the real reason Victor wanted Paul to return…?)
At last, however, the worm turns:
Paul: “I shall go to the authorities and have them destroy that creature – and see that you pay for these atrocities!”
A physical struggle between the two men ensues; it ends with Victor dazed and Paul making good his escape. In his haste to leave he rushes by Elizabeth without a word. Moments later, Victor appears in pursuit—and, for once, the way to the laboratory is left open and unguarded. Seeing the distraught state of both men – on the back of, presumably, Paul seeing what Victor had “to show him” – Elizabeth finally gives in to her deep curiosity and makes her way up to the attic, where the Creature has just succeeded in breaking its chains…
Hearing a noise, Elizabeth carries her lamp into the darkened back room, looking around in a manner both puzzled and repulsed – particularly at the sight of the acid bath. She does not realise that she is being watched through a skylight, until a small dislodged object falls near her. Receiving no reply to her demand to know who is there, she pursues the supposed intruder out onto the terraced roof.
Below, Victor and Paul stop arguing at the sight of the Creature on the roof. Victor cries out that they must stop it, but Paul has finally learned something, and this time he runs to the village for help himself. Victor’s own wild dash leads him back upstairs, where he pauses only to seize his pistol, before rushing out onto the roof just in time to see the Creature looming up behind the oblivious Elizabeth. She does not see it—just Victor pointing a pistol at her.
Victor cries out a warning and fires; his first shot hits Elizabeth, who collapses; his second hits the Creature, who drops the unconscious girl and stalks towards its creator, now unarmed. And this time it does not obey Victor’s commands, but comes towards him snarling with murderous rage.
Victor backs away until pressed against the balustrade. There he finds Elizabeth’s lamp, which he hurls at the Creature. It smashes, dousing the Creature in oil and setting it alight. Howling in agony as the flames take hold, it staggers about the rooftop—before crashing through the skylight and into the acid bath below…
…and so ends the story which Victor Frankenstein tells to the priest; and even at this stage we are not in the least surprised to find him dwelling in dismay upon the complete destruction of his life’s work, rather that the attendant series of deaths.
His recounting of the truth does Victor no good, however; he sees at a glance that the priest doesn’t believe a word of it. But at that moment he is given hope with the arrival of Paul, who of course can confirm his story—
—except that he doesn’t.
There are two very different yet equally compelling implications to the ending of The Curse Of Frankenstein. Victor’s insistence upon the Creature being the actual killer is curious, since he is certainly morally responsible in any case; but perhaps that was too subtle a legal point? Paul seems to think so: he denies all knowledge of the Creature, leaving Victor screaming after him in hysterical disbelief as he collects Elizabeth and leaves the prison…
…begging the question of why Paul was there in the first place…and in particular, why he brought Elizabeth. We can imagine that she thought duty required them to make a final effort on Victor’s behalf. Paul, on the other hand, is clearly intent upon ensuring Victor’s condemnation as a homicidal madman – although not before giving him a moment of false hope by his very presence.
As he departs with Elizabeth, Paul tells her ambiguously that, “There’s nothing we can do for him now.” Given Paul’s repeated moral paralysis throughout, it is, I suppose, sickly fitting that he finally takes action against Victor by doing just what he has always done, nothing.
It is harder to know what Elizabeth really wants…particularly in light of the revelation that of all the potential charges against Victor, he has evidently been convicted of the murder of Justine. No mention is made of the blind man and his grandson, nor of Professor Bernstein—even though, presumably, Victor just confessed to murdering the latter in telling his story! (But perhaps he presented it to the priest as an accident, and only confessed to the brain-snatching…) Although—if it is over Justine that Victor was convicted, did they really try him in the absence of a body? Or if there was a body, why was there? Surely the acid bath was in order?
But having Justine’s murder as the reason for Frankenstein’s downfall was undoubtedly a conscious thematic choice. In Justine’s death, above all else that Victor does, there is an abuse of the power and position that have been a simple fact of his life since he inherited the title of Baron Frankenstein at the age of five. Victor’s scientific detachment, which carries him through body-snatching and brain-stealing and even murder, is from the beginning reinforced by a serene belief that his actions will have no consequences, an attitude that is thoroughly aristocratic. It is through his treatment of women, aristocratic likewise, that Victor truly reveals his inner darkness; and it is for his treatment of women that he is finally condemned. Abandoned by his friend and his fiancée, shunned by the church, Victor Frankenstein is led away to the guillotine…
And indeed, it is fascinating to compare the different attitudes to their anti-heroes found in the endings of the two versions of this story, with Frankenstein concluding with all being forgiven, a suggestion that the audience should be pleased and relieved by the survival of Henry and his reunion with Elizabeth, and a toast to “a son for the House of Frankenstein”; while The Curse Of Frankenstein closes with the legal destruction of the last representative of an aristocratic family.
Not, of course, that Hammer was so foolish as actually to kill off the source of some very golden eggs…though they faced a greater challenge than Universal did before them in finding ways of resurrecting Victor Frankenstein over and over, as opposed to the possibilities offered by his creation. And an amusingly hypocritical series of films it was that resulted, too, with Victor brought back again and again, to sin again and again, and to be condemned for it – again and again…
But all that was in the future. In May of 1957, the makers of The Curse Of Frankenstein found themselves, the critics notwithstanding, with a smash hit upon their hands. It is hardly to be wondered at that the studio immediately struck again, hoping that the iron was still hot. Rounding up the same production team, and promoting Christopher Lee from supporting player to co-star, Hammer rushed into the development of a new version of Dracula—which turned out to be not only another staggering financial success, but curiously won over many of the critics. Hammer Horror had been truly born.
The impact of this success of these two productions upon the subsequent direction taken by the genre film can hardly be overestimated—it was quite equal, in fact, to the impact made by their twinned predecessors in the early 1930s. Screen horror, which had died in a hail of embarrassing giggles in the 1940s, was being taken seriously again at last; so seriously, that it swiftly displaced the science fiction film which, until this point, had been the dominant fantasy form of 1950s cinema.
At the same time, the introduction of colour had brought a new richness and power to the imagery, while even at this early stage, cracks could be seen developing in the prevailing censorship code. Having ushered in this new era, over the next fifteen years Hammer would continue to challenge the boundaries of what was acceptable onscreen, becoming an international byword for their daring blending of sex and horror.
This review is a part of Tall, Dark And Gruesome, the B-Masters’ tribute to Sir Christopher Lee.