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Curse of Frankenstein, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 October 2002

The Curse Of Frankenstein

Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Christopher Lee, Melvyn Hayes, Valerie Gaunt, Paul Hardtmuth
release year: 1957
film rating: Three and a half stars
sound/picture: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

In 1957, the ads proclaimed "'The Curse of Frankenstein' Will Haunt You Forever." And it has.

It's now just about impossible to convince those who weren't there in 1957 what a phenomenal impact this movie had. It's no exaggeration to say that it was "The Exorcist" of its day; it wasn't as popular as the later movie, but was still a hit the world over. It changed the way horror movies were made, established London's Hammer Films as a major source of horror, and turned Peter Cushing into one of the handful of true horror stars the world has ever known. (It would be the next big Hammer film, "Horror of Dracula," that did the same for Christopher Lee.)

By 1957, science fiction movies had become a regular part of Hollywood's output, though by then they were aimed mostly at kids. Also, Universal just released their classic horror movies to theater as the "Shock" package. Attention was slowly shifting from science fiction to horror; a Frankenstein story, combining both genres, was clearly a wise business decision. (The same year, AIP made "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.") But no one expected the movie to have the impact it did.

"The Curse of Frankenstein" was one of the first films to feature relatively explicit gore and violence, with shots of detached eyeballs, brains and hands. There's an especially gruesome shot of Christopher Lee, as Frankenstein's Monster (here called "the Creature") being gorily shot in the eye. But while the movie's violence may have gotten people in the door, it was the attitude and Peter Cushing that had the most influence.

The screenplay is by Terence Fisher, and gives little evidence that he ever read Mary W. Shelley's original novel, or even saw one of the classic Universal movies. (Indeed, fearing lawsuits, Hammer veered as far as possible away from the Universal imagery and approach.) Two names from the novel are used, Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth; otherwise, it's an original story, even seeming to be set fifty years or more after the publication of Shelley's novel.

It opens with Victor (Cushing) in prison for murder. He anxiously explains his story to an appalled priest, hoping to convince people he's not guilty (but confesses to at least two murders anyway!), and we see his tale in flashback. As a boy, Victor, a Baron, hired Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) as his tutor, and the two eventually began investigating the mysteries of life and death. When they successfully restore a puppy to life (the dog almost immediately disappears from the story), Victor has the idea of assembling a human being out of collected parts, and bringing it to life -- a new life, not merely restored life. Paul is aghast, though just why he considers Victor's ambitions an abomination at this point is not made clear in Sangster's script.
Elizabeth (Hazel Court), Victor's cousin, comes to the Frankenstein chalet (in Switzerland) to live, and eventually to marry Victor. Or such is the plan. Paul tries unsuccessfully to convince her to leave, and finally leaves himself, coming back frequently. Victor murders his wise old teacher, Bernstein, (Paul Hardtmuth) to get his brain for his Creature, but Paul accidentally damages the brain.

Victor finally assembles his Creature, but can't seem to bring it to life, leaving it behind in the laboratory. But lightning strikes his equipment and the Creature comes to ferocious life. The best scene in the film is the sudden self-unmasking of the Creature, revealing (in only mediocre makeup) a gray, scarred face, mismatched eyes, ruined teeth and a really bad attitude.

It wanders off into the forest, where it kills an old blind man and his grandson, and is shot to death by the pursuing Paul. But Victor revives the Creature a second time, using it as a means of eliminating Justine (Valerie Gaunt who, in Hammer style, is anything but gaunt), his pregnant maid. For the first time, a Frankenstein has an active sex life, but this feature of Victor's personality was dropped in the sequels.

There's a final confrontation involving the Creature, Victor, Paul and an unsuspecting Elizabeth. Frankenstein heads for the guillotine, but was back soon enough in "Revenge of Frankenstein."

Terence Fisher directs at a medium, mixed pace; the script seems hastily written, and features several pointless, talky digressions, as when Victor has a mild debate with Bernstein, and later Paul tries to convince Elizabeth to leave. These scenes, and similar ones, add little to the movie except to slow down its pace. Furthermore, the Monster doesn't even come to life until halfway through the film.

But what is there is impressive, especially Peter Cushing. He plays Victor Frankenstein as a 19th century dandy, always well dressed in clothes he's uncaring about (often wiping his bloody fingers on his lapel), randy, intense, and given to humming little tunes in his laboratory. Cushing plays the role with a vigor and intensity that permeates the whole film; Victor is anything but a sympathetic character, but his energy and Cushing's own appealing personality make him an engrossing, involving character. In Hammer's several sequels, it's Victor Frankenstein who's the center of each one, not his Monster, and there's good reason for that: Victor is very interesting. The Creature here really isn't, though Lee works hard to create a sense of personality in a script that just doesn't support him.

This Warners DVD, issued on the same day as their "Horror of Dracula" disc, features a beautiful print of the movie, nearly flawless pictorially. It hasn't looked this good since its initial release, although some commentators have claimed they feel the letterboxing, to bring the film to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is somewhat overdone. The sound in Dolby mono, is very crisp and clean. All in all, it would seem at first glance that this is the ideal (and first) DVD treatment of "The Curse of Frankenstein."

But the supplemental material is shamefully skimpy. There's a theatrical trailer, and an inaccurate and very brief text history of Hammer's Frankenstein movies. And that's it. "The Curse of Frankenstein" was originally shot to be even gorier than it was on its US and British release; there are some stills featuring ghastly props that go unseen in the film. So where are these stills? Where is the cut footage? It probably still exists in England, but Warners didn't have enough faith in the film to track down ANY supplemental material beyond the one trailer. There isn't even a single word in the short, inaccurate essay about what a phenomenal hit "Curse" was, or how influential the Hammer films became. (Some sources say that Hitchcock was fond of Hammer's horror films, and wanted to corner some of the action himself. Hence, "Psycho." And "The Exorcist" seems like an inflated Hammer movie itself.)

"The Curse of Frankenstein" isn't the best of the Hammer Frankenstein movies; the script is lumpy and badly formed, and the structure is awkward. But it was the first of the bunch, the first big hit for Hammer, and features a star-making performance by Peter Cushing. None of this is alluded to in any way on the disc (which has a terrific cover, anyway), and it should have been.

Still and all, if you're interested in this movie, the print is excellent, and it's not likely to be released again in a bells-and-whistles update.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital mono
aspect ratio(s):
1.85:1 letterboxed
special features: trailer
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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