Thankful for at least the opportunity, and told to start from the beginning, Victor (Cushing) does just that, starting with the day his widowed mother died when he was just 15 and, as the sole heir, how he came to be in charge of the Frankenstein estate, castle, title, and fortune. This, of course, gave young Victor (Hayes) the freedom to continue his educational pursuits and experiments into the unknown.
And to further those goals, the newly minted Baron hires Paul Krempe (Urquhart) to be his personal tutor. They hit it off almost immediately as Victor absorbs everything he knows. And as the years pass, and Victor grows into manhood, these two continue in their pursuit of ultimate knowledge as the teacher inexorably becomes the pupil while their experiments grow more focused on one’s own mortality -- and how to conquer it.
Putting theory to practice, with a dubious combination of chemicals and galvanic methods the two men find their answer when they successfully revive a dead dog. Now, Paul wants to immediately present their findings and methods to the regional Medical Board, feeling their breakthrough will revolutionize medicine and surgical methods. But the always impatient Victor disagrees, feeling they are only halfway there. For now that they have conquered death, they must now unlock the secrets of life. When asked how, Victor smiles sardonically, saying he has a few ideas on that.
Seems Victor wants to create life from scratch. And not just any life, but the perfect human specimen built from the needed salvaged parts and then jolted back to life using their proven resurrection method. Revolted by this at first, feeling it's a crime against nature, Paul’s curiosity and Victor’s unbridled and unfettered enthusiasm soon has him manning the wagon as the younger doctor clandestinely cuts down an executed highwayman from the gibbet manning a lonely crossroads.
Taking the body back to the castle’s attic, which has been converted into a working laboratory, Paul comments on how the birds wasted little time in destroying the eyes. No matter, says Victor, who simply saws the head off at the neck and then disposes of it in a huge tub of acid. No, this body is just phase one of his plan. A framework for other things to be grafted onto. When asked where these parts will come from, Paul is once more aghast by his former pupil’s sociopathic tendencies, as there is no spark of conscience or morals to get in the way of his pursuit of scientific truth.
This explains why Victor is away, off scrounging for parts, when his cousin, Elizabeth, shows up at the castle. Apparently, Victor was her family’s sole benefactor; and now that her mother recently passed away, she will be moving in to fulfill her family’s side of a long-ago arranged marriage. This is news to Paul. For Victor, caught up in his work, failed to mention this to him -- nor to Justine (Gaunt), the family housekeeper, with whom the Baron has been carrying on a torrid love affair with, and continues to do so even after the other woman moves in.
Smitten with the girl, Paul redoubles his efforts to get Victor to abandon his dreadful experiments for her sake. When this fails, he refuses to assist any further but agrees to stay on only to keep the ever loyal Elizabeth in the dark as to what’s really going on up in the lab, while also encouraging her to leave. But unable to reveal why, this, too, goes nowhere.
And so, the experiment continues as Victor grafts the hands of a famous sculptor onto his morbid chassis and plugs in the eyes of a gifted painter into the replacement head. Then, with only one vital component left to acquire, Victor eschews the usual charnelhouse route and sets into motion a diabolical plan to get the perfect brain he needs. It begins by inviting the noted scholar, Professor Bernstein (Hardtmuth), to the castle for the weekend. And after an evening meal and drinks by the fire with Victor, Elizabeth and Paul, the elderly Bernstein excuses himself for the night.
Here, Victor offers to escort him to his room. But at the top of the steps in the main foyer, out of eyesight of everyone else, he invites the old man to inspect a vintage painting, positioning him in front of the railing, and then puts the finishing touches on this orchestration by shouting out a warning to be careful before deliberately pushing the old man over the side, where he falls to his death below. (A truly spectacular stunt.)
After the “accident,” since Bernstein had no living family, Victor graciously offers to let him be buried in the Frankenstein’s family crypt. This, of course, gives him easy access to the body. But once he has the brain extracted, he is confronted by Paul, who is convinced Victor most likely killed Bernstein for spare parts. And what if he did, says Victor. Certain in the fact that the old man was about to die anyway, but now his brain, he declares, with all that accumulated knowledge, can live on indefinitely. Maybe even forever? Think of what that could mean for science? With that, Paul realizes Victor is forever lost and takes a more direct approach to stop his experiment. And as they struggle, the cask holding the brain is shattered. Thinking that is the end of that, Paul declares he will be leaving the premises as soon as he can gather his things.
Undaunted, a near despondent Victor takes the damaged brain to the lab and begins painstakingly picking all the shards of glass from it. Deeming it salvageable, he surgically inserts the brain into his patchwork cadaver. And with that, he places the body in a giant container of chemicals, fires up his machines, and as everything starts to roil and boil, Victor flips the switch, sending several thousand volts into the body.
Meanwhile, as he finishes packing, Paul answers a knock at his bedroom door. It’s Victor. Apparently, his attempt to imbue life failed because, due to its design, two men are needed to operate the equipment properly. When Paul refuses, Victor resorts to blackmail, saying if he won’t help Elizabeth will just have to do it. With that, the two men return to the lab -- ignorant of the fact that a stray lightning bolt from the storm raging outside blew through a window and sent a massive electrical charge through the machine and into the body during the interim. And so, when Victor opens the lab door, he’s surprised to find someone there, on their feet, waiting for him...
I don’t think anybody would, could, or should ever deny the seismic impact Hammer Films had with the two-punch combo of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which caused a paradigm shift in how horror films were viewed and made around the world with their bright and engaging Technicolor, the free-flowing blood and grue, the tensile cleavage, the subversive sexual context, and perhaps most importantly, and often overlooked, the re-engagement of adult audiences in tales of the macabre after nearly two decades of creature features aimed mostly at those under the age of 18.
But what a lot of folks fail to realize is how much mere happenstance and fortuitous timing coalesced all at once for the British Studio. For if you remove a few of those primed dominoes on the road to their Frankenstein revival it might’ve been something completely different than what we got at best or never even happened at worst.
Now, these dominoes started cascading as far back as 1951, when the production company found a somewhat permanent base of operations at Down Place, nestled along the Thames River in Berkshire, where the decision was made to convert the dilapidated manor house into a substantial studio complex, using the expansive rooms for sets and sound-stages, and the massive grounds allowed for the construction of any location sets as needed. And as this overhaul got underway, the first film shot at the soon to be rechristened Bray Studios was Francis Searle’s crime drama, Cloudburst (1951). And it was within these friendly and slightly cramped confines that the studio started to develop its signature look for what was to become Hammer’s Golden Age (1955-1966).
Another vital domino fell in 1951, as well, when James Carreras, the head of the studio, signed a four-year production and distribution deal with Robert Lippert, where the American producer agreed to help finance and distribute Hammer films in America and Hammer would help distribute Lippert’s films in the UK. However, there was a catch: Lippert insisted he supply bankable American stars for these Hammer films to give them more domestic appeal. Carreras agreed, feeling the Hollywood wattage wouldn’t hurt the British box-office either. Now, this deal was significant for Hammer on many fronts, starting with their first co-production with Lippert, The Last Page (1951) -- released in the States as Man Bait (1952), when they hired on Terence Fisher to direct it, who would also go on to play a pivotal role in Hammer’s impending Gothic horror boom.
But as I’ve noted elsewhere in several other reviews of Hammer’s later films, this boom needed a spark to set it off; and Hammer officially lit the match with the release of The Quatermass Experiment (1953). Based on the wildly successful teleplay by Nigel Kneale and broadcast on BBC-TV, this serialized sci-fi adventure seemed tailor-made to be adapted for the big screen. Kneale himself had hoped that someone a little more prestigious than Hammer would adapt his work, but the Boulting Brothers and others of their stature weren’t all that interested because, one, it had already been shown on TV for free, and two, any attempt to modify it would most likely receive an X-certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, meaning no one under 17 would be admitted, which, at the time, would significantly cut into the potential box-office as it excluded the juvenile target audience of most science-fiction programming.
Hammer, on the other hand -- nor Lippert, for that matter, had no such compunctions; in fact, they wound up deliberately pursuing an Adults Only X-certificate for their feature version, even incorporating it into the film’s title. Thus, The Quatermass Experiment became The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), which was released in the States as The Creeping Unknown (1956). And per their agreement with Lippert, American actor Brian Donlevy was cast in the lead role as Professor Bernard Quatermass -- a casting choice Kneale apparently hated with a passion.
Of course, Hammer and Lippert were hoping for a hit but no one could’ve imagined how big a hit The Quatermass Xperiment would turn out to be on both sides of the pond. And this success of mixing science fiction and horror on an adult level had an immediate impact on Hammer’s production schedule, as nearly ten films were wiped from the slate so both money and resources could be spent trying to mimic that box-office success. And while director Val Guest, Kneale, and even Donlevy were destined to return in the direct sequel, Quatermass 2 (1956) a/k/a Enemy from Space (1957), the brass at Hammer were hoping for something a little more immediate and charged two of their junior producers, Michael Carreras -- James’ son, and Anthony Hinds, to come up with something else, and fast.
Thus, they started slapping and dashing together X...The Unknown (1956) -- a film they originally intended as another Quatermass sequel, even going so far as to pull the X-gag in the title again; but Kneale, who disliked Donlevy that much, refused to sign off on his character being used by anyone else. Thus and so, Carerras and Hinds turned to Jimmy Sangster, one of their seasoned production managers turned novice screenwriter, who would also play an indispensable role in Hammer’s horror revival, who came up with some brand new characters; and this time, instead of facing a threat from outer space, he did the polar opposite and brought his radioactive blob-like menace bubbling-up from the center of the Earth.
When X...The Unknown became another smash hit (-- even though its release in the U.S. was delayed until 1957 due to its potential distributor, RKO, finally collapsing into insolvency), Hammer was once more raring to go on another sci-fi / horror hybrid production. But what to do? Kneale was in the process of writing his third Quatermass serial for the BBC -- Quatermass and the Pit (1958), so that was out for now. Stuck and thus, enter Eliot Hyman, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.
On the heels of their first film, a rock ‘n’ roll showcase called Rock Rock Rock! (1956) for DCA, American producers Rosenberg and Subotsky wanted to tackle a horror movie next and concocted a treatment to resurrect Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster. Written by Subotsky, who claimed his script hewed much closer to Mary Shelley’s source novel than Universal’s franchise ever did, starting with Frankenstein (1931) and ending with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1949). Looking for funding, they took this idea to Hyman, who was the head of Associated Artists Pictures at the time and making a killing repackaging feature films for television. And while Hyman liked their pitch, he was not willing to back these two novices. However, he knew a guy in England who might be willing to take a shot -- and probably pull it off.
Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky.
Seems Hyman and AAP had just struck a deal with James Carreras to replace Lippert, whose shared deal to promote and distribute Hammer films had expired in 1955, and who had moved on to greener pastures, working for Daryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as the head of their CinemaScope B-Unit in 1956 under the umbrella of RegalScope and his Regal Films. And so, Hyman put Carreras into contact with Rosenberg and Subotsky, who submitted their script for Frankenstein the Monster to Michael Carreras, which envisioned a black and white feature with Boris Karloff returning to play the Monster one last time. And while Carreras loved the idea of bringing the fabled man-made monster back to life, he wasn’t really sold on the story these Americans were selling -- and particularly got hung up on the similarities with Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the source of the Monster’s defective brain.
And fearing Universal International's rabid trademark lawyers were ready to pounce and sue them over anything and everything that even remotely resembled their back catalog -- and believe me they were, and they did, the younger Carreras gave Subotsky some extensive notes and a shot at a second draft. Meanwhile, the studio was buzzing with the news that they were going to tackle Frankenstein next. And when Sangster got wind of this, he once again approached Anthony Hinds, whom the younger Carreras had put in charge of the natal production, saying he’d like to take a crack at adapting the screenplay.
Hammer’s own lawyers had determined Shelley’s novel was in the public domain; and so, anything contained in it that made it onto film was fair game. Now, their biggest beef with Subotsky’s script, which the author later admitted was “artistically dishonest” at this stage, was that it was nothing more than a pastiche of all the best bits of the Universal series -- and so, highly actionable. With that in mind, Sangster started from scratch; and his version, a Gothic period piece in the grand guignol tradition, would focus more on the conniving man behind the creation than his creation itself.
Anthony Hinds, Michael Carreras
And once Carreras and Hinds read this version, feeling it was the safer bet, legally speaking, Rosenberg and Subotsky were essentially kicked to the curb with a thank you, a flat finder’s fee of $5,000, and a promised percentage of the finished film’s box office gross -- that they never got. (More on how this would wind-up biting Hammer in the ass in just a bit.) And as pre-production began in earnest, Carreras and Hinds made another fateful decision.
See, up until this point, all of those Quatermass movies had been shot in glorious black and white. But now, deciding to go all in, The Curse of Frankenstein would be shot in glorious EastmanColor to show off all that crimson blood and those heaving bosoms properly. And horror films would never be the same again -- if they got all of this implied sex and gruesomeness past the censors first. Stress on the “if."
Subotsky’s now abandoned script had already made the rounds with the BBFC, twice, before Sangster’s version was submitted. And while James Carreras informed the censors the film would be a “blood chiller” their tongue would be firmly planted in both cheeks to assuage any concerns over the questionable content. And while the censors agreed that audiences would know what they were walking into with such a lurid title and premise, they were also keenly aware of Hammer’s “tendency to exaggerate what is brutal and nauseating, as opposed to what is merely good, tense horror."
And so, they didn’t hold back in their scathing reply, saying this newer version was “infinitely more disgusting” than the first script, calling it both evil and revolting due to “a lip-smacking relish for mutilated corpses, repulsive dismembered hands, and eyeballs removed from the head.” Censor Frank Crofts called it monstrous and loathsome, and ludicrously written; and felt a genuine sense of disgust the script had come from a British studio, having expected this kind of sewage from the Americans.
But Hinds shot right back, saying since they were making a horror picture they would have to provide something ghastly because that is what the public would be paying to see. And having already delivered passable versions of The Quatermass Xperiment and X…The Unknown, he assured all involved that they would not include anything too “horrid or offensive.” And after ironing out a few more objectionable kinks -- the biggest hang-up being the scene where Frankenstein removes the head of the highwayman and dumps it into the acid, the script was given the OK to proceed.
Thus, as the start of filming in November, 1956, loomed, things were really starting to take shape. And this production would be different, with an expanded shooting schedule, a larger budget, and of course, color film stock. Michael Carreras would serve as executive producer, Hinds would produce, and be the most hands on during the production, with an assist from Anthony Nelson-Keys. Hinds hand-picked Fisher to direct The Curse of Frankenstein, feeling he could give them what he wanted -- something “rich looking, slow, deliberately paced, bursting with unstated sex but with nothing overt."
Hinds was also responsible for bringing cinematographer Jack Asher onto the picture, having first hired him for The Steel Bayonet (1956), who brought a strong sense of color, intimacy, and mood, and whose camera lovingly lingered on his leading ladies and the more hideous aspects to great effect. Stunts would be handled by former SAS officer, “Captain” Jock Easton, who nearly killed himself with that spectacular balcony gag when he sort of missed the padded landing spot. Hinds and Fisher would also basically shoot Sangster’s script as is, and then sort it all out later with the BBFC in editing, where, again, the biggest hurdle was the decapitation scene. Thus and so, with everything almost set to roll, now all the production needed was its centerpiece: the monster, and the man who made him.
As I mentioned earlier, Universal International executives were watching all of this develop with a keen eye and their lawyers on speed dial. And things continued to flare-up as the production progressed, especially when they got wind that Hyman was working on securing a distribution deal with rival Warner Bros. Financing was shaky throughout the whole production of The Curse of Frankenstein, nearly bringing it to a halt on several occasions as Hyman initially failed to deliver on his half of the budget as promised.
To their credit, Hammer persevered and were very open with Universal on their intentions every step of the way, sharing the shooting script, and assuring they would never infringe on any of their intellectual property -- most notably, Jack Pierce’s legendary make-up. And while they had allotted an expanded shooting schedule once filming started, the rush toward production basically gave make-up man Phil Leakey less than 24-hours to come up with something substantially different for their monster since all other tests he’d tried up to that point had failed to pass muster.
To play the Monster, casting came down to two actors; Bernard Bresslaw, who stood 6’7”, and would later star as Gort the giant in Hawk the Slayer (1980) and the friendly Cyclops in Krull (1983); and Christopher Lee, who stood 6’5”. Both were relatively unknown at the time, both were considered only because of their height; and as the legend goes Lee’s daily rate was cheaper; and so, he got the part and a horror icon was about to be born. (Well, two horror icons, and we’ll be discussing that other guy in just a bit.)
But in the rush to production, Lee had to sit through several grueling and ultimately futile make-up sessions with Leakey as they tried to find the right combination that Lee would later describe as either a strange cross-breeding of animals or “something resembling a road accident.” And after a rather spectacular failed attempt that looked like a cross between a man and a gorilla that had lost an argument with a moving truck, Leakey essentially gave up. The make-up man would later claim if he’d had another week, he might’ve come up with something significantly better and more memorable.
But after consulting with his producers, and with some input from Lee himself, with the clock ticking, it was decided to just simplify everything and take the Monster at face value: a cadaver covered with crudely stitched together skin-grafts and transplanted appendages. And since Leakey didn’t use any latex or molds, the make-up had to be re-created and built-up from scratch every day Lee was on the call sheet.
And so, this is what we see in the big reveal as the Monster (Lee) slowly turns around toward Victor, and tears away the bandages from his patchwork face, revealing a hideous mockery of the perfect specimen his creator was so smugly touting. Confused and in obvious pain, one eye blinded by a cataract -- a transplant most likely rejected by the host, this revenant then instinctively lashes out, ready to kill the first thing he sees and can get his borrowed hands on, seizing Victor by the throat and throttles him.
It’s a pretty good shock moment, amplified by a quick crash-zoom on the Monster's face; but once that instant repulsion wears off the cracks in the hasty make-up really start to show and the illusion is kinda lost as Paul arrives in time to save Victor; and together, they subdue the creature. And despite the evidence before him, Victor declares his experiment a complete success, while Paul points out the flaw in his conclusion, saying this is no perfect human specimen he’s created but a pitiable monster that should be destroyed.
Here, with his pathological need to be both forever right and the smartest man in the room, Victor shifts the blame to Paul as they strap the … What? Patient? Specimen?, down on a table, saying this was all his fault for damaging Bernstein’s brain. Otherwise, things would’ve been perfect. Thus, Victor will just have to salvage things with a little corrective brain surgery.
However, he doesn’t get the chance before the Monster breaks loose, destroys the lab, and escapes into the surrounding forest, where he lashes out again in fear and kills an elderly blind man out hunting for mushrooms with his young grandson. And while it isn’t explicitly shown, to me, the boy most likely met the same fate as we fade out before he reaches the spot where grandpa was left behind to rest.
Meanwhile, Victor alerts Paul to the Monster’s sudden disappearance, begging for his help in retrieving him. Duped into thinking Victor has sent word to the village for more help in this manhunt, Paul agrees and, armed with shotguns, they track the creature to a nearby pond. Ready to shoot it on sight, Victor stops his friend, wanting to preserve his prized specimen. But when the Monster sees them, it rambles toward them -- hostile intentions clear.
Thus, Paul shoves Victor out of the way, fires, and his slug strikes the creature in the head, whose impact erupts in a bright geyser of blood, killing it instantly. Here, Victor throws an apocalyptic shit fit, but Paul feels no regret, saying they need to get this thing buried before any of those villagers arrive and start asking questions. No need to hurry, says Victor, since he lied about ever informing them in the first place.
This will be the last straw for Paul, who finally takes his leave shortly after all the evidence is covered up in a shallow grave. Swearing to never forgive him for what he did, Victor does little to stop his old friend this time -- except to let fly a few more loaded barbs about the other man's covetous feelings for Elizabeth, since Paul obviously cares more about her than Victor ever will. And once he’s cleared the premises for good, Victor returns to his laboratory, where we see he’s been busy -- what with the unearthed creature now hanging from the ceiling, strung up like a piece of meat, which he promises to give life to once again.
Meanwhile, as the date for Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding draws near, the jilted Justine, whom the canoodling Victor had also strung along with a promise of marriage, does her best to gum-up the works by threatening to reveal to his fiance that she is pregnant by him. And when that fails to get Victor’s attention for long, she doubles-down, threatening to tell the village elders about the unspeakable things that have been going on up in the attic of the castle. Unfortunately for the girl, Victor calls her bluff, saying without any evidence no one will ever believe her.
Well, if it’s evidence she needs, then Justine will get it -- as later that night she sneaks her way into the laboratory and starts poking around. Not sure what she's looking for, she opens another door and peers inside, finding this is where Victor keeps his lab animals in cages. Except for one, recently revived, who shuffles out of the darkness toward her.
Here, the girl realizes too late that Victor was three steps ahead of her the whole time. And with his baited trap sprung, he slams the door in her face, locks it, leaving the girl to her grisly fate, and then smiles sadistically as he listens to Justine’s violent death throes until they are gradually strangled out...
Okay. Remember all those falling dominoes I was talking about earlier? And the serendipitous timing of the production for The Curse of Frankenstein? How Lippert’s deal had just wrapped up, and Hyman was taking over? And how Lippert had always demanded his co-sponsored productions had to have an American actor in the lead role? Donlevy in those Quatermass movies, Dean Jagger in X…The Unknown, and Forrest Tucker in The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)? You see where this is going?
Yeah, thank the Cinema Gods of your choice that Hyman agreed with Michael Carerras assessment that “Frankenstein” on the marquee would be enough to draw audiences in all around the world, which would allow them to save some money on the cast to be spent elsewhere on the production. For if he hadn’t, the world would’ve been most likely denied the chance -- nay, the privilege, to see Peter Cushing play Victor Frankenstein. And frankly, I get the screaming heebie-jeebies just thinking about that.
Cushing had been acting in film since 1939 -- one of his first credited roles was in the Laurel and Hardy vehicle, A Chump at Oxford (1939). But as the 1950s progressed, he had basically settled into roles on television -- most notably a devastating turn as Winston Smith in the BBC’s adaptation of 1984 (1954). Looking for a change of pace, Cushing read in the trade papers that Hammer Studios was looking to adapt Frankenstein in color and notified his agent that he was interested in being involved with that if they’d have him. They sure did. And while Karloff will always be the definitive Monster, with all apologies to Colin Clive, Basil Rathbone, Cedric Hardwicke, and the rest, Cushing would go on to become the screen’s definitive Frankenstein.
And his take was different. Neither mad, nor reluctant, nor repentant -- cursed to fight against the “darkness of ignorance,” and too dedicated to fully see the consequences of his actions. Well, maybe, maybe not. For maybe he is a sociopath, who just didn’t care. “I’ve never seen him as a madman,” said Cushing in a later interview. In fact, the actor based him on Dr. Robert Knox; a Scottish physician and anatomist, who notoriously hired body-snatchers William Burke and William Hare to provide cadavers for his medical research back in 1828. And when they couldn’t find any fresh enough corpses to suit him at the graveyard, they, well, made their own, which Knox always turned a blind eye on so his work could continue unabated for the greater good -- until the whole thing fell apart in multiple arrests. Knox was cleared of any wrong-doing but his medical career never really recovered. Cushing would actually go on to play Dr. Knox in the retelling of this whole sordid affair in The Flesh and the Fiends (1960).
I also see a little arrested development and a lack of maturity in Cushing’s Frankenstein. He has no patience for religion or social norms or archaic notions on science and medicine. He is cruel, and a recalcitrant little shit when it comes to his relationships with women. He’s manipulative, and always seems to know what buttons to push. And then there’s his pathological and petulant need to let the elder Paul know what he is doing. And this cruelty and ambivalence to those standing between him and his goals really come into play with his lack of any empathy with the murder of Bernstein, and later the horrid treatment of his creation, which also shows a lack of patience by Victor with the haphazard stitching of parts -- and I’m guessing a lack of anesthetic as he pokes around the brain, too, trying to fix it.
Morally, he is repugnant, but we can’t keep our eyes off of him, wondering what dastardly deed will he do next? And when you compare him to Robert Urquhart’s Paul Krempe, who is a little dull as the constant voice of reason, we’re left with our own moral ambiguity as we find ourselves kinda rooting for the bad guy. Well, at least until the good guy kinda sells him out at the end -- but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here.
Of course, the debate always rages in the tale of Frankenstein as to who the real villain of the piece is, the monster or the man who made him. Well, in The Curse of Frankenstein, we get our answer. Blinded by science and the possibilities in the creation of life at first, there can be no question as to what kind of a bastard Victor Frankenstein really is, was, and ever shall be when we immediately cut from him orchestrating Justine’s death, callously listening to her screams for help, to the breakfast table, where a compartmentalized Victor politely asks Elizabeth to pass the marmalade, smearing it all over his biscuits just as I’m sure the girl’s blood was smeared all over the attic walls.
Seems Justine has been missing for nearly a week now, leaving Elizabeth in a bit of a lurch when it comes to prepping the castle for their impending wedding. She’ll have to look elsewhere, Victor thinks, feeling Justine most likely eloped with some villager, claiming she always was “a romantic little thing.” (Like I said: bastard.) But before Victor can once more run off to the lab, where Elizabeth is strictly forbidden to enter, she nervously broaches another touchy subject, revealing she has invited Paul Krempe to the wedding, hoping he won’t mind. No, he doesn’t mind at all. In fact, Victor has something he’s been dying to show his old friend up in the lab.
But on the eve of their wedding, Paul fails to show for the party thrown by the village elite in the couple’s honor. And to Elizabeth’s ever growing dismay, Victor shows more emotion over this slight than the fact they are about to become betrothed at last before excusing himself once again to that damnable lab of his. Well, turns out Paul was only fashionably late, arriving after all the other party guests have cleared out. And while Elizabeth is happy to see him, and he her, Paul is soon drawn into the lab, where Victor reveals his revived creation in all its glory; chained to the wall; it’s head partially shaved where Victor has done some extensive excavating to fix that defective brain; its reaction frightened, no eye contact -- like a dog beaten into obedience; and it desperately wants to crawl away and hide but knows this behavior will only bring more punishment. And so, it nervously sits and waits.
Here, when Victor orders the creature to move around, it fearfully complies the best it can on unsure and uncoordinated appendages -- like a toddler almost. This, of course, is a scientific triumph in the eyes of Victor. For Paul, it is nothing but a sad and pathetic display by the hapless wretch before them and does little to hide his disgust and contempt over what Victor has done. Again, Victor throws a fit over this rejection, giving us a rare direct correlation between Shelley’s novel and the film; only instead of the Monster seeking acceptance and approval from his creator, Victor is seeking praise and approval from his own father figure, Paul, which he will never get. And so, he starts projecting again, saying the sad condition of the creature is still all Paul’s fault for destroying its brain not once, but twice. He also warns that he will continue tinkering with the Monster’s brain -- even replacing it if he has to. Again and again and again, however long it takes.
Having seen and heard enough at last, Paul declares he is going to report all of this to the proper authorities, to see that thing is destroyed, and punctuates this threat with a promise that Victor will pay for all the atrocities he’s committed. A scared Victor tries to stop him but Paul easily bullies his way out, rushes by Elizabeth without a word, and heads toward the village. As a pleading Victor gives chase, an ignored Elizabeth has also seen and heard enough and heads to the attic to get to the bottom of this, where, unfortunately for her, the Monster has finally managed to break loose from its fettering chains.
Exploring the lab, and then entering the room where Justine was killed, Elizabeth, repulsed by the giant vat of acid and whatever lurks at the bottom of it, tries to piece this all together while she is unwittingly surveilled through a skylight by the Monster, who has made its way out onto the roof. When it moves away, Elizabeth hears something moving around outside on the terrace, takes up an oil lamp, and explores further.
Meanwhile, on the road to town, Victor catches up with Paul, and they argue until Victor spots the Monster lurking around on the roof. And while Victor returns to the manor to recapture him, Paul continues on into town.
Rushing back inside, pausing only long enough to secure a pistol, Victor makes his way to the roof where he finds Elizabeth -- and his creation, looming up right behind her! When the Monster seizes the girl, Victor panics and shoots but his shot hits Elizabeth in the shoulder. As she faints, the Monster lets her drop and then angrily lurches toward the man who did all of this to him.
The gun now useless, Victor backs away but comes across Elizabeth’s discarded lamp, which he hurls at the Monster. It shatters, covering the creature in burning oil. The Monster howls in pain as it's engulfed in flames, blindly stumbles around, and then falls through the skylight into that tub of acid waiting below.
Thus ends Victor Frankenstein's confession, who honestly seems more despondent about the tarnishing of his reputation and the loss of his life’s work than all the death and destruction he caused, oblivious to the fact he has just admitted his culpability in multiple murders. Fitting. And it's probably this lack of remorse on top of his outlandish tale as to why the priest doesn’t believe a word he’s said. And with no physical evidence to back him up -- since it all disintegrated in that acid bath, when Paul finally arrives at the prison as requested, the only man who can confirm this story denies everything, putting the blame not on some “imaginary reanimated creature” but solely on Victor himself for the death of Justine.
That’s right. Victor has been condemned to death not for his heresy, body-snatching, necromancy, or the murder of Bernstein, the old man, or the boy, but for the disappearance and likely murder of Justine, for which some damning evidence must have survived. Also fitting. With that, leaving the hysterical Victor behind in his cell, Paul finds Elizabeth near the entrance, alive and well, and they leave the prison together, for there is nothing more they can do for Victor. And so, with his last desperate gambit at self-preservation a complete failure, with no one else left to blame, caught in the truth at last, the last of the Frankensteins is led to the guillotine to meet his final fate.
When The Curse of Frankenstein wrapped in early January, 1957, both James and Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds flew a work print to New York City in April to screen for Warner Bros. All were duly impressed, and arrangements were made to immediately fly a print on to Hollywood for Jack Warner to screen. Thus, Warner Bros. were in charge of the worldwide distribution on the film and would treat and promote The Curse of Frankenstein as an A-picture instead of a B, pairing it up with X...The Unknown after negotiating it away from the moribound RKO.
Of course, history would prove that Cushing’s wily Victor Frankenstein was a master when it came to the art of self-preservation -- even in the most dire of situations; and he would, indeed, engineer his escape from the executioner’s blade. Eyup. With the huge financial success of The Curse of Frankenstein a franchise and a new era in cinematic horror was soon born. And while the immediate sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), was co-financed and distributed by Columbia, the third installment, The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), found a home at, of all places, Universal International.
Seeing all the money Warner Bros. raked in, the brass at Universal, which had been so apprehensive about these British interlopers elbowing their way onto their turf, agreed to distribute Hammer’s follow up feature, Horror of Dracula (1958), which also lit-up the box office. And so, seeing there was a lot of money to be made in these colorized refurbishings, Universal inked a deal with Hammer in August of 1958, which granted James Carreras the remake rights to their entire library of classic monster movies. And now flush with prospects and an influx of cash, Carreras soon announced Hammer’s next three films: remakes of The Phantom of the Opera (1925/1943), The Mummy (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933).
All three were to be shot in Technicolor and be realized by the same production team -- Carreras, Hinds, Fisher, Sangster and Asher, who had delivered The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein -- though it should be pointed out that Invisible Man remake failed to ever materialize. And while Hammer’s version of The Mummy (1959) was pretty great, The Phantom of the Opera (1962) was pretty much a dud from top to bottom.
As for The Evil of Frankenstein, notice how that one hews a lot closer to those classic Whale / Karloff tropes, especially with how the creature was brought back to life, in a Strickfaden sense; and then all of that was plugged into plot elements lifted wholesale from Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944); and while the Monster sorta resembles Pierce's take, I thought he looked like he belonged more in one of those old spotlight on Hollywood Warner cartoons.
Kudos to all the technicians who worked around that Strickfaden problem in realizing Frankenstein’s delightful lab, with all the colored liquids, bubbling away, and for whatever lurked in all those specimen jars. Yeah, The Curse of Frankenstein was chock full of dismembered hands and extracted eyeballs. And while rumors abound of a Japanese cut that shows the full removal of the highwayman’s head and its disposal in the acid, this is apparently false and the footage appears to be lost.
But what did get in, was apparently enough. For despite the financial success, The Curse of Frankenstein was ravaged by the critics, who called it “disgusting,” “degrading,” and “a peep-show of freaks interspersed with visits to the torture chamber,” which was "sacrificed by an ill-made script, poor direction and performance, and above all, a preoccupation with disgusting -- not horrific -- charnelry."
Robert Urquhart would go on to disavow the picture, calling it trash. And the only fond memory he had from the production was adopting the puppy that got resurrected early in the film, which lived on through five generations in the Urquhart household. The BBFC was also taking a lot of heat for what they let “slip by.” But despite all the blood and gore, the biggest objection post-release was over what happened to Justine -- played beautifully by Valerie Gaunt, who would go on to appear in Horror of Dracula before disappearing off the cinematic map. More’s the pity.
As Scott Ashlin wrote in his review for 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, “In The Curse of Frankenstein specifically, eroticism in all its forms is manifested most starkly in Gaunt’s Justine. The camera is rightly besotted with her, and Asher is constantly pointing it straight down the front of her dress. Beyond that, the nature of Justine’s relationship with Frankenstein is itself an affront against cinematic propriety, and the punishment she ultimately receives (thrown off-camera to the monster after attempting to blackmail Frankenstein into marrying her instead of Elizabeth) is implicitly an even bigger one. We may not know what the creature does to her behind that locked laboratory door, but just the same, we kind of do."
Thus, after The Curse of Frankenstein, perhaps tired of them flaunting all those X-Certificates, the BBFC would, forgive me, drop the hammer on Hammer from here on out, which resulted in the torpedoing of several productions in the scripting stages alone, including a proposed adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend -- later adapted as the Vincent Price vehicle, The Last Man on Earth (1964), and then there was that all out holy war to get Curse of the Werewolf (1964) from script to screen.
And don’t forget about poor Rosenberg and Subotsky, who were promised 15% of the box-office for The Curse of Frankenstein according to several reports -- most sourced to Subotsky. But thanks to some creative bookkeeping that made profits wither, they never saw a dime of that. However, these two would get their revenge, forming Amicus Productions in 1962, setting up shop at Shepperton Studios, where they would go on to be Hammer’s chief rival in the 1960s and 70s with a series of horror anthology films -- Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), and science-fiction and fantasy yarns -- Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and At the Earth's Core (1976), a lot of which starred Hammer alums, Cushing and Lee.
And if nothing else, The Curse of Frankenstein gave us the first pairing of these two. Technically, they had both appeared in three films before this -- Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952), and Robert Rosen’s Alexander the Great (1956). At the time, Lee was a bit player and the two hadn’t shared any scenes together. And it's kinda hard to judge Lee’s performance as the Monster here as it's a pretty thankless role, which is mirrored by poor Hazel Court, who’s stuck playing the haplessly doting Elizabeth.
Unlike Karloff’s Monster, there is no real pathos here, just a sense of pain and things not firing on all cylinders properly, biologically speaking. However, the one scene where Lee is actually allowed to do something, where he cowers in fear when Victor tries to show off his second resurrection, reveals what he could’ve done with the role if given the opportunity.
In fact, Lee and Cushing’s lifelong friendship was cemented over Lee’s constant bitching about his lack of any lines in the film. To which Cushing replied, "You're lucky. I've read the script." These two would go on to star in 18 more films together, usually opposing each other -- Lee’s Dracula vs. Cushing’s Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), but not always -- Island of the Burning Damned (1967), and Horror Express (1972). But the two would never oppose each other in another Frankenstein film.
I find it interesting that after the second entry any real through continuity in Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise was basically forgotten as each subsequent sequel kinda feels like a soft reboot. This might’ve been by necessity in the interest of copyright to avoid any legal hassles, as the eternally cash-strapped Hammer kept making deals with different studios to distribute their films: The Curse of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) went through Warner Bros.; Revenge of Frankenstein was handled by Columbia; The Evil of Frankenstein was for Universal; and then 20th Century Fox unleashed Frankenstein Created a Woman (1967); the Cushing-less The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) fell flat for MGM; and the franchise officially ended at Paramount with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).
And while I think a person could draw a line from The Curse of Frankenstein through Revenge to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, beyond that it was basically selective memory and plot convenience screenwriting. Regardless, I think one of the best decisions Hammer ever made with this franchise was to focus on Cushing’s take on the character instead of the Monster. And I’m really thankful that each entry featured a brand new Monster or scheme -- be it frozen brain preservation or capturing souls, meaning the Monster was never relegated to being nothing more than a prop like he was in the later Universal series. Thus, the glue holding all of these films together is Cushing, who is so awesome in this role I can’t even even. And it almost didn’t happen. Gah!
Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's THREE films down with 23 yet to go. Up next, The Fun Park is Closed. Permanently. Moose upfront shoulda toldya.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) Hammer Films :: Warner Bros. / EP: Michael Carreras / P: Anthony Hinds, Max Rosenberg / AP: Anthony Nelson Keys / D: Terence Fisher / W: Jimmy Sangster, Mary Shelley (novel) / C: Jack Asher / E: James Needs / M: James Bernard / S: Peter Cushing, Robert Urquhart, Hazel Court, Valerie Gaunt, Christopher Lee, Melvyn Hayes, Paul Hardtmuth, Alex Gallier