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The Curse of Frankenstein
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

Starring: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Uruqhart, Valerie Gaunt, Christopher Lee

Written By: Jimmy Sangster Directed By: Terence Fisher

The Short Version

This is the movie that started it all for Hammer Horror.

You watch this movie for Baron Frankenstein, not for the creature.

Peter Cushing owns every second that he’s on the screen.

This is an interesting retelling of the story; just slightly too long.

The Curse of Frankenstein is so well-established as a classic that it’s essentially mandatory viewing.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CO-JACK.

Colby and Monterey Jack stitched together in one block of cheese!  It’s ali- sorry.


Pairs Well With...

LONG ISLAND ICED TEA.

The Frankenstein Monster of highballs, featuring all kinds of booze from all over the place.

“I've harmed nobody, just robbed a few graves!”


So much film history begins with The Curse of Frankenstein.  It’s the movie that launched Hammer Studios as The House of Horror.  It’s the first time classic horror got the color treatment, and is considered the spark that got Gothic horror going again.  It’s the ramping up of gore… and at least mention of sex.  Though they’d technically worked on the same movies twice before, this is the one that finally brought Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together face to face and launched their legendary friendship.  Some even credit this movie with helping to save British filmmaking.  For these and so many other reasons, there are few self-respecting horror fans who will tell you that they didn’t like The Curse of Frankenstein. 

I’ll tell you that I like it, and I mean it sincerely when I say so.  But I’ll also say that unless I’m introducing it to friends, The Curse of Frankenstein isn’t at the top of my classic horror viewing list, either, no matter how good it is.

Put the pitchforks down, villagers.  I still said it was good, and I still believe that any self-respecting horror fan needs to see it at least once.  Indeed, I’ll say the same for anyone who truly appreciates the fine art of acting, because Peter Cushing’s performance here absolutely deserves to be seen by everybody.  But much like the book that gave us these characters to begin with (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” which I also think you should read at least once), while I recognize its greatness and am glad to share it, it’s just not something I feel like going out of my way to revisit.  I have my thoughts as to why, of course.  But we’ll catch those in a minute.  First, let’s get back to this movie’s history, because in the case of The Curse of Frankenstein, perspective is important.

The innovations that turned The Curse of Frankenstein into a classic almost didn’t happen.  Originally, Hammer planned on making a traditional black and white movie, and wanted to cast Boris Karloff in his old familiar role as the creature.  Universal Studios, old home to all the classic monsters of Gothic horror, raised a stink and threatened legal action, so Hammer in turn went out of its way to make their Frankenstein picture as different from the old Universal version as possible.  Along with changing their casting plans, Hammer decided to film in color, beginning what would become their signature of vivid color productions.  They also had screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (who would later spin Horror of Dracula for Hammer) to write a story that would be very different from anything before while still retaining enough familiar pieces that the audience would recognize it.  The creature’s makeup proved an even greater challenge; the pattern hadn’t been finalized until literally the day before shooting began.  Necessity was the mother of invention here, and as it turned out, Hammer invented a gold mine.

Now let’s take a look at the story of that gold mine, shall we?

We meet Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in a prison cell.  He’s awaiting his turn at the guillotine, and has called for a priest.  The Baron isn’t calling for absolution, though; he just knows that the priest is trusted by the community, and is looking for someone, anyone who will believe his story.  The priest is reluctant at first, but finally agrees to listen.  With that, the Baron begins his tale.

The Baron tells of how he came to be the sole heir of the Frankenstein estate at a young age, and how he began a strong friendship with a certain Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), first as a tutor, then as a scientific colleague.  He then goes on to relate how, after years of work, they used electricity to bring life back to a dead dog.  While this elated Krempe, who wanted to publish a paper right away, Baron Frankenstein himself was not satisfied.  No, he wanted to do something more:

“Forget the whole.  Now we must take the part!  Limbs.  Organs.  Then we must build.”

“Build what?”

“The most complex thing known to man: man himself!”

Krempe would have none of it, but that lack of cooperation on the part of his longtime friend wouldn’t stop the Baron…

 The version of Victor Frankenstein as imagined by the pen of Jimmy Sangster is not the man you remember from anywhere else.  To both Mary Shelley and the Universal Studios version first portrayed by Colin Clive, Frankenstein is a determined and misguided scientist, but at his heart, still a decent man, and certainly no willing killer in his own right.  In The Curse of Frankenstein, however, Baron Victor Frankenstein is a downright bastard.  Oh, he’s still determined and misguided, but he’s also a calculating, manipulative murderer who has no qualms about having sex with the maid on the side and buying his friend’s silence by threatening his own fiancee’s safety.

Yes, I said having sex with the maid on the side.  I said that this movie started opening up the roads to sex in horror flicks, and I wasn’t kidding.  While everyone stays dressed and there’s nothing more explicit than a few pretty strong kisses on camera, the fact that it goes much farther than that is spelled out without question in the dialogue, which in 1957 is nothing short of scandalous.  The Baron has promised to marry her but of course has no intention of it, and when the maid finally puts two and two together and discovers that the new woman in the house is the Baron’s real fiancée, she threatens to expose the Baron, claiming that she is carrying his child.  (The fact that he doesn’t dismiss this as impossible tells you all you need to know about how far it’s gone.)  Frankenstein coldly tells her to leave and to “Pick any man in the village; chances are it will be the right one!”

This vicious coldness is made all the more effective by an absolutely marvelous performance by Peter Cushing, who takes this newly imagined Baron Victor Frankenstein and makes him his own.  Cushing would over time become well known for his sharp, energetic, and intellectually driven portrayals, but what he does here stands in a class by itself.  He plays the full range, from the harried man with nothing left to lose (in the prison) to the debonair lover (with the maid) to the calculating murderer to the obsessed scientist and beyond.  The look on his face when Frankenstein’s experiments first come to fruition is one of pure glee, but it is a glee of his own branding.  Colin Clive’s screaming declaration is legend, and deservedly so, but this character demands a different form of joy, and Cushing makes sure he has it.  Everything about this role is Cushing’s and Cushing’s alone, far more so than a simple change in story could have produced by itself.  This is one of the truly great performances of the generation, of the genre, and perhaps even of all time.

Cushing has an extensive stage to play upon, as this story focuses far more on Frankenstein and the process of his work than it does on the creature itself.  As a member of the audience, you get to see where the Baron gets the creature’s eyes, the creature’s hands, and more, along with an explanation of the logic behind it all.  The detailed approach taken here is fascinating, and allows for many opportunities to develop Frankenstein even further as a character.  His lab is also interesting; far more compact and devoid of the Tesla coils and lightning rods of old, but just as impressive in its own right.  What’s more, the audience gets to see Frankenstein at work before he creates his ultimate triumph, testing his process by resurrecting a dachshund (in what is actually something of an endearing scene).

Less successful than the Baron, however, is the creature that he will create in his lab.

Christopher Lee would, of course, become one of horror’s great icons on the stages of Hammer, but realistically, he’d do it the following year as Dracula.  While not the worst Frankenstein creature ever put to screen by any means at all, neither does Lee stand as the best.  Little of this of the great man’s fault; he doesn’t have a lot to work with.  The makeup really is quite awful looking, to the point of being clownish.  Lee has no power of speech in this film; he’s not even allowed to grunt.  He’s also apparently been told that he can’t bend his knees and has limited use of his arms, making his creature far more oafish than he should be, even almost silly.  Lee’s face is totally obscured by the makeup, so even his distinctive expressions have a hard time coming through, though Lee does manage to get just a few through on occasion, once even lending the creature some of that old sympathy even as he’s written as less of a misunderstood monster than he is a homicidal maniac.

With that said, though, Lee’s creature is easier to deal with than the character of Krempe, who fast becomes actively annoying once he and Baron Frankenstein start having their differences.  Much of this is the fault of the script, but some blame must also fall to Robert Uruqhart.  His task as the film’s moral conscience is thankless, of course, and the screenplay forces him to repeat the same old tune over and over and over again – several times too many, really, to the point where you wonder why the Baron doesn’t just kick his whiny ass out of the house – but if anything, Uruqhart does the job of playing his character too well.  The speeches were already too much and too many; Uruqhart gives them the added ingredient of delivered smarm. 

Along with the fact that it’s oftentimes difficult to take the creature seriously, it is the character of Krempe and the fact that so much screen time is devoted to him continually repeating his self righteous speeches that keeps The Curse of Frankenstein stuck on my list of movies that only come out by guest request.  (Save for my watching it again today for the purpose of this review, of course, but you’re my guest today, aren’t you?)

Krempe does, though, play a part in what is one of the finest twists in the entire film; one that comes at the very end.  But I’ll let you experience that for yourself.

And yes, despite its faults, you should experience The Curse of Frankenstein at least once if you haven’t already, and viewings as a kid don’t count.  As a horror fan, as movie fan, you owe it to yourself to have witnessed this pivotal film in motion picture history.

Bottom line, The Curse of Frankenstein is considered a classic for many reasons.  Give it a look and decide which one’s your favorite.  (Mine is Peter Cushing’s performance.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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