Love Letter to Hammer Horrror: The Curse of Frankenstein

Even before Hammer, Frankenstein’s Monster was a beloved horror icon with its time at Universal.

However, once The Monster was meeting Abbott and Costello, he was a laughing stock, no longer the tragic figure he once was. He had grown out of fashion, as the great monsters of the 50’s films were coming from space or nuclear test sites.

Hammer saw something in the original Monster that was ready to be explored on the big screen again.

Director Terence Fisher brought back the seriousness to The Monster that had been robbed from him in the self-parody mentioned above, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The Curse of Frankenstein starts with the titular character, Baron Victor Frankenstein (played to perfection by Peter Cushing), due to be executed for the attempted murder of his wife. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, where we see the megalomaniacal scientist, whose obsession with creating life from parts of dead bodies will lead to the destruction of all that he holds dear.

We learn that Baron Frankenstein ( the young version played by Melvin Hayes) was orphaned at 15 and has hired a tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) with his families inheritance. Together they dedicate their lives to science, especially the quest for the revival of life.

It is the moment after Frankenstein and Paul revive a puppy where we embark on a rollercoaster ride of Frankenstein’s single-mindedness and the God-like power of controlling life and death. With the success of the dog, Frankenstein decides the next step is returning life to a man, one that is made with dead body parts. This is something that destroys his friendship with Paul.

The only reason that Paul does not leave is that Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) resides at the house and he fears for her safety. However, the Professor’s brain that was destined for The Creature (as this film refers to the monster, played by Christopher Lee), is damaged and leaves the creation not only unattractive, but a brute as well.

When The Creature escapes, he murders a child and his grandfather before Paul can destroy it. However, when Paul returns later to celebrate Frankenstein’s wedding, he discovers that The Creature is still alive and that Frankenstein is still carrying out his disgusting experiments.

All we know is that The Creature wants to kill from the moment that he is created, and that does not seem to want to change, especially when he faces Frankenstein. It seems that, beyond the rage, he has an understanding that Frankenstein is the reason that The Creature is the way he is.

Frankenstein’s experiments are nothing more than mad science. Blinded by the goal, he misses the consequences. However, perhaps it’s his noble breeding that accounts of some of his unconstrained behaviour and thoughtless callousness.

All of this leads to Frankenstein accidentally shooting his wife in the shoulder, and with innovative staging by Terence Fisher, she is unaware of The Creature’s existence. Therefore, as far as Elizabeth is concerned, Frankenstein purposely tried to kill her.

In a strange mirror with the original Universal films, The Curse of Frankenstein made a horror icon of the leading man. Hammer does this with both of its top male stars.

Christopher Lee is brilliant as The Creature, but Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Baron Frankenstein is nothing short of majestic, and this led to him reprising the role in The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and Frankenstein and The Monster From Hell.

Both Peter Cushing and Melvyn Hayes give us performances that we believe in. Frankenstein’s bold urges and diabolical triumphs through his brutal self-confidence, Cushing has a range from obsessive cruelty to hysterical ranting. But, it is more what Cushing does not say that speaks volumes – from absent-mindedly wiping blood off his well-tailored coat to running around pulling levers. The coldest moment of the breakfast exchange between Frankenstein and his fiancée after leaving his discarded mistress with The Creature is remarkable.

As well as The Curse of Frankenstein giving Hammer Horror a style, it did the same to Peter Cushing. The close-ups of those piercing eyes would continue to be used throughout his career. As in the case when Frankenstein is listening to a puppy’s heartbeat, making the audience view and feel through his eyes.

Praise must also to be given to Christopher Lee and his raw performance and spirit in The Curse of Frankenstein. This performance is the most obvious in the troubling scene where Frankenstein treats The Creature worse than a dog, and then triumphantly showing The Creature’s pathetic attempts to sit down as a medical miracle.

While it was a deliberate decision to make The Monster look closer to the way it is described in the book, it was also partially because Universal had patented the square-faced, bolt in neck ghoul look. The pasty-white scarred face of this Hammer classic is not only just as iconic, but much more terrifying.

The Curse of Frankenstein is a coming together of several talented people, not only Terence Fisher and the actors, but James Bernard’s score, Bernard Robinson’s set design, and Jack Asher colour palette.

There is a sense of troubling underbelly to Frankenstein, which is taunted in the music. James Bernard’s score is composed of rising strings mixed with thundering woodwind and brass, yet another staple which will become as much a part of Hammer Horror as the visuals.

Terence Fisher has taken the viewer for a tour around Frankenstein’s home, which comes across as a little dutiful, especially the weak wedding scene. We are taken all for the ride by Paul and Frankenstein’s enthusiasm and are enthralled by their Creature creation. Jack Asher’s use of green and red is not only a representative use in the film but very different from the way films had previously been coloured.

Some scenes are dramatic and have the feel of British tenacity, whereas it would have tried to succeed in atmosphere and mood and little else. And as mentioned, despite its lack in gore, it is still a disturbing, albeit it not terrifying film, but a feast for the eyes as the film’s style is remarkable.

Bernard Robinson overcomes all expectations and makes the laboratory look as expensive as possible – another theme of Hammer Horror films to come. The Curse of Frankenstein takes baby steps into the horror before gathering momentum which became a new norm in horror films. We have the frame of prologue and epilogue, with the everything else being revealed over flashbacks.

We also see flashes of Terence Fisher’s humour within The Curse of Frankenstein. This is repeated in Dracula, The Hounds of the Baskervilles and The Brides of Dracula. The script does not appear to understand its characters, however, which leaves Elizabeth just sitting around instead of exploring the obviously weird goings on in the laboratory.

Hazel Court seems to solely be there for her ample cleavage, which becomes another Hammer Horror staple – although, Hazel is terrific with what she was given. The other female character, a maid called Justine (Valerie Gaunt), is also there for sex appeal, giving The Creature a victim, but also to establish that Frankenstein is a rascal.

Producer Anthony Nelson Keys brought with him production designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher. Along with Terence Fisher and Len Harris, the camera operator, they had, without realising it, created a formula for Hammer Horror which has a continuing legacy and is an essential part of British Cinema. However, it is not one of my favourite Hammer Horrors. There is a too much dinner table dialogue and Paul, as a character, is slightly annoying.

For Hammer, the film was a great success, but it was berated by critics for its gore and sleaze, which feels weak to a modern audience.

Ultimately, you may make comparisons between Hammer’s and Universal’s Frankenstein films. Hammer’s portrayal is much more realistic than Universal’s, as the 1931 was influenced by German Expressionism, although Hammer’s films are not without atmosphere.

The other main difference is that the Universal film focuses on The Monster. In contrast, Hammer focuses on the scientist, and it is Peter Cushing’s portrayal as Frankenstein that made these films famous.

For me, both are notable films, but the fact that Hammer’s follows Frankenstein and not The Monster is what makes it the superior one.

By Beverley Price

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