IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

Curse of Frankenstein - lobby card - creatureThis IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) was my 100th IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, originally published in the HWA Newsletter in December 2010.  It’s reprinted there now in the December 2014 edition of the Horror Writers Association Newsletter .

Thanks for reading.

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome to the 100th IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column.  Woo hoo!  It’s been a fun ride.  Thanks for coming along.

In honor of the occasion, let’s look at THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), Hammer Films’ first horror hit.

To make their Frankenstein movie different from the Universal 1931 original starring Boris Karloff, Hammer Films decided to concentrate more on the doctor rather than on the monster.  Enter Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein.

Hammer Films’ signing of Peter Cushing to play Victor Frankenstein in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was a major coup for the tiny studio which made low budget movies.  In the 1950s, Peter Cushing had become the most popular actor on British television.  To British audiences, he was a household name.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was Cushing’s first shot at being the lead actor in a theatrical movie, and he doesn’t disappoint.  In fact, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN belongs to Peter Cushing.  He dominates this movie and carries it on his shoulders.  He’s in nearly every scene.

Cushing succeeded in creating a character who was the perfect shade of gray, a villain who was also a hero.  He’s so convincing in this dual persona that we want to see Victor Frankenstein succeed in his quest to create life, even though he murders a few people along the way.

Peter Cushing went on to become an international superstar.  He delivered countless fine performances over the years until his death from cancer in 1994.  Yet, his performance as Victor Frankenstein in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably his best.

Like the 1931 version of FRANKENSTEIN before it, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, while based on the book by Mary Shelley, is not overly faithful to the novel and takes lots of liberties with the story.

Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) enlists the aid of his former tutor Paul (Robert Urquhart) to conduct his experiments, to “create the most complex thing known to man- man himself!”  Victor wants his creation to be “born with a lifetime of knowledge” and so he invites the brilliant Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) to his house for dinner.  After dinner, Victor promptly murders him.  Later, when Paul confronts Victor and says he’s going to stop him from using the brain, Victor replies with one of the better lines from the movie, “Why?  He has no further use for it.”

Lightning strikes and starts the lab equipment while Victor is out of the laboratory, and the Creature (Christopher Lee, also in his starring role debut) is brought to life without Victor present, saving him from an “It’s alive!” moment.

Victor opens the door to the laboratory and finds the Creature standing in the doorway alive.  In the film’s most memorable scene, the Creature rips off the mask of bandages covering his face, and the camera tracks into a violent grotesque close-up of the Creature’s hideous face.  It’s a most horrific make-up job by Phil Leakey, and it’s unique to Frankenstein movies, since in all six of the Hammer Frankenstein sequels to follow, this Creature, so chillingly portrayed by Christopher Lee, never appears again.

Lee’s Creature is a murderous beast, and he quickly escapes from the laboratory.  Victor and Paul chase him into the woods, where Paul shoots him in the head, killing him.  Or so he thinks.  Victor promptly digs up the body and brings it back to life again.

Victor performs multiple brain surgeries to improve the Creature, but eventually things get out of hand, as Paul goes to the police just as the Creature escapes again.  The film has a dark conclusion which I won’t give away here.

Over the years, Christopher Lee has been criticized for his portrayal of the Creature in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Sure, Lee’s Creature is not the Karloff monster.   However, the Creature, who appears fleetingly here and there, has an almost Michael Myers quality in this movie, a killer who creeps in the shadows, here one moment, gone the next.

Lee is scary in the role.  His Creature is an insane unpredictable being.  As the Creature, Lee doesn’t speak a word, and he hardly makes a sound, using pantomime skills to bring the character to life.  His performance has always reminded me of a silent film performance, a la Lon Chaney Sr.  Lee captures the almost childlike persona of a new creation born into the world for the first time, albeit a child that’s a homicidal maniac.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN has a great music score by James Bernard.  It’s haunting, ghastly, and memorable.

Director Terence Fisher, arguably Hammer’s best director, is at the helm here.  As he did in all his best movies, Fisher created some truly memorable scenes in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  The Creature’s first appearance is classic, one of the most memorable scenes of its kind.  The scene when Victor murders Professor Bernstein features a great stunt where Victor pushes the Professor off a second floor balcony to his death, and we actually see the stunt double hit the floor head first with a neck breaking thud.  It’s a jarring scene.  And this is 1957.

There are lots of other neat touches as well.  When Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) peers into the acid vat in which Victor has been disposing unwanted bodies and body parts, she covers her nose- a great little touch.

Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is one of his best.  Probably the best written scene is the scene where Victor tries to convince Paul how well he has trained his Creature by having the Creature stand, walk, and sit down.  Paul is unimpressed, saying “Is this your perfect physical being, this animal?  Why don’t you ask it a question of advanced physics?  It’s got a brain with a lifetime of knowledge behind it, it should find it simple!”  It’s also a great scene for Christopher Lee, as it’s one of the few times he invokes sympathy for the Creature.

But THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN sinks or swims with Peter Cushing.  Rarely has an actor delivered such a powerful performance in a horror movie.  Cushing is flawless here.  He draws you into Frankenstein’s madness and convinces you he’s right.

If I could give you one gift this holiday season, it would be to watch THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Rediscover it today, more than 50 years after it was made.  It’s time this movie received its due as one of the best ever, which isn’t news to those who saw it in 1957. After all, it was the biggest money maker in Britain that year.

One of its original lobby cards reads “THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN will haunt you forever.”

It will.

—END—

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