Hammer Films had been around for quite a while and had enjoyed considerable success with their excellent 1955 science fiction horror offering The Quatermass Xperiment but it was The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 that really put them on the map, and in the process relaunched gothic horror as a profitable movie genre.
Terence Fisher had already helmed many movies for Hammer including a couple of science fiction films and a superb and somewhat gothic-influenced film noir, Stolen Face. He was an obvious choice to direct Hammer’s most ambitious project to date. Hammer has decided to redo the most famous of the Universal monster movies of the 30s, but in colour and widescreen and with rather more sex and violence. It proved to be an extremely astute decision, and Hammer’s choice of Fisher as director and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the stars was equally inspired.
With Jimmy Sangster writing the screenplay and Bernard Robinson as production designer Hammer had assembled what was to prove a formidable creative team.
The plot of The Curse of Frankenstein does not stick too closely to Mary Shelley’s novel or to Universal’s 1931 version. Which was probably just as well. The enormous success of the film was due to the fact that it felt like a completely fresh approach to the gothic horror genre.
In this new version Baron Frankenstein’s assistant is his former tutor. Paul Krempe had been his willing collaborator until Frankenstein’s experiments started to become more extreme, and his methods more morally dubious. Paul stays only because he is afraid to leave Frankenstein’s beautiful cousin and intended bride Elizabeth alone in the house with the increasingly obsessive Baron. Paul tries to persuade Frankenstein of the danger posed by his latest experiment, the creation of an artificial creature made up of assorted body parts, but to no avail.
Paul’s efforts to stop the Baron result in damage to the brain that has been earmarked for the creature. This not only has disastrous consequences for the creature - it also pushes Frankenstein even closer to the edge of madness as he blames Paul for sabotaging his great experiment.
The most revolutionary thing about this version is Peter Cushing’s performance as Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s book and most film adaptations raise the question as to who is the real monster, Frankenstein or the creature he has created, but in this version there’s absolutely no question at all - it’s Frankenstein who is the monster.
And he’s not an idealistic scientist who gradually succumbs to the temptation to play God, nor is he a well-meaning essentially good man who slowly loses his moral compass as his experiments get out of hand. With Cushing’s Frankenstein it’s clear that the seeds of madness and evil were there right from the start. Right from the beginning of his scientific career he was prepared to pursue ends and to utilise means that were not just morally dubious - they were clearly and unequivocally immoral.
While Boris Karloff had endowed the creature with a certain dignity and made him rather sympathetic in Hammer’s version Christopher Lee’s creature is a pathetic shambling wreck, a hideous reflection of the moral vacuum in its creator’s soul. The focus in this film is entirely on Frankenstein, and on the character flaws that drive him to destruction and disaster. It’s an acting tour-de-force by Cushing. In the later Hammer Frankenstein films the Baron would at times be portrayed in more equivocal terms and Cushing arguably gave more nuanced performances but the sheer power of his performance in the 1957 film is breath-taking.
The first half hour is a little on the slow side but after that the pace picks up and Fisher is in complete control. Some of his earlier films are extremely good but it’s clear that gothic horror was the perfect genre for his talents and his mastery is already evident here.
It’s not my favourite movie of the Hammer Frankenstein cycle but it was certainly an impressive beginning.
Warner’s DVD release can’t really be faulted so far as the transfer is concerned although the lack of worthwhile extras is a little disappointing.