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Often acknowledged as the most influential and successful British horror film released in the post World War II era, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) not only increased the popularity of horror films with its much more violent, highly sexualized approach but also revitalized the British film industry, establishing Hammer Studios as an internationally renown production company. The film, directed by Terence Fisher, opens with Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in jail, recounting his reprehensible tale of reanimation to a priest, and then flashes back to that fateful time before a charge of murder landed the Baron in prison.
In a catacomb of laboratories beneath his mansion, Victor Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) work on radical experiments to reanimate the dead. They start with small animals, but when Frankenstein begins talking about playing God with human beings, Paul becomes wary. When Frankenstein's beautiful, trusting fiancElizabeth (Hazel Court) comes to stay in the castle before their marriage, Paul warns her that there is danger brewing in the basement laboratories.
Plundering graveyards and procuring body parts at the Municipal Charnel House, Frankenstein assembles a creature he imagines will astound the scientific community. The only element he lacks is the brain of a genius. But the devious Frankenstein finds a way of procuring that too, killing a fellow scientist for a much-needed body part. When his demented monster, implanted with an accidentally damaged brain escapes from Frankenstein's laboratory, a reign of terror and bloodshed is unleashed across the countryside.
The Curse of Frankenstein is invested with a sense of sexual and criminal perversity rarely conveyed in the more staid and restrained movie renditions of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein (1818) novel. Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein is a study in science without conscience, and a villain who uses murder, theft and deception to realize his ambitions. Ultimately, his Frankenstein is a far more grotesque monster than the pathetic creature he assembles in his laboratory. In his private affairs, Frankenstein is a cad too, seducing his comely maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt) with a promise of marriage, while his own fiancis a guest in his house.
Cushing, largely a TV actor of some renown in Britain before being cast in this career-defining role, is exceptional as Frankenstein and brilliantly conveys the decadence lurking beneath Frankenstein's facade of an upper-crust gentleman. That gift for conveying Baron Frankenstein's complexities explains why Cushing so often appeared in Hammer productions, including an entire cycle of Frankenstein films: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974, which was also director Fisher's last film for Hammer). Cushing also appeared in Hammer productions as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Van Helsing (Dracula's nemesis) and other icons of the horror and mystery cinema.
Hazel Court, who plays Elizabeth, the baron's fianc went on to become one of the more famous scream queens in the horror cinema (Dr. Blood's Coffin (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), The Masque of the Red Death, 1964). That's her own daughter, Sally Walsh, who plays young Elizabeth in the flashbacks, and regarding her wardrobe Court revealed (in Peter Cushing by Deborah Del Vecchio and Tom Johnson) that her period dresses were "actually part of a real Victorian wardrobe that had [been] handed down over the years." The monster was played by Christopher Lee, who also made a name for himself in Hammer horror films, appearing twenty-two times alongside Cushing. Lee played a variety of monsters and fiends, from the Mummy to Dracula, from Fu Manchu to more realistic villains like Rochefort in The Four Musketeers (1974).
Lee's make-up in Curse was designed to be more realistic looking and in-keeping with the descriptions of the monster in Shelley's Frankenstein. It was also created so as not to imitate the copyrighted Jack Pierce make-up for the monster in James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein. Director Terence Fisher was once quoted as saying "We wanted a thing which looked like some wandering, forlorn mistral of monstrosity, a thing of shreds and patches."
In the biography, Hammer Horror by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, cameraman Len Harris recalled that the actual filming posed numerous risks: "We had some near-misses. When Peter Cushing pushed the professor off the balcony, we had part of the floor padded - the part where the stunt man's head (Jock Easton) should have hit. Well...he missed! Easton also doubled for Lee in the climactic fire. "This was an extremely dangerous stunt," said Harris. "We had more men with fire extinguishers on the set than you could count! They don't pay these chaps enough!"
The Curse of Frankenstein's lurid storyline is well-accentuated with the shocking colors that characterized the look of Hammer productions and was quite a dramatic departure from the black and white look of the Universal horror films. Now there were garish red pools of blood and the ghastly chalky blue face of Frankenstein's monster glows with a sickly, gory intensity.
Though critically attacked by many for its sadism and unprecedented emphasis on gore (criticism which would continue to dog the studio and undoubtedly helped advertise and attract younger audiences), The Curse of Frankenstein was a huge financial success (it only cost $250,000 to produce) and inaugurated Hammer's 10 year domination of the horror film. Once again Frankenstein's monster and other famous creatures had the power to terrify audiences anew and were no longer seen as comical as they were in the late forties when the horror genre descended into self-parody with fare like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster (based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Music: James Bernard
Cast: Peter Cushing (Baron Victor Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Creature), Hazel Court (Elizabeth), Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), Valerie Gaunt (Justine), Noel Hood (Aunt Sophia), Marjorie Hume (Mother).
by Felicia Feaster