Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Peter Cushing is Victor Frankenstein in the impressive first entry to Hammer's Frankenstein series. UK R2 Warner Brothers DVD.

The Film

Getting Hammer's first Frankenstein film, and their first pure horror film, to the screen, was a long process. It all began with two Americans: Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg who had written a script for a film adaptation of the famous Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley. Unable to find any backing in the USA, they sent their script to Hammer films. It was met with scepticism at first, the script being overly short and poorly annotated; once these issues were solved, Hammer had the bigger problem of rights concerns. Although the original novel had fallen into the public domain - making the title and storyline free for the picking - any references to themes concocted by Universal for their Frankenstein films (1931 - 45) were still protected and would be met with heavy lawsuits. Eventually Jimmy Sangster, at that time a production assistant, but soon to become Hammer's main script writer, was to re-write the entire script - Hammer going as far to obtain prints of the Universal films to ensure that there was no plagiarism. Subotsky and Rosenberg, disquieted by the dumping of their script, went on to found their own company, Amicus pictures, who in the 1960s and early 1970s were to strongly rival Hammer in the British horror film business.

The story is told as a flashback - Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) making a gaol-cell confession to a priest. It all begins with a young Victor who after the death of his mother is left orphaned, but also Baron of the Frankenstein estate. Fed up with the available schooling he hires a private tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) and when Victor has learnt all that Paul can teach, they work together to push the boundaries of science further. Eventually we find them in an attic laboratory bringing life to a dead dog. Although Krempe is satisfied with this discovery, Victor is ruthless and wants to push further - his goal, to create life from scratch. Without a second thought he cuts down a hanged body and finding the head too far damaged for his means, discards it in a bath of acid. Krempe is horrified by this, and is set to leave when Victor's cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court), to whom he is betrothed, arrives to live with Victor. Concerned for her safety and sanity, Paul makes it his job to persuade her to leave but she refuses to do so. Meanwhile Victor has brought his creature (Christopher Lee) into horrific life, even going as far as to kill promenant scientist Professor Bernstein that he might acquire his brain - although the brain is damaged when Paul desperately tries to stop Victor from using it. With a damaged brain, the creature is not the benevolent being that Victor had envisaged and after attacking him, it escapes into the woods and after a brutal encounter with a blind man and his son, is shot to death by Paul. Satisfied that the creature is no more, Krempe departs the household - but without his mentor to control him, Victor is able to continue his work anew and restore life to the horrible creature...

To anyone who expects a Frankenstein story to be adapted straight from the book, Hammer's film is certainly not the place to look; changes to the story from the original Mary Shelley novel (1818 and 1831) are so numerous that it is easier to mention the elements that are retained. Most of the lead characters are named after characters in the novel, although Victor's favourite tutor here (Krempe) was his less preferred tutor at University in the novel, while Justine becomes a simple maid with no family links - although her suffering in this film is not much less than that in the novel, Elizabeth is here but as a cousin (as per the 1818 novel, rather than the family friend she became in Shelley's 1831 rewrite). Victor is very interestingly written, while Shelley's character started off mechanical and determined, after the creation he became depressed and emotional; Sangster's Baron (curiously an orphan) retains the mechanical, determined attitude throughout the story, showing almost complete indifference to ethical concerns, and even to Elizabeth's presence. Victor's creation never has a chance to become the linguist of the book, as he is kept locked up throughout, and is far more animalistic.

Most of the other details from the text are changed - the blind man, the creature's escape, the flashback story telling and even the wedding night climax are all present, but in noticably altered forms.  Even the setting is different; although the original Subotsky script had Victor travelling to University to pursue his studies, the Sangster script compresses all the action to Victor's house - no doubt in consideration of the very low budget for the picture. Although trying to avoid any links to the 1931 Universal film or its sequels, the theme of the bad brain explaining the monster's violence, not present in the novel, is retained - although rather than a criminal brain being used as in the earlier film, Frankenstein is forced to use a damaged 'intellectual' brain.

Hammer's first horror film looks fantastic in 
glorious Eastmancolor. Director Terence Fisher and cameraman Jack Asher are able to fill their frame with magnificently colourful sets - in particular Victor's lab which is a plethora of test tubes and electronic equipment. This stands in contrast to the often very elaborate laboratory sets featured in film adaptations and it does give the film a surprisingly realistic edge, compared to the more fantastic atmosphere of the Universal films. Although the camerawork is generally routine, a few good tracking shots help to build tension, and the reveal of the creature is a magnificent moment that even 50 years on can still bring a chill. This scene, and the movie as a whole, are aided by a strong James Bernard score that helps to ratchet up the tension when necessary, and provide a good background to the film as a whole.

The 1950s were still conservative times, and the censors at the BBFC forced numerous changes and cuts to the film, in particular the attack by the creature on the blind man and his son - this sequence is now merely suggested. However, Hammer were able to get some violent scenes past the censors and we get to see slight detail of Victor's work as well as the gunshot wounds the creature sustains. It is still possible to see where a brief shot was cut out as Victor disposes of the highwayman's head into the acid. Fortunately intial concerns that the creature itself would not be able to be shown on-screen are assuaged and we get plenty of shots of the impressively made-up Christopher Lee.

Curse of Frankenstein represented the start of one of the best partnerships in horror movie history as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made their breakthroughs into cinema. Cushing had, until that point, been a famous name only on British television - notably in the BBC production of 1984 (1952) - as well as on the stage in various Shakespearian roles. However by the mid-1950s, these roles were drying up as new 'reactionary' theatre was becoming vogue. Seeing that Hammer studios were casting for a film version of Frankenstein his agent contacted the studio, who had already been considering him for the role. Cushing gives a standout performance as Victor and convincingly pulls off his character whom he describes as not being evil, but so driven that he is not prepared to let anything stand in his way. A very detailed method actor, Cushing took pains to study elements of the anatomical sciences that his character was so versed in, and to keep his props authentic. Christopher Lee was appearing in his 42nd film by this point, but had no name value and was cast merely because of his desired stature. Despite not having any lines, and with facial expressions impossible behind several layers of make-up, it was his body acting that makes an impression - and he successfully gives the appearance of one who is unfamiliar with his body and his limbs. Although outplayed by Cushing and Lee, the rest of the cast also give solid performances -
Robert Urquhart and Hazel Court are very strong as Paul and Elizabeth.

Hammer's film makes substantial alterations to the original story, but these are very well written, and with impressive production and a fantastic leading duo, it is a strong, highly recommended film - a good start to the Hammer Frankenstein series to follow, and certainly of interest to fans of Frankenstein movies.

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Peter Cushing - Hammer's biggest name, world famous for a short but key role in Star Wars (1977)
Christopher Lee - Euro-cult star in the 1960s, recently in the Lord of the Rings  (2001-2003) series.
Directed by anyone interesting? Terence Fisher - Hammer film mainstay.
Is it scary?Not really. Some scenes may still raise a chill.
Any violence? Some brief fight scenes and a little blood, but most of the violence is merely implied.
Any sex? No.
Who is it for?
All cult/horror film fans should enjoy this. A must for fans of Hammer or Frankenstein films.
Good soundtrack? James Bernard with a distinctive orchestral score.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.85:1. Anamorphically Enhanced. Colour
The picture quality is very good with only some very light grain throughout.
Audio Original English mono - Dolby Digital - sounds great, no hiss.
German and French dubs are included.
Subtitles English, English HOH, German, German HOH, Swedish, Danish, Norweigan, Greek, Turkish, Arabic.
Run TimeMain Feature: 1hr 19m 47s (PAL)
Extras The disc features:
  • Original Theatrical trailer - 2m 14s - 4:3 pillarboxed within anamorphic frame, some print damage.
  • Very brief cast and crew list.
Region Region 2 - PAL
Other regions? Identical release in USA and Australia. USA disc has additional onscreen text notes, no other differences.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. Print used is English language.



Bibliography - books used in compiling this article.

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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 24th January 2006, updated Jan 6th 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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