Halloween Countdown: 4 - The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

When I was pretty young I was given my first TV for my bedroom. It was a small TV (tiny by today’s standards), with a black and white picture, an aerial in the top that needed adjusting constantly and a rotating knob to tune in the channels. It was ancient even when I got it but I loved it. It sat at the end of my cabin bed and for a kid in the late 80s was the best thing ever. I was easily pleased.

I vividly remember listening for my parents to go to bed and then switching the little black and white TV on and sitting way to close, so I could watch it with the volume turned way down. I must have watched all kinds of things but two images stand out in my mind. The first was my introduction to Rocky, when Rocky 3 was playing late one night. The other was my introduction to Hammer and it scared the hell out of me.

I tuned in a channel and I could hear the smooth tones of, who I now know was, Peter Cushing. The picture came into focus and I see two men in period costume in heated debate. I wasn’t particularly interested but gave it a few minutes. Soon Peter Cushing storms out and walks into a lab, revealing a bandaged figure slowly lurching towards him. The figure reaches up and pulls the bandages from its face and in an instant reveals a broken and vile face. I literally jumped and turned the TV off. Yep, I chickened out and I doubt I slept well that night.

It wasn’t until years later when I saw the film again that I learned that I had been scared by Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” and Christopher Lee as the creature. Watching it now there are elements that are campy and the make-up effects haven’t aged well but I still think this film is fantastic and genuinely creepy and sinister. However, the things that affect me have changed over the years.

Film historians have credited this with two note worth distinctions. This film is the first of the very successful Cushing / Lee on screen partnership. Also, many highlight that this film brought horror back in to favour after it had declined in the 40’s and early 50’s. A film and two great actors at the start of the British re-birth of Horror.

Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein is brilliant. He is smooth but driven; almost single minded in is obsession. He also comes across as cold and calculating to such an extent that I wonder if he is a sociopath. Throughout the film he treats people as if they are solely there for his benefit, helping him reach his goal. He kills, cheats and casts people aside with no remorse. Even in the final moment he is still screaming to be believed to save his life and be appreciated for the genius he is. There is so little consideration for the people he has hurt.

Watching it now I love this choice. The easier option is to make Victor a fallen or damaged hero. He would be someone trapped in an obsession but still loves his wife and eventually regrets what he has created, someone redeemable. Not this Victor, in this film Victor is the real villain.

There three scenes that I want to mention that demonstrate how Cushing and the film portray him like a villain. The first is a small scene between Victor and his wife Elizabeth (Hazel Court) as she presses him on working with him in his lab. During their conversation Victor is placating her to keep her happy. However, as he talks about her being in his lab he is clearly examining her, considering whether her body could be used at some point. She is so fawning and naïve that Cushing being so calm is chilling.

The second is the killing of Professor Bernstein, to obtain his brain. The scene sets up that the professor has been invited over under the pretence of dinner. Victor then leads him to his room for the night but on the way stops to show him a painting. He then proceeds to ask the professor to step back to see it better and over a balcony his goes (an amazing head pounding stunt!). Cushing is so slimy as he builds up to the killing and is clearly pleased with the result. No remorse, just another step in his grand plan.

The last is towards the end of the film. We find that Victor has had the creature restrained and been performing experimental surgery on it. Its torture, nothing less and he just sees it as science advancement. He does not see the creature as human in any way at all. It is just a collection of parts that he has created and therefore can do with it whatever he wants.

He repeatedly states that all of this is in advancement of his research but there is no question that he is enjoying everything he is doing. He may be obsessed with the goal of greater knowledge but he is in love with power it gives him.

The script of the film is a bit clunky and campy in places but Cushing elevates this to a classic. Christopher Lee is fine as the creature but doesn’t have a great deal to do. His Hammer shine will come with Dracula and others. The rest of the cast are also mostly fine, Hazel Court begins to grate on me but I think that has more to do with the character and dialogue she is given rather than her acting.

Robert Urquhart plays Paul Krempe, Victors tutor and friend. He is given the sole purpose of being the voice of reason and only in a couple of scenes does he bring anything interesting to the role. On several occasions his reactions to Victor indicate he understands how dangerous not just the experiment is but the man conducting it is as well. He sees and fears the uncaring nature and knows that it will never let Victor stop.

Watching it this time I also noticed what a small film it is. Mostly due to budget I am sure but there are only a couple of sets and very few outdoor scenes. Victor’s lab is a smallish attic room rather than the grand expanse of the Universal Dr Frankenstein. Like I say, budget restraints but it adds something to the film, knowing that this creature is so close trapped in the house with the others. It makes it a little claustrophobic. It starts to represent that this is Victor’s small world; it’s all he cares about.

In summary I recommend this film. There are better Hammer films and better portrayals of Frankenstein’s Monster but Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein is brilliant. A villain I really enjoy watching and a film that still gives me chills. Hammer has started releasing a lot of their films on special edition blu-ray, which I watched, and the picture and sound quality is excellent. The colours are so lush and crisp for a film made in 1957. Track it down and give it a go.