Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Curse Of Frankenstein

I'd like to take a quick moment to point out that this review marks my 44th Chainsawnukah 2013 review, finally surpassing last year's 43 entries. And, uh, I still got like 10 more to go. Maybe I overdid it a little this year.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Christopher Lee

CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is Hammer’s very first attempt at a horror movie, and the one which started them on their long roller coaster ride of Dracula sequels, Cushing/Lee teamups, gothic horror, psychological thrillers and, eventually --inevitably-- kung-fu vampires. It marks a first for pretty much everything Hammer would eventually become known for: stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, adaptations of classic horror literature, gothic atmosphere filmed in vivid color, and, of course, at-the-time boundary-pushing violence and depravity which now seems pretty quaint. But never fear! Just like with HORROR OF DRACULA, Hammer entrusted their flagship horror property to Terence Fisher, who’d managed to rack up an impressive 26 films as director since 1948 but who would really come into his own by creating the archetypical Hammer horror film.

I say archetypical instead of prototypical because nothing about CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN feels half-formed or clunky. Though the punishingly low budget doesn’t allow for a ton of action, Fisher manages to create a serious and troubling take on Shelley’s Frankenstein which gets plenty of mileage from the expected story beats but also offers a new and genuinely fresh perspective on the tale.

Of course, for whatever reason it doesn’t seem like any film version of Frankenstein really follows the novel very closely*, which is a shame since Shelley’s original story is obviously better than anyone anyone has subsequently come up with. But this one is particularly unique for keeping many of the fundamentals intact, but changing one major thing: here, Baron Frankenstein himself is clearly the villain. The way this fact subtly alters the entire focus of the story makes it a rather remarkable entry into the Frankenstein cannon.

Now I know, I know, Frankenstein himself has always been something of an ambiguous character. Various depictions offer different levels of sympathy, but the thing they all have in common is that Frankenstein is, at best, a victim of his own hubris, a man who chose to meddle in God’s domain and so invited calamity. Frankenstein, maybe more than any other fictional book, has probably inspired the tiresome cliche about the dangers of “playing god” as represented in THE FLY, JURASSIC PARK, THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, INVISIBLE MAN, and so forth. These movies suggest there are some things man is simply not meant to know, and exploring beyond these boundaries is in itself an act of evil. But you know, the actual Shelley novel is much more complicated than that; as we learned from GOTHIC, it’s not so much about areas that man was not “meant” to meddle in, but rather the moral horror of creation and responsibility. Victor Frankenstein isn’t in error for pursuing his scientific curiosity, but rather for failing to take responsibility for its consequences. It is Frankenstein’s rejection of his creature, not his creation of it, which ultimately causes things to turn out so poorly for all concerned parties. It’s about the responsibility we take on when we create life, and the destruction caused if that responsibility is shirked or corrupted (in fact, it’s almost like PROMETHEUS, but with better scientists. And not brain-deadeningly idiotic.). It is, I’ve always thought, actually a uniquely female perspective on horror, particularly considering Mary Shelley’s own anxieties associated with motherhood (she had a series of miscarriages and infant deaths).

Well, ok, Fisher’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN doesn’t do that, but it does offer an interesting perspective on what the moral hazard here is. If Shelley was interested in man’s obligation to his creations, Fisher, in a perfect example of a theme that runs throughout much of his work, is interested in science’s obligation to man. Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein isn’t condemned simply by the nature of his work, but rather because in his pursuit of science he has lost his humanity.

It doesn’t begin that way though; Jimmy Sangster (THE HORROR OF DRACULA)’s script begins with Victor Frankenstein as an orphaned (but still wealthy) youth hiring a tutor to aid him in his education. The man for the job seems to be Paul Krempe (Robert Urqhuart), a brilliant but kindly scientist who becomes first Victor’s teacher and then his partner as the young man grows into a sharp and ambitious 20-something (hilariously played by Cushing, 10 years Urqhuart’s senior). Krempe (a character invented for this movie version, although I suppose there is some crossover with Shelley’s Henry Clerval) is amazed at Victor’s intellect, and believes they have achieved their crowning glory when they find a means to restore life to adorable puppies (and presumably everything, everywhere). But Victor isn’t satisfied, he won’t be happy until he can create his own life, and when Krempe balks, he resorts to surprisingly nasty methods of getting his way.

This transition is especially interesting, because Hammer usually cast Cushing as the good guy, and for the first section of the movie he appears --if misguided-- at least comparable to other iterations of the character who are doomed by their hubris and not their innately despicable character. But as things go along, Victor’s evil escalates and eventually he’ll cross lines beyond which we can’t support him anymore (fortunately, Urqhuart’s Krempe is a likeable foil for him so the audience still has someone to identify with). Before long, he has a few murders under his belt and is using his monstrous creation (Christopher Lee in a Ringo wig and paper maché whiteface) to dispose of anyone he finds inconvenient. Interestingly, this version of the story has Krempe, rather than Victor, trying to destroy the monster over Victor's strenuous protests; it would almost turn the moral on it’s head, except that Victor is too sociopathic to care about the monster beyond using him as a tool. In fact, Krempe’s desire to destroy it seems almost like a kindness to the creature, who through Lee’s portrayal comes across as a genuine abomination, an unthinking juggernaut who reacts violently out of the pain and horror of his own unceasing existence.

It's Cushing’s portrayal of Victor, however which makes the film especially interesting, because neither the actor nor the script identifies a clear point when Victor becomes a monster. I think he’s been one all along, but not in the usual horror villain kind of way. Cushing never plays Victor as as malicious or overwhelmingly egomaniacal, nor is there much evidence that Victor is doing what he’s doing for particularly selfish reasons. He’s just a coldly intelligent obsessive, and he’s more than smart enough to rationalize his own horrific actions to himself. Even at the end, when Victor is locked up and awaiting execution, he seems to believe he’s the victim here and is shocked that no one seems to understand his story. When things finally unravel for him, it’s obviously richly deserved but it’s also almost shockingly harsh; I think he genuinely never realized that he’s the villain of this story.

That’s a lot to chew on, which is good because as I said there’s not a lot of action to be had; most scenes are of well-dressed European men smoking pipes in sitting rooms and talking about ideas. Christopher Lee (hired mainly for his height) isn’t in it much, doesn’t have much of a character to play and their last-minute makeup job (altered from the original design because Universal threatened to sue for mimicking their iconic Karloff version) isn’t especially memorable. And there are a few awkward moments and ideas that don’t go anywhere, perhaps the result of the tiny budget and script rewrite (Sanger actually adapted it from an original treatment by Amicus founders Max Rosenberg and Milton Sobotsky, which was also ruled too similar to the Universal version).

But you know, there definitely is something genuinely disturbing happening here. Audiences at the time were shocked by its grotesque images and (now pretty tame) violence, but I’d wager that it’s the film’s unnerving take on the title character that made these elements seem more perverse. Terence Fisher spent much of his career exploring the middle ground between science and religion, and for that reason I think his vision of Victor Frankenstein --as a man who has completely left his human compassion behind him in the pursuit of scientific endeavor-- is a particularly salient target for him. Screen villains in this sort of film are usually of the mustache-twirling, speechifying variety, and it’s extremely disconcerting to cast charismatic Cushing as a character with many likable qualities who still goes this far over the line. Lots of people erroneously believe the monster to be named Frankenstein, and I suppose that’s reasonable considering how thoroughly he dominates most films that bear his name. He’s a great marquee heavy, sure, but at the end of the day he’s just another lumbering killer, the object of our fears and maybe to some degree our sympathy, but always comfortably distinct from us and our own lives. Fisher’s film, though, revived his legacy by focusing on the other monster in the story. And this time his name really is Frankenstein. And the scariest thing about him is not his monstrous appearance, but rather how closely he resembles us.

* (1973’s FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY may come closest, though Branagh’s 1994 version has its 




  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yep, of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
  • SEQUEL: The first of five loose sequels and one satiric film by Hammer. Most had Cushing, but only this one has Lee as the monster.
  • REMAKE: Not yet.
  • HAMMER STUDIOS: Yes sir, key early Hammer horror.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Early starring roles for Cushing and Lee.
  • BOOBIES: Nah, later Hammers would get into that, but it's too early for it here.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: Severed head, check. Think there might be an arm too.
  • ZOMBIES: .... I guess Frankenstein doesn't quite count.
  • CURSES: No, despite the title there's no evidence of a curse.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, historically important and a hit at the time.

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