Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart & Melvyn Hayes
In the early decades of cinema, Universal had a monopoly on monster movies. With such hits as FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and THE WOLF MAN (along with the many sequels that followed), any studio that dared to compete with the company would have their work cut out for them. Hammer studios went to great lengths in order to get a fresh, new take on Mary Shelley’s beloved horror classic onto the big screen. Since the rights of the film belonged to Universal (as well as the title), Hammer was forced to make a Frankenstein movie that wouldn’t simply be called FRANKENSTEIN. Instead, they made THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and weren’t allowed to simply duplicate elements from the 1931 film. What resulted would be a monster hit (pardon the pun), launch a new horror movement (Hammer horror), and introduce Christopher Lee (who was cast because of his height, though he had starred in over 30 films up to that point in time) to the mainstream. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a highly entertaining monster movie that is required viewing for fans of old-school horror.
We open with a priest visiting the disheveled Victor Frankenstein in prison. Frankenstein is going to be executed in a matter of hours for murder. He rambles and raves that he didn’t commit the crime that he’s been accused of and instead, the death was the result of something else entirely. We flash back to see Frankenstein’s story unfold. The genius scientist, aided by his tutor, Paul, becomes obsessed with creating life. After bringing a dog back from the dead, Victor is convinced that he can create man, much to the horror of Paul. What follows is an insane quest to bring a man to life, but the undead creation turns out to be a monster. Whilst Victor pursues his experiments, Paul becomes increasingly unnerved by the mad scientist’s behavior. You can pretty much guess where this goes. It’s FRANKENSTEIN. You know this story.
Thus far it seems that the only faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is 1994’s underrated retelling (though I’ve also heard that a certain miniseries is quite faithful). Universal’s 1931 take on the material kept the basic gist of the tale and then crafted it into a short, concise little horror flick (that worked wonders on the public upon release). Hammer’s 1957 version aims to tell the story with new twists in the plot and a thick atmosphere. The sets of this film are elegantly crafted and look beautiful. There’s a sense of classiness surrounding the whole film, even if this version is far more violent than the 1931 movie. I was surprised by how much this film actually showed, especially given the time period that it was made. We see blood (obvious red paint) and gory severed body parts. It’s not like the film is overly excessive in its violence, but I was slightly shocked by how much they got away with in 1957.
Peter Cushing (primarily known for TV work at the time) plays Victor Frankenstein as a villainous character. It’s the most evil interpretation of the scientist that I’ve seen in any of the adaptations. While most versions of the story paint him as a crazy scientist paving a road to hell with good intentions, Cushing plays him as a cold, calculating and cruel son-of-a-bitch. He’s monstrous to those around him and only gives off friendliness when it best suits his needs. As far as Frankenstein’s monster is concerned, Christopher Lee does a great job of being menacing without ever saying a word. He occasionally grunts, but he’s more of a blood-thirsty creature than the misunderstood monster that so many other versions paint him as. Also, the make-up work is top-notch and fairly graphic (decaying pieces of skin and a glazed dead eye). The only redeemable protagonist comes in Robert Urquhart as Paul. He’s thoroughly enjoyable as Victor’s tutor and it’s a pity that he didn’t star in more Hammer films after this one.
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn’t simply a quick cash-in on a familiar horror classic. Instead, Hammer’s take on the material takes things in a darker, more violent direction, but still manages to maintain a certain classiness. The film can drag in a couple of spots, but each frame is beautiful to behold. There’s a spooky atmosphere hovering over every scene and the decidedly different versions of Victor Frankenstein and his creation are still refreshing to this day. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is well worth checking out!