The Curse of Frankenstein
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is quite clearly a ludicrous adage in the main, yet Hammer’s pivotal The Curse of Frankenstein certainly seemed immune to the sharply negative assessments by the major commentators and critics of the film prior to its release in 1957. “Among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have encountered” was the gravely damning opinion of The Observer at the time, but it seems that the film-going community of the period craved repulsion, as the viewing figures spoke volumes about the public’s appetite for Hammer’s interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic horror novel.
The benefit of hindsight should perhaps make us sympathetic to the harsh scribblings of these conservative critics, but it does seem that they were spectacularly wrong on a raft of counts, as the film stands as not only one of Hammer’s most important entries to their own catalogue, but also as one of the most significant films in horror history.
The Curse of Frankenstein heralded a new dawn for Hammer; having enjoyed success with the sci-fi horror of The Quatermass Xperiment (an early receiver of the new ‘X’ certificate, and a badge worn with some pride by the film-makers, even at that early stage), the studio was keen to capitalise on the public’s desire for films with such darker themes, and they set about to make a modest black and white entry featuring the legendary yet somewhat long in the tooth actor, Boris Karloff. The film would be distinctly different in its approach to the great Universal films of the thirties starring the great actor, lest Hammer found themselves in undesirably hot legal water after the film’s release, but eventually these plans were dropped, and the decision to feature a new actor as Frankenstein’s cursed creation was one of the most crucial decisions to be made in British horror film history.
In fact, there would be two new faces – to Hammer, at least – for this early foray into the type of Gothic horror which would soon become synonymous with the Hammer label and many of its stars. With the plan to feature Karloff discarded, the serious business of casting eventually gained some momentum, and Bernard "Carry On…" Bresslaw was a name which was suggested. However, a gentleman called Christopher Lee was the actor who eventually landed the role of the wretched monster, with the Hammer team feeling that the unusually sized man fitted their desire for a man of such physical presence, with experience of “movement and mime”. There are also rumours which suggest that Lee’s minimum price was slightly lower than that of Bresslaw, and as such he landed the role with the cost conscious studio. The other new face was a gentleman – in every sense of the word – called Peter Cushing, an actor who had carved out a successful, award-winning television career with the BBC in productions such as Pride and Prejudice, and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Cushing took the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein, and his decision to appear (alongside Christopher Lee) in the first British horror film to be filmed in colour is surely one of the most significant decisions in British horror film history, with Cushing, Lee, and the Hammer team triggering a new dawn of British horror which would shape the genre for years to come.
It must surely be perplexing to a modern horror fan unacquainted with horror films of the thirties, forties, and fifties, to consider what, exactly, critics found so distasteful and repulsive about a film which to a balanced, modern pair of eyes seems utterly dignified. Indeed, much of the delightful appeal of The Curse of Frankenstein is its depiction of the upright behaviours and manners demonstrated by the characters of the period. And furthermore, it’s especially ironic that the critics should suggest that a film with Mr Cushing in could possibly be repulsive in any way; Cushing behaved with absolute dignity both in his film roles and outside, and his resolute gentility and dignity is surely unparalleled at that time or since.
However, when considered within the context of the period, and comparing the film to the back catalogue of horror which preceded it, it is possible to identify a number of triggers which would have upset the sensitive critics of the time. Primarily, the delivery of the horror in the new medium of colour must have delivered quite a blow to viewers previously accustomed to bloodshed and horror being diluted by the limited format of black and white. And cinematographer Jack Asher, who treated much of the film as an exciting new experiment in the emerging colour format (in this instance provided by Eastman Colour), revels in the vibrant reds and glowing greens of the piece, lending an excitingly (and fittingly) lurid edge to the cautionary tale, and breathing as much life into the colour film format as Baron Frankenstein breathes into his poor, doomed monster creation.
Our delicate critics may also have been offended by a couple of grisly moments which seem innocuous by today’s standards, but which would have packed quite a punch at the time. One such example is when the cold Baron unwraps a handkerchief with a pair of severed hands within, and another concerns the insertion of a head into an acid bath for quick and effective disposal. This latter scene was considered unsuitable for British audiences, and as such it didn’t make it in unexpurgated format to the theatrical versions which British audiences would have enjoyed.
Perhaps what really upset the critics was the approach Hammer took to retelling Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale about man’s interference with nature, and the grave warning the story delivers against man trying to perform acts which are assigned to God. Those familiar with the 1818 novel and its history will be aware that, ironically, the novel was poorly received by critics upon its initial (anonymous) release, and in an intriguing parallel to Hammer’s film, it was almost immediately successful, despite the negative reviews. Where the Jimmy Sangster-penned screenplay departs from Shelley’s Frankenstein is in its depiction of not only the obsessive Victor Frankenstein, but also of his monster. Shelley’s rendering of both characters was imbued with a heavy quotient of sympathy; Frankenstein himself was misguided, rather than evil, and his obsessive desire to create life was the root cause of his eventual doom. Similarly, Frankenstein’s monster – innocent of any crime as he was brought into existence by the doctor – was a character to be pitied rather than despised, and Shelley showed him to be – initially, at least – a creature capable of sensitivity and an articulate voice, though his eventual self-realisation and his treatment at the hands of terrified locals drives him to acts of terrible rage and vengeance.
Sangster’s story is completely devoid of sympathy for ‘Baron’ Frankenstein. The moneyed and prodigiously intelligent scientist is entirely cold, despite his education with the affable and pliable professor Paul Krempe, and as his work begins to show signs of eventual fruit, we realise he will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve the goal of his life’s work. The monster itself is shown a little more sympathy, especially in a particularly harrowing scene where the Baron leads Krempe to see his ‘creation’ chained up in his laboratory, and the cruel, insensitive Baron barks orders at the monster, forcing him to sit down and stand up at his command. Yet at no time do we root for the cause of the monster, as he shows himself capable of mindless, unthinking violence whenever faced with human life. Far from the thinking and intelligent monster of Shelley’s story, this imagining of the ghastly creation is one of a shell housing a crude collection of uncontrolled instincts.
For all of these issues which may have led the critics to their damning conclusions, it is still unimaginable to believe that they could not see how imaginative, how well crafted, and how progressive this new colour vision of Gothic horror really was. It’s not just that Terence Fisher’s direction is impeccable from start to finish, or that the pacing is handled in such a way as to keep you utterly absorbed throughout, or that Cushing and Lee deliver performances which are absolutely superb (the afore-mentioned scene with Cushing’s Baron and Lee’s monster in the laboratory is chilling as they play their roles with utter conviction). With The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer seized the Gothic horror genre, applied the new medium of colour to it, and managed to avoid creating a picture which was stale or derived, whilst also managing the application of colour with impressive aplomb. The construction of the crazed Baron’s laboratory is dazzling, and utterly bereft of any clues which may point towards the modest £65,000 budget which the film was made for; Hammer’s uber-efficient film-making machine was in full force at Bray Studios, and this film shines so much more brightly than its budget would seemingly allow.
Another success rising above the constraints of the limited budget was that of Christopher Lee’s terrifying appearance as the monster. Keen not to emulate the image of Universal’s imagining of the monster from the thirties, and keen not to end up with any legal difficulties from that quarter, make-up artist Phil Leakey eschewed the right-angles and thick bolts of the earlier monster, and created something far more organic, more gruesome, and ultimately – more terrifying. Leakey tried a number of designs before arriving at the final decision, and whilst this design was rushed in at the last minute after Leakey had experimented with a number of other ideas, the image of Lee as the monster created a new, gruesome edge which was surely a substantial driver of the success of the new Frankenstein picture.
The reveal of this more gruesome vision of the monster constitutes the most impressive part of the film, and this scene delivers one of the most exhilarating moments in Hammer horror history, with the camera zooming in on Lee’s exposed face as Cushing stands before him with a combination of awe, euphoria, and fear. To a 1957 audience, this must have seemed extremely frightening, and even to a modern audience, it’s a chilling moment which marks a pivotal moment in the film.
Whilst The Curse of Frankenstein is an extremely important film, and a compelling one too, it certainly isn’t flawless, though not for the primary reasons those early critics cited. One aspect which is particularly conspicuous to a modern viewer is the film’s treatment of women. The female characters here are relegated to flat, functional roles; Hazel Court looks and sounds extremely charming as Elizabeth, yet she is not given the scope to build a truly engaging character, and Valerie Gaunt performs well as the mistress of the cruel and flippant Baron, but is depicted as a gullible woman unable to see any wrong in the Baron – until it’s too late.
The other issue is with Robert Urquhart, playing the Baron’s tutor, Paul Krempe. Urquhart is a likeable and comfortable screen presence, and in the main he performs well, but there are a few moments where it feels his conviction is not complete, and some of his early lines are timed in such a way that feels a little stilted. It is said that Urquhart – perhaps as a result of the initially negative reception fostered by the critics – became uncomfortable with the film at later stages of its evolution and made mention of its ‘salaciousness’, and it’s perhaps some early stirrings of these reservations which filter through to his on-screen performance during some phases of the film.
Overall though, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of The Curse of Frankenstein in British horror film history (or, indeed, horror film history per se), and not only did the film progress two incredible horror acting careers in the form of Lee and Cushing, nor did it just demonstrate exactly what could be done inside the horror genre with the new medium of colour, but it also obliterated the damning reports of the critics, and showed how new techniques and brave, efficient, intelligent filmmaking could change the face of an entire genre.
Cushing returned for Hammer in the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and reprised his role as the Baron in the successful 1958 sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein. Shortly before, in early 1958, Fisher, Cushing, and Lee had reunited to create Dracula, a reworking of Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel.
Lionsgate have clearly invested a lot of time and effort into this Blu-ray release of Hammer’s pivotal 1957 classic. The film arrives in a 3 disc package, composed of a single Blu-ray and 2 x DVD discs. The split across the discs can be summed up as follows; the Blu-ray contains two versions of the film, the first in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the second in 1.66:1, plus all extras (including an audio commentary). The first DVD contains the two versions of the film in the different aspect ratios, plus the audio commentary. The second DVD contains all of the extras. There is also a PDF booklet on the second DVD with text by Hammer archivist Robert J.E. Simpson, but I only received a Blu-ray check disc so am unable to comment in this area.
I imagine that the aspect ratio question will raise the most interest and debate from fans and purists, and it will certainly make a difference as to which aspect ratio you select. The 1.37:1 ratio is known as the ‘Academy’ ratio and is a previously unreleased presentation of the film. When viewing the film in this aspect ratio, expect to see a ‘squarer’ image with larger black bars framing the film from the left and right of the image. This is the default presentation of the film on the disc, and this version appears to better represent the size and shape of the film.
Some modern viewers may prefer the 1.66:1 version, which presents the film in a wider format which will be more familiar, though this will presumably be objectionable to the purists, as the image itself is subject to some cropping, to accommodate the ratio without stretching the image, and the 1.37:1 version certainly enjoys improved definition. Please see a comparison of a still from the film below, in both formats, as this demonstrates the cropping of the image at the top and bottom when viewing using 1.66:1.
Both versions of the film benefit from 1080p resolution, and whilst the aspect ratio varies, the content of the film is the same. The codec used for the transfer is MPEG-4 AVC, and whilst some may have suggested that additional compression may have been used to accommodate the enormous amount of content contained on this disc, it is my understanding that this is not the case. For those who may be interested here, you may wish to know that the total disc content amounts to 37.7Gb, with each version of the film accounting for approximately 14.4Gb.
Analysis of the image itself is problematic. This is an early expedition into colour filmmaking, and as such, the source material is going to be showing many signs of age, both in terms of its physical age, and also in terms of the technology used at the time. The film is transferred from an interpositive, and in terms of extraneous dirt or interference, it is surprisingly clean, although there does seem to be some sort of minor noise dancing at the top left of the screen for a substantial period of time.
What’s difficult to judge is the strength of the colour itself in the image, and the accuracy. It seems as if efforts have been made to allow the source material to breathe, and for the release to accurately represent the film as it would have been presented at the time, with a substantial level of natural grain. The colour depth in the image feels quite anaemic though, especially at the early stages of the film, and certain other transfers of similar material from the surrounding period enjoy substantially stronger representation of colour, and a sharper image definition; at times, the image becomes a little blurred, though one might argue that the high definition format is exposing the flaws in the source material of the time.
That said, Jack Asher’s stunning cinematography ensures that the reds and greens of this picture are strong and vibrant, and in the laboratory scenes where the reds are so abundantly apparent, this transfer does come to life in a way which is absent during the earlier phases. Your view on the image quality will vary depending how much you feel an older image should be manipulated and processed, and though this is certainly an honest and earnest transfer of a film made in 1957, some may feel that more could have been done to present a stronger and more vibrant image, as has been shown in other similar Hammer releases onto high definition formats.
English Hard of Hearing subtitles can be toggled on and off via the menu system.
The dramatic audio is presented in DTS MA 2.0, and whilst the reproduction is clear enough, you should expect quite a harsh delivery from the racing musical score. The dialogue is clear, and the soundtrack doesn’t suffer unduly from hiss or distortion, and Hammer fans should be pleased with what they hear on this presentation.
Lionsgate have assembled a fantastic collection of extras to provide an accompaniment to the film. A New Audio Commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby forms an excellent aural backdrop to the film, with the sculpted tones of the two commentators providing a suitably aristocratic nature to proceedings! The two gentleman know an awful lot about the film, and they demonstrate knowledge of minutiae which should educate even those who are familiar with the film.
Frankenstein Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic is a new and exclusive half hour documentary featuring a collection of interviews and footage which forms a solid and informative body of information for those with any interest in the film and its history. The piece is well constructed and features interviews with Jimmy Sangster, author Denis Meikle, the ever-engaging Jonathan Rigby, archive footage from Michael Carreras, and a hilarious recounting of an anecdote by Melvyn Hayes regarding his comments to Christopher Lee. There is also some commentary about the musical score by David Huckdale, and a discussion of the transfer by Paul Collard from Deluxe 142.
Life With Sir is a 12 minute segment of an interview with Joyce Broughton, who was Peter Cushing's loyal secretary. In what is one of the most touching and moving extras I've seen, she discusses - with great dignity - the life of the great actor and gentleman, and if this piece doesn't touch you, then you are emotionally bereft!
What may surprise you is that Lionsgate have managed to stuff (in addition to the two versions of the main feature) another full length film onto this disc. The film in question is an earlier Terence Fisher piece called Four Sided Triangle from 1953, and whilst not so absorbing or powerful as The Curse of Frankenstein, the film is an early example of Fisher's evolving talent as director, and also a solid example of Hammer's ability to create thought provoking and imaginative sci-fi and horror on a presumably meagre budget.
Tales of Frankenstein is a 25 minute TV pilot featuring some black and white Frankenstein action, and again, whilst nowhere near as special as the main feature, this is still a decent enough viewing experience.
Lionsgate have included World of Hammer: The Curse of Frankenstein on this disc, which affords you the opportunity to see the Oliver Reed-narrated episode pertaining to the content of the main feature itself. Expect to see analysis and footage of The Curse of Frankenstein alongside other notable Frankenstein moments from Hammer, including the sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein. As usual, this makes for a good quality viewing, despite the age and straightforward stylistic presentation of the material and narration.
A Gallery piece runs for eight minutes, showing images of promotional posters, stills, and behind the scenes footage. It also shows an image of the infamous 'head' being placed into the acid bath by Peter Cushing. This piece rounds up the impressive set of extras supplied by Lionsgate on this three disc set.
The final image on this transfer may prove a little insubstantial for some tastes, and the 1.66:1 aspect ratio is subject to considerable cropping, but when counterbalanced with a fantastic set of high quality extras, this Lionsgate release of Hammer's genre-shaping classic is still a worthwhile investment.