Seeing as how I’ve already broken into the Hammer vaults, I decided it was time to revisit their first production, the one that forged the legacy. Hammer had been around for a decade or more by this point, largely relying on cheap productions using aging and fading American stars to prop up their selling points. The Curse of Frankenstein turned a corner in their history and opened all manner of doors. This was Hammer’s first horror film, it was their first color production, and it was their first film to unite the powerhouse duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It was a match that would catapult them and the studio to fame and legend with this film, and its immediate follow-ups, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy.
Cushing and Lee were both underrated and under used actors at this point in their careers. Cushing was best known for his work in British television, and was actively sought as a potential rising star. Lee, on the other hand, had done all manner of stage work, but it was his height at 6′ 5″ that got him hired.
By this point in the game, Universal’s monsters were pretty much dead and gone, though nobody really knew that at the time. For most, they were simply on their way out. The last of their monster greats, The Creature Walks Among Us, would debut the year before, marking the 3rd and final entry in the Creature from the Black Lagoon series. Both their Dracula and Frankenstein series had pretty much dried up nearly a decade earlier with the parody farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948. Even so, Universal was determined to keep their credential as the first name in monster horror. To this end, Universal sent a team of lawyers to the production of Curse, ensuring that anything that Hammer tried, if it wasn’t in Shelley’s original novel and had any resemblance to their own films, it was to be blocked. The first step, obviously, was to create a monster that didn’t resemble Karloff’s iconic look. After that, everything was easy. Hammer’s answer? Beat the creature with the ugly stick and make it look as abused as its very soul. There’s a line to the opposite effect in this, where Frankenstein says that the scars will heal, and the brain, which houses a lifetime of knowledge and wisdom, will impart the creature with a kind and intelligent countenance. Of course, that brain is beaten into the masonry during a struggle, so… you get this.
Irony being what it is, Universal would go on to broker a distribution deal for Hammer’s horror films after this point. Go figure.
Hammer established the idea of “show us the monster already” early on, which Horror of Dracula proved, and which became a hallmark of Hammer that younger audiences always appreciated. But it could be argued they didn’t do that here. Or did they? Upon viewing this film, the first things that are readily obvious is that the story revolves not around the creature, but around Frankenstein himself and his descent into obsession. It’s a theme asked many times in monster stories: who is the monster, and who is the man? Cushing plays it straight the entire time, and you can even agree with his logic at almost every point. But the lines he crosses to achieve those ends, and the coldness with which he crosses those lines… that’s where the brilliance of this film shines. It’s loosely based on the original novel, but in this regard, it captures the spirit of intent perfectly. To counterpoint his descent, you’ve got his former tutor, Paul, and his bride-to-be, Elizabeth, offering us the more human perspectives. That’s something else I should point out… as small as Elizabeth’s part is, at no point is she on display as a standard “Hammer bimbo” like in later versions. She’s a bit of a stereotype, certainly, but I think actress Hazel Court comes across as kind and elegant rather than just as eye candy.
Despite Universal’s attempts to keep Hammer from ripping them off, I think it can be stated beyond shadow of doubt that Lee’s creature has a lot in common with Karloff’s interpretation. Visually, it’s more cobbled and grotesque. But it moves stiffly, makes guttural sounds, and is genuinely a pitiable creature. Lee’s version isn’t given nearly the opportunity to prove that like Karloff did, but I think he comes off as more human, which is a bit scarier in its own way. The subtleties are there in the facial cues and body language. Like Lon Chaney before him, Christopher Lee was experienced in mime, and he played it to the hilt. I don’t think he gets nearly the credit for it that he deserves. Lee’s version of the creature is confused, frightened, and threatened as much as it is threatening. At nearly every turn, it’s very clearly the creator who is in control, not only of the monster, but in the accusations that the creature’s limitations are Paul’s fault for damaging the brain. In Frankenstein’s mind, his process is flawless.
Could Curse have used more monster? When I was a kid, I certainly thought so. What kid never thinks that? Maybe if they’d gone another half hour… but that wasn’t really the point, was it? This is Cushing’s movie, and he owns it. It’s a master class in reserved obsession. As I say, he’s the true monster in this. He makes it operate on the level it does. It was like an announcement to the world saying, “Behold what I can do!” But it seems effortless at the same time. I’ve always admired how a man so gentle and polite can come across so menacingly, and that might have been a stereotype he couldn’t break if not for his opportunity to play Van Helsing a year later.
Even though it doesn’t follow the novel (imagine how incredible that would be if they had!), I think this is most definitely one of the best of the Frankenstein films ever made, easily as memorable and as watchable as Karloff’s first two entries for Universal. Truly incredible acting, magnificent sets, some amazing creature makeup, and a level of humanity and depravity that’s just enough to make it come together… it has everything in my book.