The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
A Priest is called to a prison to hear the testimony of Baron Frankenstein. The Baron tells him of his early education with his tutor Paul Krempe, of the experiments that he and Krempe perform to resurrect the dead and how, against Krempe's better judgement, Frankenstein then constructs an ultimate being from parts of the dead with terrible consequences.
This film is where it all started for Hammer in terms of making horror films. It is the first adaptation of Mary Shelley's story to be filmed in colour and they were clearly looking to remind the viewer of that as often as possible. Frankenstein's laboratory is filled with jars and bottles filled with bright, lurid coloured liquid and any time you see blood it is lingered on to show just how red it is.
When we first meet Peter Cushing's Frankenstein he is in prison and looking much the worse for wear. With his frilly shirt and velvet jacket he looks a bit like Jon Pertwee after a stag night and his sanity is clearly hanging by a thread.
We then flashback to the good Baron as a precocious young man played by Melvin Hayes (add another point to your Stop...Hammer Time sitcom actors scorecard). It is here we meet Robert Urquhart's Paul Krempe for the first time. Krempe is everything the young Baron could hope for as a tutor as well as a surrogate father figure. Urquhart imbues Krempe with and easy going authority and an obvious enjoyment for learning in these early scenes. We are treated to a montage of Krempe and Frankenstein learning together. During this sequence Hayes becomes Cushing and Urquhart goes through a variety of facial hair to show the passing of time before settling on a beard.
Cushing is as brilliant as ever here and gives Frankenstein a youthful enthusiasm and naivety about his work as they put puppies in what look like Damien Hurst art installations and electrocute them. Having conquered death it's clear that Krempe and Frankenstein have very different ideas about how this discovery should be used. Krempe wants to hand their findings to the medical community, who he imagines might be interested in a cure for death. Frankenstein meanwhile makes a quantum leap of logic and proposes building a bespoke being and then bringing it to life. Krempe's reaction is, quite rightly, along the lines of “Are you nuts?” but somewhat confusingly decides to help Frankenstein anyway.
Frankenstein then embarks on a body part scavenger hunt around Europe while we are introduced to his cousin Elizabeth, played by Hazel Court, who is there to marry Frankenstein by long standing arrangement. Her presence horrifies Krempe who is growing less and less comfortable with the whole stealing body parts thing so he spends most of the rest of the film trying to convince her to leave.
I really enjoyed Cushing in his scenes with the askance Krempe begging him to see reason. He is as confused by Krempe's passionate appeals to not to make life from dead body parts as you or I would be by someone passionately begging us not to assemble a bookcase. In his mind he is doing something perfectly reasonable and Cushing plays it brilliantly.
The breakdown between Frankenstein and Krempe's relationship is nicely played when the Baron resorts to the murder of elderly Professor Bernstein, although this does lead to an unintentionally funny moment where they fight for possession of the brain. Frankenstein is desperate to stop it from getting damaged, which is something he should have thought of before pushing Bernstein off a landing.
Christopher Lee plays the monster and his make up is impressively gruesome for the time. He isn't called upon to do much more than shamble about and it seems a bit of a waste of his talents until you realise that he was relatively unknown at the time. He wouldn't become a star until the following year when he reunited with Cushing and director Terrance Fisher to make Dracula. There is a nice gory moment when Krempe shoots the monster in the eye and he gets to kill the film's sacrificial lamb, Valerie Gaunt's Justine. Justine is a maid who has been having an affair with Frankenstein and her death is all the more horrific for the fact that she is pregnant.
Sadly there are no villagers with flaming torches and pitchforks to hunt the creature down. Instead Frankenstein confronts his creation on the roof of his house. The creature falls into a conveniently placed acid bath, which the Baron claims dissolved the body leaving no evidence. This is a nice touch that the film ends on, as it is left ambiguous whether the events told by Frankenstein actually happened or are part of his madness. Krempe refuses to corroborate Frankenstein's version of events and Elizabeth make no mention of them either. As Frankenstein is led off to the guillotine, as an audience we are none the wiser about what happened.
While I enjoyed this film, it is very rough around the edges. It lacks the polish and confidence of Dracula but that is forgiveable as you can see that the studio is still trying to find its feet. Cushing is great while Urquhart and Court give solid, if unmemorable support. If you are a fan of the story then it is worth watching and I look forward to seeing what they do in the sequels.
Join me next time when I shall be returning to H Rider Haggard territory as I watch Vengeance of She.