The Curse of Frankenstein


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The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Studios' first foray into a gothic horror literary adaptation (like Universal Studios' Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley's 19th-century novel and here adapted by Jimmy Sangster and directed by future Hammer auteur, Terence Fisher), was also the first on screen collaboration of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, classically trained actors whose names and reputations would become inextricably linked to their participation in gothic horror films produced by Hammer Studios. Their first collaboration, however, is less impressive than their subsequent work together, especially their next film, Horror of Dracula, produced only a year later.

The Curse of Frankenstein opens inside a dungeon, with a bedraggled, unshaven Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), awaiting execution for unnamed crimes. A priest has been called, ostensibly to hear Victor's confession. Instead, Victor recounts the events that led to the creation of the monster (Christopher Lee) and the violent aftermath of the monster's appearance in the unsuspecting village below Frankenstein's castle. Fisher and Sangster add a new character, a tutor/father figure, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), for the young, orphaned Frankenstein. Krempe's intellect is quickly surpassed, but Victor's passion and talent for science convinces Paul to remain at Victor's side, more assistant than equal. Victor's passion, of course, leads to illicit experiments in reanimating the dead. An early success in reanimating a dog convinces Victor that the barrier between life and death can be erased. He is after nothing less than immortality. But, as anyone familiar with Frankenstein's multiple incarnations in literature and in film already know, Victor's hubris, his unremitting desire to play God, and his egocentric belief that moral laws aren't applicable to him or his experiments, results in a series of missteps and desires. A monster, a reflection of Victor's darkest, more violent desires, is released.

The correlation between Victor's desires, conscious and unconscious, is made explicit in Fisher's version through a melodramatic subplot added by Sangster, presumably at the direction of the studio: Victor is carrying out an illicit relationship with the chambermaid, while promising marriage to a distant relative, Elizabeth (Hazel Court). Elizabeth, of course, represents social conformity and normality, but Victor's choice between Elizabeth and continuing his experiments is never in doubt. In Elizabeth, echoes of the [I]Bluebeard[/I] can be found. The promise of marriage to Victor involves an unspoken promise of non-interference with Victor's scientific pursuits. Her curiosity, of course, gets the better of her at the climax of the film. Paul, increasingly doubtful as to the moral and ethical nature of Victor's experiments, functions as conscience, moral center (since Victor loses his) for the audience, and as the potential member of a romantic triangle with Victor and Elizabeth.

The Curse of Frankenstein, while boasting meticulously designed sets, including Frankenstein's baroque laboratory, and a gripping, convincing performance by Peter Cushing, falls measurably short in providing audiences with an engaging “monster,” or in suitably building and resolving conflict between the various characters. Contemporary audiences would have likely compared Fisher's version to the earlier version directed by James Whale in 1931. Missing from the Hammer version is a sympathetic monster, the central set piece where the monster is reanimated, and a fiery, over-the-top climax, where the status quo is violently reinstated by angry villagers (or, to follow the novel, on ice floes in the Arctic). Instead, Lee's poorly made-up monster is barely on screen, appearing only at the halfway mark, with his actual reanimation occurring partly off screen away from the protagonist. The monster's makes his first escape, complete with a change of clothes (he may be brain-damaged, but he apparently knows how to dress himself) is quickly resolved (his encounter with a blind man has little of the pathos of the earlier film, with the monster responding violently to the blind man's fears). His reanimation later in the film is likewise wasted, adding just two more scenes, with the last scene featuring the monster atop the baron's castle leading to an all-too-abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying climax (which, to be fair, probably reveals the film's limitations, budget wise, a problem also evident in the climactic scene to the Horror of Dracula).

© Mel Valentin, 22nd December 2004

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