DIRECTOR Terence Fisher WRITER Jimmy Sangster; Mary Shelley (story) STARS Peter Cushing; Christopher Lee; Hazel Court DOUBLE PLAY Now
The first of Hammer’s seven-film Frankenstein series, not to mention the first horror pairing for the wonderful collaboration of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, it is a pleasure to see The Curse of Frankenstein receive hi-def treatment. Whilst the transfer does not hold quite the same clarity as other recent restorations, this is an important package nonetheless; as the kick-starter to Hammer’s horror filmmaking The Curse of Frankenstein occupies an important place in horror history.
The story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his monster is much loved, and for good reason. An early example of science fiction, the morality themes are timeless and may be interpreted in a number of ways, whether it be with regards to tampering with God’s work, the dangers of steadfast thirst for scientific knowledge, hunger for power or lack of empathy for the suffering of others. Shelley’s original story is not entirely adhered to here, Hammer’s 1957 classic opting to forego Frankenstein’s regret in favour of a character study that follows the character’s degeneration to evil.
The tale is told in retrospect by the jailed, assumed quite mad, Baron Victor Frankenstein. We learn that the privileged Victor was orphaned at a young age. His arrogance clear from the beginning, he hires a tutor, Paul Krempe, who cultivates the boy’s interest and talents in science. The pair embark on a lifelong partnership of experimentation, which sees them resurrect a dead puppy to full health. Victor’s God complex awakened, he insists that he must now create a human being from assembled parts, despite Paul’s warnings that only evil can lie ahead. Ignoring this, we witness Victor lose any morality he may have once had, committing murder to his own ends and refusing to accept failure or responsibility for his actions.
The performances here are simply superb. Peter Cushing as Frankenstein brings a subtlety that takes us through the nuances of the character’s gradual move from a relatively innocent scientific curiosity to obsessive thirst for power and frightening disregard for the safety of others. On paper, Frankenstein is a character that we ought to despise, and yet Cushing’s expert portrayal means that we cannot; this is a reprehensible man yet wrongdoing is not his intention, rather he is blinkered in his desire to push his own boundaries and exploit his talents in science. A delightful coldness that is not without a glint of humour props this up, as a wonderful combination that Cushing plays with apparent ease.
And, of course, there is Christopher Lee. He does not make much screen time as the monster, but a strong impression is nevertheless made. Naturally, this portrayal is not quite so subtle, a reliance on communication by Lee’s eyes and heavy emphasis on physical motions in lieu of no dialogue. Hamminess could easily have been the order of the day here, but the actor’s control makes for an almost heartbreaking performance, conveying a distress at times that underlines where the true evil lies in this story. Robert Urquhart is also very good as Krempe, the man standing by observing in horror, powerless to stop Frankenstein and unable to quite rip himself away from his own scientific curiosity.
Not shy on extras, this is an excellent package for Hammer fans. Offering the film in both Academy and widescreen ratios, we have the obligatory making of and World of Hammer episode, “Life With Sir”, a featurette on Peter Cushing, and, rather generously, director Terence Fisher’s Four Sided Triangle amongst other titbits. As the kick-starter to Hammer’s horror filmmaking and as such occupying an important place in horror history, surely an essential purchase.