Saturday, October 08, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Curse of Frankenstein' (1957)

The first of Hammer Studios' seven Frankenstein movies, The Curse of Frankenstein is not the most well-known or highly regarded, but it does set the tone for the studio's style in the movies that follow, and it establishes Peter Cushing as the definitive Hammer version of Victor Frankenstein (he played the part in all but one of the sequels). Although credited as adapted from Mary Shelley's novel, Curse is, per tradition, a very loose retelling of the story, with Victor himself recast as a wealthy aristocrat known as Baron Frankenstein. He's still obsessed with creating life, and he still ultimately creates a hideous monster (played by Christopher Lee), but director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster change around the supporting cast, so that the main relationship in the movie is not between Victor and the creature, but between Victor and his teacher/mentor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), a new character invented for the movie.

While Victor has always been a character of great arrogance and pride, the Hammer version is an amoral sociopath who has no qualms about straight-up murdering people for his own ends. He's essentially the movie's villain, with Paul and to a lesser extent Victor's fiancee Elizabeth (Hazel Court), who's been reconceived as his cousin, as the heroes and the moral compasses of the movie. Cushing really leans into the portrayal of Victor as an evil schemer, practically rubbing his hands together with glee when Victor invites an elderly professor over for dinner and then prepares to murder him for his highly desirable brain. This version of Victor isn't an overeager scientist who went too far; he's a blatantly sinister megalomaniac who's only interested in his own glorification.

As such, he doesn't have any kind of emotional or intellectual rapport with the creature, and the brilliant Lee is only allowed to shamble around clumsily (and never use his wonderfully expressive voice). The relationship between Victor and Paul serves as a replacement of sorts for that dynamic, but while Paul is compassionate and well-read, he's no match for Victor's bullying, and their rivalry doesn't have the same epic, mythic scope as the battle between Victor and the creature does in Shelley's novel and its more faithful adaptations. It's still entertaining to watch, though, thanks to the engaging performances and the sometimes surprising wit in Sangster's screenplay.

The Hammer horror films were produced on modest budgets but used those budgets well; the makeup on Lee as the creature is pretty cheap-looking, but the sets are sumptuous and evocative, giving the movie the proper sense of Gothic tragedy in only a handful of locations. Although the numerous sequels quickly rendered it irrelevant, the ending is admirably bleak, in a darker and more cynical way than Shelley's novel. In erasing all sympathy for Victor, it gives the story a different kind of horror.

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