Hammer Studios had dipped its toes into the realms of horror fantasy before with the adaptation of The Quatermass Xperiment, but in 1957, the studio cemented their horror credentials by choosing to adapt Mary Shelley’s ghoulish cautionary tale, Frankenstein, in eye-searing colour.
Of course, attempting to put a new version of the classic tale out into the world was sort of seen as unfettered blasphemy by those who held Universal’s 1930’s versions close to their hearts in much of the same way news of a Jaws reboot would go down in this day and age – but Hammer had an intriguing game plan.
Instead of merely presenting a straight retelling of the story, director Terence Fisher headed up a total, tonal update, keeping all the dingy castles and misty moors intact while adding lurid (for the time, at least) hints of sex and violence – something that the lush photography would highlight with exquisite results.
Sitting in a squalid cell, awaiting a date with the guillotine, a disheveled Baron Victor Frankenstein frantically tells the sordid tale of the events that led him to this predicament to a priest as his time steadily ticks away.
After the death of his mother, the 15 year old Victor becomes sole controller of the family estate and uses it to not only provide money to his poor aunt and cousin but to secure himself a tutor in the form of scientist, Paul Krempe and the young Baron proves to be a voracious student. After a few years of intense experiments, Victor and Paul manage to bring a dead puppy back to life and realise that they are on the verge of conquering death once and for all; but while Paul can see the benefit this discovery would have in the world of medicine and surgery, Victor is planning something something far more epic. Instead of wanting to save lives, Victor wishes to create it from scratch and starts gnawing at his colleague’s ear about pulling this monumental task off with a spot of good natured grave robbing, but after Victor’s scavenging of various body parts to perfect his creation gets ever more enthusiastic, Paul drops out, becoming far too disturbed with the way events are disturbing.
It seems that Victor is far more conniving and entitled than we ever thought possible and treats other people as mere playthings, especially when it comes to succeeding in his goal to pervert life and so when his eager collecting of necessary organs veers inevitably into premeditated murder, Paul feels like he has to step in, if not just for Victor’s sake than for the safety of the Baron’s cousin Elizabeth who is due to be wed to the smug little psycho.
But Frankenstein’s ambition knows no bounds and he will go to any lengths to make sure his misshapen creation will not only live, but stay alive, no matter how many lives it takes in its confused delirium.
Much in the same way Fisher went on to reinvent and reconfigure Bram Stoker’s Dracula merely a year later, Hammer strips away the stilted theatricality of the Universal version and aims its lens at something far more intriguing – Frankenstein himself. Other versions of the driven Baron have seen him as a man caught up in the mania of his discovery, unable to see the damage he’s about to cause until the sobering first glimpse of his creation snaps him back to reality. However, Hammer’s version makes it abundantly clear that Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein is nothing less than cold, calculating and a complete and total bastard when it comes to getting his own way – be it giving the laws of nature a stiff middle finger or simply sticking it to his busty maid while his wife to be Elizabeth is in the vicinity simply because he wants to. It’s an interesting notion, because the shift of Frankenstein from a fallible man to an utter, murderous wanker makes following his villainous doings all the more fascinating to watch and Cushing, arguably more known for his more benevolent characters like Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, gets righteously stuck in with making Victor the biggest, coldest prick he can be.
With his various atrocities including pushing and elderly professor off a balcony in order to free up his juciy brain for transplant and locking his bit on the side in the room with his murderous creation when she gets too blabby, the creature is relegated to almost a secondary role, but it’s only fitting considering this is Victor’s world and we all just rent space in it – at least, that’s the way he sees it. While Chistopher Lee’s version of Frankenstein’s monster not quite being as instantly memorable as Boris Karloff’s effortlessly timeless portrayal, he still cuts an imposing, if less tragic, figure as he staggers about the place with a milky white eye and a rather fetching long black overcoat – but like everyone else in the script, even the creature is a mere pawn in Victor’s plans.
While this admittedly may strip some of the pathos from the original tale, this more harsh and fatalistic approach gives the story a much more spiteful tone which fits with the far more graphic nature of the film. Eschewing classy cutaways and off screen subtleties, Fisher seems to think its utter vital to get a real sense of how macabre Victor’s quest actually is, having the Baron gleefully show off a pair of severed hands he managed to forage from a charnalhouse like an excited kid on christmas and having him chuffed to score a pair of eyes like a rare baseball card. It all may seem amusingly tame these days, but as this was the late 50’s, all this matter of fact bloodletting must have be extraordinarily breathtaking, giving the movie a relentless sense of anarchy compared to the buttoned down 30’s version people at the time had grownup with. But that’s the point; Hammer prided itself of pushing the envelope, be it more overt, on-screen sexuality (Victor’s wayward member and Hazel Court and Valerie Gaunt’s noticably voluminous bosoms) and more brutal violence (the blind old man character now becomes yet another throttling victim, as does his young grandson) to the point where some would have found it outright crass, but that’s precisely what the rebellious studio was presumably shooting for.
While the Curse Of Frankenstein may lack the stark poetry of Terrence Young’s Universal version in favour of a more flashy, sensationalist veneer, its Peter Cushing’s hugely entertaining central role as a far more dastardly Frankenstein that guarantees that this particular version of Shelley’s classic defies death just as much as its overwhelmingly smug antagonist.