Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review - "The Curse of Frankenstein"

Here's a bit of history. Horror films were at their height in the 1930's and '40's. Universal Studios dominated the horror market, but it wasn't long before other Hollywood studios such as 20th Century Fox, M-G-M and RKO jumped on the bandwagon. It is generally accepted that horror died out in the late 1940's and that a new breed of film emerged to tingle the spines of audiences - sci-fi. Movies such as It Came From Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Blob were this period's most famous offerings - the nostalgia of vampires, swirling mist and monsters seemingly long forgotten.

That is until Hammer Films decided to remake Mary Shelly's immortal novel Frankenstein as a full-fledged horror film. Gothic horror was about to make a dramatic comeback, and the eventual product, 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein would redefine horror films forever. Today, we begin Peter Cushing Month as I review this still powerful and entertaining film.

The Curse of Frankenstein begins in a small Swiss hamlet where the once noble Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is imprisoned for murder. A priest arrives at the Baron's cell and the Baron begins to tell his unfortunate story. As a young medical student, Frankenstein became interested in the secret of life, and, with the help of his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), successfully restored life to a dead dog. But Frankenstein's ambitions get the better of him. He is determined to create a man himself, to build a human being from scratch. In his quest to do so, Frankenstein turns to lying, grave robbing and even murder. In obtaining a brain for his creature, something goes terribly wrong, and once it is fitted into the cranium of the monster, terror ensues as the Creature (Christopher Lee) is brought to life and begins to terrorise the countryside.

The Curse of Frankenstein is an incredibly handsomely-made film, made even more stunning when one remembers it was the first of its kind. Prior to the film's release, Hammer had dabbled in science fiction horror, but most of their previous ventures had been in black and white. Even though The Curse of Frankenstein was made on a minimal budget, it certainly doesn't show. The sets, costumes and acting is all top natch. The quality of Hammer's early horror films in part inspired Alfred Hitchcock in making Psycho - the director took it upon himself as a challenge to create a high-grossing horror film made on a low budget.

The acting is The Curse of Frankenstein's finest achievement. The main focus of the movie is shifted from the Creature to Baron Frankenstein himself, expertly played by Peter Cushing. Though Cushing has gained the reputation as the good guy, or the gentle man of horror films, his characterisation of Baron Victor Frankenstein is one of pure evil. Frankenstein is a vainglorious, self-obsessed man, driven purely by his scientific desires - and the occasional tryst with maid Justine, out of eye-shot of his fiancee. Cushing's villainous performance couldn't be heightened if he were oozing slime every time he spoke. But, what is so brilliant is that we cannot help but feel for Baron Frankenstein. We see that he is an adulterer, grave-robber and murderer, and yet we are sucked into his word of villainy. It is simply a mesmorising performance.

But what a Frankenstein movie would be complete without a creature? Though granted little actual screen time, Christopher Lee's performance as the Creature is a powerful and imposing one, due in part to Lee's impressive physicality. The Creature, as played by Lee, comes across as a genuine threat, and is fairly unpredictable. This heightens the horror of the Creature's scenes dramatically. A word must also be said for the make-up, an original concept by Hammer make-up artists, which was created last minute when Universal Studios (who owned all copyright claims to the famous make-up as worn by Boris Karloff in their 1931 original) threatened legal action. So, we're given a very human-looking Creature - two different coloured eyes and scars not withstanding.

The Curse of Frankenstein is also fortunate enough to have an excellent script written by Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster. Sangster's story is fast-paced and energetic, moving from one great set piece of the next. There are also few scenes set outside of Frankenstein's castle, lending the story an air of claustrophobia which lends the movie an extra aura of suspense and horror. Sangster would come to script many more of Hammer's ventures and his story for The Curse of Frankenstein is an excellent example of Hammer's writing at its best.

The Curse of Frankenstein still holds up remarkably well today, due no doubt to the excellent performances from its principle actors, which truly never goes out of style. Peter Cushing turns in one of his best, villainous performances and opposite Christopher Lee's excellent performance as the Creature, The Curse of Frankenstein stands out as one of the finest horror films of the period. The film would also push the envelope in what was acceptable in horror films, and it would pave the way for Hammer's future offerings. I award The Curse of Frankenstein 4 out of 5 stars.

Check back regularly for more Peter Cushing reviews! 

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