Sometime in the 1950s, American writer/producer Milton Subotsky (later to head Hammer's rival, Amicus) approached Hammer with the idea of doing a remake of James Whale's Frankenstein. Producer Anthony Hinds didn't think much of the idea and rightly reckoned that any infringement on the material as established in the earlier versions of the 30s and 40s would bring the legal eagles at Universal Studios swooping down on Hammer. Hinds saw potential in completely ignoring the earlier versions, however, and decided to entrust screenwriter Jimmy Sangster with delivering a fresh adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel. In 1956, Sangster was still a "lowly" production manager, but he pitched an idea that Hinds liked, and was given the chance to write his first script, for the Quatermass knock-off X The Unknown. Hinds recognized that Sangster had talent as a writer and, better still, he also had a practical understanding of the limitations of Hammer's resources. He could be relied upon to deliver a filmable script which wouldn't stretch the company's coffers too far. Frakenstein would be Sangster's sophomore effort as a writer, and the final result would have undreamed of repercussions for just about everybody connected with the project.
Whereas the Universal series highlighted the character of the monster - played in the first three films by Boris Karloff, but then reduced to lesser actors with mixed results for the remaining sequels - Sangster decided to focus his energies on the character of Frankenstein himself. It's a common misconception, created in large part by Universal themselves, that Frankenstein is the monster, whereas in fact, he is actually the creator himself. Sangster ignored Shelley's conception of an earnest, well-intended medical student who overstretches his bounds by attempting to create life. Instead, he recreated the character as a Byronic dandy with a sadistic streak. The monster and the creator were to become one, in essence.
Hinds was thrilled with Sangster's efforts and assembled a dream team to realize his vision. Director Terence Fisher later maintained that he was owed a project by the company, but Hinds would contradict this, stating that he knew he was the best man for the job and would have hired him regardless. Fisher's career up to that point was not terribly distinguished: a long string of low budget potboilers with little to distinguish them from the "quota quickie" pack, though he did helm a few fine pictures like Portrait from Life and So Long at the Fair. He had also directed Hammer's earliest brushes with sci-fi and fantasy, Spaceways, Four Sided Triangle and A Stolen Face, and the thematic concerns of those films would be reflected here. Fisher proved to be a natural for the Gothic; by his own admission, he was not a fan of the genre at the time and had not seen the original Universal horrors, and he even rejected invitations to see them, hoping to keep his own approach fresh and uninfluenced by what had come before. He was wise to do so, as his matter-of-fact, down-to-earth approach helped to make this a very new kind of horror film. Fisher was also given a crew that would help to define the look and style of Hammer horror: cinematographer Jack Asher, production designer Bernard Robinson, camera operator Len Harris, editor James Needs, composer James Bernard, etc.
To head the cast, Hammer elected to ignore their long-standing policy of importing a faded American name for marquee value. This was to be a very British horror film, and only a British actor could do it justice. Hinds turned to Peter Cushing, then the biggest TV star in the country, who surprised by the producer by enthusiastically accepting the project. Cushing would subsequently weigh the pros and cons of doing further films for the studio, rightly recognizing that being associated with genre fare might impact his chances of getting more "serious" film work, but he eventually decided to embrace the steady flow of work, and a horror icon was born.
To play the creature (no longer referred to as the monster, lest Universal's lawyers get tetchy about it), Hinds initially turned his eye to imposing comic actor Bernard Bresslaw. In the end, however, they decided to go with bit part player Christopher Lee. Standing 6'5" in height, Lee also had background in mime, which would come in very handy given that the role was mute. Lee suffered under the hands of makeup artist Phil Leakey, who was challenged with the task of devising a new monster makeup design. His early sketches ranged from the bizarre to the ludicrous, with Lee imploring that it should just look like a jigsaw puzzle as he's been stitched together from various body parts. The final makeup drew jeers from fans accustomed to Jack Pierce's iconic Karloff design, but it has stood the test of time and is every bit as effective a piece of work in its own way.
Finally released to cinemas as The Curse of Frankenstein, the film was the first Gothic horror to be filmed in color - and the added bonus of some then-graphic gore and an emphasis on busty women in cleavage-hugging period gowns outraged critics and tickled audiences.
Seen today, The Curse of Frankenstein remains one of Hammer's finest films. Fisher directs with a sure and steady hand. The characterization of the Baron it matched by Peter Cushing's superb interpretation. Lee's creature is at once pitiable and genuinely frightening; it is most assuredly one of his most under-valued performances. The production values are solid and belie the film's low budget. It also set the style for everything which would follow and did so in a way that seems far more sure-footed than it probably should.
The character would be revisited in a series of sequels, with Cushing appearing in all but one of them - that one being an ill-advised parody of sorts, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), starring Ralph Bates. Sangster would pen the first follow-up, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), while Hinds himself handled writing chores on most of the other entries. Ironically, it was the Hinds and Sangster-free Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), written by Bert Batt, which would mark the series' high watermark. The various writers brought different interpretations to bear on the character of the Baron, making it impossible to view the series as one long-running saga, but Cushing's commitment to the role made the films a delight. The Curse of Frankenstein may not be as audacious as some of the later entries, but it still remains one of the best of the lot - and a classic slice of Hammer horror.
Appropriately enough, the film was the first of the initial Hammer Gothics to hit blu ray through Icon and Lionsgate. Their Region B/Region 2 blu ray/DVD combopack was met with much derision, however, owing to a flawed transfer. Word has it that a 4K master was provided by Warner Brothers, but Hammer failed to capitalize on the format's capabilities by cleaning up the image and going for a sharper, better defined image. As is so often the case with these controversies, however, the extreme reactions are a bit over the top. While the presentation is far from definitive and will never be used as a reference quality disc for showing off the capabilities of the medium, it's still quite watchable - especially in the full frame transfer which restores some information missing in the 1.66 version which was also included. Colors are a bit pale and the image isn't as sharp as one would like, but it marks an improvement over the DVD edition from Warner Bros and restores a shot which had been censored for many years (you'll know it when you see it). The disc is also overflowing with extras, including an informative and entertaining commentary by Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearne and a wonderful featurette about Cushing.
Review: Troy Howarth
Images: Marcus Brooks