It’s virtually impossible to comprehend the impact that The Curse of Frankenstein had in 1957, much as it’s impossible to appreciate what a shocker James Whale’s Frankenstein was all the way back in 1931. Terence Fisher’s Gothic classic broke new ground and filmmakers have since picked up the gauntlet and unleashed films that are far more graphically violent; Fisher himself would finish his career with his goriest film ever, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, in 1972. One of the film’s major innovations was that of color – it wasn’t the first horror film to be produced in color, of course, but it was the first ever Frankenstein in color.
The use of color is one of many elements which helped The Curse of Frankenstein to stand out from the rest of the pack. Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher sensibly realized that the color should be used for emotional effect; as such, they threw caution (and logic) to the wind by indulging in some stylistic flourishes which would later be expanded on in Hammer’s subsequent horror films – and those of Roger Corman in America and Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda in Italy. Consider the scene in the forest where the pitiful creature (Christopher Lee in one of his best, yet least appreciated performances) encounters a frightened blind man (a marvelous Fred Johnson) and his little grandson (Claude Kingston). In order to heighten the tension on a subliminal level, Fisher had the crew pain the leaves red – literally. This effect is almost lost in the current, faded home video prints, but one can still get a sense of it – and it certainly must have looked grand when the prints were newly circulated in 1957. It was a showy bit of technique for a director not revered for his stylistic prowess and no one less than Michelangelo Antonioni would reuse the idea in his watershed thriller Blow Up (1966).
The color red is prominently featured in the film and for good reason: it’s the color of violence… the color of passion. Both are on ample display here, as the randy Baron (Peter Cushing at his most icy) takes advantage of his servant Justine (Valerie Gaunt), only to have her killed off by his creature when she reveals that she’s pregnant with his child! As the Baron conducts experiments in his makeshift attic laboratory, he is prone to wiping blood on his jacket – a gesture which looks natural and thoughtless, but which would have been worked out in detail by the ever-meticulous Cushing.
Other bursts of primary colors are evident as well, notably in the multi-colored liquids found in the lab scenes. Fisher and Asher would go on to hone this technique in Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958) before positively perfecting it for The Mummy (1959) and the otherwise disappointing The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959). As such, the film doesn’t have scenes bathed in the same irrational but visually sumptuous pools of red, blue and green lighting familiar from those later films – but as with all good staring points, The Curse of Frankenstein has little signposts which allude to where their experiments in color would take them.
Written By Troy Howarth
Banner and Images Marcus Brooks