When Hammer began production on a new version of the Frankenstein story, they couldn’t have been aware of what they were about to achieve. Not only was The Curse of Frankenstein to be a great financial success (bringing in more than 70 times its small £65,000 budget) and would clearly determine what Hammer would focus their productions on for the next 20 years, it also ushered in a new golden age of horror that influenced among others Hitchcock and Roger Corman in their future output, and had a significant and longer lasting impact on a future generation of filmmakers such as John Carpenter, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton.
It is a fine film that has stood the test of time and its influence and success can be easily understood. It is one of the best of Cushing and Lee’s collaborations and highly recommended as a starting point in any appreciation of their work. Lee and Cushing had not met before they started filming but quickly became firm friends during this first of twenty films they’d make together. It was also the first of their six collaborations with Terence Fisher - who would direct their next five films together, all at Hammer - and it was the first of seven Frankenstein films that Hammer would make all but one of which would feature Cushing as the Baron (none of those sequels would feature Lee).
Jimmy Sangster wrote the screenplay and Terence Fisher was brought in to direct. Cushing was actively sought for the lead role but Lee’s casting was more accidental – he was chosen mostly because of his height. While many key Frankenstein events from Shelley’s novel are used, The Curse of Frankenstein is a whole new Frankenstein story, crucially because of the difference in the character of the Baron and in the function and character of the Creature.
Cushing’s Frankenstein is ruthless, murderous and thoroughly amoral. And while Frankenstein was always a character with a God-complex, this Baron – unlike Shelley’s original, who was to his core obsessed with the morality of what he had done, of what his responsibilities to the Creature were and what punishment he would receive for his crimes – cares nothing of the consequences of his actions. For all his pronouncements about his quest to create new life, he actually cares nothing for life - except perhaps his own. His moral blindness is central to his character and is referenced throughout the film in a recurring image of the eye. Frankenstein’s cold, enquiring eye is often in the camera's focus as he both studies and judges those around him. It is also a disembodied eye that Frankenstein studies so curiously in his lab (in the scene originally cut from the film) as if in that dead, unseeing eye, he can see a reflection of his own mutilated vision. And lastly, when the Creature is shot by Krempe it is the eye that bleeds so shockingly.
The original Creature was a character equal to Frankenstein both as a presence and as a voice of opposition and accusation to his creator’s actions. The Creature here is more of a by-product of the Baron’s wickedness and brings no explicit dimension of moral dilemma to the film. However, what this Creature does do is physically spite the Baron’s intentions by his very existence. And rather than being the representation of the ultimate scientific victory over death (and of the Baron’s own superiority over others), the Creature instead embodies the consequences of the Baron’s amorality. It tries to kill him as soon as it lives, it runs away from him, it does not understand or love or live at all in the way he imagines. But what would this Baron have made of a creature that did? He is only interested in using people and this Creature is no different. When it fails to be what the Baron hoped for, he uses it too, as an instrument to kill.
As well making the best use of these interesting changes to Shelley's iconic characters, the film succeeds in so many other waysl. Terence Fisher’s direction produces a fast-paced, extremely well-acted and quite beautiful film. James Bernard’s great score creeps along menacingly, culminating in a crescendo of strings full of gothic murder and madness. The art direction and boundary-pushing special effects work wonders with the tiny budget. Robert Urquart and Hazel Court provide fine support and Lee is very effective as the walking road accident of a corpse, all stiff and scarred. He moves in staccato jolts glaring out at the world hurt, angry and confused. But it is Cushing who dominates. As the real monster he is an eloquent, sharp, dismissive and unrepentant ego-maniac. It is a wonderful and seemingly effortless performance that carries the film along from beginning to end.
After the success of Curse, our two actors would soon be reunited in Hammer's next horror project, a film that would make Christopher Lee a star. 1958’s Dracula.
A note on the Hammer made Frankenstein sequels that followed: they are all worthwhile for fans of the genre, if a little repetitive (the basic Frankenstein formula is never deviated from, the only things that change in each is the Baron’s location, the circumstances of his various unfortunate assistants and the actors playing the Creature). The sequels where Cushing was involved were:
1958 The Revenge of Frankenstein (directed by Terence Fisher). This continues exactly where Curse left off and it progresses the story nicely with the Baron on the run, finding a new victim for his experiments in the hunchback Karl. Cushing once again drives the story with his terrific portrayal of the Baron. It is the best of the sequels.
1964 The Evil of Frankenstein (directed by Freddie Francis). If this meant to be any sort of sequel to Revenge it has more than a few continuity problems, and the convoluted plot involving a hypnotist and the rediscovery of a frozen creature, stretches the boundaries of what had previously been established. It is entertaining enough but certainly represents a dip in quality.
1967 Frankenstein Created Woman (directed by Terence Fisher). The most bonkers of the series as the reanimation principle has morphed into the discovery that the soul can be transferred from one body to another. It makes little sense and Cushing’s Baron spends so much time hidden away carrying out his research that he’s almost too busy to appear in the film. However, there is an energy to the subplot and when he’s involved Cushing is as reliable as ever.
1969 Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (directed by Terence Fisher). The darkest of all the films with Frankenstein’s evil reaching new levels of barbarity. Gorier and nicely suspenseful with a terrific performance from Freddie Jones as the most unfortunate Professor Richter. After Revenge, this is the next best of the sequels.
1974 Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (directed by Terence Fisher). After his absence in 1970’s much more camp Horror of Frankenstein, Cushing is back, in an insane asylum, doing what he does best – reanimating the dead. This is Terence Fisher’s last film and there's plenty to enjoy as the usual caper plays out but as the story moves to its conclusion, the tiredness of the series is all too clear to see.
As a final note it's worth mentioning another fine Hammer film with Peter Cushing released in the same year as The Curse of Frankenstein. The Abominable Snowman directed by Val Guest is, rather than the monster movie the title suggests, more of a psychological ghost story as a disparate group of mountaineers come up against a legend that exerts a strange influence on them and slowly sends them on a journey into madness. It is a film made with a realistic air, a subtle monster and unexpected consequences. Very much worth investigating.