Movie Review – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
by NIR SHALEV
Hammer Film Productions is a London-based studio that’s famous mostly for its horror films, ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Curse of Frankenstein was their first attempt at the Gothic stories realm and it was an instant success, due to its relatively faithful adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, its perfect choice in its actors, and good cinematography. This is a good-looking film that’s in color, is well shot and lit, and filled with whatever is needed to add or build atmosphere. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes a good Gothic tale of wrongdoing, terrific and convincing performances, and good ol’ fashioned filmmaking.
The story takes place in a mountain village in Switzerland where a teenage Baron Victor Frankenstein is orphaned. The estate now entirely belongs to him and he calls for a tutor to teach him everything that is possible to learn; math, science, history, geography, biology and chemistry, etc. The years go by and we find Victor (played brilliantly and with passion by Peter Cushing) and his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) still studying what interests them the most: science. Their current experiment deals with reanimating a dead dog and if successful, it could make a world of a difference in the way that body organs and parts could be reattached, and other craziness.
Of course, it’s all science fiction but the film takes the subject seriously because Victor takes the subject seriously and the film focuses on Victor’s state of mind as it grows into a sort of dementia. Victor believing that he could eventually reanimate an entire human being and from random body parts, too!
Victor explains to Paul his means of rebuilding a human being entirely from scratch (the body of a titan, the brain of a genius) and Paul uses the justification of sacrilege in the face of God in an attempt to dissuade Victor from continuing his “evil” experiments.
Victor never ceases the work on his monster and even when his cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court) moves into his mountainside estate to live with him and, in the future, marry him. He keeps all of his experiment a secret from her, including his ongoing affair with his maid, and even though Paul refuses to help Victor recreate a man from scratch, he continues to reside in the estate just so he could protect Elizabeth from Victor.
The film mostly follows the deterioration of the state of mind of the baron very carefully; we watch him as he leaves for days or even weeks at a time just so that he could retrieve the perfect pair of eyeballs for his creature. And as for attaining the brain of a genius, let’s just say that the baron will stoop as low as to murder a fellow human being.
The creature, played by Christopher Lee in a mute role, doesn’t show up until late in the film, which is for the best because even the novel was based mostly on the baron and his experiment. We see the creature suspended in a tank of water (water being the giver of life) throughout most of the film and when we see a living, standing version of the creature for the first time it’s rather frightening. Its eyes don’t match, it’s pale and stiff, and it looks confused. It houses a damaged brain, for reasons that I won’t go into, and therefore, is maniacal. For most of the remainder of the film, the baron keeps the monster chained to the walls in the attic and in one scene (my favorite scene in the film), the maid wanders upstairs and sees the creature for the first time. The baron then locks her inside the room and the camera remains fixated on Cushing’s face as he relishes the moment, keeping the monster at bay and destroying the evidence of his affair with the maid.
This is not a happy film. In its start it shows the Baron Frankenstein situated in prison and awaiting the dawn’s arrival; that is when he’s taken to the guillotine for beheading. As a priest enters his cell, the Baron tells him of his life story and how he’d ended up in prison and so, this film is a “flashback film.” But it takes the shape of a grim memoir and makes one feel less concerned for the Baron as time progresses. It’s a unique take on the monster movie genre in the way that it focuses almost entirely on the creator of the monster and his dealings with immorality.
Last but not least, Peter Cushing is amazing in this film. He wears the clothes of the Baron like he does his own skin and walks around with constant certainty of everything. One can tell that he’s a terrific theatrical actor but I recommend his performance in this film as the “watch how good of an actor Peter Cushing really was.” He rarely blinks; he plays the baron as headstrong but a genius nonetheless, and is not afraid of failure. He stands upright at all times and will get physical if the occasion calls for it. This film focuses on great performances in general, because without them the source material would appear laughable and would falter easily.
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