It seems that every decade or so the horror genre is declared dead only for a groundbreaking film to come along and resurrect it. In the late 1950s, that film was The Curse of Frankenstein. The “death” of horror is always hyperbole, often merely declaring the end of a particular trend within the genre, but in the case of the 50s there was a great deal of truth to the rumors. Many of the horror films of the decade were atomic fear and red scare science fiction films with horrific elements rather than unadulterated horror. Even by the mid-1940s the classical gothic horror films had begun to wind down as the Val Lewton cycle came to a close and the Universal monsters met Abbott and Costello. The Curse of Frankenstein was simultaneously a return to the gothic roots of the genre and a reinvention of them, upping the sexuality, violence, and gore along the way.
Hammer had had great success with horror-infused science fiction in the first two Quatermass films and studio head James Carreras felt it was high time to consider the return of classical horror; and Frankenstein seemed to be the ideal option to revive it. The first draft of The Curse of Frankenstein came from Milton Subotsky, who would go on to co-found Hammer’s biggest rival in the late 60s and 70s, Amicus Films. The producers were generally unsatisfied with this draft, though some elements did make it into the final product. After ordering a rewrite and finally rejecting the Subotsky draft, Carreras and producer Anthony Hinds turned writing duties over to a man who would become a Hammer legend, Jimmy Sangster. Somewhere around this time, Universal caught wind that the British studio was planning a new Frankenstein film and made it very clear that resemblances to their properties, particularly Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up for the monster, would be met with legal action. The producers and Sangster came to the conclusion that the best way to avoid this would be to move the focus away from the creature by making the Baron Victor Frankenstein the true monster.
In Mary Shelley’s original novel as well as in the 1931 film, Dr. Frankenstein is hyper-focused and obsessed to the verge of madness while working on his experiments. After the creation, however, his morality and conscience return, and he works to right the wrongs he has wrought upon his family, community, and the world. In Curse, Frankenstein has no such scruples. He is a complete sociopath, lacking any kind of empathy, caring only for himself and his work. It is one of the innovations of the film that the protagonist is truly a villain. Like his predecessors in literature and film, Frankenstein robs graves and participates in all kinds of unsavory behaviors for the sake of his work, but this Frankenstein goes far beyond that. He cheats on his fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) with his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt). He then orchestrates for the creature to kill Justine when he learns she is pregnant with his child. He murders Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) to harvest his brain. After the brain is damaged, Frankenstein uses it anyway, condemning his creation to great mental and physical difficulties. He then blames his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) for the creature’s violence, refusing to take any responsibility for himself.
To play this antihero, Hammer approached one of Britain’s biggest television stars of the period, Peter Cushing, who had turned them down for other roles previously. Landing Cushing for the role turned out to be incredibly fortuitous for Hammer and the actor soon became one of their biggest draws. His portrayal of the Baron revels in the evil of the character but is also nuanced enough to elicit a modicum of sympathy from the audience. We may be appalled by what he does, but somehow, we understand why he does it. Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is unlike any other version of the character and the clinical coldness of his villainy is part of what makes him so memorable and compelling. We are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by him. We are darkly fascinated by his singular focus in obtaining his goals but disturbed by his complete lack of empathy as he pursues them. To balance Victor Frankenstein’s villainy, the character of Paul Krempe serves as the conscience and moral center of the film. Paul is in many ways the voice of the audience, repelled by Frankenstein but still somehow unable to abandon him. Cushing’s performance as the Baron not only carries The Curse of Frankenstein but is the throughline that bolsters five of Hammer’s six Frankenstein sequels.
John Redway, Cushing’s agent, also represented an actor that he thought might fit the bill for the creature, the relatively unknown thirty-five-year-old Christopher Lee. Lee’s performance as the creature is as far different from Boris Karloff’s in the 1931 film as can be with one exception—both elicit a great deal of sympathy. Physically, Lee’s movements are limp like a marionette on strings rather than rigid and arthritic, his face often carries a confused more than curious expression, and his creature is much more violent than Karloff’s. The look of the creature in Curse is perhaps more realistic, with its crude stitching and a patchwork look to his face, than its predecessors as well. It was written at the time that this version of the monster “looked like a road accident” but the makeup has gone on to be the second most famous version of the creature on film. Lee’s performance is quite remarkable, with the actor conveying every ounce of the creature’s pathetic nature. He is something like a mistreated animal that obeys his master through fear, but then lashes out with violence when it becomes overwhelming. The creature is a victim of Frankenstein as much as any other, a mere puppet in the hands of a psychopath.
Offscreen, Cushing and Lee became immediate friends. In his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee recounts their first meeting on the set of The Curse of Frankenstein. “Our very first encounter began with me storming into his dressing-room and announcing in petulant tones, ‘I haven’t got any lines!’ He looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said dryly, ‘You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.’” This wry response from Cushing sparked a lifelong friendship that included many collaborations that made the two actors the greatest horror team of the era. In the following years, this status would crystalize in The Horror of Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), and on into many other films for Hammer, Amicus, and other studios throughout the decades.
The Curse of Frankenstein also introduced what would become known as the Hammer House Style as established by director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and production designer Bernard Robinson. Though the look would continue to evolve throughout their collaborations it is unmistakable even in Curse and several elements contributed to it. Though originally planned for black and white, Hammer decided to shoot the film in color, which was not common for genre films of the time as Technicolor was still quite expensive. To avoid these costs, Hammer used the newly created Eastman Color, which only used one strip of film rather than the three that Technicolor required, and lit the film more like a black and white movie. Therefore, the film has more contrasts of light, particularly on the sets, than other color movies of the era, lending an air of expanse and mystery found in black and white films while bringing the vibrancy and realism of color.
The sets are also a key factor in the creation of the Hammer House Style. Bray Studios, where Hammer’s films were shot, was literally a large house and the sets had to be built to the dimensions of the rooms within it. It was decided to set the film in the Victorian period rather than the modern era as previous film versions of Frankenstein had, but Bernard Robinson rose to the challenging task and used the limitations of the studio to the film’s advantage. Of course, the key set of any Frankenstein movie is the laboratory in which the doctor performs his experiments and ultimately gives the creature life. Rather than the expansive tower, crackling with electricity of the Universal films, Victor’s lab is a claustrophobic chemical lab that bubbles rather than sparks. This is a prime example of the Hammer House look, as Asher takes full advantage of the colorful liquids in various oddly shaped receptacles, the spinning generator, and the man-sized saline tank that houses the bandage-wrapped creation.
The Curse of Frankenstein does not always get the credit it deserves for the influence it would have on horror for the next decade. Not only did the success of the film lead Hammer to its iconic status as one of the great horror studios, it clearly influenced Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle, Mario Bava’s blood-soaked masterpieces, and even Michael Powell’s deeply influential cult film Peeping Tom (1960). Without The Curse of Frankenstein, modern horror looks very different. Though it reached back to gothic horrors of the past, it did so with a progressive sensibility, including elements of exploitation along with serious artistic ideals. Though many critics focused on the increased gore and violence of the film, it is more likely the unsettling portrayal of the Baron that was most upsetting. Cushing’s portrayal opened the doors for a central villain that is undeniably evil, but equally engaging. Just as later audiences would be drawn to Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger despite their depravity, Baron Frankenstein would pack audiences into theaters again and again for another taste of his misdeeds.
Despite limited resources, Hammer managed to infuse an elegance into their films that is unmatched in horror cinema and The Curse of Frankenstein is a prime example of this. It was created by a group of artists, both in front of and behind the camera, who took the work seriously and sought to make the best film they could. Despite his wry quip about the script to his young co-star, Peter Cushing clearly gave his all to his performance as Victor Frankenstein. Christopher Lee, Robert Urquhart, Hazel Court, Valerie Gaunt, and all the supporting cast, even those that only briefly appear on screen, give memorable and deeply felt performances that leave a lasting impact. Terence Fisher had never made a horror film before but would make such an impression with Curse that he would go on to become arguably the greatest director of gothic horror of all time. The film is a brilliant example of kismet—the right people, through connection and coincidence, coming together at just the right time to create something that captures lightning. In this case, that lightning would bring to life not only a creature, but an entire dynasty of horror under the banner of Hammer, a name that is legendary for the genre the world over and for all time.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.