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“LOOK OUT PROFESSOR! LOOK OUT!!” Hammer Films in its current state of existence, has been restoring and releasing films from its golden age. Some of these are sadly not available for shipping to the United States, but many are and can be ordered from AMAZON.UK. These are two disc sets which you need a foreign region dvd or Blu-ray player to play. An immediate question is, is it worth all the trouble? Do the films look significantly better than their, in some cases, U.S. produced Blu-rays or the older Anchor Bay releases on DVD. The answer to these is, in call caps, YES!
I admit that most of the box artwork on these Blu-rays is not so great, but what’s inside is what matters. Also Hammer Films have been pretty poor represented on Blu-ray. Hammer did deals with various major U.S. distributors who in some cases re-edited the films so what you may find in a U.S. release is a generation or so down from the best elements that still reside in the U.K. and or a censored version. Also, again because of the many differing studios involved in the U.S. you aren’t going to find a complete collection of any of the various franchise films Hammer produced. The best U.S. release of any Hammer film so far is for Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966) which copies exactly the U.K. version in every way. Sadly none of the other ones have done so; All the more reason for an already rabid Hammer fan to purchase these versions and perhaps especially the reason anyone coming to these films for the first time to start with these.
Hammer began this restoration process a few years ago and just released some later films from the studio’s most productive period. (the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s. But, having to start someplace, I’d like to start with what is wrongly, understood to be the first Hammer Film, That film is The Curse Of Frankenstein, a film directed by Terence Fisher and made cheaply in 1956 in England and previously released by Warner Brothers in the United States theatrically and later on video and on DVD, a no thrills but very good looking one at that. It’s certainly the first to Hammer film to have an international impact and to create the Hammer style as it was and is known.
The film was released originally before I was even born, by now I’ve seen it a number of times, though mostly chopped up on television and once in an overly vivid but still softish looking 16mm print at the American Cinematheque but seeing it on DVD and now on Blu-ray is really being able to see it as if for the first time, it was a revelation to me in many new ways that I hope to share with you.
This film is in many ways the first modern horror film ever made. There are really three films that created what I’m calling the modern horror film, The Curse Of Frankenstein is the chronologically the first, Horror Of Dracula (1958)(as it is named here in the United States) the second, and Psycho (1960) the third.
The reason these three films followed quickly one after is because each was made very cheaply and grossed increasingly large amounts of money internationally. Ironically the most modern and lastingly influential is Psycho, the only one of the three to be in Black and White. The choice to shoot it in Black and White was primarily to save money as an experiment by Producer/Director Alfred Hitchcock. Low budget Horror films without stars– specifically The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula were making lots of money for little investment and Hitchcock figured he could experiment with one of his own.
The fact that all of these revolutionary modern horror films were directed by two sedate, quiet, middle-aged Englishmen is something for a sociologist to figure out. Of these Horror of Dracula, also restored and released by Hammer in the U.K. is, although a better film than The Curse of Frankenstein, not modern in its themes which are purely and wonderfully Gothic Horror, but it is modern in terms of the pure sexual appeal of evil that it portrays and added to genre.
What makes The Curse of Frankenstein and Psycho modern, where Horror of Dracula is not, is in their central protagonist and villain. These two films really introduced us to the sociopathic psychopath as the main character and the major element of horror in their stories. Now I have to pause here to acknowledge of course Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and the remake of The Lodger and Hangover Square both directed by John Brahm and starring Laird Cregar. These films deal with this type of character years earlier but aren’t really horror films, for one, and don’t focus as much and as deeply on the lead “psycho”. None of these excellent films changed the type of horror films being made the way that The Curse of Frankenstein and Psycho did.
These lead villains are men, not myths of European folklore but products of modern society’s pressures and opportunities, disappointments and conflicts. Psycho owes this central character, Norman Bates, in most every way to its source novel by Robert Bloch. In every way that is, save the performance and casting of Anthony Perkins, brilliantly cast against type as Bates. The Curse of Frankenstein’s Baron Victor Frankenstein is a much more complicated creation, part source material, part script, part actor and director.
It’s a popular misconception that the monster is named Frankenstein where in fact the monster has no name in the novel or in The Curse of Frankenstein. The Universal series of Frankenstein films were stolen by the monster and really about the monster, but that is not true of Curse of Frankenstein—or of the important series of Hammer Frankenstein films that would follow.
When we first meet Victor Frankenstein he is about to be executed for what we’d now call being a serial killer. He calls for a minister not because he believes in the religion but because he knows the minister will be believed by others. Frankenstein claims he is innocent, not because he didn’t kill people, but because he created a monster that did.
Don’t you understand? (his argument goes). It’s not important that the monster killed but that it lived. Frankenstein created life. No one else even dared to conceive of the idea let alone succeed at it and he craves to impress and be saved by a society that he is not a successful a part of.
Baron Frankenstein in this film is a goal oriented self-made man. It’s the frustration of society always stopping him from achieving his goals that drives him further and further into the back woods of evil, as actor Peter Cushing described the character.
Left alone at a young age and put in charge of his family’s money he uses it to isolate himself from society and build his intelligence and desires in a vacuum. It’s clear when we first meet the young Victor Frankenstein that he wants to be considered and impress as an adult would. He continues to use his inheritance to force adult knowledge upon himself without really growing out of his childish desire to impress people he doesn’t know and outdo a society and a world that he’s never made himself a part of.
Frankenstein’s personality as written and perhaps even more as played by Cushing fits into the glove of the sociopathic personality perfectly. He only feels his own pain and doesn’t even understand the pain of others. Likewise he only understands his own ideas, dismissing everyone else’s morals and religious prejudices as quaint old fashioned ignorance. The very word evil is silly to him.
I was struck especially towards the end of the film with how truly panicked he becomes when his one time and only real friend, and former mentor, Paul, arrives at the jail. His begging for Paul to help save his life is powerfully pathetic and real. The scene is written probably for us to enjoy seeing the villain Frankenstein suffer, but instead it just shows the depths of obsession his isolated desires have taken him to.
His friend’s refusing to tell anyone that Frankenstein’s wild story is true is the ultimate punishment, though if the minister really had come to believe the “I created a monster” story it would only add another even greater reason to kill Frankenstein, though Frankenstein ironically himself is oblivious to this fact.
It reminds me of serial killer Ted Bundy’s finally discovering his own fear of death after years of denial. This fear of the loss of his own life-the only life he really understood, drove him to offer up information on his crimes and the locations of missing victims bodies, claiming in this way to want to help those he “harmed”—he could never really say he killed people—while not seeing that this just made him seem more insane and murderous.
If I’m making a case here that Victor Frankenstein represents this type of serial killer personality, which I guess I am, then the element that immediately might seem to be missing from Victor Frankenstein’s personality is a degree of sexual dysfunction and motivation to drive him to do what he does.
But there’s certainly a sexual side to this story of asexual reproduction. The source novel, written by a woman, though published initially as the work of a man, is in some ways not about mankind’s creating life being an abomination, but specifically as being man’s attempt to do so. Her own mother, an early Feminist writer, had died from complications of Mary’s birth and she hated her stepmother.
Mary Shelley would have a number of her own children die at an early age and had already had one do so before the book was published. Women are the ones in nature who must endure the, at times, surreal and frightening transformations of pregnancy and childbirth and as a woman she was uniquely qualified to express and reflect some of these feelings mixed with her own personal problems in her novel.
In this film it always surprises me when we suddenly cut to Frankenstein hiding in a corner of the castle kissing and rather cruelly teasing his servant who is his secret lover. Up until this point in the film Frankenstein seems almost asexual in his pure pursuit and practice of the knowledge and his quest to create life. It’s only after we meet his arranged marriage bride that we first see him clutching sexually with his servant. She later says she’s pregnant with his child in an attempt to blackmail him into marrying her at which point Frankenstein arranges to have his monster kill her. The killing takes place behind a closed door and from the way she is screaming we can assume the monster is doing more than just killing her. We watch this event entirely from the reactions on Frankenstein’s face which show a growing satisfaction, and then joy at the relief and finally just a subtle almost self-satisfied smile at his own cleverness.
In the later, and arguably best of the Hammer Frankenstein films, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed there is a scene (censored in the United States for years) in which Frankenstein actually rapes a woman, in case you think that Frankenstein isn’t ever motivated or isn’t to some degree sexually deranged.
I’d argue that his whole pursuit becomes a substitution for a normal sex life in many ways. Writer Mary Shelly as a woman would tend to see sex, as women certainly do more so than men, as being a means to an end—creating a new life which is what drives Frankenstein. The curse in The Curse Of Frankenstein is his desire and relentless merciless pursuit to create life.
Early in the film there is a wonderful camera dolly into a close up of the Doctor’s face as he waits to hear the heartbeat of a dog as it comes back to life. In this way we realize the success of the experiment and share the joy of his first achievement by his reactions to it. This contrasts sharply with how we, the audience, see his actual creation of artificial life for the first time.
The first sight of the monster is done by increasing and then slowing down the speed of the film itself in a way that is currently used in feature films and especially in previews for films. We see the monster standing in the middle of the laboratory its face is covered—the whole body wrapped like a mummy in yellowish white dripping wet bandages. As it senses our presence—for the shot is a dolly in—thrusting the monster at us—the creature begins to turn its head and then the entire speed of the film changes so that we snap much closer to the monster as one of its hands whips quickly up and then rips the bandages from its face at which point the speed of the film slows again so that we get almost a still image of the hideous face.
Unlike the novel, in which Frankenstein is horrified when he actually sees what he has created his “being” in the film Frankenstein seems throughout the film to be nothing but proud and thrilled by his creation. Does the term a face that only a mother could love apply? Yes.
For most of the film he keeps it locked in a depressing little dingy cell with straw chained to the wall but proudly demonstrates how it now obeys commands that a dog would perform with more grace. He tries, very badly to care for his child, he is seen fixing some awful looking baby-food-like-slop for the creature to eat, he tastes it and then rather than pulling a face as a lesser actor would do, Frankenstein dowses the gruel with salt to kill the awful taste.
All this shows how bad a mother Frankenstein is, let alone the malignant killing rage that erupts frequently from the creature itself. It is his child/ his creature that demonstrates the evil Frankenstein himself never shows us. The creature is in this way the Mr. Hyde to Frankenstein’s own self-appraisal of being Doctor Jeckyll. This is what makes the monster horrifying and modern as an external symbol of the characters own corruption.
The monster itself in The Curse Of Frankenstein is a horror especially in the clear and vibrant restoration—which does reveal the limits of the makeup in a few instances. The creature in Curse as portrayed by Christopher Lee is really the screen’s first zombie in the sense we expect them to be now. It looks dead. Grey. One eye is white as though boiled and blind. Scars are all over its face. It’s body and limbs don’t move in coordination with each other. And most of all it seems to live on as a mockery of life so that it can kill the truly living.
When it escapes into the world we quickly cut to the kindly old blind man and his cute grandson walking in the woods. We are set up to expect to see the kind side of the monster because that’s what these characters and these scenes demonstrated in the original novel and in the James Whale’s earlier Frankenstein films. But instead this monster discovers the blind man is helpless and then kills him because of it and soon after, though the death is off screen, he kills the little boy too.
After this offense the monster is graphically shot to death, the pain of the moment perhaps made more real, as Christopher Lee related, that the gore he slapped onto his face went into his eye and he thought he’d actually put his own eye out it hurt so much.
The corpse is then buried only to be dug back up to be revived a second time. By this point the monster itself seems ashamed of its own appearance. After all, it has been shot in the face one of its eyes goes black and it soon acquires a surgical bald patch on half of its head.
It seems to hate human life and why wouldn’t it given the life Frankenstein has given it? Yes the creature in this film does lack the personality and impact that Karloff and Shelley gave it. The reason for this is by choice, the one by writer Jimmy Sangster, who makes Doctor Frankenstein the monster himself and this is what makes it a modern film with a foot in today’s world rather than in the superstitions of yesterday. It was also the key interest of director Terence Fisher who was always interested in the people in his films not the effects or monsters themselves.
The studio revived the film to “go gothic,” but in this film, and the series that followed it, explores a dangerous and modern villain, a serial killer personality. For these period films to have become so popular to a new generation of viewers they must also contain some attitudes related to 50’s and 60’s society. Peter Hutchings in his book HAMMER AND BEYOND: THE BRITISH HORROR FILM argues that all the most successful (both commercially and artistically) of these dealt with a specific type of modern man, a go-getting professional working man, though not from the working class of the pre WW II world. This type existed in the United States as well, immortalized and dissected by Rod Serling for example, during the same era.
The motives for this revolutionary film’s existence began were naturally and purely economic. Hammer films a small British company had been in business for a number of years and had cultivated a staff of filmmakers who had by this time worked together as a family in many ways on a variety of different types of films. This was a British company making small Black and White films for a British audience with fading or barely, Name, American actors in some of them. Nobody would have ever heard of them if things continued as they had been so far.
Hammer had recently had success adapting live British television Science Fiction shows into films and wanted to continue the trend and decided perhaps it was time to revisit the monsters that Universal had made a lot of money from during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Having thrown out a first script by Milton Subotsky, they then hired one of their production staffers, recently turned writer Jimmy Sangster to write (I’m sure for less money than Subotsky had been paid) a remake of Frankenstein. They were not buying any rights from Universal (part of the beauty of their plan) because the source material was in public domain and the name Frankenstein was their built in and free star power. Sangster was told he could not use the look of the monster that Universal had created and this suited Sangster fine since he was interested in Doctor, not monster, Frankenstein as the central character. Sangster was guided in the scripting by a frequently overlooked force for good at Hammer, producer Anthony Hinds who would write (under the name John Elder) many fine scripts for the company in years to come.
Staff director Terence Fisher, who had recently made the very interesting science fiction film Four Sided Triangle (available as an extra on this blu ray release and on DVD previously from Anchor Bay) was, depending on who’s story you believe, either looking for something different and more gutsy to work on, or was chosen for the project by Producer Hinds who knew that Fisher had the right mix of restraint and the ability to show off that would make the project catch fire. Fisher certainly did both with The Curse Frankenstein as did actor (and recent British television star) Peter Cushing who heard about the remake and asked his agent to submit him for the part.
The intention was to shoot the film in black and white but director Fisher excited by the script wanted more time and Hinds again probably helped get a few more dollars to shoot for more days and to shoot in color. This seemingly small color gamble was Curse’s first revolution. No one had really seen a horror film in color before. Color films themselves really only began to be predominant in the 1960’s and were usually big budget spectacles or romances. The vivid red of Technicolor was great for women’s lipstick but nobody really thought about the impact of seeing this amount of blood and yellow-gray dead flesh on screen for the first time.
Universal’s Horror films had ultimately turned into vehicles for Abbott and Costello, all of them were in black and white and the monsters themselves were only shadows of their once great originals, especially James Whale’s two very gothic Frankenstein films.
Another major modern and still fresh element is the music by James Bernard. Bernard used the names of the films to inspire his themes and this is true for the first time in The Curse Of Frankenstein, but what impresses most about this score is how non thematic it is. It growls and groans like a deeply upset stomach in a pre minimalistic and heavily and uniquely orchestrated way that is totally unlike most horror music before had been. It is expressing horror and shock but never, in this film’s case, the characters emotions, nor does it give us any release at the end of the film’s “happy ending”. (Filmmaker/composer John Carpenter based his musical style in Bernard’s music and even got Bernard to come out of retirement and compose again later in his life.)
What’s ironic is that Hammer only wanted to revive Gothic Horror while director Terence Fisher was interested in suspension of disbelief and emotional impact. Fisher also did not believe the old saying, “that what you don’t see is more frightening than what you do see.” Director James Whale’s Frankenstein is a great film, (though flawed because of studio re-editing) greater than The Curse Of Frankenstein, but it was larger than life, heavily designed in an expressionistic way that made it surreal and therefore less disturbing.
Director Fisher did not rewatch the original film, not wanting to be influenced, though star Cushing did re read the original book and had fond memories of the first films, which sparked his initial interest in playing the character himself. (The commentary on the Blu-ray suggests that Cushing’s interest started from liking the actor Colin Clive who was the first actor to portray Doctor Frankenstein.)
As production on the film continued Fisher realized he really had something special and worked harder and harder to bring the film home. I don’t know what order the film was shot in, certainly not exactly in chronological order of the story, but the film does feel a bit uneven at times.
Fisher’s film with its production design by Bernhard Robinson and photography by Jack Asher is expressively muted. The earth tone colors are well coordinated in a grim and sometimes expressively nasty way. The spotless Blu-ray transfer does occasionally seem a bit faded and soft in a few places.
All of this moves along at a brisk and brutal pace in the hand of James Needs editing—though some of this can be credited to director Fisher’s early film work as an editor himself. This family of technicians would continue to work together for another five years on Hammer films that followed—proof of the value of true collaboration—the type fostered by the now vanished studio system.
To put all this more basically, no revolution in technology currently had the impact that bright red blood had on audiences then. It was put there to horrify. After all isn’t that what a horror film should do. Not everybody thinks so.
The critical reaction at the time is generally believed now to have been one of being offended and sickened by this success of being a horror film being horrifying. In fact a review of the original novel had stated “our taste and our judgment alike revolt” at in like manner the reviews of the new film said things we’ve heard critics continue to say about the genre ever since. They complained that the film is morbid not entertaining, graphic, degrading… But in fact this now accepted idea is somewhat untrue, the bulk of reviews were, simply dismissive of the film because it was a horror film and not worthy of serious consideration one-way or the other. This is certainly still true of reviewer’s attitudes towards horror films and fiction.
Nevertheless audiences responded and the film was a huge hit, in and beyond the U.K itself, and the color of blood and horror films walked hand in hand from that day forth and with the copycat films that followed and lead to what could be called a sub genre now known as gore films.
In The Curse Of Frankenstein, much of this new graphic approach is about the collecting and using and abusing the various body parts needed to create the monster. The camera dollies quickly past the bird pecked and rotting face of the dead thief who is the main body of the creature. Frankenstein then cuts off the degraded head just off camera but the look of heartless concentration Cushing shows while doing so and the way he smears the first swatch of blood onto his jacket before dissolving the head in acid is cold and clinical.
The headless body is then kept in the background framing of much action that follows in the lab. There is a constant presence of these gruesome details in the film that still has impact and again echoes the way serial killers collect and use the body parts of victims.
One letter received by Police in Cleveland Ohio during a series of still unsolved and long series of serial killings in the 1920’s actually claimed that the body parts of the victims were being used in some revolutionary medical experiments whose end would justify the means. Certainly this is Frankenstein’s explanation whenever anyone seems shocked by his actions.
There is an interesting shot—now a cliché—of Frankenstein examining a disembodied eye through a magnifying glass. In the foreground of the shot we see one loose eyeball in a glass, then in the center of the shot, we see the eyeball in his hand, then we see his own eye enlarged and huge looking at the eyeball. Though by now this shot is just a gimmick in this film it morbidly focuses our attention on the eyeball in three ways in the same shot.This is typical of how this film concentrates and emphasizes these gruesome elements in a morbid way. (This restoration of the film seamlessly restores one eyeball close up edited down in the American Prints previously released. Unfortunately the eye is clearly not a human eyeball—at the time the shock of seeing a real eyeball probably was more impactful than the fact it wasn’t a human eyeball.)
Frankenstein comments about the stitched together body during one of these floating-corpse-in-the-tank scenes by saying, “let him rest in peace while he can.” There are several other instances of this kind of gallows humor that Frankenstein displays that also set horror films on the path that lead unfortunately to such clever and constant quips as those that mostly destroyed the once terrifying Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films and to the post modern (or should I say META?) quips in the Scream films.
This is counterpoint and context humor, which is modern, unlike the over the top theatrical goofy fool characters that exist purely to be comedy relief in Whale’s two Frankenstein films. Victor Frankenstein later delicately unwraps the (rather bad props though they are) severed hands of a sculpture he will put onto his creation and soon after that covets the most brilliant brain in Europe. This whole fetishistic interest that Frankenstein has in these pieces and putting them together impressed me with this viewing as being very much like the way serial killers collect and store and tend to body parts they keep from their victims.
The image from the later Frankenstein film Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed of buried bodies bubbling up out of the mud in his back yard and also being placed beneath his floor boards is what I’ve always thought John Wayne Gacy’s basement must have been like when it was dug up to pull victim and after victim out into the light.
Victor Frankenstein has another common quality of the sociopathic personality, a huge ego. He isn’t content to bring the dead back to life he wants to create his own being. Human lives only exist to supply parts for him to put together into his own form of life; a horrible abomination that he prefers and that he thinks proves he is greater man and this is a great pursuit than any other in the world’s history.
Ultimately Frankenstein needs a brain for his collection of pieces. The brain that Frankenstein gets for his monster he gets through direct murder—as opposed to the indirect murders he misguidedly hopes to blame on his creature in order to save his own life.
Bernstein, the scientist it comes from is first treated to after dinner drinks and polite conversation. Frankenstein wants this brain because he considers it to be the best in Europe. The professor, now an old man, warns the young Frankenstein of all the dangers he’s already indulged in, of never being satisfied with knowledge but continuing to search in the dark for further discoveries rather than staying in the light by sharing the knowledge to better the world. Frankenstein seems to be enjoying a drink and a smoke and ignoring most of this paternal advice and conversation at the time but he’s actually just waiting for the moment to strike.
Alone at last with his victim, Frankenstein leads the professor upstairs (one of the films few poorly made sets) to where he asks him to stand back from a painting of a early surgical procedure at the top of the stars in order to see it better. Frankenstein then yells. “Look out Professor! Look Out!” and shoves the old man through the banister. There is then a high angle shot of a pretty amazing fall by a stuntman directly down onto his head on the floor below. It’s almost as if Frankenstein has killed the professor because he disagrees with his advice to “relax and enjoy life” and will instead prove to the professor how wrong he is by putting his brain behind the eyes of his new creation.
Whether this is one of the reasons the creature rages against life is unclear in the film. Does, as the film suggests, the body reject the brain? Some have felt that Bernstein’s brain immediately recognizes Frankenstein once alive and that is why it attacks him since it knows this is its murderer and creator/tormentor.
This precious brain was previously damaged in a fight over it with Frankenstein’s former teacher now disavowed assistant Paul, but Frankenstein proceeds to pick the pieces of glass from it and put in into the body anyway, is this the reason the creature’s eye glint with joyous rage as it kills in the film.
These issues of the monster’s personality aren’t dealt with in this film, but would be at great length in the series that followed. And don’t really matter in this film’s context. Frankenstein is alone once all the pieces are assembled and must use his electrical machines to bring it to life, but he must stop part way through to get his former friend and supporter Paul’s help to run the equipment built to be operated by two people. It is at this moment that lightning strikes the equipment and completes the experiment without him. Nature once set, even unnaturally, in motion can’t be stopped.
And neither could Victor Frankenstein as he continued to exist and develop through a series of largely good to great films that followed in this series where the monstrous creations became the true victims of each film. The majority of them directed by Fisher and written by Anthony Hinds and together they are among the most impressive in Horror cinema and they put the real monster inside of the man named Frankenstein in a still modern and disturbing way.
Though I wanted to mostly talk about the film itself, these U.K. Hammer releases feature the best and in many cases the first ever extras for these seminal horror films. This disc features a very well edited collection of still images, and documentaries. It also features Tales Of Frankenstein—a long rumored and mostly unseen attempt by Hammer to turn Frankenstein into an anthology horror series. The transfer comes from some old standard definition video and is pretty poor but the show itself is worse. Producer Michael Carreras said the entire show was written produced and directed by Universal Studio’s horror veteran, Curt Siodmak who, he said, was a sophisticated charming man who then proceeded to made a total piece of crap for them. Only Carreras didn’t say crap! It shows how early on the some of the success of The Curse Of Frankenstein was misspent—though luckily Hammer mostly stayed away from television at the time, this perhaps being an object lesson in why not to do so.
There is however also the very worthwhile earlier Fisher film The Four Sided Triangle that deserves its own article. And last but not least, The Curse Of Frankenstein is presented in two different aspect ratios. The one to watch is the nearly square aspect ratio (1:37:1) version that it claims has never been released before—though old television broadcasts used this shape. If you watch the blown up version the clarity starts to fall off and you lose picture elements—like the opening shot of the film where the matt painted Castle is almost totally off screen.
Like any film worthy of serious discussion you will find in the material below many opinions and theories that contradict or cancel each other out from source to source. You can decide for yourself who in your view is right and wrong about this important film or let the information guide you to your own equally valid ideas and theories.