Curse of Frankenstein comes to us finally on DVD as a companion feature in Warner Video's recent release of the earliest and most important films to come from Hammer Studios, alongside Hammer's THE MUMMY and the superb HORROR OF DRACULA. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is probably less viewed and remembered than Hammer's first Dracula, but whereas I insisted recently that a decent viewing of HORROR OF DRACULA requires one to imagine its 1958, Curse of Frankenstein requires less mental time travel. It's disturbing and troubling, and even a little cruel. But first, some context.
CURSE was Hammer's first foray into Gothic Horror and represents a massive amount of studio chutzpah. According to some sources, originally Hammer studios planned a cheap black-and-white remake of Frankenstein that would use Boris Karloff in the role of the monster. But when Universal studioswho had made the only recognizable cycle of Frankenstein films, balked, the studio changed its plan. It completely reworked its story. The result, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, would be a full-color reworking of the story from the ground up, borrowing almost none of the Universal trappings.
Peter Cushing plays Baron Victor Frankenstein as a cold, calculating sociopath whose search for knowledge has become a search for ego gratification and humiliation. Unlike the basically good Colin Clive of the Universal pictures, Cushing's Frankenstein is perfectly willing to kill innocents to steal their body parts (he offs a kindly old professor to gain a prodigious brain), and indeed to kill inconvenient people by locking them in with the monster. He's charming in a hard, British way, but there's a flinty sort of weakness in the way he tends to explode and then apologize like an abusive husband, as Frankenstein does at least twice in the movie. Cushing's Frankenstein, who became the recurring motif in the Hammer cycle, appearing last in 1973's excellent but regrettably named FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, is a fully realized character who stayed interesting usually far more than the creature.
The creature, though, is still pretty grotty, even half a century later. Whereas Karloff played the monster as a slow-moving innocent, moved to anger on occasion when confused, Christopher Lee's creature is a shambling, bleeding, sadistic rag doll. He stumbles like a toddler and lashes out violently, a complete abomination to any but the clearly unhinged Victor. By the end, when Cushing has lobotomized the creature to make him obey, Lee remains so loathsome and troubling that we want him destroyed, something I can safely say I've never felt watching Universal's cycle. Even Robert De Niro's judgmental, scarred creature in Branagh's multi-million dollar MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN ode is less worthy of destruction; Lee's creature, a patchwork mistake, causes us to hate this Victor as we never hated Universal's Colin Clive.
In keeping with the "drawing room" style of the film, instead of Fritz or the hunchback Ygor, this Frankenstein has Paul, a dashing tutor who comes to Victor's castle early on and remains as Victor grows into the fine scientist he becomes. The pair actually become constant companions, and when Paul is urging Victor's bubble-headed betrothed Elizabeth to clear out for her own good, I felt certain I was watching a romantic triangle in full blossom. (For the record, this is 1957; Paul seems safely heterosexual on the surface and in fact runs off with the girl, not the guy.)
Interestingly, here in CURSE we see the motif of the perfect brain for the monster chosen and then, as fate would have it, damaged in the taking. It's a bit of business that seems to make it into every Frankenstein film wonderfully in Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and suggests an urban legend-style undercurrent running through these films. The movie can't bear to have these experiments go right.
The DVD, of course, is a blessing in as much as a few years ago I never thought we'd see well-priced home versions of films like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN letterboxed and restored, and lo, these things are here. And in keeping with Warner Home Video's dedication to accessibility, the DVD does include subtitles in several languages (why is it so hard to include at least this feature in any DVD release?). But that's about it: Warner also gives us a trailer, but not the sort of commentaries and extras Anchor Bay has become known for in releases of far lesser films.
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn't like most old films; you don't watch GONE WITH THE WIND in context of a set. CURSE, though, launches a sprawling series: not the first Hammer Studios film, but it was the very first Hammer Gothic, the first to introduce the Hammerscape, the weird, colorful, stagy Euro-Britain where almost every Hammer film takes place afterwards. It brings together the two men who would hit their stride a year later in HORROR OF DRACULA, and shows us a hint of the Peter Cushing who would be in such fine form in the best Hammer, BRIDES OF DRACULA. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, now over forty years old, is the beginning of a journey.