Hammer Films ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) is one of many loose adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, ‘Frankenstein’, and is one that stands uniquely apart from its peers by giving us a version that turns the story on its head with making the titular character the real monster of the story.
The film begins with Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in prison awaiting the death sentence after being accused of murder. Here he calls on a Priest (Alex Gallier) so that he can tell his side of the story to someone who will listen to him. His story goes back to his youth when the young Baron (Melvyn Hayes)) meets a scientist named Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Paul arrives at the house of Frankenstein after receiving a request from Victor’s father for Paul to tutor his son. As it turns out, the Baron has been dead for many years and it was Victor who sent the letter. Young Victor is no fool and despite his ruse to get Paul to his manor, Victor controls the conversation and convinces Paul to take the job.
We then see the years pass as Victor studies quite intently under Paul, absorbing everything that Paul teaches him, until we finally catch up to the adult Victor and when the conflict begins. Paul and Victor work closely together as they conduct an experiment to revive a deceased dog, in which they succeed. As they celebrate, they discuss the significance of their experiment, with Paul being the most excited about how they can prevent death. Paul wants to submit their studies, but Victor has other intentions. Victor wants to delay the release of their study and move onto the next step: not to prevent death, but to create life. Paul is a little uneasy about this at first, but once again Victor controls the conversation and convinces Paul to aid him.
The two travel to the location where a serial murderer has been hanged, and cut the body down. They take the body back to their laboratory, where Victor severs the mutilated head of the hanged man. He lays out his plans to splice together many different body parts from many different individual’s with specific attributes. Paul becomes increasingly disapproving of Victor’s experiment, particularly after the arrival of Victor’s cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court), who has moved into the house in anticipation of their wedding, which was arraigned a long time ago by the Baron and Elizabeth’s mother. Paul desperately attempts to get Victor to abandon his project, but Victor stubbornly doesn’t listen. Paul also fails to get Elizabeth to leave the house for her own safety, as she refuses out of her long-time love for Victor. Paul informs Victor that he’ll no longer assist in the experiment, but sticks around to protect Elizabeth, whom he feels is in danger as long as she remains at the house.
Here we start to see Victor progress into the films primary antagonist as it’s revealed that Victor is secretly sneaking around with his head maid Justine (Valarie Gaunt), who meet for sexual activities in the dark corridors of the house. It seems that Victor has also promised her marriage, which is something she yearns for. Victor however, has not revealed to her that he has an arraigned marriage with Elizabeth, which leads to a major conflict later in the movie that further cements Victor’s evil.
Victor moves on with his experiment and eventually creates The Monster (Christopher Lee); however, after an incident earlier in the movie in which the intended brain is accidently damaged after being knocked off a table, his creation isn’t as perfectly realized as he had hoped. Victor blames Paul for the damaged brain that causes his creation to be more violent and primitive. The Monster manages to escape from the Frankenstein house, which sets forth a series of events that leads to Victor’s imprisonment.
One of the things that I absolutely love about this movie is the direction they decided to take the character Victor Frankenstein. In other incarnations of this story, Victor is a mad, driven scientist who learns the harsh reality of his creation. He becomes sympathetic and regretful, and usually attempts to redeem himself for his actions. Here he is portrayed as the true antagonist of the story, and Peter Cushing sells it very authentically. Throughout the movie we see the character evolve further and further into the role of the villain; he’s egotistical, obsessive and without conscience. He’s a liar and manipulator, and eventually cold-blooded murder who will do anything for his experiment and to protect his secrets. There is no regret with this character and no redemption to be had, only obsessive madness, and it’s a welcome change to the story.
Also, unlike previous incarnations, The Monster isn’t the point of focus of the story, rather the creation itself is as it builds the conflict between the film’s protagonist, Paul, and antagonist, Victor and the destruction of their friendship. I would go as far to say that this is a character driven film focused on the opposing ideologies of two characters whose mutual respect and long-lasting bond becomes shattered because of the creation of The Monster. Sure, James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) also had limited screen time for the Monster as we witness Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein bring his creation to life more than halfway through the film, but the sequels released by Universal afterward were much more focused on The Monster itself. The Hammer Film’s series takes a unique approach with each film focused on Victor as the antagonist, who has different creations that go awry throughout the franchise, making him the TRUE Monster.
Christopher Lee’s Monster looks good and is slightly more grotesque in appearance than Boris Karloff’s version. There’s really not a whole lot to say about The Monster in this movie, as it’s just there as a deadly consequence. We don’t get to sympathize with it as a misunderstood being as we do with other versions of the story, but I’m fine with that because I really like how focused it is as Victor being the monster of the story.
As far as acting, it’s not bad at all. I can’t praise Peter Cushing’s performance enough, because despite being an asshole, I couldn’t help but like him. Robert Urquhart was pretty good as Paul. I think he sells his disapproval and concern pretty well, although there are some moments where his performance feels flat. Valarie Gaunt is good as the maid Justine, and Hazel Court is good as Elizabeth, both of whom sell their affections for Victor believably. While the character Elizabeth is almost prominently featured in many versions of the Frankenstein story, the addition of the Justine character was a nice touch as her revelation and ultimate fate serve as a tragic example of how cold and nasty this version of Victor really is.
Overall, I really enjoyed this take on the story and characters. It’s a Frankenstein story that stands apart from the rest and is among one of the very best, even if it is far removed from Shelley’s original novel.
The film is now available on Blu Ray. You can find it at the link below:
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