Halloween Endurance Test: the Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein is one of the most important films in the Frankenstein canon, if not, the most important one. While Universal’s Dracula opened the door for horror films, and Frankenstein showed that horror films could also be as technically proficient as any other genre, it was Hammer Films’ the Curse of Frankenstein that opened up Mary Shelley’s domain for everyone else. Assured by their lawyers that Shelley’s story (now in the public domain) was an actual, viable resource, Hammer made their own take on the tale. Legally, Hammer just had to make sure their version of Frankenstein’s monster looked nothing like Karloff’s interpretation.
Even the stories are vastly different. Universal’s Frankenstein was a well respected member of the community. a status completely at odds with his passion for grave-robbing. (Not to mention the Edgar Van Sloan disclaimer that precedes the film, warning moviegoers of the ghastliness they’re about to see.) When we initially meet Baron von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), he’s already in jail, and threatening to strangle a priest! My how standards can change in 20 years!
Here Victor is orphaned at a young age, and quickly becomes an enfant terrible. He ushers his aunt out of the house, promising to keep her on the allowance his mother was providing her. His literary love interest Elisabeth is actually his cousin here, and is removed from view just as quickly. His aunt briefly noting that, “she’ll [Elisabeth] make a fine wife for someone someday,” before the door is slammed shut. Absolutely no interest.
Victor has one interest, and that’s science. He hires a science tutor, Paul, and learns all he has to offer in just two years. Keeping Paul on salary afterwards as an assistant/voice of reason/love interest. This would be total pedophile material if not for the fact that it’s Victor who’s clearly wearing the pants. (Granted, nowadays it’d still be pedophilia, but back then, it the days of rigid social/class hierarchy, who knows? There’s clearly no teacher’s union for Paul to fall on for support.)
Paul goes along with Victor through most of his experiments until classism again rears its ugly head. Paul is fine helping Victor bring a dog back to life, rob a bandit’s grave, and endeavor to create life. It’s not until Victor robs a sculptor’s grave that Paul feels their experiments have gone too far.
“Mutilating? I’ve removed his brain; mutilating has nothing to do with it.”
Sensing this testosterone overload, and the questionable glances it’d bring out of movie-goers, Hammer brings Elisabeth back into the fold. Her mother’s dead, she now has no place to live, and she’s engaged to Victor. Who, we learn, has been seeing Justine, his maid, on the side. These Europeans and their pansexualism!
Creating a love triangle between Victor, Paul, and Elisabeth. A two-sided love triangle, as Victor still shows no interest in Elisabeth. Making one wonder why she was even included in the script besides as being a tie-back to the novel. Interesting as even “the Creature” (Christopher Lee) plays second-string to Victor!
(An important distinction here is that Christopher Lee is always referred to as “the Creature.” Frankenstein’s creation having been called “the Monster” by Universal, the M-word was thus off limits in this film.)
Book nerds/academics will rejoice in the fact that the Curse of Frankenstein is assuredly Victor’s show. No one watching the film will have any interest in the Creature. Since, even after the monster is alive, no attention is paid to it. In fact, it’s killed one scene later! The movie’s final act’s sole focus being how Victor will give life back to it.
This film was a huge hit for Hammer, leading the studio to remake other Universal franchises (Dracula, the Mummy, etc…), as well as numerous sequels. It also made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into huge stars; quickly establishing themselves as stars in Britain’s new wave of horror.