Double Feature: ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) and ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ (1958)

I’ve managed to see a few Hammer horror films over the years, but it’s scattershot. I think I’ve seen most of the Dracula series, all of the Mummy films, several Quatermass pictures and smattering of others, including the Karnstein series from earlier this year. There are a fair few that I’ve missed – like The Reptile, the Dr. Jekyll films, and The Witches. Most egregiously, I’ve missed all of the Frankenstein films except, somehow, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

There are two basic reasons for this. One is that, having grown up on the Universal films, the Monster was my draw. I was looking for him as a major character and I was never much impressed by the images of the various Hammer Monsters I saw. The other was that most of the films I’d seen with Peter Cushing (other than Star Wars) had featured him as a good guy. Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes (and even The Doctor in a couple of Doctor Who films). I just didn’t think I could buy him as a bad guy.

It was easy enough to avoid them, generally, and I never really felt the urge to watch them until this year, when I was watching the Karnstein films. I was impressed with Cushing as the overbearing and (self) righteous Gustav Weil in Twins of Evil, and resolved that I should watch the early Frankenstein films sooner rather than later. I should have known better than to pigeonhole the Grand Moff.

The Mediums
I recorded The Curse of Frankenstein off of Turner Classic Movies (via YouTubeTV). I’d hoped to record them all, but for some reason they wouldn’t allow anything except the first film and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed to be recorded (or viewed as they were broadcast either). I ended up renting The Revenge of Frankenstein on Amazon.

The rest of the series has varying availability online. The Evil of Frankenstein is on Peacock and can be rented or purchased from multiple locations. Frankenstein Created Woman, however, has no availability online at all – that I can tell, anyway. If you want to watch a specific film not listed, check or a similar service.

Blu-ray releases are similarly fraught, at least in the US., with neither Curse nor Revenge available and Evil only available in a larger set of Hammer horror films. There are a number of DVD releases, but I haven’t checked to see if any of them are worth a look.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer’s first color film and its first attempt at a straight horror film as well (after the success of the first two Quatermass films, which were science fiction as well as horror). Peter Cushing was known more for TV appearances at the time, and Christopher Lee was cast as the monster primarily due to his height. The script underwent multiple revisions, and the film was, at one point, going to produces as an even cheaper black and white film. There was nothing to indicate just what a watershed film it would be, and how it would change the course of the Hammer studios.

The script by Jimmy Sangster moved away from both the novel and the Universal films (in one of many changes made to avoid a lawsuit from the American studio). Instead of focusing on the monster, the film – and all the films subsequently – focus on Baron Victor Frankenstein. Starting from a precocious boy (played by Melvyn Hayes), we follow Victor and his friend and early tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), as they engage in scientific experiments. Paul is, at first, an enthusiastic participant. Once Victor moves from resuccitating puppies to robbing the gallows for the parts to build his perfect human being, however, he attempts to convince Victor to stop.

Hayes does a good job of portraying the young Frankenstein, but it’s Peter Cushing who’s the star. From our first view of him – dirty and borderline mad in a prison, sentenced to death for the murders committed by his monster – he’s magnetic. His version of Victor Frankenstein is more calm, cultured and seemingly reasonable than Colin Clive’s manic madman, but he’s no less of a monster for all that. He even has a tub filled with acid to dispose of ‘mistakes.’ I mean, who does that? Mad scientists, that’s who. When Victor can’t find a reasonably fresh brain for his “perfect” creation he arranges for a visiting professor to have a convenient fall. He has an affair with his maid and gives her to the monster when she proves inconvenient. It’s Cushing though, he’s so damn likeable you want to forgive him.

Lee’s monster isn’t given much to do except for be menacing, but manages to exude a certain wounded innocence, even as he’s choking the life out of people. He has to do it with one good eye, even before the other one is shot out, as the makeup was pretty gruesome for the time (his ragged neck wound is pretty gory even now.)

Urguhart as Krempe and Hazel Court as Victor’s cousin (and Fiancée) Elizabeth do well in their supporting roles, but this is Peter Cushing’s film. He plots and plans and experiments and laughs and roars and generally manages to be the epitome of the cultured mad scientist. Paul kills the monster after it first escapes, but Victor can’t let go of his idea of the perfect human being – so he resurrects it. Again.

It all ends on a roof (of course), when the monster is loosed once again. It threatens both Elizabeth and it’s creator, before falling through a skylight into Chekov’s acid bath, leaving Frankenstein to take the blame for the murders while he raves about experiments and men made of parts. The guillotine awaits…

Shot for something close to $200,000, director Terence Fisher (who would go on to helm a number of Hammer’s most celebrated films – including 1958’s Dracula featuring both Cushing and Lee again) managed to make it feel like a much more expensive film, using limited sets, excellent lighting and bright, almost garish color.

The Bottom Line
Though smaller and more staid than I thought it would be, The Curse of Frankenstein is an enjoyable version of the classic Shelley tale. I do miss the monster, but Peter Cushing more than makes up for it, becoming just as much of a monster – if not more so – in the end.

With Baron Frankenstein about to lose his head you could be forgiven for thinking that would be the end of things. Curse of Frankenstein was wildly popular, however, and ushered in both a new era of Hammer films and a sequel…

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Frankenstein has everything he needs to escape the gallows. Money, the influence it brings and a convenient stand in. With the body of an unfortunate priest taking up space in his grave, the Baron is free to start again in Carlsbruk as Doctor Stein. This somehow fools everyone. Well, almost everyone…

The success of The Curse of Frankenstein pretty much guaranteed a sequel, and a title (and poster!) were created to sell the film before a script had even been started. Jimmy Sangster was once again tapped to write the script, forcing him to find a way to undo the end of his own story. Cushing also returned, cementing himself in the role. Having destroyed the creature by acid, a new monster was required and Michael Gwynn (who I remember most from Jason and the Argonauts, but also Fawlty Towers) stepped into the big shoes, but he’s just a vessel at first – the perfect body for the good Doctor’s faithful servant, the hunchbacked Karl (Oscar Quitak).

The Revenge of Frankenstein feels a good deal bigger and more complicated than the original film, and this works to its benefit. Frankenstein seems to have turned a new leaf, giving himself to doctoring the sick and the poor, but it’s all just a means to an end. The poor, and their many ailments, provide him with an unceasing supply of fresh body parts – living body parts. This has led him to actually perfect his process and create a perfect human body. He just needs a brain, as before, but this time he has a willing donar. His ally Karl, who saved him from the gallows,  is deformed in body, but not in mind – and the Baron hopes to repay him with the perfect form.

They’re aided in this by a local doctor, Hans Kieve (Francis Matthews), who recognizes Frankestein and blackmails him into taking him on as an apprentice. They succeed beyond their wildest dreams, and Karl awakes in his new body. If only he could leave a lifetime of fear and shame behind. If only the process didn’t seem to cause a desire for human flesh. (That last is only hinted at, with a reference to cannibalism in a chimp experiment and some fantastic drooling – but it’s hinted at pretty hard.)

There’s a lovely and friendly nurse, Margaret (Eunice Gayson) who helps poor Karl (as the ‘monster’), a nosey handyman, and an equally nosy Medical council. Things quickly fall apart once the monster escapes and starts killing people (also apparently a side-effect) and Victor is revealed as the horrible criminal, Baron Victor Frankenstein! He’s set upon by the patients in his hospital and beaten so badly that he will surely die. Indeed, Hans shows Victor’s bloody corpse to the Medical Council, who are satisfied that two monsters have died.

Ah, but you see, he’s been building ANOTHER body…

And soon Doctor Frank, with his assistant Hans, is seeing patients in distant London.

The Bottom Line
The Revenge of Frankenstein is a great British Gothic horror film, managing to outshine its predecessor in almost every way. Cushing’s Frankenstein is more nuanced, but no less monstrous, and the monster and story both have more presence and weight. Highly recommended.

The Bottom Bottom Line
I wish I hadn’t avoided watching these for so long – they’re great! Revenge is head and shoulder above Curse in terms of quality and depth, but it wouldn’t exist without the first film, and there is still plenty to enjoy in both. I’m definitely going to have to track down the rest of the series.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.