Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Legend Still Told With Horror The World Over

The Curse Of Frankenstein(1957)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Urquhart, Hazel Court

Gothic horror by the 1950s had taken a backseat to the terrors of atomic fallout and alien invasion. All manners of aliens, giant insects, dinosaurs and mutants roamed the silver screens of the world. These were very different from the subtle chillers of the past and many of the classic creatures were kept dormant. The Frankenstein story had always been popular with moviegoers, though and had been a major success for Universal studios in the 30s and 40s. Despite, the story being in the public domain, no one else had even attempted to adapt the story after Universal until a television adaption in 1953 dared to do so with Lon Chaney Jr. on the Tales of Tomorrow program. It was a dreadful production but proved that Universal did not own rights to the story and this led filmmakers on a quest to retell it. The British film studio, Hammer, which had been known for it's low budget thrillers, had wanted to do a black and white remake of the 1931 film. However, Universal still owned the rights to the Jack Pierce makeup design for the Monster and so the filmmakers took inspiration from the book, though the impact of the Universal classics was there as well. Deciding to shoot in color and assembling a fine cast, this low budget film would prove to be one of the most important in the history of the horror film.

This film begins with a clergyman visiting a mountaintop prison where he has been asked to comfort a prisoner. The inmate turns out to be Victor Frankenstein(Peter Cushing) who has been deemed mad and is sentenced to death. He relates his story in hopes that the pastor will believe his story. He begins by explaining his childhood and how he was orphaned and became Baron at a young age. He hires a tutor, Paul Krempe(Robert Urquart) who also becomes his closest companion. Victor is obsessed with finding the secret to life and Paul and him succeed in ressurecting a dog. However, Victor wants to expand his work and opts to build a man. He steals a body from the gallows, and in a scene pretty strong for 1957, cuts off the rotted head and soaks it in an acid vat! He then proceeds to pick up hands and eyes from various morgues, even with the arrival of his cousin, Elizabeth(Hazel Court) not deterring him from his work. Paul quits, but stays on for Elizabeth's sake, shocked that Victor has an arranged marriage with the young woman. Victor continues to build his creature and even has time to have an affair with his maid, Justine(Valerie Gaunt). His creature is nearly complete and just needs a brain and Victor knows where to find it.

Victor invites Professor Bernstein(Paul Hardtmuth) to his home and sets it up to murder him, making it appear like an accident and having his body buried in the family vault, where Frankenstein goes to work, before Paul attempts to stop him, damaging the brain. This dosen't stop Victor, who just spends time picking pieces of glass out of the brain, before inserting the damaged gray matter into the Creature! Victor goes to get help from Paul to work his machinery and start his creation, but mother nature intercedes and a blast of lightning sparks his equipment and the Creature is given life. Victor hears the sounds of broken glass and enters to find his bandaged Creature(Christopher Lee) standing before him and in a beautifully shot sequence, the Creature slowly reaches up and tears the bandages from his face to reveal a horrible evil countenance. It immediately strangles Victor and picks up and tries to kill him, before Paul arrives to knock it out. Paul demands that Victor destroy the Creature, but Victor wishes to run tests first, to caught up in the ectasy of creation. The Creature escapes and wanders the countryside, where he encounters a blind man, whom he murders with animalistic insensitivity. Victor and Paul arrive and taking no chances, Paul shoots the Creature in the head, killing it. They bury it and all seems to be done with, as Paul prepares to leave the Frankenstein castle. However, Victor has dug up his creation, which swings grotesquely on a meathook in his lab, as he looks on and promises it life again.

Justine and Victor get in a quarrel over Victor's promise to marry her, which is tossed aside because of his marriage to Elizabeth and she threatens to blackmail him. She goes into his laboratory one night and encounters the now ressurected Creature, who murders her as Victor locks the door and smiles to himself. Soon, Victor and Elizabeth are married and Paul is invited as well. He is brought up to the lab and finds the Creature still alive, cowering in fear, chained to a wall, a victim of Victor's brain surgery in his attempt to domesticate it. Paul reacts with disgust and has had enough and goes to the authorities. The Creature escapes and goes to the rooftop, where Elizabeth has wandered to, curious about Victor's work. Victor grabs a pistol and shoots the Creature, accidently hitting Elizabeth and the other bullet not stopping the murderous Creature. Frantic and fearful, Victor tosses his lantern at the Creature, setting it aflame. It falls through the skylight and into the acid vat below. The pastor does not believe his story and leaves Frankenstein who goes in a rage. Paul is admitted and says nothing in Victor's defense, instead remaining silent and consoling Elizabeth. Victor is last seen being led to the guillotine, ready to meet his maker.

The Curse of Frankenstein is a landmark film in the horror genre, establishing a newer, darker tone for the genre, unlike so much that proceeded it. The use of color heightens the effect of the gothic atmosphere that Terence Fisher brilliantly captures on his minimal budget and would perfect film after film at Hammer. His pacing is quick, another trademark of his work and no frame is wasted within the narrative of the film. The blood and gore, now tame, was groundbreaking, as the audience now could see Frankenstein actually using and severing body parts in mildly grisly detail in a fashion that was unsettling. Closeups of severed hands and dangling eyeballs were enough to ensure a level of shock that was peerless at the time. The story itself is turned on it's head, with the romantic dreamer of Shelley's novel and the misguided madness of Colin Clive being replaced with pure megalomania and ruthlessness that set the standard for the antihero. The Monster is in a supporting role in comparsion to the Universal films and is much more gruesome. Phil Leakey's design for the Creature has to be one of the few truly memorable ones after the Jack Pierce desgin and is still pretty disturbing. Special mention must also go to composer, James Bernard, who would create many of the most brilliant gothic horror themes, including the perfect and bombastic one for, Horror of Dracula(1958). He makes the first of his classic compositions for this film and it's perfect in establishing the drama and mood of the production.

Peter Cushing makes for the most psychotic Frankenstein of all time. His ruthless demeanor and brooding insanity, seems to escalate as the film unfolds. He begins the film as just deterimined and misguided, but as he gets more impassioned, than he becomes murderous and it becomes clearly evident who the real monster of the film.Cushing use of props, such as a magnifying glass and scalpel, are expert in his hands, a trait that earned him the name "props." He makes the role of the renegade scientist absolutely believable and that cold, detached manner makes him all that more frightening and fascinating. We all know that he will inevitably fail, but yet we find ourselves rooting for him, nonetheless. He would progress the character from film to film with various shades of subtleness, sympathy and humility and even more monstrous in the aptly titled, Frankenstein must be destroyed!(1969). For many the world over, he is the definitive Frankenstein and this may be the best horror portrayal of the decade.

Christopher Lee brings a fine sense of menace to his role of the Creature, buried under the trainwreck of a makeup job that was developed at the eleventh hour. It's a frightening creation and Lee brings some subtleties to it that are interesting. His movements are at once robotic and disconnected, like a broken marionette, portraying the malfunctional machine that he is. That look of hate he gives Cushing as his dead eyes focus on him the first time is still chilling, as is the ending when the Creature closes in on his creator in a death crawl. Lee brings sympathy to this monster, though as we witness him chained and abused by Frankenstein and can sense his actions are like that of a kicked dog. This would be the only time Lee would portray the Creature, but it's affecting and eerie, certainly one of the best Frankenstein Monsters.

The rest of the cast perform adequately, led by Robert Urquhart, who lends a manner of intensity that makes his clashes with Cushing believable and palptable. His ultimate betrayal of Cushing, depending on the viewer, is either justified or an act of betrayal that really hits a chord. Hazel Court and Valerie Gaunt are both good in their roles, though they serve as little more than window dressing, they are still good enough actresses to gain sympathy from the viewer. They would set the standard for the Hammer leading ladies, with an emphasis on cleavage and sex that would increase with the passing years.

The Curse of Frankenstein is not the best Frankenstein film, itself bettered by it's follow-up, The Revenge of Frankenstein(1958), but it's one of the most important horror films and the start of a new era of horror. Hammer films would dominate the market for the next few decades, producing several updates of the classic gothics and creating many classics, and it all startes here with this modest low budget thriller. It's a disturbing and effective horror classic on it's own terms and as the ads suggest, this is a film that will hanut you forever!

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