When Britain’s Hammer Films began in the early 1930’s they were just another movie production company. After finding some success with the 1955 sci-fi adaptation THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT, they chose to make a Gothic horror based on Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel about a man obsessed with creating artificial life. FRANKENSTEIN had been filmed many times before, most notably Universal’s 1931 version that brought eternal fame to Boris Karloff. This time however, the producers shot in vibrant color, with blood and body parts on gory display. Tame stuff compared to today’s anything goes horrors, but in the fifties it was considered quite shocking.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in two films before, Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 HAMLET and John Huston’s 1952 MOULIN ROUGE, though not as a team. Once CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was unleashed upon the public, they were paired another nineteen times, making Cushing and Lee terror’s all-time tandem. HORROR OF DRACULA came next, with Lee as the Immortal Count and Cushing his nemesis, Van Helsing. There followed THE MUMMY, THE GORGON, DR TEROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, HORROR EXPRESS, and their final film together, 1983’s HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, with fellow horror icons Vincent Price and John Carradine. But it was THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN that started it all off, one of the best fright films of all time.
The story begins at a prison, where we see a priest come to visit Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing). The Baron is soon to be executed for the murder of his housekeeper, and tells his tale to the priest, hoping for exoneration. Frankenstein and his mentor/assistant Paul (Robert Urquhart) have been experimenting with bringing life back to the dead. Finding success with reanimating a dog, Frankenstein wants to take things to the next level and create a man out of body parts. He convinces Paul to help him steal the body of a hanged highwayman. Paul refuses to assist the obsessed Baron any further. Victor’s cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives to wed Victor in an arranged marriage. Professor Bernstein, “the greatest brain in Europe”, comes to visit, and is pushed off the staircase by Victor. The mad doctor plans on transplanting the Professor’s brain into his patchwork corpse, but Paul catches him removing the brain. A scuffle ensues, and the brain is smashed in its glass jar. Victor goes on with his experiment anyway (after picking glass out of the brain), and lo and behold, the creature lives! But with its impaired brain, the monster (Lee) tries to strangle its creator. Paul pleads with Victor to destroy this unholy beast. The doctor reluctantly agrees.
The monster has gotten loose and escaped into the countryside, killing a boy and his blind grandpa along the way. Paul shoots it in the head, and the pair bury the beast. But the mad Baron digs it back up and revives it yet again. Victor’s housekeeper (Valerie Grant), with whom he’s been carrying on an affair, tries to blackmail him, but is killed by the monster. Elizabeth snoops in the lab, where she’s kidnapped by the creature. Victor tries to save her, but accidentally shoots her instead. The monster shambles forward, and Victor throws a lantern at it and the creature catches fire and falls into an acid bath. There’s no trace of the horrible thing left. Back at the prison, the priest refuses to believe Victor’s tale. Paul comes to the prison, and Victor beseeches him to corroborate his story. Paul remains mute, and a raving mad Victor is sent to meet his fate at the guillotine. Peter Cushing gives a sensational performance as the deranged, arrogant Baron Frankenstein. Unlike Colin Clive in the 1931 film, this Frankenstein is a lusty, energetic Victor, whose thin veneer of normalcy barely covers his true insanity. Cushing would again play Baron Frankenstein in five more Hammer horrors, each more gruesome than the next. Cushing passed away in 1994, leaving a legacy of great movie memories. Lee is fine as the silent, hulking man-thing. The role is relatively small though, and doesn’t require much more than being a menacing presence. Any comparison to Boris Karloff’s interpretation would be unfair. It was as the evil Count Dracula where Lee would truly make his mark in horror films in the next year’s release HORROR OF DRACULA. Sir Christopher played Dracula a total of nine times. One of the screen’s great villains, Sir Christopher Lee left this mortal world on June 7th of this year, and with him the end of an era, as the last of The Great Horror Icons is now gone. All we have left are those malevolently marvelous movies to savor, including the first pairing of this classic Scream Team, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
6 Replies to “Gods of the Hammer Films: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)”
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My introduction to a lifelong love of horror as a child – my mum was / is a massive fan of Hammer and these were the first actors I could ever name! I remember having a ‘guide to horror’ book, featuring the Hammer ‘gods’, which is I’d avidly take to school for show and tell to gross out the kids with the make-up effects. Don’t think it went down too well with the teachers though!
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