The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) ***½
The more of these old Hammer Film Productions flicks I see, the more I understand why so many people shit their pants in ecstasy over them. Many of them (this one, for example) aren’t quite as good as all that, but even the very worst of them have a certain classiness to them that is conspicuously lacking in the great majority of horror movies. For the most part, The Curse of Frankenstein is simply yet another Frankenstein movie, and even as early as 1957, “do we really need another of those?” was a perfectly legitimate question. But there have been precious few intelligent Frankenstein movies, and despite a few jarring lapses of judgement, The Curse of Frankenstein is most assuredly one of them.
As with nearly all Frankenstein films, you’d be hard pressed to find Mary Shelley’s novel hiding between the lines of this movie’s script, but considering the fact that most of the book consists of Frankenstein and his creation sitting around on a glacier, quoting Enlightenment-era philosophers at each other, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The movie begins with Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, of course) in his prison cell, receiving a visit from a priest (Alex Gallier). Frankenstein hopes that the priest will believe his incredible story, and that with the man’s help, he will be able to convince the authorities that he is not responsible for whatever misdeed has landed him in jail. The priest himself doesn’t think that his opinion would be of any use to Frankenstein, but he agrees to hear the prisoner out anyway.
The baron begins the tale in his fifteenth year, the year his mother died, leaving him sole heir to the Frankenstein fortune. It was also the year that he met Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), the man who was to become first his teacher, and then his partner in the scientific pursuit of the secrets of nature. Frankenstein and Krempe were nothing if not ambitious; the main object of their investigations was the mechanism of life itself. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, they possessed talent the equal of their ambition, and by the time Frankenstein was a young man, he was able to perform such astonishing feats as restoring life to dead animals. Krempe was satisfied with the work as it stood, as pretty much any biologist would be-- bringing dead puppies back to life is some pretty hot shit, you know-- but Frankenstein believed that he had only reached the first stage. He would not be satisfied until he had created life where none had existed before. One could argue that his plan-- to build a man from spare parts and bring him to life-- would constitute cheating, seeing as all of the parts would have been previously alive, even if they had hitherto been segregated in the bodies of several different individuals, but even so, it would still be a mighty impressive achievement if it worked. After some prolonged wrangling, Frankenstein was able to convince Krempe to assist him, starting with the theft of a criminal’s body from the gallows.
All Frankenstein wanted from the dead thug was a chassis, if you will. Such important parts as hands and a brain were to come from other, more socially acceptable corpses. It was probably when Frankenstein started sawing off the body’s head that Krempe changed his mind about the value of the work. In that moment, he saw for the first time how his and Frankenstein’s experiments would look to someone not involved in them, and he decided that that hypothetical someone’s impressions were probably right. Try telling that to Frankenstein, though-- talk about a hard sell! Nothing Krempe could say would convince his companion, and the two men settled into a routine in which the baron would spend most of his time up in the lab, while his former tutor just sort of hung around the house, worrying about what would happen if Frankenstein’s work was a success.
And then, the big complication. As usual for a Hammer movie, that complication involves a woman, Frankenstein’s first cousin, Elizabeth (Hazel Court, of Devil Girl from Mars and The Premature Burial), to be precise. One day, the girl’s mother died, and she came to live with Victor. At the time of her arrival, nobody in the house but Frankenstein knew about the arrangement-- neither Krempe nor Justine (Horror of Dracula’s Valerie Gaunt), Frankenstein’s maid and secret bedmate, had been told. This complication was especially complicating for Justine, considering that Frankenstein turns out to have promised his hand in marriage to both women. And to make matters worse, Victor himself was out on an errand when Elizabeth made her appearance. I’m sure you can imagine what that errand related to, and will thus not be surprised to learn that the small parcel with which Frankenstein returned contained a pair of human hands, sawn from the carcass of a famous and recently deceased sculptor. These rather grisly errands continued as Elizabeth tried, with less than perfect success, to make herself at home in Castle Frankenstein-- the next parcel from out of town contained eyes, for example-- and meanwhile, Krempe passed the time trying his damnedest to make Elizabeth move out and find a home that didn’t have a monster factory in the attic. But naturally, Krempe had no more luck with her than he had changing Frankenstein’s mind.
By now, the monster was almost finished, lacking only a brain. Frankenstein had very high standards for brains, you see; only a genius would do. Of course, the rarity of geniuses meant that Victor couldn’t simply wait for one to finish using his brain and make it available; a more pro-active approach was called for. This is where Frankenstein made the final transition into evil genius territory, inviting a respected old scientist (Paul Hardtmuth, from The Atomic Man and The Gamma People) over for dinner and arranging for him to meet with a little “accident.” He chose his victim well, too, for the old man had no living relatives, so there was no one to object to Frankenstein having him interred in his own family crypt, where his coveted brain would be readily accessible. You know what’s coming. The midnight brain extraction in the crypt, the confrontation with Krempe that leaves the brain damaged, but still usable, the bubbling chemicals and the lightning, and the monster (Christopher Lee, who surprisingly finds himself cast in a role he can’t handle) pulling loose the bandages to reveal to a shocked Frankenstein and Krempe exactly how ugly he really is. We’ve also got the monster’s obligatory slaying of the little boy in the woods (one of the few scenes in the movie that can be found in Shelley’s book), and the confrontation between the monster and Elizabeth in the middle of the night, but The Curse of Frankenstein also has a couple of actual surprises up its sleeve, often playing it really fast and really loose with the familiar story.
But the most important thing, the thing that makes up for the lumbering pacing of the first hour, the startlingly miserable performances from many of the supporting actors, and the actually somewhat embarrassing failure of the usually brilliant Lee to do anything with the part of the monster (mostly he just waves his arms and falls over), is the twist at the end. It is so subtle and is handled with such a lack of fanfare that if you aren’t paying close attention, you might miss it. But if you do, you will miss the single best part of this movie, so be alert. To reveal any details would be dishonorable, so I will say only this: take a good look at the woman who accompanies Krempe when he comes to visit Victor in prison. What this scene says in a visual whisper has the direst implications.