Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hammer's and England's first horror film in color is a milestone movie with a number of classic
scenes and two great performances that ensure its stature in fantasy film history. The unsure
script by Jimmy Sangster is a bit sluggish, but the movie concentrates well on the surgical
nightmares conjured up by the amoral, egotistical Baron Doctor Frankenstein. Peter Cushing and
Christopher Lee also teamed here for the first time, an unequal but unbeatable acting duo as
powerful as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Orphaned at 15 years of age, the wealthy Baron Victor Frankenstein (Melvyn Hayes)
hires a tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) and together they spend a decade exploring science,
medicine, and the forbidden secrets of life. Reviving a dead dog, Victor turns his attention to
the creation of a man assembled from parts of the dead, a quest that turns Paul against him. But
Victor's fiancee Elizabeth (Hazel Court) comes to live in the house, and Paul stays to protect
her. Thanks to an accident with a murdered professor's brain, the Creature (Christopher Lee) is not
only ugly, but mentally crippled as well; it escapes and murders a child and his grandfather before
Paul kills it. Returning three months later to celebrate Victor's wedding, Paul finds that the
Creature has been returned to life - and that Victor intends to continue his vile experiments.
Terence Fisher was a competent director of middling melodramas, whose career was made when
The Curse of Frankenstein became a smash hit not only in England but around the world. British
critics had unanimous scorn for the film, suggesting it be given a new rating,
'SO - for sadists only'. But the public loved the combination of bright Eastmancolor and crimson
blood. Severed heads, hands,
eyes, and brains were fairly discreetly exhibited, with good acting from Peter Cushing (and a few
choice sound effects) helping to sell the idea that bodies and viscera were being cut and spliced
into a hideous new monster.
This was before Hammer films made an open deal with Universal, which forced a conscious attempt to
replicate the Monster of the Frankenstein book, not the jar-headed, electrode-wired ghoul copyrighted
by Universal a quarter century before. Phil Leakey's makeup covered Chris Lee's head with nasty
scars made by the gibbet crows, in a pasty-white face that indeed looked like a nightmare. Lee hated
the role - no dialogue, no gallantry, no singing - but he was terrific as a mime, suggesting at
times a pathos that the script did not provide. He's killed twice, once by a gruesomely graphic
shotgun blast to the face that is still a shocking moment of gore. The other I-can't-believe-I-just-saw-that
scene is a fatal fall taken by a stuntman on his head, and shown from an angle that hides
nothing. It gets a big audience reaction whenever it's shown - how the stuntman didn't break his
neck, is a mystery.
It really has to be said that the sketchy script doesn't motivate the characters well, and spends its
time trying to make us think that Elizabeth would really sit around with nothing to do while something
crazy is definitely happening in that laboratory. Hazel Court, always good, is still mostly on hand
for visual appeal - her ample cleavage setting the standard for Hammer horror - even though a couple of
costumes appear to have been altered (or simply had a flower added) to tone things down a bit.
Valerie Gaunt's maid Justine is also in for
gratuitous sex appeal, giving the monster a victim while establishing the Baron as not only a
murderer, but a cad as well.
The Baron never gets around to explaining what his ultimate aims are, and his completely amoral
tone doesn't reconcile his multiple felonies with Paul's assessment of him as sane and basically
good. And the Creature wants to kill the moment it comes to life, and basically tries to kill
everyone it encounters. Since this isn't Robert Florey's gimmick of a 'criminal' brain from the
1931 movie, but the brain of a kindly professor sliced up by broken glass, are we to assume
that brain-damaged people are homicidal? After the added complication of a shotgun hit to the head,
the Creature seems relatively subdued - until he sees the Baron on the ramparts. Then he seems to
know exactly what he's doing, and what he wants.
Terence Fisher basically constructs a film out of various wanderings up and down and around
Swiss chalet, and his blocking of many scenes is rather perfunctory and stiff - particularly a feeble
wedding party scene. But around the core material there's a hint of genius, as we are taken in
by Paul and Victor's enthusiasm, and mesmerized whenever the Creature is on screen. Sangster does
confect a terrific unmasking scene, and frames the story rather neatly from a death-row cell, giving
Peter Cushing the opportunity to portray the Baron at the end of his rope ... or, blade.
(spoiler) Most viewers don't realize that Sangster and Fisher intended for Elizabeth never to actually see the
Creature - there's an odd bit of staging on the roof, where Victor shoots her in the shoulder accidentally,
and she never knows what grabbed her from behind. No wonder she has no problem seeing him go to
the executioner - so far as she knows, Victor shot her on purpose!
Warner's DVD of The Curse of Frankenstein is a welcome disc that is a bit of a disappointment.
Apparently the original elements have faded, muting many of the colors. Most of the
drawing-room scenes are flat-lit and overly bright, and with so much density lost, overall the show is too light, with many of the delicate original hues reduced to
salmon tones. It's a lot grainier, but the original Trailer included on the disc has better, richer
color, although not as attractive as the 1964 reissue prints I remember. By 1971, the prints
Savant was able to see of The Curse of Frankenstein were almost monochrome red. It's therefore
more than likely that the color we see here represents the best that could be done with the material.
Beyond that, most of the images look rather soft of focus as well, something Savant can't account for. Some
reviewers said Warner's previous disc of
The Mummy was soft, and Savant
it looks like the whole show is ever so slightly out of focus, as if the element was printed through
the base, instead of emulsion to emulsion (lab talk). On a monitor over 30 inches, it's really
noticeable. Compression and bit rate look fine.
The original trailer is in good shape and makes a nice extra. A photo on the back of the package is
a careless mistake, as it comes from The Mummy and features Yvonne Furneaux, who
should be calling her lawyer. The text overview of the Hammer
Frankenstein series is a limp excuse for the real extras that rumors on the web led Savant to expect.
Warner's came through and gave us what we wanted, but it's a bit strange - with the popularity of Horror
on DVD and the extravagant special editions given minor films, you'd think a few extras on these
key Hammer classics wouldn't be unreasonable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Curse of Frankenstein rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: September 3, 2002
Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
X the Unknown,
The Curse of Frankenstein,
The Revenge of Frankenstein,
Hound of the Baskervilles,
Horror of Dracula,
The Brides of Dracula,
The Curse of the Werewolf,
The Phantom of the Opera,
The Kiss of the Vampire,
The Evil of Frankenstein,
The Plague of the Zombies,
Die! Die! My Darling!,
Quatermass and the Pit,
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed,
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,
The Vampire Lovers,
Taste the Blood of Dracula,
Demons of the Mind,
Straight on Till Morning
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson