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Curse of Frankenstein, The
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.
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 Frankenstein's 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 disagreed. Here 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:
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: September 3, 2002