The Curse of Frankenstein
Hammer Film Productions’s slightly distorted relationship between baroque artistry and conventional production value underscores its filmography at least as much as the reappearance of a monster or a mad scientist with drool seeping from his wicked mouth. When particularly inspired, the stateliness expected to be found within a typical company release can be a good thing. At least in the cases of 1958’s Horror of Dracula and 1959’s The Mummy, the sense of dignification can propel schlock to stimulating spectacle. But when a dedication to the orthodox begins to outweigh any hint of stylistic risk, the chance of a product like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which was Hammer’s first color feature and first entry into their famed output of monster movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, is unavoidable.
This shouldn’t suggest that The Curse of Frankenstein is a bore – it should suggest that its relatively traditional approach strips the material of its florid horrors and renders them stagily, as if it were a theatrical, melodramatic tale and not a doozy of classic literary terror. Dr. Frankenstein is turned into a douchey loon too ruthless to be compelling, his monster a mopey zombie unable to rise fear out of us. The romantic subplots drag when they should galvanize. The film’s all plodding, a by-the-book adaptation with no urgency. It diverts, its brief 83 minutes generally painless. But one wishes it unsettled us as effectively as Hammer’s Dracula adaptation, also starring Christopher Lee, to be released the next year. The ingredients necessary to make a horror masterwork are all here, but undercooking is the name of the game and the film scuffles to gain points in its favor.
At least The Curse of Frankenstein has Peter Cushing and Lee moving through its done-to-death biddings – the actors, Hammer staples, are a dream team who make the most of parts which never see the full potential of Mary Shelley’s creations through. Cushing, of course, is our titular doctor, big-eyed and sniveling. Providing us with the central storyline through flashback — Frankenstein’s awaiting execution when we first meet him — we travel through the well-worn but nonetheless well told tale of an egomaniac who makes it his life’s mission to make a living, breathing human all for himself but finds himself dealing with the consequences of his mania shortly after he unexpectedly succeeds.
All is told with durable poise by screenwriter James Sangster and director Terence Fisher, and moments abound in which we're caught up in The Curse of Frankenstein’s dramatics as if suddenly unfamiliar with everything resting in front of us. And so we’re certain that the film’s schematics and its atmospheric achievements (its set and costume design are appropriately gothic, lavish) are its best quirks. It’s the writing of the characters and the ultimate horrors evoked that keep the film from achieving cinematic greatness.
But it’s good all the same, and that goodness is enough to allocate The Curse of Frankenstein as classic Hammer Horror. B