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October 21, 2010

Hammer Films Month - The Curse of Frankenstein

I've never been the biggest fan of Hammer's take on Frankenstein, at least based on what I've seen in this film and their last Frankenstein flick, Frankenstein and The Monster from Hell.  It's not them, it's me.  The fact of the matter, despite my upbringing with Karloff, is that I am ridiculously in love with Mary Shelley's vision of Frankenstein.  And it's a known fact that no one - EVER - has told the story as well as she did when it comes to understanding the damned creature that made Karloff famous.  Even though this version promised Christopher Lee (Yes, THAT Christopher Lee!) as the monster, I once again couldn't get past some of the ways in which the film missed the marks Shelley set.

As I watched the film again today, I felt the strangest tingle go down my spine.  It was a rare moment of realization; the type that made me notice that I'd been approaching this film from the wrong angle.  While I love the monster, and I love Colin Clive's simple turn as his creator in the 1931 film - I had never really considered how fascinating Doctor Frankenstein could be on film until I sat and pondered Peter Cushing's turn in the role.
 At a brief 83 minutes, The Curse of Frankenstein is a relatively basic retelling of the story.  This could be due to the fact that writer Jimmy Sangster (who would become Hammer's top scribe during their horror era) was at the time writing only his second script after being converted from his role as aproduction assistant.  He sticks to the basic ideas of the characters from the legendary story - Doctor Frankenstein (Cushing), his bride-to-be Elizabeth (Hazel Court), his mentor/friend Paul (Robert Urquhart), and - eventually - Lee as the Monster (billed as "Creature", much to the dismay of the Black Lagoon fellow that debuted a few years earlier).  If you've seen the '31 flick or any other Frankenstein flick/ripoff or read the book, you can guess where the movie goes with these characters - there aren't many surprises.

(Note from The Mike: If you ever want to prove to someone that the Creature from the Black Lagoon doesn't belong with Universal's classic monsters, point out the fact that the first Creature flick occurred three years before Hammer's remakes of Universal's monsters started to happen - which was 26 years after the release of Frankenstein.  I personally love my Creature and thus don't care, but those of you who dig this argument can have my knowledge anyway.)
Cushing's portrayal of Victor Frankenstein seems to be the definitive portrait of a scientist who's gone off the reservation.  His intense glares have a hint of evil beneath them, but also do a number to establish the lust for success that would be his personal and professional undoing.  One of my biggest problems with many adaptations of the Frankenstein tale is that they forget to punish the Doctor for his crimes, and sometimes they don't even acknowledge his fault in the matter.  That's most definitely not the case here, because Cushing turns the character into someone we kind of despise from the start.  Sure, we feel a bit of remorse when the brute that he loosed on the world attacks him or his chesty bride, but he's most certainly not a victim.

Then there's the monster opposite him.  You all know that I love Christopher Lee like I love living, but I must admit that his portrayal of the creature leaves something to be desired.  I can't blame him, as this is probably one of those situations where the film simply doesn't meet predetermined expectations (There aren't any neck studs, and the creature just doesn't have the imposing size of Karloff).  There are hints of the emotional distress that is present in the text, but not enough to really get me involved with the monster.  Again, I can't put this on Lee, who emotes well; it's just not my kind of monster.
None of that really matters, because this is Cushing's film - and I really do think he gives a flawless performance as the Doctor.  A week ago I had this earmarked as a film I might skip during Hammer Month, but I'm glad I stopped to give it another spin.  This performance is too good to ignore, and it helped me dig Curse of Frankenstein a lot more than I did during my initial viewings.  While I prefer a more suave Lee, I'm ready to accept this as a fine piece of Hammer Horror at last.


stonerphonic said...

I can interpose Lee and Lugosi into Dracula, but Karloff IS Frankenstein's monster. period. end of story. Not detracting from Lee's efforts either, but I think a majority of the horrorsphere concur there's one monster, and no matter how hard other actors try, it's a signed & sealed deal.

That being stated, many of the Hammer "Frankenstein" films still kick ass. And you are correct my brother from another mother that viewers do well to consider all portrayals on there own merit. And hell, it don't matter who Cushing plays. He plays everything well.

A master actor.

Jinx said...

I was going to say how phenomenal Peter Cushing is as the Doc and just generally, but Stoner beat me to it. Curse my slowness. Also wanted to say that I'm loving this month, Mike, great Hammer work, you've toiled at the keyboard like a trooper.

The Mike said...

Thanks much, fellow and fellowette! I almost felt bad after watching this, because I feel like I've severely discounted Cushing during my love affair with Lee. I'm revisiting Horror of Dracula this week for the month's final MMOTW pick, and am most interested to reevaluate his performance there, too.

@stoner - Great point on the difference between Drac and Frank. I think it's also fair to consider that Universal never made as much of a mockery of the Frankenstein character as they did Drac in their original films. Lugosi riding the portrayal's coattails didn't help, either - and this allowed Dracula to become something people wanted a new vision of. I don't think anyone ever got tired of Karloff/Universal's Frankenstein.

@Jinx - Thanks much for the compliment! It's been a lot of fun!