THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN crossed the Technicolor line in 1957 and broke—or at least starting carving into—the respectability curse that horror films had labored under for years. The now-classic Universal entries of the 30s and early 40s were never given much respect and post 1941s The Wolf Man were relegated to cheese (by critics and thanks to their own essential silliness), with 1948s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein closing the laboratory like Limburger in an elevator. American output in the 50s concentrated on the science-fiction faction of fantasy. Britain’s Hammer Film Productions had been toiling out product since 1934 but this adaptation of the venerable 1818 Mary Shelley characters benefited from a fresh approach by screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, in one of the studios yeoman directors (Terence Fisher) for some style and by the fortuitous casting of Peter Cushing, as a coldly unhinged Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee, as the mute brute monster created from hubris and spare parts.
Made for £65,000/$250,000 (roughly £1,489,000 in 2017), its gruesomeness turned off critics but found a receptive horde of kids and grossed $7,000,000 (much of that in the U.S., flooded with sci-fi insects). The success, reaping more than 70 times its production cost, along with the popularity of The Quatermass Xperiment and its sequels set Hammer off & running into the scare zone, sealing the devilish pact (blood & bosoms) a year later with Cushing & Lee reunited under Fisher & Sangster for Horror of Dracula.
“I’ve harmed nobody, just robbed a few graves!”
Cushing, 43, had been acting since 1939. Lee, 34, had been at it for 11 years and was hired chiefly (and cheaply) for his imposing 6’5″ height and a gift for mime (recall Karloff’s similar talents); as the brutally scarred monster he had no dialogue. Though the two had worked in several of the same films (Hamlet, Moulin Rouge and Alexander the Great), this was their first team-up (Cushing’s first lead role after 18 years), and it sealed a lifelong friendship—they celebrated consecutive birthdays– that saw them work together a total of 22 times. From Lee’s autobiography: “Our very first encounter began with me storming into his dressing-room and announcing in petulant tones, ‘I haven’t got any lines!’ He looked up, his mouth twitched, and he said drily, ‘You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.’ It was a typical wry comment. I soon found Peter was the great perfectionist, who learned not only his own lines but everybody else’s as well, but withal had a gentle humour which made it quite impossible for anybody to be pompous in his company.”
Apart from the interesting work of Cushing and Lee, and some well-placed brains, eyes and assorted goop, it’s a talky script, not all that well motivated, and much of the direction is perfunctory. Victor Frankenstein here is not just zealous about his “work”, and cavalier about harvesting body parts, he’s a sex cad to boot—seducing and casting off a maid like a common rotter.
82 minutes, with Robert Urquhart (long-suffering mentor who’s slow on wising up), Hazel Court (wife who misses pretty obvious cues but does so in low-cut blouses) and Valerie Gaunt (unmade maid). Doubling for supporting actor Paul Hardtmuth, it’s stuntman Jock Easton who takes that wincing fall off a balcony. Missing the pads set up for the bit, he slams down right onto his neck—a miracle he wasn’t paralyzed. Philip Leakey came up with the garish makeup for Lee. The noisy soundtrack comes from James Bernard, the bright color camera work attributes to Jack Asher.
You can’t keep a twisted doctor down (ask Kaiser), and it spawned six sequels, five with Cushing, four directed by Fisher: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Horror of Frankenstein (1970, without Cushing) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).