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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Curse of Frankenstein

Universal Pictures decided to get out of the horror/monster business at the end of the 1940s. Hammer Studios took up the mantle and created a Frankenstein saga of their own. Curse of Frankenstein (CoF) was the first of their seven Frankenstein films. It was also the first Frankenstein film shot in color. Peter Cushing stars as the mad scientist, a role that would carry through most of Hammer's saga. Christopher Lee stars as the monster. This pair would be the workhorses of Hammer's Horror dominance.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The movie opens to a jail block. A priest has come to take Victor Frankenstein's confession before he is executed. Victor tells the priest his story. (Begin flashback) Young Victor Frankenstein inherits the family fortune upon the death of his mother. He hires a tutor, Paul Kempke, to teach him science. As the years progress, the two explore the secrets of life and death. As adults, they succeed in resurrecting a dead puppy. Victor plans to build a man, created from dead body parts. Paul only reluctantly agrees to help, but quickly loses his taste for the experiment. He gathers parts, but needs a perfect brian. Victor kills a renowned old scientist, then steals the professor's brain from the crypt. Paul interrupts this. They struggle, during which the brain is damaged. Victor installs it anyhow. Victor's cousin, Elizabeth, comes to stay with him. They are to be married. Paul worries about her safety. Victor can't operate all the lab gizmos alone, but Paul refuses to help. A lightning strike on the castle provides the crucial jolt. The monster lives, but immediately tries to choke Victor. Paul knocks it out. Later, the monster escapes. Loose in the woods, it kills an old blind man and his grandson. Victor and Paul find itt, Paul shoots the monster dead. They bury it. But Victor dug it up and does some brain surgery to fix it. Meanwhile, Justine, the maid, is jealous of Elizabeth. She threatens to tell the authorities unless Victor marries her Lacking proof, Justine sneaks into the lab that night, but goes into the monster's room. Victor locks the door behind her. Scream! Later, after the wedding, Victor takes Paul up to show him his new-and-improved monster. He can not take basic voice commands. Paul is disgusted and storms out. Victor follows. While they argue in the yard, a curious Elizabeth goes up to the lab to see what's so important. The monster had escaped again, this time onto the castle roof. Curious, Elizabeth follows. Victor and Paul see all this and rush back in the house. On the roof, the monster lunges for Elizabeth. Victor shoots but hits Elizabeth in the shoulder. She drops. He throws an oil lamp at the monster, whose clothes catch on fire. He staggers back through a skylight and falls into a vat of acid. He dissolved in a half hour. (End Flashback) The priest doesn't believe Victor's tale. Paul arrives to say goodbye. Victor hopes Paul will corroborate his story, but Paul does not. Victor is led away to the guillotine. The End.

Sci-fi Connection
There is more (though still not much) made of the surgery and medical science. There are also the requisite gizmos in steampunk fashion for electricity -- though clearly not with Universal's budget. The bubbling Vat of Life visual, in which first a dead puppy is revived, then later the monster, is an interesting sci-fi element. Of more significance, is how the plot ramps up the conflict between "science" and humanity. Scientific "advances" bring about death. This is a very sci-fi quality.

Novel Connection
Mary Shelley's novel was public domain, so fair game for a screenplay. Indeed, another screenplay based on her novel was in circulation in the mid-50s, but finding no backers. The plot is said to have been uncomfortably close to Universal's Son of Frankenstein. Jimmy Sangster's re-write cast back more to Mary's novel, but focused more on the obsessed creator than the poor creature.

New Saga
Hammer Studios would go on to produce six sequels to CoF, all but one starring Peter Cushing as the same Dr. Frankenstein. In this, Hammer began a new story line that had no connection to the story Universal created. The next Hammer Frankenstein would pick up the story right where CoF left off.

New Monster -- Universal still owned the rights to the signature look of Jack Pierce's flat-topped bolt-necked monster. To avoid legal trouble, Hammer's make-up artist, Phil Leaky, went for a more lanky, zombie-like monster. Unlike Universal's monster, which could not die, so lived on in six sequels, Hammer's first monster does die, dissolved in a vat of acid. It is the Baron himself who lives on as the unstoppable monster.

Bad Doctor, Bad -- Hammer's Dr. Frankenstein is more of a monster than his creation. He is more in tune with the diabolical Dr. Pretorius character from Bride of… or Karloff's vengeful Dr. Niemann from House of…. Mary Shelley's doctor was a naive victim of the dangers of "science," the doctor of the atomic age was becoming the embodiment of the evils of science.

Old Monsters Got Legs -- When Universal's executives decided to get out of the monster business at the end of the 1940s, it was apparent that the old monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, ) still had "legs." Hammer Studios eventually bought the rights from Universal-International to remake all their old monsters. The old were reborn to frighten a whole new generation.

Horror Hybrid -- Hammer Studios bolstered the sometimes-uneasy horror-scifi hybrid. Their earlier sci-fi films included: The Quatermass Xperiment ('55), X-The Unknown ('57) and Quatermass 2 ('58). Viewers will note that each of these involved a degree of "horror". An astronaut is disfigured into a giant blob monster. A radioactive blob (different blob) monster burns and melts people, etc. Hammer's Frankenstein is more horror (colorful gore) than sci-fi, but there is still some science amid the fiction.

Bottom line? CoF has more blood and gore than any previous Frankenstein film, so viewers not fond of spattering red paint movies might opt to steer clear. For FrankenFans, CoF is a fresh restart, a new story line from the same roots, and still loaded with psycho-ethical subtexts to muse on.


Randall Landers said...

You know, I've never cared for Hammer's Frankenstein makeup. I realize they didn't have the rights to Pierce's work, but splotchy green zombie just didn't get it for me.

Nightowl said...

Hi Randall. I agree. Hammer's first monster was more zombie-like, but not nearly as monstrous. But then, the Hammer films placed much more focus on the Baron himself as the "monstrous" mad scientist.

Randall Landers said...

Very true! And none have portrayed Frankenstein as well as Peter Cushing did!