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The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) October 14th, 2020

We watched The Curse of Frankenstein last October. I’ve forgotten most everything about this movie in the 7 months since. Apparently there’s a nice Warner Archive Blu-ray release available for purchase but I haven’t picked it up and it’s only available to stream on Shudder which doesn’t offer its entire catalog on their Amazon Prime channel. That left us with the non-choice of don’t watch it or buy it on Amazon. Shut up and take my money Bezos!

Here’s a little history lesson. Universal studios went all out in the 30’s and flooded the market with horror films after Dracula’s success; until the 40’s when the public’s interest frights dropped after WWII. The perceived disinterest in the genre made acquiring the rights to some of the Universal Monsters possible and the prospects of a horror hungry audience could mean big profits. In 1957, Hammer’s financial gamble gave us The Curse of Frankenstein.

This new movie would differ from James Whale’s incomparable masterpiece Frankenstein by showing very little of the monster and focus instead on Victor Frankenstein’s character and his scientific breakthroughs that makes the creature’s reanimation possible. Oh, and it’d be shot in color. That might not seem impressive today or even historically, after all color was the transformative special effect of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and that was nearly 20 years earlier, but the technology had skipped the cheaper horror genre. And much like The Wizard of Oz, the addition of color incentivized The Curse of Frankenstein filmmakers to explore new ways to thrill their audiences.

The Curse of Frankenstein brought Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together for the first time onscreen. Cushing played the malicious Victor Frankenstein and Lee channeled a wounded puppy as the famous monster. Stark differences from their portrayal in the original films.

The film begins with Victor in prison, recounting his version of the events that lead to his incarceration to a law enforcement official. His testimony goes much further back than any cop would find necessary and shares the story of how he became a baron after his parents died. Of how he hired a tutor who became his best friend and mentor in all things. Of his affairs with his maid and his arranged marriage to his cousin, and of course of his pursuit of science and the art of reanimation.

Eventually Victor decides it’s not good enough to reanimate the ordinary dead, instead he dreams of building a perfect man from pieces of many deceased people. His desire for a perfect specimen inspires him to murder an exceptionally intelligent man so that he might harvest his superior brain. But his best friend and tutor, Paul Krempe played by Robert Urquhart, intercedes in an attempt to stop the evil act but fails. A furious Victor expels Paul from his estate and continues his scientific pursuits alone.

You probably know the story from that point forward. Victor succeeds and creates a monster, the monster escapes and terrorizes some people, Victor attempts to capture the monster and kill his creation. It’s different enough from the original film to be interesting, but not so different that it’s unrecognizable. A good balance.

I highly recommend The Curse of Frankenstein, especially around Halloween. One last thing. While watching The Curse of Frankenstein I noticed something mysteriously familiar. Unlike the James Whale film where the creature’s brought to life by an electric storm while strapped to a table in the clouds high above the laboratory, during the creation scene in Terence Fisher’s version the creature is wrapped in full body bandages and brought to life in a coffin-sized glass fish-tank. This visual immediately triggered my memory and suddenly something that had perplexed me for decades was finally made clear.

You see, when Dr. Frank-N-Furter created his perfect man in The Rocky Horror Picture Show I understood it was a reference to Frankenstein. But something always seemed off about how is method. He didn’t use the familiar lightning storm on the roof technique, instead he spun knobs wildly until the coffin-sized glass fish-tank containing the inanimate body fully wrapped in bandages sprung to life. As a child I couldn’t reconcile the choice. To me it was clear, if you’re alluding to Frankenstein you must use Tesla-esq electric spectacle, anything less would be a huge misfire. But The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an outlandish film about bucking convention in the pursuit of your own bliss. If any film could get away with completely changing the visual representation of Frankenstein’s reanimation it must surely be this film. So I accepted it, and moved on, like a sane person. Until I saw the very same visuals in The Curse of Frankenstein, and I instantly understood.

Richard O’Brien was English who watched the Hammer horror films in theaters while growing up in New Zealand. Of course THIS would be his touchstone for reanimation! A weight lifted from my mind that I had been carrying so long I had forgotten about it. Birds sang and the clarion called my worries away. I was relieved of confusion. Thank you The Curse of Frankenstein, I didn’t know how much I needed you.

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