Review: The Curse of Frankenstein / Cert: 15 / Director: Terence Fisher / Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster / Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart / Release Date: Out Now
Hammer’s scrubbed-up Blu-ray releases from their classic archive go right back to the beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein, the film that kick-started Hammer Studios and which, even an astonishing 56 years later, symbolises a new style of visceral, brooding horror movie which harkened back to the Universal classics of the ‘30s but added a daring new strain of genuinely Gothic horror and understated (but often quite explicit) sexuality.
Critics and audiences alike were aghast at the Curse of Frankenstein because they’d never seen anything quite like it before. Time - and years of far more gratuitous slasher movies - have obviously diluted the film’s impact but what’s most surprising about the film in the 21st century is how well it still stands up and how easy it is to imagine the furore it caused amongst a British cinema audience still shell-shocked by the Second World War which had finished just over a decade earlier. Terence Fisher’s film follows the narrative of Mary Shelley’s classic fairly faithfully - and if you don’t know the story of Frankenstein you’ve come to the wrong place - as Peter Cushing’s charming, urbane and yet quietly sinister Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the desire to create life out of death. Cushing is astonishing, his portrayal of Frankenstein deliciously hypnotic even when he’s seducing the maid, betraying his wife-to-be and falling out with his best friend Paul Krempe (Urquhart). He’s an odd and disquieting leading man, thoroughly ruthless and driven, willing to sacrifice his family and his friends in pursuit of his great scientific achievement and yet such is the power of Cushing’s performance that we still feel an element of sympathy for him at his ultimate fate just before the credits role. A breakthrough performance from Christopher Lee, too, as the ‘monster’, a genuinely sympathetic turn as a pathetic, instinctive creature which clearly can’t understand what it is and why it’s alive.
The Curse of Frankenstein is undeniably melodramatic and slightly mannered but it’s still a powerful and affecting film. It’s also slightly morbid with its themes of dismemberment and revivication, a lingering sequence where Frankenstein disposes of a head dropped into a vat of acid (albeit off-screen) and, in this restored cut, a grisly close-up of an excavated eyeball. Hammer films inarguably became more sophisticated - and lurid - as the years rolled by and the conveyor belt kicked in, but The Curse of Frankenstein remains a strong and confident mission statement for the studio that changed the face of cinema horror forever.
Extras: Starburst’s review Blu-ray seemed a bit ropey with a washed-out picture which looks a bit water-damaged in places; we can only assume the best quality stuff is being kept for the paying punters. Elsewhere there’s some good value stuff in this lavish package including a ‘making of’ feature, charming recollections of the late Peter Cushing from his secretary, a Frankenstein TV pilot, an early Hammer feature film and a ‘90s TV clip show.