Ever since I saw Frankenstein Created Woman and The Evil of Frankenstein last year, I was obsessed with getting to the very beginning of Hammer’s Frankenstein saga by hunting down The Curse of Frankenstein. Well, the recent holidays finally gave me the chance to acquire this film and I finally got the chance to see Peter Cushing’s introduction to the story of Frankenstein.
I’ve had quite a bit of time to turn this story over in my brain and I’ve reached some interesting conclusions about it. While the original 1931 Frankenstein is unquestionably superior, there are some good things to be found in Hammer’s interpretation of the story. Most notably, the best thing about The Curse of Frankenstein is Peter Cushing as the titular character. I’ve liked every iteration of Cushing as Baron Frankenstein so far, but this version, obviously the youngest (20 years before Star Wars for context) might just be my favorite. It’s here in The Curse of Frankenstein that we see how Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life got started.
And what’s really interesting about Frankenstein’s obsession is how it grows by degrees. He doesn’t start out immediately wanting to create life in a new body, it all starts as an innocent interest in science and higher learning. When he finds a brilliant tutor to teach him, the pair spend years delving deep into science and medicine until finally they’ve seemingly unlocked the secret of life and death, a huge medical discovery, but it’s at this point that Frankenstein’s devious mind begins to make itself known. Rather than share this discovery with the world, Frankenstein wants to keep it to himself and use it to breach the ultimate boundary: making a body and giving it life, effectively playing God. In this film as in the 1931 Universal film, this is presented as the greatest offense one could possibly commit against nature. It’s made abundantly clear that what Frankenstein is doing is completely immoral, the only one who can’t see that is Frankenstein himself.
It’s rather frightening how Cushing plays Frankenstein. As the story progresses and Frankenstein is pushed again and again to give up his experiments, his obsession with creating a body and proving that he’s right (never mind the question of whether he should to begin with) grows until it dominates every facet of his life. And the most unnerving part is that Frankenstein seemingly can’t see how he’s coming across to those around him. He’s robbing graves, picking up body parts from seedy charnel houses, he spends hours in his laboratory covered in blood putting a body together and he has no idea of how insane this makes him look. In fact, he’s driven so far that he, at one point, commits cold-blooded murder without so much as flinching in the brutal aftermath. A chilling performance indeed.
In fact, the story is so particularly insane that I have a theory. You see, the story of The Curse of Frankenstein is bookended by Frankenstein being in jail about to be executed for a crime he alleges he didn’t commit. The bulk of the film is a long flashback where he explains his side of the story. At the end of his recollection, his former tutor and alleged partner in the bulk of the experiment comes to visit him and Frankenstein begs him to tell the authorities that it’s all true. The tutor coldly denies everything, condemning Frankenstein to the guillotine with his omission and it seems that the tutor has gained the ultimate vengeance by keeping silent and leaving Frankenstein to his fate. However…it’s occurred to me that there’s another solution.
See….back when I was in grad school I learned about this thing in storytelling called unreliable narrators. Now, 99% of the time, when a story is being narrated to us, be it in a book, TV or film, you trust that you, the reader/viewer, are being told the absolute truth. But sometimes, and Game of Thrones (the books, not the show) is a noteworthy example, you get a story where you can NOT trust that the narrator is telling you the truth. And as I watched the closing minutes of The Curse of Frankenstein play out, it occurred to me that Baron Frankenstein might just be an unreliable narrator. Think about it, suppose this entire story of creating a monster is just the ravings of a man gone incurably insane? It’s frighteningly plausible and it really makes you rethink the story as it’s been told to you.
I also really enjoyed Hazel Court’s performance as Elizabeth. I instantly recognized her from her role in The Masque of the Red Death and was delighted to discover that she was in this film opposite Cushing for a decent chunk of the story. Interestingly, those beautiful dresses she wears throughout the film are vintage pieces from the Victorian era. Part of me wants to find it hard to believe that Elizabeth could stay ignorant for as long as she did about what Frankenstein was doing, but then I remember that Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is such a charmer that it would be quite easy to be distracted from what’s going on.
Finally, I’m still not sure how I feel about Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s monster. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen all of the Karloff Frankenstein films first and I’m pretty sure that’s colored my reception of Lee in the role. Oh, he certainly does the best he can with the role, it just…it just doesn’t compare to Karloff’s Monster.
If you haven’t seen any of Hammer’s Frankenstein films, I highly recommend starting with The Curse of Frankenstein. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I’m looking forward to watching more Hammer films in the future.
Let me know what you think about The Curse of Frankenstein in the comments below and have a great day!
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