Is Christopher Lee the definitive Frankenstein?
No. After watching Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, I can confidently say that he is not. He makes a great one, but he is not the ultimate monster. Oh, and by the way, the monster can appropriately be called Frankenstein. It’s technically Victor Frankenstein’s son, so his last name would be Frankenstein. Just sayin’. Moving on!
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) does a lot of things right. For one thing, the monster here is downright terrifying. Christopher Lee plays the creation here, and although his iconic voice is missed, his stature, paired with the wonderfully terrifying makeup, makes for a very effective creature. In 1957, the monster (in full color, no less) would have horrified audiences through and through. The first Hammer Horror film would feature more blood, more color, and more terror than the Universal Studios version from 1931.
The frights are here indeed, but they are few and far between. The film underutilizes Christopher Lee in an almost criminal way; the focus is more on the relationship dynamics between Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), his tutor-turned-assistant Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), and Frankenstein’s arranged fiancee, Elizabeth (Hazel Court). Straying from both the Universal film and the original novel, Victor Frankenstein is an absolute madman here. An evil genius; strong emphasis on evil. He will go on to kill people for his creation. He will treat people like dirt, only to come to them for help when he needs them. He will have no regard for anyone besides himself and completing his project – which, as you can guess, is animating a body pieced together from separate parts.
The cinematography in this film is one of the best parts about it. The Curse of Frankenstein makes clever use of zooming and also framing; not something you’d expect from a monster flick from the late 1950’s. Set design and coloration are both given much detail. The film is expertly made and is a joy to watch. It’s always refreshing to watch a monster film and have everything given proper attention, as opposed to only t
he main attraction.
So, maybe in that regard, I’m wrong about my assessment of Christopher Lee being underutilized. Maybe that’s exactly the point. The scenes in which he is shown on film are highly effective, and not only because he looks scary. There are scenes which exemplify extreme pity; the monster is eventually shot and the brain is damaged. Once revived, it is like a pathetic dog, chained up and forced to behave like a puppet. My heart sank at the sight of this, making me feel angry towards the mad doctor and his selfishness and the embarrassment that this creature who never asked to be created is forced to feel. While it lacks the playfulness that Universal’s picture had, it makes up for it in stern emotion and psychological themes.
Peter Cushing steals the show in the film.
I have nothing but praise for Cushing; while he is best known in recent years for being Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, he may be the best Victor Frankenstein that I’ve ever seen. Though I still believe the great Boris Karloff is the perfect monster, there has not been an actor yet who is capable of topping Cushing’s performance as the mad doctor. It’s so heavy that I can almost describe the film as a dramatic play featuring a grotesque beast to amplify the emotional aspect of it. It’s a monster movie, and there’s no way around that, but it’s just as much a display of a cruel lack of morality.
If you go into this film expecting a corny monster movie, you are going to be disappointed. It’s not. It’s a deep film, though it may not seem that way at the surface; it’s what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994 should have bee. This film was around 40 years earlier and contains a much bigger impact. The Curse of Frankenstein is a film that should be watched with your full attention, not just thrown on the television in the background of a Halloween party.
But most importantly is what this movie did for Hammer. Christopher Lee would return as Count Dracula in 1958 with The Horror of Dracula, which will go onto being one of the best Dracula films ever made. The world of Hammer Horror is expansive and scary; had there been no Curse of Frankenstein, we may have never been able to say that.