THE CHRISTOPHER LEE CENTENARY CELEBRATION PRIMER: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

EDITOR’S NOTE: You can see this classic this weekend at the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama! Get more info at the official Drive-In Super Monster-Rama Facebook page and get your tickets at the Riverside Drive-In’s webpage.

Hammer was originally founded in 1934 by William Hinds, whose stage name was Will Hammer as he grew up in the Hammersmith section of London. They produced the now lost The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, as well as The Bank Messenger MysteryThe Mystery of the Mary CelesteSong of Freedom and Sporting Love before going out of business. That said, Hinds also co-owned a distribution company, Exclusive Films, with Enrique Carreras which stayed in business.

In 1947, after the war, Hammer was revived and began shooting low-budget adaptions of radio shows. They learned that they could save money by shooting in country homes than film sets — and stayed with that for much of their output — and would remodel Down Place on the Thames into Bray Studios, their best-known base of operations.

Hammer’s first horror movie was their 1955 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s BBC Television science fiction serial The Quatermass ExperimentThe Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 were big hits; while the TV show was an unknown entity in the U.S., it was exported here as The Creeping Unknown to play a double feature with The Black Sleep. The results were so successful that United Artists offered to pay for part of the sequel.

Also — in the November 6, 1956 issue of Variety, it was claimed that a nine-year-old boy died of a ruptured artery while watching that movie in Oak Park, Illinois. According to The Guinness Book of Records, this would be the only known case of an audience member dying of fright. William Castle immediately took notice, one imagines.

As production began on Quatermass 2, Hammer needed someone in the U.S. willing to invest in and promote their movies. This led them to Associated Artists Productions. At the same time, Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky had sent Associated Artists an adaption of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. They’d only made one movie and were hard to bet on, but Associated Artists’ boss Eliot Hyman did send the script to Hammer.

Until the day he died — and beyond — Rosenberg claimed that he produced The Curse of Frankenstein. However, it’s been said that Subotsky’s script was perhaps very close to Universal’s Son of Frankenstein, as well as being only 55 minutes in length. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster said that he never saw Subotsky’s script or was aware of Rosenberg’s involvement. In fact, he never saw the Universal Frankenstein films and just wrote what he thought the movie should be.

If the names Rosenberg and Subotsky are familiar, well — they became Amicus.

Another issue Hammer had to deal with was the fact that in England, studios had to submit their scripts to censors before making them. The censors literally said, “We are concerned about the flavour of this script, which, in its preoccupation with horror and gruesome detail, goes far beyond what we are accustomed to allow even for the ‘X’ category. I am afraid we can give no assurance that we should be able to pass a film based on the present script and a revised script should be sent us for our comments, in which the overall unpleasantness should be mitigated.”

You can only imagine how much more upsetting it would all be in vivid color instead of black and white. Hammer’s new take of horror didn’t avoid blood or gore; compared to the horror of the past, it pretty much zoomed in on it and let it take up the screen. Today, it may seem tame, but in the days before splatter and even Blood Feast, it was incendiary.

Directed by Terence Fisher, The Curse of Frankenstein has an intriguing opening that puts you right in the middle of the story: As Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing in his first major film role) awaits execution for the murder of his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt), he reveals his story to a priest (Alex Gallier).

With the death of his mother, Victor owns the Frankenstein estate and pays for his remaining family, Aunt Sophia (Noel Hood) and her daughter Elizabeth (Hazel Court). He also pays for Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to teach him science, which leads to them bringing a dead dog back to life. Certainly, they can do the same with human beings, but as Victor descends into scientific butchery, Paul leaves just as Victor’s fiancee — his cousin Elizabeth — comes to live with him.

His plan is sound, if not maniacal, as the dead body parts are sewn together to make the ideal human being, which will be guided by the brain of a professor. Sadly, that brain is damaged as Paul returns to try and stop Frankenstein. At this point, the scientist is so deluded that he thinks that it’s fine that he’s pushed the old teacher to his death. The creature (Christopher Lee) he brings to life is a madman and Paul helps him stop it; later that night Frankenstein still brings it back to life and uses it to murder Justine, who he has been having an affair with. She seals her fate by claiming that she will reveal that he has impregnated her and is conducting experiments against nature.

Paul is invited back to the house the evening before the Frankenstein wedding, but the creature goes wild and grabs Elizabeth. Victor stops it and sends it into a vat of acid where it disappears; he is arrested and Paul refuses to tell the truth. Standing outside with Elizabeth, they remark about the insanity that took Victor as he is led to the gallows.

Released on May 20, 1957 with Woman of Rome in the UK and on July 20 in the U.S. with Hammer’s Quatermass-inspired X the UnknownThe Curse of Frankenstein made back seventy times what it cost to make. It led to five sequels and one comedic remake, the only time Cushing didn’t play Victor. The look of this film led to a Gothic craze in horror that everyone from Corman to Bava eventually took to greater heights. It sensationalized British critics who hated how bloody and exploitative it was, but as for fans of horror films, well…Hammer was the new name on their lips.

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