Monday, May 01, 2006

Random Movie Report #2: The Curse of Frankenstein

Released in 1957, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the first of Hammer's Technicolor horror epics (it was released as just plain FRANKENSTEIN in the UK, and retitled in the US to avoid confusion with the Universal film.) I'm not the most familiar with the works of Hammer, except for the QUATERMASS movie series and the rather overlooked ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. I found HORROR OF DRACULA, this film's counterpart, easier to respect than to love, but I was fourteen at the time. I decided to start looking into this influential and much-loved group of films again, and so this ended up in my Netflix queue.

Peter Cushing is Baron Victor Frankenstein, who, as an orphan, is tutored by Paul Krempe (played by Robert Urquhart.) The two strike up a friendship and become fellow scientific researchers, and their experiments start involving things like the nervous system and huge amounts of electricity. After they successfully bring a dead puppy back to life, Victor decides to go one step further, and well, you know what he's thinking. Krempe is uncertain about the whole affair, especially when Victor starts handing out bribes to get fresh eyeballs and the hands of a legendary sculptor for his creation, and things get more awkward when his fiancé Elizabeth (the shapely Hazel Court) comes to visit the castle.

This film's Frankenstein is a bit more actively evil than previous versions- in search of a good brain, he murders an elderly scientist who comes to visit, and carries on an affair with the maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt.) It's an interesting take on the story, but on the down side, the whole business is awfully slow to get going. When you see a Frankenstein picture you're going to see the creature, and the dynamic sequence where the creature comes to life, and the creature rampaging through the countryside. All these things happen, but only in the second half, and there's plenty of talk to get through before then. Paul almost becomes an annoyance- he's one of the good guys, but since his moral qualms compel him to keep trying to talk Frankenstein out of bringing his monster to life, he's essentially obstructing the forward motion of the plot and you wish he'd just get out of the way.

The payoff does make up for it, though. The Creature himself is played by Christopher Lee, just before the Dracula role would propel him to fame, and his is a ghoulish, almost zombielike portrayal, aided by a unique makeup job (Universal apparently threatened to sue should this film's monster look too much like the Jack Pierce design.) He's less childlike and sympathetic in the role than Karloff, but he makes up for it with genuine menace.

Early entries in a series are sometimes a bit crude, or at least don't quite indicate where things will end up going. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN seems to be carefully stepping into the Gothic intensity that Hammer's Sixties output is known for; you've got some blood and gore (there's a scene of Frankenstein purchasing eyeballs from a mortuary that seems to have been shot entirely as a pickup- we don't see either Cushing's or the other actor's face the whole time), women in nightgowns and tight bodices, and loud brassy music, but not dialed up too high since the studio had no idea that it would catch on. It should be interesting to compare later entries (though the problem with Netflix is you can receive a film well after you've forgotten the reason you wanted to see it.)

Grade: B

I'll probably do a non-movie post next time just to mix it up.

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