Not only am I kicking off Hail Horror for the third time with a film from the velvety Gothic vaults of Hammer Films, but with the one that started it all: Hammer's first color horror film, bringing together the knockout team of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in their first real stand out roles under the direction of Terence Fisher, a potent combination that would launch Hammer into the horror spotlight, treating the world to lush, vibrant takes on not only the mad Doctor Frankenstein and his abomination, but much of the rest of Universal's monster staples: only a year later the three would make a colossal mark with THE HORROR OF DRACULA (reviewed last year) and THE MUMMY only a year after that. Decades later they stand alone among dozens of remakes and retellings as being as impressionable as the Universal greats of the 1930s.
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN opens with a clergyman making his way to a forgotten cell in the darkest corner of the town's prison. There we meet the ragged, possibly deranged Victor Frankenstein, awaiting his execution for the murder of Justine, Frankenstein's maid and secret lover. Victor's last chance at salvation is to relay the story of his life to the priest, hoping the truth of his words will secure not only his release, but his legacy. Told in this roughly flashback style (the narrative doesn't return to the present circumstances until the film's conclusion), this telling of the Frankenstein story immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessors by putting the focus of the story on the man rather than the creature.
In fact, one of the biggest issues with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is that, for a horror film, it's very low on scares. The creature itself, wonderfully brought to life by make-up artist Phil Leakey and Christopher Lee as a towering, fashionable mod (that overcoat is wickedly awesome) is left with very little to do once brought to life. The creature escapes, stumbles in the woods for a bit before being "retired" until he's needed in the end to terrorize the women of Castle Frankenstein and die. And it's a damn shame because, again, the monster design is fascinating, almost out of place and time with the rest of the setting.
So what does that leave us with? Peter Cushing's Doctor, who begins as a brilliant if cold, calculating child who soon outpaces the brilliance of his tutor turned partner Dr. Paul Krempe (played by Robert Urquhart). Cushing is great in this, playing all sorts of angles in his relationship with Paul, with the beautiful if slightly inessential Elizabeth (Hazel Court) and the lusty maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt), whose death is the cause of Dr. Frankenstein's incarceration. There's a great scene in the film where Victor and Paul's first success - bringing a puppy back from the dead, hilariously ends with them accepting numerous kisses from the recently reanimated corpse, and their laughter is infectious in its ridiculousness. In fact, sly undertones seem to simmer just beneath the surface of Victor and Paul's relationship, and the obligatory love triangle between the two scientists and Elizabeth feels like a cheap coat of paint covering a much more interesting and lascivious romance between two men and the work of bringing new life into the world - without the interference of a woman. At the film's end, Frankenstein seems more upset at the turning away of Paul than of anything that happened to Elizabeth or Justine, his two "loves". Of the monster, even less is said, leaving you with the impression that even that feat, the crux of the story, is not the Doctor's obsession.
Although it served as the real launching point for Hammer's success as a horror studio, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, as enjoyable as it is, comes off as rather slight when all is said and done. Only a year later DRACULA would re-team Fisher with his two stars and fire on all cylinders, giving the world a clearer glimpse of what the studio was capable of. Still, recommended just for the puppy scene, the chance to see Cushing and Lee in the roles that more than anything launched their careers, and for the unique monster design. Just be sure to check out DRACULA (called THE HORROR OF DRACULA in America) and THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF for some truly great Hammer Horror.