In the Beginning…


“The film that started it all” is how Christopher Lee described 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN – an absolutely on-the-money (in many ways) fact that can now be physically appreciated with the fantastic new two-disc Special Edition of this classic, now available from The Warner Archive Collection.

Anyone who’s been following this column for even a short time knows that I’m thoroughly biased when it comes to Hammer Films.  They were literally part of my adolescence, an addiction that I can’t nor want to get over.  The modest British company, although lingering around the UK since the 1930s, decided to take a bold move – to revisit classic horror, but to do it positively seriously, gearing the productions toward adults, hiring the best art, set, and costume design people (who could work creatively on a tight budget), and, most prominently, to shoot the pics in color.  I know that last part doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, in the 1950s, the idea of a color horror movie was practically revolutionary.  Almost unheard of.  I mean, there was House of Wax, a couple of gorilla pictures…and that was it.

Hammer, with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, rocked the international market, immediately having the major Hollywood concerns clamoring for more – while the Bray-based concern’s own Brit counterparts embarked on an instant copycat voyage (Anglo-Amalgamated, Artistes Alliance, Tempean Films, Insignia Films, etc.).  Soon goth/color horror even hit our shores, and the Corman/Poe/AIP series began.  But it all started here.

The Carreras family was Hammer, and they went to great lengths to scour the country for eager artists willing to work for diminutive funds in return for unlimited freedom (within budgetary reason).  This double-edged lure at once snagged writer Jimmy Sangster, a now-legend in the genre, who freely adapted the Mary Shelley novel – keeping the God complex narrative, making the mad Baron concurrently charming, ruthless, logical, (on occasion) sympathetic, but definitely sociopathic.  Unlike the degeneration of the Universal series, “Frankenstein,” throughout the series, referred to the scientist/doctor, not the monster.

The casting of Peter Cushing was probably the most perfect choice that anyone could have made.  Throughout his turn as the Baron, he has flashes of sanity, but also a vent for psychopathy…before ending up (in the last installment) as a completely deranged inmate at an insane asylum (an ideal place to continue “experimenting”).  In this first episode, he is a brash, pampered, pompous titled nobleman harboring a massive superiority complex.  Yet, even when he resorts to grave-robbing…and murder, you’re still fascinated by his personality…and want to know what he is up to next.  As an orphaned landowner, he eschews the usual bourgeoise schools…and hires his own personal tutor, Paul Krempe, a noted proctor, who becomes a live-in mentor.  It is here that the pair delve into the unthinkable and impossible worlds of heart and organ transplants, brain surgery, and neuroscience.  Not so crazy today, but it still was in 1956 (when the movie opened in Britain), to say nothing of 1860, when the movie takes place.  Of course, you know where this is going – and the seesaw into madness is quite stunning and frightening.  The revolting creature Victor Frankenstein reanimates defines “pathetic” (another excellent performance – one of the pic’s many – by another soon-to-be Hammer icon, Christopher Lee).  All the performances, in fact, are (no pun) dead-on, including the beauteous women (another integral part of the Hammer universe), as ably portrayed by Hazel Court and Valerie Gaunt.  Other nifty thesp turns are delivered by Robert Urquhart, Melvyn Hayes (a remarkable actor who portrays the young Baron; four years later, he would play a pitiful mentally-challenged victim in Flesh and the Fiends, also with Cushing), Paul Hardtmuth, Fred Johnson, Noel Hood, Alex Gallier, and Claude Kingston.

Behind-the-camera, in the growing Hammer army, were three masters of their craft – director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and composer James Bernard.  The end result resembled a PBS/Madame Tussaud’s hybrid of the famed novel.

While many hack contemporary critics trashed the movie as being repugnant, a few saw the light.  Even some directors caught on.  Hammer and, specifically Fisher became great favorites of Joseph Losey (who would work for the studio, and, who had actually been tossed off CURSE‘s co-feature, X-the Unknown, by right-wing star Dean Jagger), Nicholas Ray (who also was big Cushing fan), Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, and others.  Fisher’s penchant for period detail, and the romanticizing of the era was noticed by serious critics from the get-go (his favorite director, not surprisingly, was Frank Borzage).

The pickup by a major was a Jack Warner decision; grabbing interesting curios for his studio was cheaper than producing your own.  When he saw CURSE, he promptly snatched it for a Warners release…in WarnerColor; he would also have terrific success with additional pickups (Italy’s early peplum Hercules, Toho’s Godzilla sequel Gigantis, the Fire Monster, and spiraling downward to no-budget drive-in schlock Teenagers from Outer Space, to name a few rather diverse examples).  CURSE, however, was the biggest and sealed the deal – although not everyone involved was delighted with the results.  Co-star Robert Urquhart (as Victor’s tutor Paul Kemper) hated the results, terming it as vulgar; he refused to ever appear in another Hammer project (ironically, in a Nelson Muntz “Ha-Ha!” moment, it forever remains his most famous screen appearance).  Likewise, Sally Walsh shuddered whenever her brief, young acting gig came up in conversation.  Playing the child Elizabeth (promised to Victor’s family in an arranged marriage), Walsh was the actual six-year-old daughter of grown-up Elizabeth Hazel Court.  Butterfly nerves and anticipated nightmares of failure would follow her into adulthood.  As with Urquhart, she, too, preferred no one remind her of an “unpleasant” past.

The problem (if there was any) was the aforementioned WarnerColor.  Already passe by 1957, the inferior process replicated the UK Eastmancolour in washed-out tones that quickly faded to magenta.  D.P. Jack Asher (my favorite of all the Hammer cameramen) would have to wait until the Technicolor pics Revenge of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy and Brides of Dracula to demonstrate the extent of his genius (CURSE, BTW, was his first color effort).

That is until now.

This new Special Edition contains THREE VERSIONS of CURSE.  An open full-frame 1.37 cut (the one generations of viewers saw on TV), the European 1.66 presentation and the American 1.85 version.  While the 1.66 is likely preferable to the way Hammer envisioned it (and it looks fine), I tend to lean toward the 1.85; this was the way, after all, CURSE debuted on U.S. shores, in 1957 (and in the 1965 re-issue).  All three High Definition 1080p remasters have stunning restored color and clarity, like nothing you’ve seen before (and CURSE had a decent CRI in the 1970s, and even an earlier presentable Blu-Ray transfer).

Sound, too, has been cleaned up (even though that never was a crucial issue, but why argue?), giving us the added joy of Cushing’s delivery and Bernard’s lush score.

A number of marvelous extras supplement the CURSE restoration, notably audio commentaries, the original trailer, and FOUR new featurettes, including ones on Jack Asher (Torrents of Light) and James Bernard (Diabolis in Musica). The former is hosted by cinematographer David J. Miller (Veep, The Newsroom), the latter by composer Christopher Drake (Tales of Halloween, Creepshow: The TV Series).

The original ads taunted us with the tag “The CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN will haunt you forever.” They weren’t kidding, it does. But in a good way.

CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Color. Full Frame/Widescreen [1.37:1, 1.66:1, 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collecton/Warner Bros. Entertainment.  CAT #   B08N3X6751.  SRP: $13.69.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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