Warner Archive brings Hammer’s game-changing “The Curse of Frankenstein” back to life
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Christopher Lee, a fixture of Hammer horror films, brought a real sense of pathos to his memorable performance as The Creature. You feel for him.
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“THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN”
Blu-ray, 1957, not rated, stylized horror violence
Best extras: The new features “The Resurrection Men: Hammer, Frankenstein and the Rebirth of the Horror Film” and “Hideous Progeny: The Curse of Frankenstein and the English Gothic Tradition”
SOME MOVIES aren’t like wine. They don’t always age well. Literally, anyway.
For three decades beginning around 1950, Eastmancolor was all the rage. The new color process used a single strip of film rather than the three required for Technicolor films, and while it wasn’t as cumbersome, the dyes were unstable. As a result, many movies, including “Star Wars,” fell prey to “quick fade”: The cyan and yellow dimmed, leaving magenta as the prominent hue.
“The Curse of Frankenstein” is a prime example – cue up the trailer (it’s one of the extras) and see for yourself. The picture is decidedly pink. Which is why the wizards at the Warner Archive Collection should be cheered, and then some, for bringing Hammer Films’ paradigm-shifting classic back to life. Technically, they recombined the separation masters; this two-disc set makes you believe in magic.
At any rate, a big, bold palette set Hammer productions apart and is one reason why they endure.
The others, of course, are stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, cinematographer Jack Asher, production designer Bernard Robinson, composer James Bernard and producers Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds and Anthony Nelson Keys – the (mostly) same dream team that cleared the fences the next year with “Horror of Dracula” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Mummy” in 1959.
But “The Curse of Frankenstein” did more than get the ball rolling.
(1) Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein is arrogant, deceitful and misogynistic – and incapable of compassion or remorse. (2&3) Frankenstein works with his mentor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), the moral center of the film, and examines a pair of hands that he will use for his creation. (4) He seduces and impregnates his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt) and later locks her in the laboratory and listens as she’s killed by The Creature.
In the new feature “The Resurrection Men: Hammer, Frankenstein and the Rebirth of the Horror Film,” Richard Klemensen, publisher of the Hammer-centric periodical “Little Shoppe of Horrors,” points out that horror films had hit the skids in the 1950s. Instead, atomic energy spawned the monsters prowling the box office. On top of that, people were staying home to watch television.
Hammer revived its flagging fortunes and pumped new blood into the industry by reimagining Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. It’s not like there was another choice: When Universal got wind of what the Brits were doing, Klemensen says, it threatened to sue if Hammer stepped its copyrighted materials.
No problem. In “Hideous Progeny: The Curse of Frankenstein and the English Gothic Tradition,” another engaging new feature, author/historian Sir Christopher Frayling (“Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years”) says that Sangster and Fisher not only captured the essence of Shelley’s classic in 82 minutes and got the Victorian setting absolutely right, they made “the first Frankenstein film that lived up to the [book’s] title: It’s about Frankenstein.”
Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is an arrogant, deceitful dandy and lying misogynist. He decapitates a corpse and casually wipes the blood on his lab coat, is condescending with his fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court), murders a visiting professor to get his brain and impregnates his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt) then listens as she’s killed by The Creature (Lee).
As the film opens, Victor is in prison, awaiting the guillotine for murdering the professor. He’s called for a priest, but not because he wants to confess: He wants someone to hear his story. It begins with a flashback. Orphaned at 14, Victor, who gives no indication that he’s mourning the loss of his mother, engages Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) as his tutor. It isn’t long before he’s challenging his mentor, who is the moral center of the film. This Frankenstein is incapable of compassion or remorse.
Frayling makes a solid argument that Hammer’s adaptation is better than Universal’s 1931 classic. That’s due in no small part to Lee, who imbues The Creature with a real sense of pathos that isn’t masked by Philip Leakey’s masterful makeup. You feel for him.
Add a splash of blood and bit of cleavage and the template’s set.
(1-3) Frankenstein monitors his experiment then comes face-to-face with his creation. “The Curse of Frankenstein” brought Cushing and Lee together for the first of many classic films produced by Hammer, among them 1958’s “Horror of Dracula” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Mummy,” both 1959.
Three aspect ratios
The open matte version 1.37:1 includes extra space above the actor’s head.
The European ratio 1.66:1
The standard U.S. ratio 1.85:1 features the tightest framing
Warner Archive video clip highlights the restoration project
Again, hats off to the Warner Archive crew. OK, detail isn’t always super-sharp – not surprising for a low-budget film that’s pushing 64 – and the grain could be more consistent, but those aren’t complaints. Besides, the resurrected palette, full and deeply-saturated, more than compensates. When the story shifts from Victor’s cell to his mother’s wake, it’s akin to Dorothy’s first glimpse of Munchkinland.
Film buffs will also applaud Warner for going the distance with its 4K restoration. The film has been remastered in three aspect ratios: 1.85:1, 1.66:1 (European widescreen) and the 1.37:1 “open-matte” version. Start with No. 2, which brings the action more to the center.
The audio track is what it is – directed into the center speaker. That said, there’s plenty of room for the dialogue and Bernard’s distinctive score.
Give Warner another gold star for including a second disc of new, enlightening features. “Resurrection Men” is the perfect primer and “Hideous Progeny” provides context.
In “Torrents of Light: The Art of Jack Asher,” cinematographer David J. Miller (TV’s “The Good Place”) talks about Asher’s experience in black-and-white films and that he likely drew on it in lighting “Curse,” the first color Gothic horror film. Christopher Drake, who scored the highly-regarded animated feature “The Dark Knight Returns,” sits down for “Diabolus in Musica: James Bernard and the Sound of Hammer Horror.”
And make time for the Disc 1 commentary with film historians Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman. While researching a book on producer Anthony Hinds, Nasr came across Sangster’s second revised screenplay and a rejected draft by Milton Subotsky in the files of Jack Warner. Both are the springboard for a lively, informed discussion.
Finally, after you soak all of that up, how about firing up the ol’ laptop and e-mailing the Warner folks to ask when we can expect “Horror of Dracula”?
– Craig Shapiro
(1&2) After escaping, The Creature comes across an elderly blind man (Fred Johnson) in the woods. (3-5) He’s soon captured and returned to the laboratory, where Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), bears witness. The Creature breaks free again and grabs Elizabeth before being shot by his creator. (6) Awaiting the guillotine for murdering a distinguished professor, Frankenstein calls for a priest (Alex Gallier), not to confess but because he wants someone to hear his story.