Hammer’s Landmark ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ Showcased on New 2-Disc Blu-ray [Review]
A landmark in the history of horror, Hammer’s classic reimagining of Mary Shelley’s novel, The Curse of Frankenstein has just been released on a new two-disc Special Edition Blu-ray set that is an absolute must-own for genre fans and film buffs.
A drastic new take on the source material that differs greatly from the iconic series of Frankenstein films released by Universal, The Curse of Frankenstein is the first color film to be released by the U.K.’s legendary Hammer Studios. Directed by Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf, etc.) from a script by Jimmy Sangster, and distributed to theaters worldwide by Warner Bros. in 1957, Curse is as revolutionary in its in-your-face gore as it is in its radically different portrayal of “Baron” Victor Frankenstein, depicted for the first time as a truly irredeemable villain.
Played by the great Peter Cushing in his first of the many Frankenstein films that helped build Hammer’s esteemed house of horror, the Baron here is an egomaniac hellbent on becoming a god, but, as pointed out in the excellent feature commentary track, he is ultimately a failure, as it is a bolt of lightning (an actual act of God) that in fact gives his stitched together creation life. Cushing is amazing in the role, giving the action on screen a sincere gravity while never even hinting that Victor has any true goodness in him.
In all previous incarnations of the Frankenstein story, as well as most of those that followed Hammer’s, the titular doctor is driven by madness, but always at some point realizes the folly of his dark deeds and has a climactic turn toward redemption, but that’s not what Hammer or Cushing are interested in with Curse. Victor is a devious liar, a shockingly despicable misogynist, and a straight up murderer in this radical reinvention of the character, and Cushing’s mesmerizing performance instantly separates this version from Universal’s while announcing to the world the arrival of a fearless new voice in Hammer.
Portrayed by Christopher Lee in his first Hammer collaboration with Cushing, The Creature doesn’t show up until the final act, but his big reveal is well worth the wait, an unforgettable and utterly tragic vision of a being that simply should not be. With a disfigured look nearly as perfect as Boris Karloff’s 1931 version, but incomparably more gruesome, Lee gives in astounding performance, a portrait of the innocence of a puppet imbued with with the mindless rage an untamed predator. He is unhinged and unpredictable, and far more dangerous than the childlike playfulness of Karloff’s portrayal ever suggested.
The look of The Creature rightfully gets more disfigured and disgusting as time passes with each scene, and his final look again reflects far more about the evil of Frankenstein himself than that of his sad and confused, doomed creation.
It is not an overstatement to say that The Curse of Frankenstein is one of the greatest and most important horror films ever made, as it singlehandedly inspired a rebirth to the gothic tradition of the genre, which had at that time long ago been replaced by sci-fi-themed horror like Godzilla and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In a larger sense, the film is revolutionary in having an amoral protagonist, as it was the first time that Victor Frankenstein was depicted as the real monster of the story rather than The Creature. The sequels that followed would all bring back Victor and feature new monstrous creations, rather than following the original Creature through the sequels, as Universal had done. This new approach allows this film and its sequels to stand along side those from Universal as something related to but entirely different from its predecessors, on its own equally groundbreaking merits.
Robert Urquhart plays Paul Krempe, who is at first young Victor’s teacher after the death of Frankenstein’s parents, and eventually his collaborator in bringing a dead dog back to life, thus sending them down their inevitable path. As Victor’s madness becomes more clear and consuming, Krempe is the voice of the audience and his looks of horror likely mirror those of the 1957 viewers who watched astonished as the Baron decapitates corpses and removes brains with the nonchalance of a surgeon conducting a normal operation. Krempe sees the error of his (and Victor’s) work all too late, an ineffective hero, while the villain remains firmly at the center of the story.
The film also boasts a lot more sexuality than audiences of the time could have ever expected, with Hazel Court’s Elizabeth all but completely baring her breasts in her daringly low cut dresses, not to mention the scandal of Victor impregnating his maid Justine (played by Valerie Gaunt) and his cold contempt toward her when informed, even suggesting that the child could belong to any man in the village and that she’d never prove it was his, nor would he accept it as such. As if that’s not bad enough, he then sends her to die at the hands of The Creature. As stated in the bonus commentary, Victor is presented here for the first time as “a shit,” and I’d say that’s putting it mildly.
Marking its U.S. Blu-ray debut, this new two-disc release includes two theatrical aspect ratio presentations, meticulously remastered and restored with masters from 4K scans of preservation separation elements, as well as the restoration presented in “open-matte” format, as was seen for years on television, on the bonus disc. Included for the first time ever, a previously censored scene of an extreme closeup of an eyeball that Victor purchases for his creature is now presented uncut, in all its glory. It’s images like this that were undoubtedly daring and quite disturbing for audiences in the context of the still predominantly black and white late 1950s.
Special features on the bonus disc include four new featurettes, “The Resurrection Men: Hammer, Frankenstein, and the Rebirth of the Horror Film” with magazine editor and publisher Richard Klemensen, “Hideous Progeny: The Curse of Frankenstein and the English Gothic Tradition” with author and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling, “Torrents of Light: The Art of Jack Asher” with director of photography David J. Miller, and “Diabolus in Musica: James Bernard and the Sound of Hammer Horror” with composer Christopher Drake, all of which give fascinating insight into the making and everlasting legacy of this classic. The original theatrical trailer is also included.
There is also an absolutely excellent and informative feature-length commentary track by screenwriter/film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr, in which they discuss the film’s importance in movie history, its undying influence, and they reveal in depth bits of the original script as it was first written and sometimes changed in the final film, some scenes of which were not filmed at all, painting an even more encompassing picture if this vision from its inception to now.
It is agreed by everyone throughout the bonus content that The Curse of Frankenstein inspired all of the greatest directors of the next generation, from Hitchcock to Spielberg and Carpenter, noting that films like Psycho, Jaws, The Exorcist, and Halloween would never have happened if Curse didn’t pave the way decades before.
Haberman and Nasr comment that this was the biggest moment in horror history since Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula for Universal.
As Hammer’s first horror film, the first time Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared on screen together, a bold reboot of an already bold novel, and an innovation in lighting, music, and previously taboo themes, this masterpiece has never looked better, and I could not give this release a higher recommendation.
The film and the accompanying bonus features are mandatory viewing for all horror fans, and an essential addition to any cinephile’s collection. Regarded by all those interviewed for this release as the most influential horror film of the last 65 years, simply said, it changed the face of cinema forever.
The Curse of Frankenstein deluxe two-disc Special Edition Blu-ray is available now via Amazon here, from the Warner Archive Collection.
You can watch a before-and-after comparison video showcasing the new restoration and view the beautiful new Blu-ray cover art below.
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