Early last year I wrote an article for submission to Shivers magazine, concerning the 50th anniversary of the release of The Curse of Frankenstein. The article wasn't accepted for publication in the end but after recently re-reading it after it lay dormant for a while, I have decided to post it here.
Bear in mind of course that this article was written at the beginning of 2007, so a number of things contained in it are now out of date - Mr Lee's age for instance and also the fact that the film is 51 years old now and not 50.
Hope you enjoy it anyway.
The film that re-invented the horror movie genre and set Hammer Films on the road to world domination, is fifty years old this year.
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The Curse of Frankenstein was released in Britain on 20th May 1957 and broke box office records across the country, with nothing of its kind having been seen before. Filmed in colour (the first British horror film to be made this way) by the small British company Hammer Films, Curse of Frankenstein shocked cinemagoers with its lingering grisly close ups and the startling appearance of its Creature. The somewhat cosy atmosphere of the Universal monster pictures of the thirties and forties, with only faint suggestions of terror, was now a thing of the past.
First formed in 1934, Hammer Productions Ltd survived throughout the late forties and early fifties on a diet of cheaply made, black and white second features, which served as support to other more expensive productions. After dipping its toe into the science fiction market with Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways, Hammer fully submerged itself with the 1955 release of The Quatermass Xperiment – an adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s hugely popular BBC TV series. The film was a big hit at the box office and was quickly capitalised on with a sequel, imaginatively titled Quatermass 2. Seeing the potential in the sci-fi/horror market, Hammer turned their attention to a script they had received for an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. The film was to be called Frankenstein and the Monster.
After a script rewrite by Jimmy Sangster and Anthony Hinds - the title changing to the more palatable and definitely more eerie, The Curse of Frankenstein – Hammer placed notices in the trade press for casting. Alerted to the advert was a certain Peter Cushing, a popular television actor at the time; his portrayal of Winston Smith in the BBC’s version of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four held audiences spellbound when transmitted live in 1954. Hammer had tried to engage Cushing’s services before, and so, determined to get their man this time, invited him to a screening of their latest release X The Unknown. Impressed, the actor duly signed a contract on 26th October 1956 to play the title role of Baron Frankenstein.
For the part of the Creature, Hammer invited auditions from actors who were tall in stature. Originally considered for the part was future Carry On star Bernard Bresslaw but, in one of those ironic twists of fate, Peter Cushing’s agent at the time - John Redway - also had on his books a young 34-year –old actor called Christopher Lee. At six feet four, Lee certainly met the height requirements. At Redway’s suggestion, he went along to audition and was immediately offered the part.
One potential stumbling block remained. Universal had copyrighted the image of their creature, played by Boris Karloff in 1931,so the famous flat-headed look was out of bounds. Hammer make up artiste Phil Leakey worked tirelessly with Christopher Lee to create the right look for their monster; only completing the job just a few hours before Lee had to make his first appearance on set.
After a six-week shoot, the film was completed on 3 January 1957 and unleashed on the public five months later. The press reaction to the movie was negative, with much criticism aimed at the level of gore present; although viewed today the film is quite tame. However, at the time, no film had ever shown quite so gratuitously, close ups of severed hands and eyeballs in jars- all in full colour too.
As much as the critics disliked it, the public loved it, and the film was a huge box office smash. Audiences were startled at the first appearance of the Creature – the camera rapidly zooming in as Frankenstein’s creation tears bandages from its face – revealing a grisly hotchpotch of scars and tissue, made all the more frightening by a look of pure hatred in its eyes. Confused and disoriented, the Creature attacks the one thing it recognises – its creator, Baron Frankenstein.
Peter Cushing portrayed the Baron as a man driven by his desire to succeed: a desire so strong that he will do anything to see his work come to fruition. It was a role that Cushing was to make his own – portraying Frankenstein in a further five pictures for Hammer.
Director Terence Fisher made full use of the colour at his disposal for Curse, with Frankenstein’s laboratory a particularly vivid creation; brightly coloured liquids and various bits of machinery taking up every available bit of space. With dedicated but dangerous scientists, frightened villagers and a hideous monster, all ensconced in a 19th century setting, the Hammer ‘formula’ for success was set.
The Curse of Frankenstein remains a landmark horror picture for many reasons.
The gothic horror picture had all but disappeared from cinema screens after the golden age of the Universal monster pictures had passed. The Hammer take on the Frankenstein legend changed all that and brought this neglected sub-genre back into fashion, its success paving the way for what would be an even bigger hit – Dracula; once again pairing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, under the guidance of director Terence Fisher.
Hammer would go on to dominate the horror film market throughout the sixties and early seventies, the gothic horror rules laid down by Curse of Frankenstein being used to full effect. The company’s worldwide success led to a Queens Award to Industry being presented to Hammer in 1968, for their contribution to the British economy. As well as the Frankenstein series, Hammer produced eight Dracula pictures and remade other classic Universal films such as The Mummy and Phantom of the Opera, all in the unique adult fairy tale style pioneered by Curse and many featuring the talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Perhaps it is the first pairing of these two giants of the British cinema that makes Curse of Frankenstein such an important film in the annals of film history. Although both had roles in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 production of Hamlet, they did not appear in the same scenes and it was Curse that brought them to the attention of the worldwide movie going audience.
The chemistry between the two was evident right from the start, both on screen and off. During the filming of Curse, the two would entertain the crew with musical numbers and even a little dance routine with both in full make up! Their dynamic on screen partnership would be seen in another nineteen films, culminating in their final cinema appearance together in 1982’s House of the Long Shadows – although their very final working engagement as a pair would be recording the narration for the TV documentary Flesh and Blood The Hammer Heritage of Horror in 1994.
Peter Cushing went from strength to strength after his dynamic turn in The Curse of Frankenstein, turning in some memorable performances as Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Who and Grand Mof Tarkin, the villain in the original Star Wars; a movie franchise that Lee would join some twenty five years later, creating another link between himself and his great friend.
The career of Christopher Lee is still going strong, fifty years after Curse and sixty years since his screen debut. The eighty-four year old star is currently on a career high, after his roles in the Star Wars saga and its rival for biggest film series of all time - Lord of The Rings. Bringing the gothic horror cycle full circle, Lee appeared in Sleepy Hollow in 1999, director Tim Burton’s unashamed and affectionate tribute to the Hammer style; the films success raising hopes amongst fans of the Hammer movies of old that the gothic style would make a comeback. Even Hammer Films themselves have teased fans in recent years with announcements of proposed new film projects but, so far, all have proved to be false dawns.