You know how there are certain movies where you hear about how great they are so you kind of accept it and figure “I’ll get around to it eventually.” And when you finally do see it, you go “Wow that was really great.” As if everybody hadn’t been telling you this for the past couple of years.
Yeah Curse Of Frankenstein is one of those. It’s really great. I know I’m only like sixty years behind the curve on this one. Seriously though, despite it’s status as a genre classic I was more than a little bit unprepared for this one. I mean as much as I love The Hammer Dracula films, I think that Curse Of Frankenstein is superior to all of them (with the exception of Brides Of Dracula which is my favorite Hammer movie period. Though I suppose there can some debate on whether or not that is a Dracula movie), pretty much across the board.
The story like the Universal one is a pretty loose adaptation of the story. Baron Frankenstein gets bored, decides to create life, marries his cousin resurrects ghoul. What makes it special is Cushing’s approach.
Peter Cushing plays Victor Frankenstein as a magnificent bastard. I know that, you know that but it’s another thing to see it. There’s a selfishness to Frankenstein, a veneer of aristocratic entitlement that he brings to every action he performs, whether it’s boffing the help in the back passage or trespassing in God’s domain (I read an interesting interview with Christopher Lee the other day where he said that it was this entitlement that he really thought he brought to Dracula, as opposed to sexuality. That goes double for Frankenstein.) Cushing plays it to a hilt. You buy every aspect of his character, his ruthlessness, his curiosity, this is a man who was born feeling like he deserves everything. I must admit after watching Tales From The Crypt and Curse Of Frankenstein back to back I have a new found appreciation for Cushing. The man had range.
He’s helped by the character Paul, who goes from Frankenstein’s tutor, to partner, to enemy. There usually is a character to spar with Frankenstein and appeal to his conscience in these films, but he’s also usually dead by the second reel. The elevation of Paul makes a big difference, not to mention the fact that he really manages to create a sense of intimacy with Cushing. He’s the only one who really knows who he is and can see what he’s doing in every scene. There’s one great moment where he walks into a room, and immediately shoots Frankenstein a look that says “I can’t believe it, you’re about to murder this fucking old guy aren’t you.” It’s not easy getting that sort of communication to seem authentic.
Of course, Cushing is only the half of it. Christopher Lee plays the creature in a performance that manages to feel completely different from The famous Karloff take on the character, yet completely valid. No easy feat especially considering the relatively small amount of screentime he has. His take on The Monster is less cognizant then Karloff’s. Even further from the eloquent creature of Shelley’s novel. There’s no soul behind the monster’s eyes. He’s all reaction to outside stimuli. In what is perhaps the film’s best scene (seriously it deserves to be up there with the “flower girl” sequence in terms of importance to the mythos) the monster murders an old blind man, and somehow manages to look as confused during the entire ordeal as his poor victim.
Terrence Fischer directs the film with his usual flair. Making the most out of an obvious limited budget (I’d be shocked if the movie has more than five sets). The film moves at clip and Fischer makes the intimacy work for him. Though he certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes time to bring the horror on.
But at the center of it all is Cushing darkly driven by his monstrous ambitions. Not merely unremorseful, but unaware that anybody would even consider remorse possible.