The Curse of Frankenstein
Review by Mike Finkelstein
By this point, 200 years after the release of the original novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we all know the tale of Baron Frankenstein and his Creature. Frankenstein is obsessed with finding a way to create life after death, so he builds a man out of various bits of pieces of the dead and then, through science (vaguely in the original novel), the creation is brought to life. Then wacky hi-jinx ensue. It's an old tale, one that had been told many times before, most famously by Universal Studios in 1931.
Twenty years later, though, another film studio took a stab at making monster movies. Their first attempt, The Curse of Frankenstein would usher in a new age for horror films and put the name of Hammer Studios (the production company) on the map. It's just a pity that, in retrospect, Curse wasn't very good.
Now, I say that not based on any comparison to the films that came before -- I tried to approach this movie with fresh eyes and no expectations on this, my second viewing -- but simply upon the fact that the film itself is slow and kind of a mess.
Let's start with the structure of the story. We begin with Frankenstein, the Baron, already in prison for some crime. He's telling his story to a priest, and then we flash back to his childhood, long before he made the creature. While this must have seemed like a way to instill some level of understanding for the Baron among the audience, a way to get us to care about him before we see what he's done, it has the opposite effect -- he's a bad guy, in prison, and nothing we see (from his actions or the cold, steely performance of Peter Cushing) changes that. Besides which, this is a horror movie, one where anyone could possibly die, and to know that the Baron survives the events he's discussing takes one character off the chopping block immediately.
This is a major issue as there aren't really all that many characters in the story to being with. Counting the creature, there are only five characters that appear in more than a single scene in the whole movie. Making the Baron survive until the end means that 20% of the possible deaths are off the table. In fact, barely anyone dies in the movie at all, leaving a very low level of "horror" to be had in this horror movie.
Thus, whatever scares we are to gain have to be had from the monster instead. On this front, the movie does deliver... so long as the monster is on screen, at least. The issue is that the movie takes a long time to get to the monster, building up the Baron as the true villain of the piece, watching as he slowly descends into madness. By the time the creature shows up, he gets a few (admittedly pivotal) scenes, and then is unceremoniously killed off before the final reel. He's scary looking, sure, with a grotesque quality to the makeup that must have looked quite effective back in the day, and it's not like Christopher Lee ever turned in a bad performance. The creature at least delivers when it can, but we just don't get enough of him.
The rest of the movie, then, is talking, talking, and more talking. The Baron betrays this person, the Baron steals these body parts, and then the Baron gets into a fight with this other person. Over and over again. It's all rather mundane after the first couple of times you see it, making the movie so boring to watch. It's by far not the slowest, messiest horror film I've watched, but it's a slog none-then-less.
As such the film is left to live or die by its performances. Thankfully, Peter Cushing does at least deliver on his end. The man could do steely resolve followed by unhinged depravity without breaking a sweat. While his movie (and sequels) may not ever have been that great, Cushing's Baron was iconic. He was the great through line for the series, the bright shining moment in every Hammer film he showed up in.
Oh, and there were some other people in the movie, but they just distracted from Cushing or the Monster. Honestly, when they were on screen I just wished they'd die so that we could get back to the two actors in the movie worth a damn. Even if they had to delivery boring drivel, their performances were electric.
In the end, it's hard to like this movie. I wouldn't say I hate it, but I don't go back repeatedly to watch it (I doubt a third viewing will happen any time soon). There are better horror movies, Hammer movies, and Frankenstein movies to choose from, so only fans of all three need watch this first attempt by Hammer at creating their modern Prometheus. Sadly, the barely gets better from here...