I recently watched The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, dir. Terence Fisher) and was pleasantly surprised! In this review, I will go into SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen this film, you’ve been warned. Also FYI I’m about to talk for way too long about this. Someday I’ll learn how to be succinct. (But it is not this day.)
So in The Curse of Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein and Krempe are building a being when Elizabeth, Victor’s betrothed, arrives at the house. Unconcerned, Victor murders a professor for his brain. Krempe is horrified but stays to ensure Elizabeth’s safety. Victor awakens the creature, who escapes and kills a child and blind man in the woods. Victor and Krempe find him, and Krempe shoots him in the head. Furious, Victor secrets the body to the lab to revive him; Krempe leaves. Justine, the maid Victor’s been sleeping with, confronts him about his engagement, revealing she’s pregnant. He mocks her, so she sneaks into the lab, where the revived creature kills her. The night before the wedding, Krempe returns, sees the chained-up creature, and mocks it for not being like Victor envisioned. Victor blames Krempe for damaging the brain. Krempe storms out; Victor follows. Meanwhile, the creature breaks free. Elizabeth, intrigued by why they’ve fled the lab, investigates and is lured by the creature onto the roof. Victor sees and returns, accidentally shooting Elizabeth. Desperate, he throws a lamp at the creature, who catches fire and falls into a vat of acid. Victor is imprisoned for injuring Elizabeth and tells a priest the truth. Krempe visits, but when asked to corroborate the tale, pretends to know nothing. He leaves Victor to his fate: the guillotine — poetic justice at last.
Objectively — though I’m not a real film critic — this film is good quality. I liked the cinematography: there are many memorable, well-composed shots (the shadow of the creature’s hand reaching for Justine, Victor peering through a magnifying glass, the first sight of the creature, etc.). The props and sets were well made: I loved the laboratory especially. The makeup and costuming were pretty good: everyone looks period-appropriate as far as I can tell, and the creature looks spooky as he should. The score was sparsely used but used well and added to the suspense. The special effects were convincing, better than I expected for an older film. The pacing was excellent, even in such a short film (not even ninety minutes). So it has a lot in its favor, generally.
The tone is serious, but also features genuinely amusing bits to break up the tension and drama. For example, when Elizabeth and Victor entertain guests to celebrate their upcoming nuptials, a tipsy man stands at the punch bowl making drunken toasts straight into the camera, until his disgruntled wife leads him away. I laughed out loud at that. Another scene that sticks out was probably not meant to be amusing: early in the film, Justine announces to Krempe that Victor has arrived home. Beat. Krempe reaches for a decanter of wine. I found it funny because to be honest, I would need alcohol to cope with Victor Frankenstein.
I enjoyed Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein; he’s sufficiently handsome (which I’m positive is why he gets away with so much in the novel) but also owns the awful aspects of Victor’s personality. Cushing shows the arrogance, tunnel vision, disregard for others’ feelings and safety, and maniacal obsession that makes Victor, as much as his creation, a monster. I’d never seen a Peter Cushing film before, but this has convinced me I need to watch more.
I mostly wanted to see this because of Sir Christopher Lee, and he didn’t disappoint. Though he has no lines, he portrays a nuanced creature — at turns aggressive, scared, confused, curious, meek, and intense. He can be both threatening and pathetic, and nothing feels overacted. The physicality of the role had to be difficult, but he nails it. His makeup looks pretty fake — you can see where the latex stops on his neck — but he still makes a striking monster, all uneven discolored skin and stitches. It’s a decent design, but most of the horror of him, for me, is not the look of his face but the expressions and movements which are wholly Lee’s.
I found it interesting the script made him so violent right away, since that kind of goes against canon. However, they also establish that his personality is not his fault — Victor uses a scientist’s brain to instill his creature with intellect and an artist’s hands to give creativity, establishing a precedent that the personalities of the parts’ owners influence the creature. Yet Victor uses a criminal’s body as well. Also, when Victor kills the professor by pushing him off a staircase landing, I’m certain some trauma to the brain occurred. So not only is the body a criminal’s, but the brain is damaged, both thanks to Victor’s decisions. Thus, the creature’s monstrousness is Victor’s fault more than anyone else’s.
Making Paul Krempe a major character surprised me, since in the novel he’s barely mentioned as a teacher with whom Victor clashes, then never appears again. In this, he continually trapped, at odds with the morals of the Victor’s mission and wondering what his loyalty to Victor will cost. He is intelligent, serving as an equal partner. In this role, Krempe makes more sense than other versions, where Henry or Igor/Fritz are assistants; Krempe actually has the know-how. And the relationship between these two is truly the center of this story, and it’s written very well. Krempe’s motivation to either help or work against Victor is never unclear, and Robert Urquhart performs him well. He’s really the hero of the tale.
Hazel Court is marvelous as Elizabeth. Interestingly, she’s given a story arc that progresses from oblivious fiancee, to relentlessly curious woman who’s determined to get the bottom of what’s happening and to resolve the conflict she’s witnessed between Victor and Krempe. Yes, she’s impulsive at the end, but she still seeks answers for herself rather than letting the men explain to her. Also, unlike in the novel, Elizabeth here gets away from Victor, which is always positive.
Something else that pleased me was Justine, the maid, portrayed here by Valerie Gaunt. Many adaptations neglect to mention her, or she is a background character/random innocent victim. Here, she is given lots of lines, personality, and a story. The choice to create a Victor-Justine-Elizabeth love triangle was unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. Although Justine ultimately falls victim to Victor’s creature in the midst of her frankly ill-conceived blackmail plot, the film never blames her for what happened. Rather, it’s Victor’s fault, and Justine’s death is shown as a terrible murder, and a much more direct one than in the novel. There, Victor only doesn’t act to save her; here, he has a direct hand in her death, literally locking the door on her only chance at survival. Her death is one of the most chilling, memorable moments in the film.
Talking of both Elizabeth and Justine, the way this film treats the women is surprising. Krempe, our hero, doesn’t make an issue of gender when he speaks of protecting Elizabeth. His conversation with Victor, shortly after she arrives, progresses like this:
Krempe: “We can’t continue with this experiment — not here anyway.”
Victor: “What are you talking about?”
K: “Elizabeth. She might find out.”
V: “Well, what if she does? Where’s the harm?”
K: “She’s young, Victor. Her mind would be incapable of receiving such a shock.”
He worries about her learning of the experiments, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s young (several years younger than Victor). The only time Krempe references her gender is when he later begs Victor to stop, if not for his own sake “then for the sake of the girl,” which is a pretty incidental descriptor. So really, Krempe’s view of women doesn’t appear to be as misogynistic as common attitudes of the story’s time period. Granted, he’s judging her ability to handle the truth after only knowing her a few minutes, but his judgement seems based on age more than gender. I appreciated that.
Victor, however, constantly treats Elizabeth and Justine with a dismissive and patronizing attitude. He seems to believe that Elizabeth’s feelings are representative of all women’s (saying women are manipulative when she expresses a wish that he spend more time out of the lab), and he is cruelly playful with her affection for him (moving in as if to kiss her, lifting his chin when she leans forward, casually kissing her forehead instead, then leaving with a smirk — savage).
With Justine, Victor is even more heartless. Even while in an intimate relationship, he insists she call him “Baron” all the time, as if wanting to remind her that she is lesser in social status. Further, he lets her assume they will marry while knowing he’s been betrothed to Elizabeth for years. When Justine finds out, he ridicules her and insults her intelligence. When she reveals she’s pregnant and implores him to marry her to avoid scandal, he suggests she could choose anyone in the town as the father and be correct, thus shaming her for her sexuality with no regards for her feelings. All this paints him in a terrible light. He is so easy to hate in these scenes, even before he traps Justine in a room with the creature.
Of course, Victor is easy to hate for other reasons too. His commitment to his cause is chilling and consuming. He disregards everything and everyone unrelated to this project, and even more, ignores morals. He murders Professor Bernstein, treats most people around him like garbage or tools, and blames Krempe whenever something goes wrong. His flippant attitude toward life and death is reflected in more than his skill at murder; it also reveals itself in his philosophy. Despite his obsession with life/death, he seems to view neither as remotely sacred:
Krempe: Victor, I appeal to you, stop what you’re doing before it’s too late!
Victor: But what am I doing? I’m harming nobody, just robbing a few graves!
Me: *flips a table* BRO.
Later, when Krempe backs away, Victor continues disregarding the seriousness of death, even in regards to his creature, saying that “if you help me, Paul, I promise that once I prove my theories I’ll dispose of this creature.” What he must do to accomplish his goals — murder, grave-rob, lie — mean nothing to him. He treats the grave-robbing as a bit of a joke, as if he cannot understand why Krempe is scandalized. And even the life of his creature is not a priority to him, as long as it helps him advance science the way he wants. Only then will he get rid of it, and, likely, feel no remorse for this new murder.
And in terms of the natural order of living and dying, Victor views it as a challenge, which of course is his fatal flaw and the root of a major theme of this story. He says to Krempe, who early on makes a protest that building a man from scratch defies nature, that they have already done so, so why not go further? He continues:
“Isn’t a thing that’s dead supposed to remain so for all time? Yet we’ve brought it back to life [re: an early experiment with a dog]. We hold in the palms of our hands such secrets that have never been dreamed of! While nature puts up her own barriers to confine the scope of man, we’ve broken through those barriers! There’s nothing to stop us now!”
This speech is key, showing us exactly what’s wrong with Victor. Krempe thinks of their work as a way to improve medicine. Victor, on the other hand, only thinks of his own aspirations and being better than even God and Mother Nature. This is why Victor is the exact opposite of someone you want to have the title of doctor—which luckily he doesn’t, but still. His knowledge could have been used for good, but his hubris prevents this. Essentially this is abuse of power, subverting the operations of nature and ultimately causing destruction.
Shortly before he is killed, Professor Bernstein sums up this theme, in a speech laced with warning that Victor, unfortunately, ignores:
“Is the world ready for the revelation scientists make? There’s a great difference between knowing that a thing is so, and knowing how to use that knowledge for the good of mankind. The problem with us scientists is we quickly tire of our discoveries. We hand them over to people who are not ready for them, while we go off again into the darkness of ignorance, searching for other discoveries which will be mishandled in just the same way when the times comes.”
Here, he makes clear the movie’s primary theme: the danger science poses when in the wrong hands. Scientists can treat their work as if it’s a pet, or a fun project while disregarding the real world risks its use could present. I wonder if, perhaps, this speech was inspired by governments’ use of science for destruction, especially since this film came out in the wake of the atomic bomb’s invention. No matter how you view it, this is one of the best parts of the script. Bernstein was right; it’s just here the wrong hands in which science rests are those of the scientist himself.
This theme comes to a head at the end, when Krempe — who believes in science only so far as it can help humankind — visits Victor in prison. His dismissal of Victor’s manic, violent begging is so cold but also deserved. Victor pushed science too far and it at last is coming back to haunt him, destroying him through his own actions and choices. Through Krempe, the film is unforgiving of him, and the moment Krempe abandons Victor to his fate is moving and intense. Well acted and written, too.
I have only a couple pet peeves: Upon first viewing, I was super annoyed that Victor never locks the lab door, especially when he’s so concerned with secrecy. Justine just strolls in! This seeming lack of continuity (Krempe and Elizabeth mention how Victor always keeps it locked) really bothered me, until I watched it again and realized the Justine situation was likely premeditated, so Victor could trap her, the murdering little monster that he is. So… really I guess this isn’t a pet peeve after all.
Other entirely insignificant issue: the brain used in the creature’s body seems way too small to have belonged to an adult male. But really, who cares? That’s such a minor detail. So, for all intents and purposes, I have no complaints.
TL;DR (I don’t blame you) in the end, this film has a very well written script and admirable acting, especially from lead Peter Cushing. Christopher Lee as the creature also turns in a great performance, and Robert Urquhart, Hazel Court, and Valerie Gaunt are wonderful. The suspense is real, the plot twisty and engaging, and the horror palpable. Best of all, not only do we get a monster, we get a truly monstrous figure: Victor Frankenstein. If you haven’t watched this film yet, I highly recommend it!
P. S. The puppy resurrected in the early experiment is the best character in the movie, and it was not on screen enough. But still, 19/10 would recommend the puppy. It’s the real star.