11 October 2010

BIRTH OF THE MONSTER

There was a time when the national cinema of Great Britain was an unfriendly place for horror films; when the moral guardians of that quintessentially backwards-looking country gnashed their teeth and looked with the deepest scorn at any movie which tried to titillate and thrill the average moviegoer with blood and guts and a healthy scoop of the uncanny. That terrible period lasted from roughly 1895 till the present day.

Oh, I tease British cinema, of course - but still, it's not a place where you'd ever expect to look for genuinely envelope-pushing horror movies, which is what makes it really damn weird that, one of the most notorious horror companies in the history of the art form was born and raised in Great Britain, that indeed the company's resolute and unyielding Englishness is one of its most characteristic and delightful features. Obviously, I am referring to Hammer Film Productions - Hammer! where an eager young lad in the early 1960s could happily find buxom ladies and blazingly controversial gore effects sitting side by side in all the garish glory of the latest and greatest Eastmancolor cinematography. Hammer! which for twenty years was just another British B-picture house until 1955, when they produced The Quatermass Xperiment, a watershed moment in violent horror/sci-fi, a major hit, and - more importantly - a major hit in the United States, where British film companies rarely made serious inroads, then or even now.

The success of The Quatermass Xperiment led Hammer to redefine itself as the purveyor of Gothic horrors that the world has since come to love (though it must be stressed, Quatermass was neither Gothic, nor strictly speaking, horror). Their first attempt in that direction was, in a great many respects, profoundly foolhardy: an adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's intensely well-worn 1818 novel Frankenstein, which had already been turned into one of the most iconic movies in all of history by Hollywood's Universal Studios in 1931; not to mention, Gothic horror was about as unhip in the mid 1950s as it ever has been, that being the day when all successful horror dressed itself in the form of marauding aliens and dodgy cardboard spaceships.

Still - in 1957, the world bore witness to The Curse of Frankenstein, which changed the face of genre cinema just as surely as Universal's own Frankenstein had 26 years earlier. But let me not belabor this fact any longer - I shall simply posit it, that I might turn to the film itself & not the context surrounding it. For The Curse of Frankenstein deserves a great deal of consideration, as one of the best damned horror pictures you are ever likely to see, and a sterling exemplar of the best of everything that made Hammer so special.

As is customary for adaptations of Shelley's world-renowned and seldom-read novel, The Curse of Frankenstein makes up just about everything besides the presence of a scientist named Frankenstein and the creation of a being made of dismembered body parts and narrative hand-waving. In this case, the good Baron Frankenstein is named Victor (following the novel), and he is played by television fixture Peter Cushing in the role that made him one of the world's most beloved B-movie character actors. We first meet the Baron in a loony bin in Switzerland (the country also follows the novel, and I do not know that any other adaptation has done so), where he pleads with a priest (Alex Gallier) to listen to his story. It all began, apparently, when Frankenstein's mother died, leaving him an orphan and the heir to a huge fortune (the 15-year-old Victor is played by Melvyn Hayes, who makes a surprisingly good counterfeit Cushing). Our first glimpse of this young plutocrat comes when he superciliously toys with Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), whom he has just hired as a tutor; the boy deliberately though without obvious malice has allowed the older man to remain confused as to the baron's identity (he was expecting Victor's father), and this apparently begins a lifelong friendship, in which Krempe teaches Frankenstein everything he can, after which the two men embark on a joint career in anatomical research.

But let's hang tight for a second: this first scene (chronologically-speaking) is a fascinating oddity in Frankenstein adaptations, and it sets up much of what makes The Curse of Frankenstein one of the most successful of that absurdly crowded subgenre. First, it establishes the movie as something of a biopic: Victor Frankenstein's tale of who he is and how he came to be the man gibbering in an asylum. Lo and behold, The Curse of Frankenstein is far more of a character study than a straight-up tale of a mad scientist dabbling in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Secondly, we get our first glimpse of what Victor is, if not just a common or garden-variety mad scientist. He is, to cut things short, a smug, rich, show-off, whose chief delight is in being smarter than everyone else: there is no real explanation for his actions other than to prove that he can outwit an educated adult. As the film progresses, it becomes clear to the point of obnoxiousness that Victor Frankenstein's overriding goal in life is to prove how damn clever he is; a thread picked up in the very first beats and never abandoned.

Back to Frankenstein and Krempe's research: after a montage, the first thing we see them do together is to successfully reanimated a dead puppy. For Krempe, this is the pinnacle of his life's work: now they can go take their work to the scientists of the world, and proudly declare that they've unlocked the mysteries of death. Frankenstein is enthusiastically dismissive (Frankenstein is always enthusiastic: at his most ego-maniacal, he never loses that wondrous sense of "can you believe how amazing all of this science stuff is" innocence that makes The Curse of Frankenstein, weirdly, one of the most offhandedly flattering and respectful treatments of a scientist's worldview in all of 1950s genre filmmaking. For this I think we can thank the excellent screenplay and Cushing's outstanding performance in equal measure), and he insists that their work has just begun. Now it's time to reanimate an actual human being - no, not a corpse, but a human being that they built from scratch, a perfect physical and mental specimen. Krempe is dubious, though he lets Frankenstein sweet-talk him into stealing a convict hanging on the local gallows; but when his protégé gleefully saws off the dead man's head and disposes of it in the lab's bathtub-sized acid vat (the one contrivance that I just can't swallow, in the whole movie), Krempe balks. Even worse is that just at this same time, Frankenstein's pretty cousin and fiancé, Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives to live in the baron's sprawling mansion, leaving Krempe terrified that she'll find out, or end up endangered, or both. Frankenstein doesn't really think about this; he doesn't even think enough of Elizabeth's arrival to stop his affair with the maid, Justine (Valerie Gaunt).

You can absolutely guess where things head: Frankenstein builds his creature, an ugly brute played by Christopher Lee, who also shot to prominence with this film, although he'd only become a genre superstar with the following year's Dracula, achieving a much more prominent sort of fame than Cushing was able to (though, in one of those fun quirks of history, both men ended up playing their most widely-seen role as the secondary villain in a Star Wars picture). And this creature isn't just ugly: he's ugly, a tattered pile of scar tissue and pus that was absolutely beyond the beyond in 1957, and remains unnervingly convincing more than five decades on. It's impressive to notice that this make-up job was improvised the morning of Lee's first day of shooting, when the previous design was rejected as too close to Universal's legendary monster make-up for comfort.

From there: Frankenstein's hubris and refusal to take responsibility ends in a monster rampage complete with a dead child in the woods, along with other victims, and Elizabeth herself at the creature's mercy before the two scientists intervene. And now we're back at the beginning, with Frankenstein insisting that this story proves he doesn't deserve to die for the murder of Justine, because it was all the monster's fault all along - the most callous abdication of responsibility he shows in the whole movie, even if anybody actually believed his ravings.

There's a hell of a lot to love about The Curse of Frankenstein: put a gun to my head and make me choose, and I would probably call it my favorite of Hammer's Gothic horrors, if only because it typifies everything that makes the best of them such a giddy watch (the only major Hammer trope that largely doesn't put in an appearance is lingering shots of a busty woman's cleavage; though Court's very ample bosom and tight tops probably make up for it). There's a lovingly-detailed Victorian setting done with more talent and creativity than money; Cushing is absolutely phenomenal (put the same gun to my head, and I'll have to say it's my favorite among his many wonderful performances, all brash haughtiness and superiority mixed with a earnestness that makes it hard to genuinely hate this apparent villain), Lee is darn good, though not a patch on Boris Karloff's take on the same character, nor his own subsequent embodiment of everyone's favorite vampire. The mood and atmosphere are appropriately creepy, while the richly saturated color cinematography give the whole thing a visual lushness it arguably doesn't earn. And, to be fair, the film suffers from the typical Hammer shortcomings: a wobbly female lead, an abrupt climax, a supporting cast full of bit players who aren't remotely good enough to hold their own against the leads (though Urquhart is better than most of the men who'd come in his wake).

There's a perfectly good reason that the film worked this well: it was the first collaboration of director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster (in fact, it was only Sangster's third screenplay), one of the all-time great director/writer team-ups, though one that is perpetually underappreciated even by horror junkies, who are likelier to refer lovingly to the Cushing/Lee collaboration. Which is fair: those two men, who instantly became best friends on the Curst of Frankenstein set, had admirable chemistry, and their pairing was enough to redeem some faintly awful movies that Sangster and Fisher were not a part of, such as the risible Dracula A.D. 1972. But the writer and the director had, shall we say, a more material effect on the film. Sangster's script is one of his very best, a typically perceptive reorganisation of musty tropes that emphasised something new about the material; while his incisive character moments are compelling enough to keep you from really thinking about how much of the 83-minute film contains, essentially, no incident. Meanwhile, Fisher's wonderful sense of framing (aided, to no small degree, by cinematographer Jack Asher) makes those inexpensive sets sing with vitality: this is a full, lived-in world, if ever a '50s horror movie boasted such a thing. The Curse of Frankenstein does not enjoy the suffocating blacks of Fisher and Asher's work in the Dracula series, but it isn't meant to: this is after all a film about the scientific process gone to dangerously extreme lengths, not a paranormal thriller about dark corners and the things lying in them.

Tastes change, in horror filmmaking more than most branches of the art, and much of The Curse of Frankenstein could readily be looked down upon by a modern audience as dated, or too slow, or whatever the hell you might want to say about '50s genre films. Aye, but there's a remarkable, deeply appealing sophistication about this breed of movie, an intelligence to the writing, an easy command of craftsmanship, a wholehearted commitment from the important actors. I feel honestly sad for those who can't tolerate this kind of film: it is classic for a damn fine reason. What Hammer did in their golden era was something very special that was never seen before or since, and that excellent tradition of well-crafted horror got off on the best possible foot.

Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)

1 comment:

Brian said...

So, I watched this tonight, and GOD DAMN is Peter Cushing amazing.