The Curse of Frankenstein is one of two films, the other being Horror of Dracula, that cemented Hammer Films horror reputation. Horror of Dracula might be the more iconic of the two films. When people think of Hammer they think of Christopher Lee prowling the frame and look imposing. They they think of him in a cape. It makes sense. Vampire films at their best are sensual and seductive affairs. Audiences want to be seduced by Dracula. It’s more fun to think about Count Dracula.
Frankenstein films don’t get the sexy monster. A person can choose to be a vampire. A person gets chosen to be a Frankenstein and maybe parts of them. These films center around shambling behemoths made out of stolen body parts. The stench of decay and forbidden science follows Frankenstein’s creation. Here even almost 100 years later, it’s the image of Boris Karloff as the almost mute, shambling creature in Universal’s films that dominates the public imagination. There’s nothing beautiful in being Frankenstein’s creation.
The Curse of Frankenstein, like the monster at its center, is an ugly film. It’s not ugly in a visual sense but ugly thematically. Like any Hammer Film, this film just pops off the screen. Colorful jars fill Baron Frankenstein’s lab. The period costumes look gorgeous. Thematically though this is a film about a monster and what that monster will do to survive.
The monster though isn’t the creature. Christopher Lee, billed as The Creature, is only a monster in appearance. His face appears rotting, one eye milky. Lee’s monster stumbles around confused why he exists. He kills as a possible survival mechanism. The Creature menaces but never feels evil.
The monster is Peter Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein. Cushing portrays The Baron as detached from social responsibilities and ethics. The pursuit of his goals seemingly drives. He is as much a grave robber as he is pioneer in medicine. However, these experiments seem less like his life’s purpose and more an extension of his desire for control. Building a human from the ground up, bringing it to life, watching it die, and bringing back to life is simply one more territory for him to have control over. He’s a Baron. It’s his right to rule.
The Curse of Frankenstein might be less iconic than Horror of Dracula but it is the better movie. This is a study in evil. If 1954’s Godzilla evokes the dropping of the atomic bomb, The Curse of Frankenstein seems almost a European equivalent. Here’s inspiration comes from the horrors of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele. Dracula, as chilling as Christopher Lee portrays him, exists as a fictional nightmare. While Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein does might be fictional evil, the Baron’s motivations come from a very real place.