Saturday, 8 August 2015

Assembly Line: Part One - Patient Zero

No-one would associate Peter Cushing with body building, and yet that is exactly what he did over a space of twenty years in Hammer's other great film series.

Last year I finished covering the Hammer Dracula series, a mammoth nine film run which not only chronicled the misadventures of Christopher Lee's Count, but the on-going crusade of various generations of Van Helsings who all looked exactly like Peter Cushing.
Cushing carried a Dracula film twice without Lee's satanic presence and similarly, in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle, it is his Baron Frankenstein who is the lead character in each film, not the misbegotten creature.

I've always been a bigger fan of the Dracula films, preferring their sensuality and atmosphere to what essentially amounts to the gory 'body horror' of the Baron's medical malpractices, but in hearing these films praises sung by everyone from Podcasters to Martin Scorsese,  I suspect that I've probably been missing the point.

Naturally, I enjoy anything Hammer, especially if it stars Peter Cushing, and have probably seen most of these films in the distant past, but feel it's only fair to give them the same respect as the Dracula series, and evaluate them properly through fresh, newly transplanted eyes.
After all, it is this first film which not only paired Cushing and Lee for the first time, but established Hammer as the house of Horror for decades to come.

The Baron and his life-long mentor Paul Krempe in the world's first colour Frankenstein laboratory.

Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Although hated by contemporary critics, this film made 70 times it's budget on original release and its significance to not only Hammer but all modern horror cinema can't be over-stated. So I will try not to go on about it and focus on the film itself.

With severe limitations placed upon Hammer by Universal studios over any encroachment on their 1931 version (including the iconic Boris Karloff make-up) this is a perfect case of restrictive circumstances nuturing greater creativity. It was quickly recognised that the Monster (even that word had to be replaced by creature) would never replace the Karloff version in the public's acceptance, so the emphasis had to be shifted elsewhere - to Baron Frankenstein himself.  This was an extremely risky premise, the classic Monster had made such an impression on popular culture that he had achieved that rare trick of evolving from a figure of terror to a comforting icon, even in the children's toy market.  How could a mere physician rival this?  You cast Peter Cushing, of course.

The definitive Baron Frankenstein, disposing of a spare part.  In an acid bath.
Directly beneath a skylight. Note: this architectural feature may be significant later on.
I'm hopelessly biased, but even the most derisive film commentators never fail to note that he was a meticulous actor possessing skill and range which was usually superior to the productions he appeared in.  The fact that he succeeded in not only carrying this film but the ensuing half dozen sequels only confirms this.

Cushing's Baron Victor Frankenstein is charming, but ice cold in his ruthless pursuit of science.  Taking life quickly becomes merely the next practical step in his plans (involving a headfirst plunge of one victim from a balcony which still makes me wonder how the stuntman didn't break his neck - and how Frankenstein ever thought this was the best approach to obtain an undamaged brain). The Baron seems in complete control of himself, so the charge of insanity can't help him at the film's conclusion.  I strongly suspect this won't be the case as these films progress, however.

The Bloody red Baron: he wouldn't let it lie...
This productions other major departure from what had gone before was the fact that it was in colour, and the hue used mostly appears to be red, as this is as close to a splatter film as anyone would have seen at the close of the 1950s.  Severed hands and eyeballs are liberally handled, and Cushing picks glass shards from a disembodied brain which is later further damaged when the poor creature takes a shotgun blast to the head.  It's difficult to imagine the effect that all this grue had on an audience of the day, as some of it still raises eyebrows over sixty years later.

The lovely Hazel Court. Did we mention this film is in colour?
I have to be honest and say that I admire rather than love this film. It is beautifully crafted and performed and somehow seems to have dated little, truly earning the much-overused title 'classic'.  But personally, the surgical horror and violence of the whole Frankenstein sub-genre seems too exploitative for my own tastes, relying too much on revulsion and suffering.

As much as I enjoy many elements of this production I also suspect that I'm just too familiar with the basic Frankenstein story, which makes me look forward more to the many sequels, where Hammer will be forced to innovate further and flex their creative muscles.

"In my next film for Hammer, I will be utterly irresistible to women."
I'll finish by praising Christopher Lee's patchwork creature.  Cast for his height and mostly only able to act with a single eye and his body language, Lee already shows the ability to project enormous depth of characterisation and completely convince despite having very little to work with. Literally, Frankenstein 'made him'.

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