For the film that kickstarted Hammer horror – the first one in colour, no less! – and resurrected the rotting corpsegenre for a bloody new age, it’s fascinating just how little of the studio’s 1957 take on Mary Shelley’s cautionary classic has made it into popular consciousness, especially compared to the movie that followed – 1958’s Dracula which seared buxom brides, hissing counts and improvised crucifixes into our whole lexicon of horror.
But while memories seem only to have space for Boris Karloff’s slurred child-killing and airstrip forehead, Hammer – as much motivated by the need to avoid a lawsuit than to be radical for creativity’s own sake – quietly crafted an altogether different, and more interesting tale that puts the emphasis right back on the Baron’s hubris – taken to more murderous extremes by the utterly captivating Peter Cushing, who also finds time to knock up a maid in between bouts of grave-robbing and playing God.
Baron Frankenstein’s mission is archetypical mad science, where the discovery drowns out the consequences, but his entitled manner and his offhand callousness is a pure product of his nobility. Where the Universal Frankenstein facilitated the monster for the sake of some vague point about how it’s we, humanity, who are the real monster, Cushing’s character is the monster – unambiguous, selfish, vicious and evil, whose redemption comes only in sight of the guillotine.
Lee’s creature too is unrecognisable from his Universal counterpart, less sympathetic perhaps, but certainly more pained and tormented as he jerks like a marionette, staring malevolently out from his one good eye. The future icon’s natural leanness and the long black coat he dons for his first rampage making him appear altogether more cadaverous and funereal. Lee may have thought little of the make-up, but it’s forensic and unflinchingly gristly in a way that movie monsters simply weren’t, emphasising the true horror of his set piece reveal with its big ugly screeching close-up as the bandages are pulled away.
Given the sometimes hysterical overreaction awaiting any Hammer movie deemed to have been ‘tampered with’, the HD transfer and the reconstruction of the degraded Eastman Color masters errs on the side of caution.
Perhaps it even errs too too much so, and in contrast to the recent Dracula re-release seems washed out even in scenes where bubbling liquids and eerie lights should catch the eye like jars in a necromancer’s pantry, while the the aspect ratio, although also more faithful to the original intent, isn’t entirely flattering on the average home entertainment set-up.
The extras, meanwhile, make up for their lack of access (the making of documentary contains the with their generosity of original material – including the full 1959 black and white pilot episode for Hammer’s aborted Tales Of Frankenstein TV series, and Four-Sided Triangle, an earlier 1953 Hammer film from Curse director Terrence Fisher that deals with a lot of the same themes.
There’s also an incredibly sweet and heartbreaking interview with Joyce Broughton, Cushing’s long standing secretary and eventually carer, that touches heavily on the depression he suffered following the death of his wife, and his own battle with cancer.
A fan-pleasuring package shown the ultimate (if perhaps too much respect), and a perfect introduction to a horror classic – this long-awaited HD release of The Cruse Of Frankenstein, along with Lionsgate’s earlier Dracula Blu-ray, is the perfect balance of loving restoration, genuine enthusiasm and absolute respect that releases like this deserve.