Part one: remaking a monster
In the first of a new series, Jonathan Clode explores the monstrous Hammer films icons, beginning with Frankenstein (and his monsters)...
Most kids look forward to a Saturday, and I was no different. But it wasn’t football, spending my pocket money or a sweet and sour chicken ball that got me excited, it was ‘What did Mum tape for me last night?’
I guess I was somewhere between eight and ten years old when ITV turned my Friday nights into a kind of creepy Christmas Eve, sent off to bed wondering what gruesome tale they’d conjure for me sometime after the news. The next day, after cartoons, shopping and all other familial responsibilities were out of the way, I would settle down behind the usual rain swept vista of the Welsh seaside and watch a Hammer film.
I had a designated tape for these Friday night specials, so I never got overly familiar with each individual film as next week’s offering was always taped over it. But what I did get was technicolour images of vampires, werewolves, and of course Frankenstein and his multitude of monsters, all seared into my perception of who and what these infamous characters really were. The Universal classic monsters are the rightful throne bearers in the kingdom of horror icons, but only just.
Hammer’s genius is in many ways borne of the corner they were boxed into. At the time of their first real foray into classic horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was public domain property, but that story had already been told via Universal’s Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935). And even if you were fool enough to try and re-tread that ground, how do you contend with a look and characterisation as utterly definitive as Karloff’s monster, and avoid litigation in the process? You don’t. Instead, you create a new icon from the real monster of Shelley’s tale – Frankenstein himself.
It is perfectly fitting then, that The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) should star the two men who would not only become the de-facto stars of Hammer Films but arguably (barely) the faces of British horror. In fact, one could easily cite Curse as the progenitor of the horror reboot/reimagining since it took the quintessential from its source material, deftly side-stepped but did not ignore the cinematic original, and carved its own vision of characters who had already been defined years before. The fact that it did it so expertly is what marks The Curse of Frankenstein as a classic.
Decades of revisions have rendered the character of Frankenstein as brilliant but misguided, blinded by his own hubris until it’s far too late. And while this is very much the Victor Frankenstein of the novel, these more modern iterations are perhaps a response to Cushing’s more-evil-than-mad scientist. When Colin Clive first played the character in 1931, he gave us a man clinging to the end of his own moral tether. The acquisition of corpses is secondary to the crunching of numbers but it’s still something he must justify to himself. Once his creation is realised, his internal conflict is laid bare. Cushing’s Frankenstein has no time for such dilemmas. He is a callous, uncaring psychopath, never better captured than via the infamous cut from calculated murder to ‘Pass the marmalade would you please, Elizabeth.’ The joy in watching Cushing’s performances as Frankenstein is in his absolute resolve that he is superior to everyone around him, and no amount of external virtue, personal failure or systematic slaughter of countless village folk will convince him otherwise. This chap is less Herbert West, more Hannibal Lecter. But rather than playing psychological twister with Agent Starling, he’d knock her out and pop a serial murderer’s brain into her skull quicker than you could say, ‘Pass the Chianti, would you please, Precious.’
His creature also has little in common with his Universal counterpart, though Christopher Lee would parallel Karloff’s swift rise from relative obscurity to genre movie stardom off the back of the wordless monster. Jack Pierce created what is probably the most recognisable horror design of all time, so Hammer make-up artist Phil Leakey made a monster that is more human in its form and gait, but much more walking corpse than anything Universal offered. The Curse of Frankenstein is renowned for being the first time blood had been spilt on-screen with such a gloriously lurid fashion (a precursor to the famous Kensington Gore), but it’s the detail in the prosthetic that really make this monster. Scars awkwardly stapled across a forehead that doesn’t belong to the brow beneath it, a damaged right eye that looks too bulbous for its socket, skin folding in on itself. And what about that coat?! As looks go, this one is among the more under-appreciated.
Echoing the character changes of his creator, this monster is less of an existentially troubled tragedy, more of a demented, hateful abomination. Not concerned with the ‘why’ of things, Lee’s monster is only interested in savagery. It has no aspirations to learn and certainly doesn’t want petting. It is suggested that its violent nature is due to lack of intelligence – a consequence of brain damage – but this is not a sympathetic story. Another of Hammer’s masterstrokes is in ever so slightly twisting the classic narratives to make you cheer for the monster, but in this case, it’s split loyalties. And by the time Frankenstein stares down the guillotine in the final moments, you feel justice has been served but wouldn’t it be great if he somehow escaped?
Over the next seventeen years, Frankenstein went on to create a true pick ‘n’ mix of abhorrences, some more memorable than others. Whereas Universal essentially just rehashed Karloff’s monster by putting different stars under Jack Pierce’s make-up, Hammer ensured no such repetition would impede their audience’s thrills. There is also more depth to some of the monsters, particularly in The Revenge of Frankenstein and, my personal favourite, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher, 1974). To be fair, it’s a somewhat misleading title, as to modern viewers the monster no doubt looks more like Sloth from Goonies squeezed into a Chewbacca costume. For this, the second of the Baron’s abominations to be played by David Prowse, we are given a different type of paradox in a homicidal asylum inmate with the hands of a sculptor, ultimately destroyed by the very people Frankenstein has been using as fodder for his obsession.
This would be the last of the Hammer Frankenstein pictures. For a character who eluded death more than the monstrosities he sought to liberate from it, it is perhaps fitting that the film ends with Cushing pottering about his laboratory, musing on what comes next. No long walk to the executioner’s block, no frantic escape into the night, just possibilities. And for me, that is the joy of the Hammer’s iterations of these classic gothic monsters of literature and film, their audacity. Pushing the boundaries of the genre was as much to shock and titillate as anything else, but like the creature itself, Hammer took this concept apart are rebuilt it with one of the greatest horror actors of his generation at their heart, tirelessly stitching away at a corpse while the rest of the dullards went about their tiny lives.
Of course, when perusing the pantheon of great horror performers, Cushing wasn’t just a power-mad surgeon, and nor was Lee just the first of his monsters. Both men would reverse roles (of sorts) in that other notable horror classic, and dial the best of its mythos and sex it all the way up to ten!
See you next time…