Oh, to have been there at the drive-in in 1957 when this came out. Drive-ins were peaking in popularity, with over 4000 far and wide across North America providing countless hours of entertainment for youngsters, teenagers, and parents alike. However, if I was a little one and had seen this lurid and terrifying spectacle bleeding from the enormous outdoor screen, looming over the family car, I probably would have cried for my dad to rip off the attached speaker from the car window and make for the safety of home. And fast.

Released in the early summer of 1957, The Curse of Frankenstein was a huge hit worldwide, delighting audiences and – wait for it – appalling reviewers at the time. This isn’t much of a surprise. Curse is different from the Universal monster films of yore; even though it is set in the 1800’s, it has a direct, hip, and dare I say gritty approach that must have resonated with audiences at the time.

Here’s how it goes down: Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing – Tales from The Crypt) awaits execution for murder in a squalid jail cell. During a visit from the local priest, he tells his tale and proclaims his innocence. It was the Creature that did it! Sure, Vic, sure. In flashbacks we learn how Victor: 1) creates new life with the help of his former tutor Paul (Robert Urquhart); 2) has Paul turn on him in disgust as the lines between right and wrong are erased; 3) teaches his creation neat tricks like sitting, and strangulation; 4) hides the Creature and its’ destruction from his cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court – The Raven) until it’s too late. After he tells his incredible tale to the priest, Victor hinges his chance for freedom on a visit from Paul to clear his name. How do you think that goes?

After the success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and X the Unknown (1956), both firmly entrenched in science fiction, British based production company Hammer Films decided to try their hand at horror. Due to Universal Studios’ lack of enthusiasm for anyone sullying their imprint on the Frankenstein name, and Hammer’s lack of enthusiasm for potential litigation by Universal, Hammer made two key decisions that erased any chance of one version being compared to the other. First, they made the film in color – the first British horror film to do so – and it was a watershed moment. In this version, the laboratory comes alive; vials bubble and ooze with green and red, filling the screen like a macabre candy store. As well, seeing the Creature (Christopher Lee – The Wicker Man) – his ashen visage, pale and scarred, with a milky eye for good measure, must have made people cower with disgust. For a true horror fan, seeing these images in color for the first time must have been akin to the birth of rock and roll; an excitement and awakening of the senses. Speaking of the Creature, this was the other major change – his appearance. Gone was the rectangular head with the nuts and bolts; platform boots gone; everything gone. Instead, they give him a kind of hep, hobo chic look – street level and disheveled. They didn’t stop there however; instead of the sleepwalking stiff movements from the past, this Creature possesses a discombobulated drunken swagger that seems apropos for the character.

As with just about every Frankenstein film, the performances rest with two characters – The Doctor and the Creature. Cushing, fresh from the stage and television, brings an obsessive arrogance (and intelligence) to Victor, as well as the gentlemanly charm that he became so well known and loved for. It’s an iconic performance that no one has touched since. Lee, of course, would be judged against the great Boris Karloff and his landmark performances in Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). However, with the drastically different look of the Creature, Lee was able to start fresh and make the role his own. His Creature is uncertain, unpredictable, and most importantly, dangerous. I certainly feel no sympathy for this devil; as I’m sure audiences at the time didn’t either. It’s a fascinating and triumphant turn. As for the rest of the cast; they can’t be faulted, and they try, but the characters are so stock they just don’t register. And really, do we need more?

A special mention to Phil Leakey for creating the gruesome and gritty (I said it again) makeup. He had no face molds to work from and had to redo Lee’s face every day. He did the superb makeup for 1958’s Dracula, and then left Hammer Films due to what he felt was lack of funding for his department. He certainly left his mark on the genre.

Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and Director Terence Fisher made a powerful, efficient team; at 83 minutes, very few are wasted and the story steamrolls from scene to scene, dragging the viewer along kicking and screaming for the ride. Their partnership was the dawning of a new age in horror; lean, mean, and without mercy. They, along with Cushing and Lee, would continue their world domination with 1958’s Dracula (Horror of Dracula in North America) and 1959’s The Mummy. All three are essential viewing for horror fans, delightfully ghoulish and different in their own special ways. If you were a teenager at the time, you probably thought these weren’t your parents’ monster movies on the screen, and you were right. Just like rock and roll.

The Curse of Frankenstein is available on DVD from Warner Home Video and on a spiffy Region 2 Blu-ray from Lionsgate.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DEEP RED
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.