While the advent of television began to pose more and more of a threat to cinema box-office returns during the fifties, British company Hammer Productions found its self with its first big international hit upon the release of "The Quatermass Xperiment". Hammer's Producers, Anthony Hinds and Michael Carreras, began to look around for more monster/horror subject matter to follow up this unexpected success, and hit on the obvious idea of taking the old Universal classics, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, and giving them a Technicolor update while putting more emphasis on gore than their predecessors could get away with. The first horror classic to get the Hammer treatment was Frankenstein. There hadn't been an adaptation of Mary Shelly's classic since Universal's series of Frankenstein films in the thirties, but Mary Shelly's book was in the public domain so the company were free to create their own version. Made very cheaply, "The Curse Of Frankenstein" (1957) made millions for the company and more horror remakes followed in quick succession thanks to the Hammer method of reusing the same cast and production team. Director Terence Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher created a recognisable style that became synonymous with the name Hammer, while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster's vigorous screenplays homed in on the essential qualities of these much loved characters which enabled "house" actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to offer unique and sometimes definitive portrayals of some of the horror greats.
"The Curse Of Frankenstein" begins with Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) incarcerated in a remote prison, awaiting execution by guillotine for murdering his housemaid. A priest arrives after being summoned by the Baron - who is hoping that his story will be more likely to be believed if it comes from a man of God. For the rest of the film the Baron details his obsession with creating life. At first, helped by his friend and teacher Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) he discovers how to reanimate dead animals. But this is not enough for Frankenstein: He wants to create his own creature from scratch. It gradually becomes clear to his appalled colleague that the Baron is prepared to go to any lengths to fulfill his dream, especially when it comes to obtaining the right human parts; the body of a criminal is taken from a gibbet, a dead sculptor's hands are stolen, and, eventually, Frankenstein actually murders a professor for his brain! Krempe now becomes determined to stop him and, during a struggle, the brain Frankenstein had planned for his creation gets damaged (although, since he murdered the professor by pushing him over a balcony, you'd think it wouldn't have been in the best of shape anyway!), causing the creature he eventually brings to life to be a violent homicidal maniac! The Baron's insistence on continuing with his experimentation on the deranged creature (Christopher Lee) leads to the deaths of numerous people, including the aforementioned housemaid whom Frankenstein locks in a room with the creature because she threatens to blackmail him. But it is the Baron who gets the blame for the woman's murder (the creature gets dissolved in a vat of acid leaving no trace!) and thus he finds himself in prison -- hoping he can persuade the listening priest to believe his story and win him a reprieve.
Although the film keeps to a rather muted colour scheme of mostly blues, greys and greens (especially in the opening prison scenes), the occasional dab of vivid colour is used effectively by Fisher for key scenes. Frankenstein's obscure procedure for animating his creature involves lots of jars and test tubes full of brightly coloured liquids bubbling away for the camera to dwell on as the electrical apparatus' spark into life; the creature it's self has a pallid, greyish green complexion, and when it is shot in the face by Urquhart, a splodge of vivid crimson blood shoots out of its face! This strategic use of colour aside, Peter Cushing is responsible for bringing the main element of dynamism to the film with his definitive portrayal of Baron Victor Frankenstein. It is interesting to note how Sangster's take on the story takes a slightly different slant from the old "science shouldn't play God" theme of the novel, and focuses instead on how, in his fervour for his experiments, Frankenstein comes to have a complete disregard for the normal rules of morality and is prepared even to kill to further his aims. The creature that results from these experiments, far from being rejected by its creator (as in the novel), is accorded little regard at all! Even Frankenstein's ex-colleague, who opposes his experiments, doesn't hesitate to kill the creature and shows very little thought for its suffering. But Christopher Lee's performance, under a ton of make-up and with barely five minutes of screen time, manages to evoke great sympathy from the audience. The pitiful image of the creature, chained up in Frankenstein's laboratory with huge scars on its shaved head from where the Baron has continued to operate on its damaged brain, can't help but conjure up thoughts of animal vivisection and the film seems more a cautionary tale on the dangers of science divorced from a social conscience (or any conscious at all) rather than simple minded "science shouldn't meddle in God's domain" finger wagging. The real monster in the film is Frankenstein himself — although in some of Cushing's later reprisals of the role for Hammer, Frankenstein would often be portrayed as a far more sympathetic character.
The success of Frankenstein guaranteed a quick follow up and the same production team and lead actors reassembled the following year for the Hammer take on Dracula in "Horror Of Dracula" (1958), probably one of the finest horror movies ever made. The various talents of all concerned gel in just such a way as to produce pure horror alchemy on the screen. Fisher always knows just where to put the camera to achieve the maximum effect, and the film is positively brimming with inspired moments, many of which must be seared on the imaginations of horror fans. Christopher Lee is given what must be one of the coolest entrances in cinema history: silhouetted at the top of a staircase, he descends and then emerges from the shadows as the camera pulls in for a close up of his aristocratic features. Jack Asher's photography is stunning and bathes Bernard Robinson's marvelously opulent set for castle Dracula in vibrant Gothic colour, while James Bernard's famous score, with its strident main theme, gives the proceedings an air of dramatic gravitas.
Jimmy Sangster's screenplay is a distillation of plot points and themes from the original story but with changes designed to keep the story constantly moving forward. The film flows from set-piece to set-piece with very little time wasted on unnecessary exposition while retaining its absorbing dark fairy tale atmosphere. Beginning very much like the novel and previous Universal version of the story, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Castle Dracula in the Carpathian mountains to assume a post as Dracula's Librarian. But it turns out that Harker is already aware of who and what Dracula is and secretly intends to kill him forever. Things don't go as planned though, and Harker quickly joins the ranks of the undead. Harker's colleague, Vampirologist Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), visits Harker's family to tell them of his death but is concerned to discover that Harker's fiancé Lucy (Carol Marsh), is herself suffering from symptoms which suggest she is also a victim of the Count. Lucy's sister Mina (Melissa Stribing) and her husband, Arthur (Michael Gough) are not convinced until Lucy dies, but is then sighted again by Arthur as she tries to abduct his young daughter. Van Helsing helps him free Lucy of the curse of vampirism in the only way possible and the two resolve to finish off Dracula for good, unaware that he has already set his sights on Mina.
This film's pairing of Christopher Lee as the Count and Peter Cushing as his vampire hunting nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing was to forever associate the two in the minds of horror fans although they don't actually meet until the film's climatic showdown which makes effective use of Sangster's elaboration on vampire lore by having the vampire crumble to dust when Van Helsing pulls down a curtain just as the sun comes up. Christopher Lee portrays the count as a sadistic sexual predator who transfixes his female victims into willingly offering up their lily white necks. His transformation from polite nobility to snarling blood crazed animal is one of the film's many standout moments. Peter Cushing meanwhile gives an energetic performance and makes a perfect dashing hero. This film was probably responsible, more than any other, for defining their screen personas for many years to come.
Because of the great popularity of these two films, the major companies were now more than willing to hand over their other horror properties for a Hammer remake and in 1959, Universal's "The Mummy" became the next in line. This film saw Cushing and Lee paired once again but Lee found himself in even more of a restricted role than he had been on the Frankenstein movie, playing the resurrected Mummy Kharis. The film has little in common with the Universal version which was more a dreamlike love story, and actually provided Boris Karloff one of his best roles. Lee simply gets to lumber around, automaton-like, disposing of all those who have defiled the tomb of his princess in what is a fairly straight forward monster movie.
Perhaps by way of apology, Lee is given a chance to break out of his bandages for an extended flashback sequence which gives us the background to his character. In ancient Egypt, Kharis is the high priest presiding over the funeral rites of Princess Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux). But he was also her lover - and afterwards, Kharis tries to resurrect her, only to be discovered and pay the ultimate price for his blasphemy: his tongue is cut out and he is mummified and buried with his lost love. Years later professor Banning (Peter Cushing) and his team of archaeologists are busy searching for the tomb of Ananka although when the discovery is made Banning himself is not present after injuring his leg. The team return home to England but one by one they are all killed, their necks broken by a mysterious robot-like creature. Banning eventually discovers that Mehemet Bey (a follower of the ancient Egyptian god Karnack), who opposed their expedition, has resurrected Kharis, the guardian of Princess Ananka's tomb, as an instrument of revenge against all those who have desecrated it. Banning's wife Isobel though, turns out to be the double of Princess Ananka, and the mummified high-priest is soon far more intent on being reunited with his lost love than following the commands of Mehemet.
The film is entertaining enough but nowhere near as good as the other two movies in the box set. The studio bound sets used for the Egyptian scenes are less than convincing and the film has nothing of the poetry of the Karloff original; but as a straight-down-the-line monster flick it does the business, and contains several well handled scenes of suspense. Though Hammer went on to make many more Mummy related films, this Fisher directed vehicle is by far the best and still contains the stylish atmosphere of the early Hammer films.
Warner Bros. region 2 box set looks rather good at first blush but closer examination reveals that they have not given these classic films the treatment they deserve when it comes to extras. The three discs come packaged in what looks like a shoe box which opens out to reveal the discs fastened within, but it is rather difficult to get them out without ripping the whole thing to shreds! You also get three art cards which contain the original poster artwork for each film. The transfers of the films are largely magnificent with vibrant vivid colour and a clear sharp image but there is an issue with the 1.85:1 matting which looks a little severe, and leads to the top of peoples' head often being cut out of the frame! Apart from this though, the films have probably never looked better since they were first released. The most depressing thing is the lack of extras on these discs. All we get are the theatrical trailers for each film and that's it. Unforgivable considering the amount of material there is on Hammer, and the surviving members of the Hammer team have always been willing to provide commentaries and interviews for releases by other companies. Warner Bros. just haven't tried. Nonetheless, fans of Hammer will undoubtedly want to get hold of this box set. Let's hope that any future Hammer releases from Warner receive a bit more attention to detail.