Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Curse of Frankenstein

This is a loathsome story and I regret that it should come from a British team...the writer of this script seems to think that the X category is a depository for sewage
An unnamed BBFC reader's summation of Jimmy Sangster's screenplay for
The Curse of Frankenstein

It's almost a cliché nowadays to talk about it in such terms, but Hammer's 1957 film really did usher in a new age of Gods and Monsters. It was the first British Horror film to be shot in color, and tested audience nerves with an unprecedented level of violence and gore, significantly some 2 years before Mario Bava unleashed La Maschera del Demonio. The film was a breakthrough in the careers of Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher; Cushing had been up to then a television actor of some renown but had yet to make his mark on the big screen, while Fisher had been a journeyman director with over 25 films to his name. The fortunes of both men, Hammer studios, and indeed the evolution of Horror and Fantasy Cinema would take a remarkable turn with The Curse of Frankenstein.

For such a pivotal moment in the Hammer story, The Curse of Frankenstein had a surprisingly complicated birth. A film of Mary Shelley's novel was first mooted as a Hammer project in 1956 when James Carreras was sent a screenplay entitled Frankenstein - The Monster penned by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg (ironically the duo who would go on to establish Amicus Productions, Hammer's most significant rival). Hammer were initially keen to mount a grand production of the Frankenstein story, but the project faced an immediate obstacle in the shape of Universal, who jealously guarded the rights to make a Frankenstein film. When the Subotsky and Rosenberg screenplay was given to producer Tony Hinds, the project seemed fraught with potential legal problems, and began to lose momentum, with Hinds scaling back the production to a 3 week shoot and in cost-effective black & white. It was only when Jimmy Sangster produced a screenplay which was carefully tailored to avoid any ideas and elements of the Universal series - a significant achievement considering Universal having thoroughly mined the property with no less than 8 outings for the monster, that the project was revitalised and planned as Hammer's first film to be shot in color.

The film opens with Baron Frankenstein awaiting his execution for the crime of murder. In an attempt to save his life, the Baron explains to a priest the events which resulted in his incarceration, and so begins the film proper, as Frankenstein obsessively tries to engineer a living being from a collection of dead body parts... Despite sharing the basic framework of Shelley's story with James Whale's 1931 classic, The Curse of Frankenstein is a radical departure from the Universal film, with the emphasis placed on the mania of the Baron rather than the creature. If nothing else it was a practical move, as Hammer were expressly forbidden to emulate Jack Pierce's iconic stylized make-up for Boris Karloff's monster. Arthur Edeson's shadowy expressionist photography which in part established the look of Universal's Horror films, was now replaced by Jack Asher's gaudy experimental color photography. Sangster's screenplay was very much a contemporary reflection of ideas and concerns of the late '50's - if Colin Clive's Frankenstein was committing an act against God, Peter Cushing's Baron was challenging the natural order of life itself, a position the post-war scientific community were increasingly adopting with radical advances in medicine and emergence of the contraceptive pill. With The Curse of Frankenstein, the Baron emerged as a truly modern Prometheus.

Directed with a skill and vibrancy by Terence Fisher, the film contains a number of memorable visual flourishes, like the the incredible first appearance of the monster, ripping off his bandages to reveal a tortured patchwork of stitches and dead tissue, or the monster's spectacular fiery demise. The film made a star of Peter Cushing (who went on to play Frankenstein in all but 1 of the 7-film series, briefly sidestepping the role with The Horror of Frankenstein in 1970), while Christopher Lee playing the monster patiently waited in the wings until the arrival of Dracula - here he is almost unrecognisable but does a fine job, at once imposing due to the monster's impressive height, but also pitiful with its awkward, uncoordinated movements caused by a bullet lodged in it's brain. When the film was released in the summer of '57, it scored a huge hit with audiences worldwide, and Hammer set Jimmy Sangster the task of resurrecting the Baron for a sequel, which would be tentatively titled the Blood of Frankenstein before settling on the more sanguine Revenge of Frankenstein. Clearly the Baron's work was far from over...

Warners 2002 DVD of The Curse of Frankenstein can be difficult to get hold of these days, the title often lapsing in an out of print. As with their DVD edition of Dracula, the studio has paid little respect to this important film in the way of extras, but at least the Warners DVD delivers a solid presentation with a sharp and vibrant 1.85 anamorphic transfer and good robust audio. Some throwaway production notes and a battered trailer are offered as extras. Until Warners roll the film out on Blu-Ray, this DVD if you can find it, remains the best way of seeing this Hammer masterpiece. Essential viewing.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Viking Queen

Despite having directed the hugely successful One Million Years B.C., Don Chaffey's second outing for Hammer The Viking Queen, was a far less extravagant production, a program filler pitched as a sword and sandal spectacle, filmed in Ireland while the studio was channeling its talent and resources into Frankenstein Created Woman. Set in the 1st century, Britain is a divided island under occupation by the Roman Empire. The fragile truce in place between the Romans and the Britons is threatened when a forbidden love affair develops between native Queen Salina and Justina the Roman Governor General, the relationship used by the pagan druids to sow the seeds of dissent, while Justina's second in command, the ambitious Octavian, manoeuvres to seize power and crush the Britons.

The Viking film as a genre had a brief day in the sun following the success of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings, with European filmmakers soon tweaking the formula of the sword and sandal film to factor in the Vikings' fearsome reputation for rape and pillage, as well as adding a dose of Norse mythology. By the time Hammer's film was released in 1967 the genre was all but played out, effectively replaced by the next wave of low budget Euro-Cinema, the Spaghetti Western. Even the title of the film is a bit of a cheat - it hardly qualifies as a Viking film at all, swapping long ships for chariots and the god Odin elbowed out by something decidedly more Celtic in flavour. Given the relative obscurity of the film, The Viking Queen is all too readily dismissed and seems destined to wind up on the shelf of the Hammer completeist, unjustly so as the film makes for a rousing, intelligent and fast moving action film.

The singularly named Finnish model Carita playing the titular queen provides the required Hammer glamour, but one can't help thinking she's just stumbled out of a photographer's studio on Carnaby Street, especially when she goes to war in a miniskirt. Still, she's capable enough, and is bolstered up with support from her fellow cast, a cadre of hard-working TV actors, and Hammer stalwart Andrew Kier playing the villainous Octavian. Less successful though is actor Donald Houston who should have been thrown to the wolves for his high camp Pythonesque Druid high-priest. Visually the film has a sense of scale and space which extends past it's thrifty budget, with some evocative moody lighting, and director Don Chaffey uses some clever camera angles to transform a modest number of extras into a whole legion of Roman soldiers. As with Hammer's 1960 film, Sword of Sherwood Forest, the shooting unit was dispatched to Ireland, filming on many of the locations John Boorman would later choose for Excalibur. That the film was shot in Ireland is something of a bitter irony, as the backdrop of The Viking Queen's storyline could almost be seen as an allegory for the Troubles, which the island was heading into in the late 60's.

Optimum's DVD of The Viking Queen is a decent enough effort, with a 1.85 anamorphic transfer, but the print is rather faded looking, a shame considering the film's imaginative lighting and lush photography. The audio is perfectly adequate. Extras include the usual barn-storming trailer. If you can track it down, the 1999 US disc from Anchor Bay inches ahead with a warmer image and another episode of the World of Hammer series, Lands Before Time. There's also a German disc available with English audio, featuring a fine transfer and the World of Hammer episode Trials of War.