Wednesday, December 16, 2020

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) (Warner Archive Blu-ray Review)

Two-Disc Special Edition 

Label: Warner Archive
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 83 Minutes
Audio: English DTS HD-MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1), 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1), 1080p HD Open Matte (1.37:1) 
Director: Terence Fisher 
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Valerie Gaunt, Paul Hardtmuth, Alex Gallier 

Hammer's full-tilt horror and color-filmmaking debut The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) still packs a re-animated punch all these years later and it looks fantastic on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive! This flick was a monumental slice of terror with a horror pedigree a mile long from the get-go, it was  written by Hammer screenwriting stalwart Jimmy Sangster (The Brides of Dracula) and directed by Terence Fisher (The Devil Rides Out), whom I among many consider to be the pre-eminent Hammer director. It also paired soon-to-be horror icons Peter Cushing (Corruption) and Christopher Lee (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) for the very first time, a horror team-up that would prove to rival that of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff before them. Hammer's take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein novel was also careful not to tread on the intellectual rights of Universal films  whose own iconic franchise had come before it, for fear of legal recourse. 

The Gothic surgical-nightmare is told in flashback, opening and closing with with a wrap-around device of Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) imprisoned and awaiting his execution by guillotine. The story is being told by him to a priest shortly before his schedule beheading. His tale begins with a teenage Baron Victor Frankenstein (Melvyn Hayes, The Flesh and the Fiends) who was orphaned at the age of fifteen. We meet the arrogant teen as he is audaciously in the process of hiring his own private tutor, a teacher named Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart, Murder at the Gallop). 

Over the course of two decades Krempe tutors and mentors the young Frankenstein who has become quite a brilliant if unorthodox scientific mind. The film then flashed forward within the flashback to the now adult Victor (now played properly by Peter Cushing) who is now friend with his mentor Paul, who works at Victor's side as he embarks on a series, the latest being an attempt to re-animate the corpse of a dead puppy. They do manage to bring it back from the dead, not with bolts of electricity but through surgery and strange alchemy. This scientific breakthrough fuels within Frankenstein an obsession to create life from a collection of human part that he will stitch together himself, to give it new life where there was none before. After the successful puppy re-animation Paul thinks they should share this new breakthrough with the medical community, but Victor disagrees.  Choosing to keep the scientific discovery to himself he is now hell bent on creating life. Paul increasingly disapproves of the immoral path Frankenstein is travelling but stays on, assisting Victor in body-snatching corpses to further his experimentation. 

When Frankenstein hears of a highway robber recently hung on the outskirts of town he sees an opportunity, thus beginning the process of collecting body-parts to assemble his spare-parts monster, eventually he is only need of a brain to  complete his assembly. The division between Krempe and Victor builds to a proper head of steam soon after with the arrival of Frankenstein's cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court, The Man Who Could Cheat Death), who moves into the chalet to carry through with a pre-arranged marriage to Victor. Paul is smitten by the young woman and fears for her safety being in such close proximity to the increasingly obsessed Victor. The final straw is when Victor straight-up murders an elderly colleague to steal his brain, afterward a physical altercation with Krempe inadvertently damages the brain. Even still Frankenstein moves ahead with re-animating his monster, but when it springs to life the creature immediately shows a murderous temperament, attempting to strangle it's creator. 

Later the monster escapes the lab and murders a blind man and his grandson it encounters in the nearby woods. Victor and Kempe track it down with the latter dispatching the pitiful creature by shooting it in the face with a shotgun, much to the chagrin of Frankenstein. At that point Kempe believing  Elizabeth to be safe from Frankenstein's monster makes his leave, only returning to partake in the Frankenstein's wedding to Elizabeth some months later. However, during his visit he is horrified when Victor reveals that he has repaired and re-animated the creature once again! 

I first saw this at my grandma's house when I was still in the single-digits, she only had a black and white TV and I was used to watching everything in black and white. I do believe I thought this was a black and white film at the time, unaware that it was a technicolor flick for years afterwards. This was the first iteration of Frankenstein that I ever saw, even before the Universal film this was my introduction to it all, and it got under my skin. The way Frankenstein used alchemy and immersed the creature in a large water tank made me feel uneasy for some reason, it seemed much more gruesome to me than the idea of harnessing the electrical power of lightening ever could have. Lightning seemed clean by comparison, bit the whole water-logged corpse brought back to life was disturbing. I also though the ghoulish look of Christopher Lee's lumbering creature was much scarier than the bolts-in-the-neck and square headed Karloff creature, though that too is iconic for a reason. This creature had pale, loose-fitting, fetid-looking flesh, a cataract dead-eye and horrific scarring on it's face. At the point that I first watched it this was certainly the most gruesome looking thing I had ever seen outside of some actual roadkill, which I saw often as a kid, being an outdoorsy country kid. Lee doesn't get the chance to do a lot with this character but he manages to do more with it than what was probably on paper, giving the creature a sad pitifulness that re-enforces the idea that Victor is the real monster here, this creature is just a sad but violent product of that insanity.

I do love Peter Cushing's take on Frankenstein, he is not some man of science who is misunderstood, but instead is an arrogant man of science obsessed with playing God, who treats those around him quite poorly at every turn. He is cold and dismissive of his new bride, callous to the concerns of Paul, and even worse to his servant girl and secret lover Justine (Valerie Gaunt, Horror of Dracula). After being scorned by Victor Justine threatens to reveal his immoral experimentation to the authorities, to which Victor responds by locking her in a room with the creature, with the expected results. Robert Urquhart as Kempe is a bit odd, he has almost a sexless homosexual relationship with Frankenstein, Not really, but he is so strangely dedicated to the man, but he is put-off by his blasphemous experimentation, but he absolutely never does anything about it. it's actually quite frustrating that he never grows a proper conscience and reports any of it to the authorities, or at least  Elizabeth, whom he has a soldering heart for. 

This Hammer horror also has a great Gothic look to it, the studio establishing the Hammer-look early on. Frankenstein's lab is not alive with the sound of crackling electricity and Jacob's Ladders, but chock full of colored fluids and strange instruments of alchemy, including a gauze wrapped body suspended in an oversized aquarium filled with life-restoring fluids. Like any good mad-scientist Frankenstein also has a vat of acid at the ready where he can dissolve unwanted surgical viscera and bit of evidence like a severed heads and multiple bodies. The flick does good work separating itself from the Universal films, the need to forgo certain iconic visuals being the mother of invention, and in the process proving to me more true to the source material than what came had before.   

The Curse of Frankenstein is a great watch, if you love Gothic horror, are a Hammer junkie, love all things Frankenstein or are just a huge fans of the Lee and Cushing team-ups, this is an entertaining and surprisingly macabre watch that should hold up for monster-kids of all ages. Hammer started strong right out of the gate with this one, when you look at it you have all the moving pieces in place from the beginning with Sangster writing it, Fisher directing it, the Cushing and Lee team-up, and the cream on top is a fantastic James Bernard score, it's all there right at the start!

I did have a few random thoughts while re-watching this one for the review, most of them regarding the dead puppy that Frankenstein re-animates early on. First, did that bastard kill it himself, and if so I am glad that they didn't show, can you even imagine Cushing drowning a pup? The horror! Second, what the fuck happened to it? We never see it again, and I am curious at the possibilities, did it also suffer a bad temperament like the monster? Did Frankenstein give to some kid down the lane and it ended up killing the whole family? Is that why that kid was hanging around his grandfather in the forest scrounging mushroom, was he an orphan because of that pup? Finally, was this the inspiration for Tim Burton's re-animated dead dog flick Frankenweenie (1984)?  

Audio/Video: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. The film is presented in 1080p HD and we get three different aspect ratios - we get both the 1.66 UK framing and the 1.85 US framing on disc one, and on disc two we get the open matte 1.37:1 TV framing, also in 1080p HD, which shows more information along the top and the bottom of the frame. These scans are all sourced from a new 4K scan of preservation separation elements. Despite a spot of softness to the image  there is still an appreciable amount of detail in close-ups that  highlight period clothing textures, ornate wallpaper and the scarred face of the creature. The screenshots in this body of the review are from the 1.66:1 framing, which is my preferred viewing ratio. I did not do screen caps for the 1.85:1 version but there is a 1.66:1 vs the 1.37:1 open matte version comparison at the bottom of the view, highlighting that the open matte version which shows considerably more information on the top and bottom of the frame, even though this was never an intended framing outside of TV airings. 

Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with optional English subtitles. It sounds appropriately vintage in that we do not get much low-end and there's a slight hiss that can be heard throughout, but the dialogue is never hard to discern and the James Bernard (The Plague of the Zombies) score sounds terrific. 

Aside from getting three version of the film the Warner Archive have gone above and beyond for Hammer's debut terror title, at least for a Warner Archive release, the imprint is well-known  for their quality transfers and gorgeous restorations, but not so much for creating new extras. Perhaps they have been inspired by the likes of Scream Factory and Indicator who have given us some lavish extras-laden Hammer titles on Blu-ray, whatever the reason i hope we see more of it from Warner Archive!  Extras kick-off with a brand new audio commentary by Screenwriter/Film Historian Steve Haberman and Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr. These fine gentleman are the go-to Hammer historians whenever we get a new Hammer horror HD release, and they can be heard on many of the releases from Scream Factory. There's a reason for that, they're super knowledgeable and their commentaries are dense and entertaining, this is a fantastic listen. 

We also get four new featurettes produced by Constantine Nasr that total over an hour's worth of new content. We get a 22-minute appreciation of the film by Richard Kemensen the publisher of Little Shoppe of Horrors, and we get a 23-minute examination of the Gothic horror tradition by historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Additionally we get a 15-minute appreciation from cinematographer David J. Miller (The Good Place) about the legacy of Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher,  getting into what made his technique so memorable, and composer Christopher Drake (The Dark Knight Returns) gives a wonderful 17-minute tribute to composer James Bernard. The last of the extras is a 2-minute trailer for the film.

The 2-disc release arrives in a dual-hub keepcase with a single-sided sleeve of artwork that to me looks like a slightly altered lobby card artwork for the original release of the film with some slightly funky looking airbrushing. On the discs inside we get the heads of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee from that same key artwork featured separately on each disc. 

Special Features: 
- NEW! 2020 1080p HD Restoration Masters from 4K Scans of Preservation Separation Elements
- NEW! Audio commentary by Screenwriter/Film Historian Steve Haberman and Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr
- NEW! Remastered Open Matte (1.37:1) version of feature.
- NEW! The Resurrection Men: Hammer, Frankenstein and the Rebirth of the Horror Film (22 min) 
- NEW! Hideous Progeny: The Curse of Frankenstein and the English Gothic Tradition (25 min) HD 
- NEW! Torrents of Light: The Art of Jack Asher (15 min) HD 
- NEW! Diabolus in Musica: James Bernard and the Sound of Hammer Horror (17 min) HD 
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD

Warner Archive's two-disc special edition Blu-ray of  the seminal Hammer horror The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) is quite wonderful, the A/V presentation is superior, we get three aspect ratios in an effort to appease all tastes, and the new extras are plentiful and informative. I do hope to see more Warner Archive titles getting the same treatment going forward, this is my favorite release from the Warner Archive so far!

Top: Open Matte (1.37:1) Version
Bottom: Widescreen (1.66:1) Version 
Note: These screenshots are not exact time code matches but they are at least are close enough to illustrate the extra information seen in the open matte version.

More 1.66:1 screenshot from the Warner Archive Blu-ray: 

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