Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s Horror Week at The A.V. Club, we’re highlighting movies featuring major stars of the genre.
How much of the film industry’s creative innovation has been a result of trying not to get sued? Just as the sufficiently de-Dracula-fied Count Orlok was born out of fear of the litigious Stoker estate, Hammer Film Productions made its first big splash by tiptoeing around Universal Studios’ legal department. The British genre mainstay had dipped a toe into horror through the mid-’50s, but wanted a bigger-name property to get a foothold in the overseas market. Around this time, a script adapting public domain novel Frankenstein started bouncing around their offices, repeatedly rewritten to avoid any actionable similarity to the 1931 Boris Karloff vehicle. The higher-ups figured they could cover their hindquarters by going in a gorier direction, trading the flat-topped cranium and neck-bolts for a mangled face and a fresh slash-mark across the throat. A vivid violence awash in blood turned Pantone-red by the newly adopted Eastmancolor distinguished The Curse Of Frankenstein, and paved the way for Hammer’s coming decade of dominance.
The start of the studio’s carnage-strewn golden age united the two talents who would be made icons through this emerging breed of Gothica by way of Grand Guignol. The cave-cheeked Peter Cushing migrated from television for his first major role on the big screen, bringing a reedy gravitas that perfectly befit the arrogance-drunk Baron Frankenstein. As his monster, the great Christopher Lee lucked into the job on merit of his six-foot-five stature, enough height to loom over his mortal costars. Though he couldn’t do too much acting from under Phil Leakey’s prosthetic makeup, Lee made an impression that landed him the fanged lead in Hammer’s Dracula pictures, which would reunite him with Cushing as the hunter Van Helsing. The two men hit it off immediately (in his memoir, Lee recalls first meeting Cushing by bursting into his dressing room to complain that the creature didn’t have any lines, eliciting a riesling-dry reply of “You’re lucky, I’ve read the script”) and remained close friends for the rest of their careers and lives.
The Curse Of Frankenstein also minted a third vital collaborator in director Terence Fisher, the graverobbed brains of the operation. He specialized in rendering the highbrow lurid and vice versa, playing up the savagery of Mary Shelley’s original text without losing touch with its roots in a prim, arch age of literature. Sumptuous production design belied the modest budget, and a rich palette mixed popping primary colors with artful chiaroscuro. Fisher played officiant for an unholy wedding between the sacred and the profane, and for it, U.K. censors awarded him a X-rating certificate while pearl-clutching critics denounced him as a degenerate. The last laugh went to the filmmaker, and not just because he remained Hammer’s golden boy through the ’60s and early ’70s; today’s standards for sadism make his work look both tame and forward-thinking, his vision vindicated twice over.
The monster’s awakening—which comes about an hour into this 83-minute film, following a good bit of narrative wheel-spinning during which we’re free to admire the architecture—and his heinous deeds may lack shock factor for a generation raised on the skin-flensings of Saw and the like. But the output from Hammer and their unwilling forebears at Universal hasn’t turned into the sort of musty college seminar fodder that those same films once reinvigorated. We should by all means cultivate an appreciation of the classics, without which the vocabulary of horror would not exist. But the gruesome modernism on display here makes getting some culture feel like the farthest thing from eating your vegetables. It’s a big, bloody steak, still mooing in terror.