Friday, September 25, 2009

The Best of Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

One of my favorite versions of monster-maker Victor Frankenstein is the one portrayed by Peter Cushing. Although Cushing appeared in a total of six Frankenstein movies from Hammer Films, it is the following four films--the ones I think of as "The Frankenstein Chronicles"--that are his best.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Starring: Peter Cushing, Paul Urqhart, Christopher Lee, and Hazel Court
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In this first movie in Hammer's Frankenstein cycle, scientific genius Victor Frankenstein embarks on his life-long quest to be the first human being to create life. He is initially aided and abetted by a fellow scientist, his boyhood tutor, but as Frankenstein turns to murder in order to ensure his success, the assistant turns against him. Soon, Frankenstein's cold-blooded schemes are spinning out of control, and all his evil is turned back upon him. The technical aspects of the film are top-notch, the acting by all the principals is excellent, and on every other level this is a fine horror film.

Although Christopher Lee is present as the creature Frankenstein creates, the real monster is Victor Frankenstein, a man who becomes consumed first by ambition, then arrogance, and eventually madness. Cushing's portrayal of Frankenstein, however, makes this monster personable and likableóthe viewer almost wishes at times that he succeeds in the end. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that the film actually provides a solid reason for why Victor Frankenstein is the way he is. (We have a character who grew up under the tualage of a morally questionable mentor, and who was undoubtedly scarred by the early death of his parents. In fact, although I think he was intended to be sympathetic character, Urqhart's Paul Krempe is as big a villain as Frankenstein, perhaps even bigger. Paul was supposed to be the older, wiser man, but he never instilled his young charge with proper morals... and he never really tried to stop him. He just stole his girlfriend!)

Revenge of Frankenstein (aka "I, Frankenstein") (1958)
Starring: Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Although Baron Frankenstein seemed certain to pay for his sins against man and nature at the end of the first film, Hammer and director Fisher nonetheless managed to save him for an intelligently written and solidly directed sequel. Assuming a new identity and becoming the new head of a hospital for the poor, he builds a body for his crippled assistant from parts amputated from his patients. Unfortunately, body battles mind for supremacy and turns the newly ambulatory man into a shambling, murderous cannibal.

This is one of those rare sequels that is as good as the original. Cushing's Frankenstein is once again a likable character, showing himself to be the only man of medicine in a town who cares about the health of the poor... even if his concern is largely derived from a desire to keep a steady supply of raw materials available for his experiments.

Once again, Cushing is supported by a strong cast and a great script. If there's anything that dissapoints me about this this film, it's that Frankenstein didn't really get revenge on anyone. When I first heard that this film was a direct continuation of "Curse of Frankenstein," I thought the people who stood by and let him go to the guillotine would also return, but they are no where in this story. But, that's a quibble that doesn't make the actual movie any weaker.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Susan Denberg, and Thorley Walters
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Frankenstein Created Woman" is one of the most unusual Hammer films. Although obstensibly a horror film, it is probably better described as a poetic mood piece steeped in gothic romanticism. As such, it ranks among most intelligent of all Frankenstein films.

The usual elements of a Frankenstein story are all but missing here, and the mad doctor isn't creating a terrible patchwork man, but instead a beautiful woman. What's more, he is endevours to inhabit the body with a soul. (It seems he is operating under the theory that previous efforts went awry because he was just dealing with brains, not souls.) The story is a quirky one, but it has all the elements of a great gothic tale--dark secrets, tragic love, and ultimate justice. The ending is also a curiously melancholy one.

While Cushing doesn't have as much screentime in this film as in other entries in the series--Frankenstein is more of a catalyst for the film's events than its focus--he gives a performance that is equal to the one in "Curse of Frankenstein." It may even be better than his original portrayal of the character, as something truly different is done with Victor Frankenstein in this film. While all the perfomances here are all superb, Cushing's more gentle portrayal of the fiendish doctor truly shines.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, and Madeline Smith
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Victor Frankenstein has buried his old identity and taken control of an insane asylum that serves as a rich source of parts for his continuing experiments. With the help of a young medical student who has read Frankenstein's 20-year-old texts on his early efforts, Frankenstein creates a creature from parts of the asylum's most promising inmates. Unfortunately for the not-so-good doctor, he is once again saddled with a protoge who starts to suffer pangs of conscience when the lengths to which Frankenstein is willing to go becomes apparent. In the end, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Once again, Cushing's Frankenstein comes across as likable, even kindhearted when contrasted with the officials in the insane asylum. However, any admirable qualities are quickly revealed as illusions when it becomes apparent that he no longer has within him even the slightest shred of human decency or even a genuine interest in scientific pursuits. For Frankenstein, the creation of his creature has become the means to its own end... he is through and through a heartless monster.

The dark, dank, cramped asylum where the story takes place serves as the perfect mirror of Frankenstein's spiritual state, and Cushing's intense and commanding performance of this man now totally lost in madness is spellbinding. Although Hammer Films was quickly dying as a production house, the final reunion for Cushing and Fisher, who together launched Hammer's gothic reign with "The Curse of Frankenstein" is a splendid and worthy end to an era in cinematic history.


  1. As Turner Classic Movies does each October, they provided us with a treat for Halloween. For 2010, in fact, they provided four treats:
    Oct 29
    The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
    The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
    Frankenstein Created Woman (1966)
    Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

    If I recall Robert Osborne's introduction correctly, he said Terence Fisher thought Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed was the director's favorite.

  2. Yeah, that is the general feeling about "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed." The out-of-place rape scene knocks it down a peg for me.

  3. After reading about Peter's objection to the original conclusion in Brides of Dracula getting it changed to the marvelous one we got instead (the original was reused for Kiss of the Vampire), I'm surprised about that rape scene. Veronica Carlson says it was tacked on, at the insistence of Michael Carreras.

  4. There was no finer a Baron Frankenstein actor as Peter Cusing. I especially loved the way he alternated the character's personality from good to evil. He brought a remarkable depth to the character that, for me, has been equaled.