Today is Peter Cushing’s birthday – 26 May. HOWARD JACKSON looks at the role that made him a horror icon, Victor Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
Perhaps the make up of Boris Karloff tempted us to call the monster Frankenstein. Few remember the name of the actor who played Frankenstein in the Universal classics or even much about his wide-eyed performance. Peter Cushing was different. His impact led to sequels. Hammer made six Frankenstein movies. All featured Peter Cushing. The monster changed each time. In Frankenstein Created Woman it even acquired a figure. Frankenstein like Dracula was the threat. Their fates and not what they created determined whether the movie had a happy ending. The monsters of Frankenstein were unfortunate explosions that happened outside the laboratory.
There is not one joke in The Curse Of Frankenstein or even light moment that is amusing. Frankenstein has dreams of glory. He has sex with the maid for the same reason some people climb mountains. She happens to be there. Frankenstein is not evil, just selfish and dangerous. Self-important it makes perfect sense to sacrifice his lover and an old colleague. Frankenstein is dangerous and definitely not likeable but Cushing keeps his character within serious and narrow limits. No one hates the man. He is gifted, privileged and unfortunate.
The Curse Of Frankenstein has memorable moments. When the local priest arrives at the cell where Frankenstein sleeps in a dark corner, we sense not just the isolation and lonely purpose of the scientist but the consequences. The body for the experiment is obtained by robbing a wayside gibbet. Cushing gnaws the rope and puts effort into the process but is always believable. There are no curses or wiping the brow. Without Cushing hardly trying we recognise the impatience and irritation of a scientist who has plans to transform a tedious world. The ending of the film is also powerful. The execution is unseen but the film is paced so that we are obliged to think about a dedicated scientist being executed by the organised and mechanical methods of a society denied essential truth. The complicity of Dr Paul Krempe in the final deceit and betrayal should make him interesting but the actor Robert Urquhart is not great. Cushing would have suggested something both dark and decent in the role. The relationship between Frankenstein and Krempe is antagonistic but there are also bonds that cannot be broken. Without the contribution of Cushing this would not be apparent.
The plot mixes well ideas from both the book and the Karloff movie but the script by Jimmy Sangster is routine. Frankenstein recalls his youth and remarks that ‘I had a brilliant intellect.’ Cushing invests the revelation with both acceptance and confusion. It becomes memorable as does ‘when the scars on his face heal it won’t be so bad.’ By his standards Cushing is almost breathless. The hopeless optimism and self-deceit are obvious.
Apart from somehow acquiring a rather neat overcoat the Creature is blameless. This bold pardon would not have been possible without the controlled malevolence of Frankenstein. Cushing needs to convince. He does, and his efforts carry the picture. Hazel Court as Elizabeth deserves a mention but not much more.