Got stuff out of the way, so now to get cracking on some more posts before the 31st ends.
Lets see what I can conjure up.
Curse of Frankenstein (1956)
This is the film that put Hammer studios on the map, a color film that was groundbreaking in its
violence and bloody scenes. Hammer had to tread carefully with a Frankenstein film as they had an agreement with Universal not to use any elements from their films..(my cousin murray will sue you!!). An interesting technical facet was its use of new Eastman kodak film which shot well under low light, unlike technicolor. The colors were darker and in a way had some of the shadow like features of the old black and white.
Right off the bat, the professionalism involved is seen on every level from acting, set design, direction, etc. The British were the last country to really start developing horror films but when they started they had the full weight of the theatrical tradition behind them to make them superior to what was seen before. The irony was that it was really only one studio(Hammer) doing 80% of these movies and they had no where near the resources of Hollywood.
Another innovation to the Frankenstein mythos with Hammer studios was to do the opposite of the Universal films which focused on the Monster. In this film and the sequels, the main character was Dr Frankenstein himself. Not a tortured or guilt ridden creator, he is actually an amoral sociopathic but charming villain! While his character changes to almost an antihero later in the series, his main feature is his overwhelming drive to achieve his goals. Ruthless to the point of betraying all around him, Victor Frankenstein in many ways seems more sympathetic than the foolish snobby doctors and silly peasants who abound in the films with him.
The movie is basically Victor in a prison cell talking to a priest about his life and is one long flashback. We see Frankenstein grow up and then pursue the ultimate scientific experiment
of creating life. His arranged fiance and childhood mentor seem like impediments to Victor and the problem starts when his mentor finds out what he wants to do. He of course creates the creature and even murders an old professor for his brain. Of course the brain gets damaged in a fight between the horrified mentor and Victor and the resulting creature is a murderous, imbecilic brute.
Eventually things come to a head with the creature murdering people and Victor trying to cover it up. Also a scheming ex lover servant tries to blackmail him. Not the smartest move and the most cold blooded act Victor pulls seals her fate. However justice is coming and the film finishes with Victor facing his execution being blamed for the murders of the monster.
Peter Cushing plays Victor quite well, charming but you can see the anger and obsession just under the surface. He is quite a spoiled brat and blames everyone else for his failures. However Cushing makes him (at least to me) somewhat sympathetic. The truth is his mentor Paul was responsible for damaging the brain and its obvious he wants Victor's wife (who he does care for in his own way). I cant stand Paul even though he is technically right about the whole affair. Facing the guillotine (associated with the French, the Germanic kingdoms used it just as much..chop!) you feel sorry for Victor. How Cushing can make you care about this villain shows the skill of his use of pathos in his acting.
Of course the other actor associated with this milestone is Christopher Lee who at this point can't do much as he is a nearly mindless creature. But even in that role he conveys the sense of the creature being like a giant dangerous toddler who instead of breaking his toys, breaks real life people.
This movie did so well at box offices all over the world that more horror films were to come. The next major Hammer gothic horror dealt with that other famous 19th century gothic horror novel
The Horror of Dracula (1957)
This film has a special place in my heart (like a stake). I remember watching it as a kid and running terrified from the television into the kitchen and then slowly creeping back to see what happened next. Christopher Lee as Dracula was tall, dark and gruesome and exploded into hissing fanged rages as he grabbed people's throats. A very different Drac from ol Bela Lugosi.
The story is altered to actually have Jonathan Harker try to assassinate Dracula from the beginning (Him and Van Helsing already know about this vampire villain) and fail miserably. In a way Dracula is then justified in his revenge and he strikes at Harker's beloved Lucy and then Mina. Van Helsing gets into the fight and it becomes a game of cat and mouse as he and Lucy's brother try to stop Dracula who always seems one step ahead.
Cushing is the hero here and plays Van Helsing as a younger and more two fisted vampire hunter. He exudes a paternal warmth and dedication, the opposite of the villainous Victor Frankenstein. One of his subtle acting techniques is conveying annoyance with incompetent or
foolish people using his eyes and cheekbones..this is a facial expression I am very familiar with in real life(probably why I picked up on it).
Lee is everything they say he is in this, playing the Count like a savage wolf and he does not say much. The rumor was that he was payed by the line or something but that sounds like a myth.
More likely he was just being used as the glorified heavy like in earlier films he was in (like Corridors of Blood with Boris Karloff) because of his imposing height and defined continental features (he had Italian ancestry mixed in with British). In truth he was an amazing actor and
when he got to play a heroic role once in a while, he truly shined.
The scene with Lucy as a risen vampire in her crypt is very well done, atmospheric, tragic and
savagely bloody. I could see people in the audience gasping and screaming at this in 1956.
In earlier films they would not show it or you would see a shadow and the vampire moaning
(like Lugosi). Here you see the stake enter the chest with blood spurting and the vampire screaming in pain and agony!
Also the climax is quite intense, with Van Helsing and the Count physically going toe to toe. Van Helsing has to use his wits and ingenuity to defeat the more powerful vampire and its not just pulling a cross and having him run off. This vampire will throw things at you and choke and slam your ass onto tables and into walls!
Hammer went on to make many horror films after these two, with special mention to the great Terence Fisher, one of the most underrated directors ever. The fact that he felt he was just doing a job and did not claim to be an 'auter' is amazing as so many of his films are so well done.
Cushing has been gone for twenty years and I know sooner than later the word will come over the AP that Sir Christopher Lee will have passed as well. When that day happens I will toast the sky, close my eyes and have a moment of silence. He is the last classic horror actor of all. Thats it. That will be the definitive end.
I don't say this lightly or to be silly and sentimental..I have lost more than a few people close to me (some tragically and before their time) over the years. What I will be mourning will be the passing of an age, one many took for granted and then it slowly faded away and only now is noticed when it is nearly gone.