Release Date(s)1957 (December 15, 2020)
Studio(s)Hammer Film Productions/Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Rewriting the gothic horror landscape in 1957, Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein was a big success; not just for them, but for the genre as a whole. Influencing a number of suspense films that were released in its wake, the film also gave Hammer a brand new direction—spawning sequel after sequel and forever associating them with a new kind of horror, full of vivid color, extensive art direction, lush orchestral scores, beautiful women with low-cut necklines, and occasional gore. Producer Anthony Hinds and writer Jimmy Sangster were tasked with reinventing the classic Mary Shelley tale without copying Universal’s monster movie copyright, focusing instead on Baron Frankenstein’s character and making him more of an unsympathetic protagonist of sorts. The film also kicked off a cycle of films featuring either Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or both, but also heralded the arrival of Hammer’s in-house director extraordinaire, Terence Fisher, whom many would tout as one of the company’s finest assets. Today, the film is viewed as a masterpiece of the genre, as well as one of the greatest British films ever made.
Taking place sometime during the nineteenth century, a priest is brought into a jail cell where Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) has been arrested for murder and is soon to meet his fate with the guillotine. Before he goes, he wishes to unburden himself with the events that lead him here, in the hopes that he might be excused. He then proceeds to tell him his story and how he became friends with Paul (Robert Urquhart), a man who would tutor him at a young age after the death of his mother, which left him wealthy and the sole heir to the Frankenstein estate. Intensely interested in science, Frankenstein, with the help of Paul, begins experimentation as he grows older. It finally leads him to the idea of bringing dead tissue back to life, which he is momentarily successful with on a dead puppy. It soon becomes clear that Frankenstein wishes to go even further and bring dead human beings back to life, even going so far as to construct one from various dead parts in his own twisted image. Paul refuses to take part in this, which causes a rift between the two, particularly after the arrival of Frankenstein’s cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court). He eventually brings his creature (Lee) to life, which comes back from the dead both pathetic and murderous, ultimately leading to Frankenstein’s disasterous downfall.
The Curse of Frankenstein finally makes its stateside Region A Blu-ray debut courtesy of the talented folks at Warner Archive, restoring the film to its former glory utilizing 4K scans of preserved separation elements. It’s also been included in not just one, but three separate aspect ratios. Disc one presents the film in either 1.85:1 (US theatrical) or 1.66:1 (UK theatrical), while disc two presents the film in 1.37:1 (open matte for TV). A maginified shot of an eyeball held by Frankenstein during an examination, which was included in the US theatrical version and later removed, has now been restored.
All three versions are derived from the same restoration, which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The level of detail in the image, with grain given a very fine appearance, is staggering. Transitions and the film’s opening and closing titles are the weakest areas of the presentation, but elsewhere everything is abundantly crisp. The color palette is rich with a variety of hues, enhancing the on-set lighting and the use of color gels for effect. The forested areas are lush with greens and browns while the interiors of Frankenstein’s home are layered with monochromatics, colorful set decorations, and hue-soaked backgrounds. Black levels are solid with excellent contrast, revealing more detail in the shadows than ever before without appearing too bright. It’s also a highly stable presentation with no major leftover debris. Because the source of the transfer isn’t the original camera negative, it may appear a tad soft initially, but is inherent to the materials used. As for the three aspect ratios, the 1.66:1 UK theatrical option is likely the most preferable as it facilitates the composition of shots the best, but each aspect ratio has its pros and cons when it comes to detail along the edges of the frame. Your mileage may vary.
The audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. As with most single channel-sourced audio tracks, this one lacks any real dynamics. However, they’re not necessary as the film’s original soundtrack is presented with great clarity. Dialogue exchanges are clear and precise. Sound effects offer decent heft when needed while James Bernard’s score wraps around the soundtrack beautifully without ever overpowering it. Outside of mild hiss, it’s a clean soundtrack that’s free of any dropouts or distortion.
The following extras are included on each disc. The video-based extras are all new and presented in HD:
DISC ONE: MAIN FEATURE
- Audio Commentary by Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman
As per usual, the audio commentary by film historian/filmmaker Constantine Nasr and film historian/screenwriter Steve Haberman is top notch, covering all aspects of the production, but also providing an enormous amount of context. The pair have been granted access to an earlier draft of the script by Jimmy Sangster and point out some key differences in regards to the final version, including a revelatory moment late in the film that would have toed the line of going too far with Baron Frankenstein’s character. They discuss the genesis of the project, the film’s production, additional scenes that may or may not have been shot, dealing with the British censors, and the initial reaction from critics. As with all of their commentaries, it’s a must.
DISC TWO: SPECIAL FEATURES
- The Resurrection Men: Hammer, Frankenstein and the Rebirth of the Horror Film (21:51)
- Hideous Progeny: The Curse of Frankenstein and the English Gothic Tradition (22:49)
- Torrents of Light: The Art of Jack Asher (15:14)
- Diabolus in Musica: James Bernard and the Sound of Hammer Horror (17:05)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:19)
The Resurrection Men features an interview with magazine editor and publisher Richard Klemensen, who explores the era in which the film was made in detail; the people who crafted it, including Anthony Hinds, Terence Fisher, Bernard Robinson, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing; and the film’s long-lasting legacy on the genre. Hideous Progeny interviews author and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling about the history of gothic horror in literature and how it influenced the film, as well as other films beyond it. Torrents of Light interviews director of photographry David J. Miller who praises and analyzes the film’s artful composition. Diabolus in Musica interviews composer Christopher Drake who discusses the work of James Bernard and the music that he produced for Hammer’s films. The theatrical trailer has been newly-scanned in HD. It’s worth noting that the artwork inside the amaray case features the film’s original French poster art.
For those who own the Region B Blu-ray and DVD release of the film, you may want to hang onto it as it features a slew of extras not carried over to this release, including the Terence Fisher-directed Four Sided Triangle from 1952, which is included as a bonus film (in standard defintion); an audio commentary on the main feature by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby; the 33-minute Frankenstein Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic documentary; the Life with Sir featurette; the Tales of Frankenstein: The Face in the Tombstone Mirror TV episode from 1958; The World of Hammer: The Curse of Frankenstein TV episode from 1990; an image gallery; and The Creator's Spark: Hammer's Frankenstein Begins set of liner notes, which are accessible as a .PDF file via DVD-ROM.
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray release of The Curse of Frankenstein is undoubtedly one of the finest releases of the year. It’s a film that was sorely missing from the format, and to have it in such high quality with terrific extras makes it a must own for any film fan. Highly recommended!
- Tim Salmons