Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
The 1950s likely isn’t a decade that any horror fan would cite as a peak for the genre, in the U.S. and abroad. After a long, prolific run in the early 1930s and early-to-mid 1940s, horror cinema just sort of ran out of steam in the first half of the 1950s, as post-WWII American genre movies increasingly rocketed in the direction of science fiction and space exploration, among other topics. Giant monster movies were born in the wake of Gojira and Them!, aliens became villains du jour in films like The Thing From Another World and beyond, and the classic gothic monsters that had been the backbone of “Universal horror” in the 1930s and 1940s passed into parody and memory. The period of 1947-1952 was particularly barren for the genre, something we highlighted in an essay dissecting this particular fallow period—arguably the least socially relevant that horror films have ever been.
By the late 1950s, however, the genre was again in a better place. The American horror film market still found itself largely entangled with the science fiction genre in particular, but a major revival had been sparked in another locale: The U.K. And the film to kick it all off was The Curse of Frankenstein, which simultaneously brought gothic horror back to the forefront and infused it with a more wicked, modern sensibility in vibrant, lurid Eastmancolor. It’s a film that would prove to be deeply influential on the next two decades of British and American horror cinema, establishing the horror reputation of Hammer Film Productions while also minting two new horror icons in the form of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Universal, unsurprisingly, was having none of it at the time, suspecting that the British film would prove to be a blatant copy of their Frankenstein series of the 1930s and 1940s. Subsequently, The Curse of Frankenstein was forced to differentiate its adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel in numerous ways, including a distinctly different makeup job for the monster (Lee), which bears little resemblance to the Jack Pierce makeup worn by Boris Karloff in 1931. In fact, instead of focusing on the creature as a central figure of both terror and empathy, The Curse of Frankenstein pivots in the direction of the doctor himself.
Therein lies the beauty of Curse of Frankenstein, and the film’s five direct sequels, which is the magnetic performance of Peter Cushing as a new vision of what “Dr. Frankenstein” could be. He carries the film, and indeed the entire series, portraying Baron Victor Frankenstein as a brilliant but haughty and arrogant master of life and death, a man who has long since convinced himself that any means necessary can be forgiven in the pursuit of his important work. At times, he reads to the audience as a sort of intellectual anti-hero working on another level from the peons around him, constrained by their backward, luddite attitudes. Of course, he eventually takes things too far, graduating from gravedigging and experimentation on corpses to full-scale murder in the name of science. His character presents a portrait of every brutal reformer who has ever justified their actions by claiming that the ends will one day justify the means, laying the groundwork for Jeffrey Combs’ Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator almost 30 years later.
Christopher Lee’s version of The Creature, on the other hand, is ultimately a far less empathetic role than was afforded to Karloff’s monster, and he’s considerably less important to the plot as a result. Where Universal’s monster is presented with true sympathy, as a distorted but tender soul hunted by a society that instantly fears and loathes him for his appearance, Lee’s Creature is a symbol of the depravity of an even greater monster, in the form of Cushing’s doctor. The story concerns itself less with the beast that is produced, and more with the sacrifice of humanity necessary to bring such a discovery to light. The icy and imposing Lee would ultimately find a role far better suited to his natural talents in the next year’s Horror of Dracula, in which his imposing frame and unique combination of magnetic sexual energy and animal ferocity could truly run rampant as the titular vampire. Cushing, naturally, was along for the ride as well, this time allied with the forces of virtue as vampire hunter Van Helsing, in a formula that would be replicated in numerous sequels. Together, the tandem of Cushing and Lee would come to define this era of British horror, and its reclamation of the monsters of Old Hollywood.
Rightly, no small amount of the effectiveness of that reclamation has been attributed over the years to the introduction of full-on color pictures to a genre that had long been defined by atmospheric black and white cinematography. The budgets of the resulting Hammer Horror films were low, but they importantly didn’t feel low, as the beautiful period mansions, crumbling graveyards and dramatic castles provided the ideal backdrop for new levels of impossibly red, vascular splashes of gore. It was a transition in the nature of the genre, away from suggestion and reservation, moving steadily in the direction of overt bloodletting and the plunging necklines of the Hammer years to follow. Hammer ultimately played quite a role in the return of titillation to the horror genre, and it couldn’t have happened without The Curse of Frankenstein.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.