A revised version of this review, discussing the 2020 Warner Archive Collection 2-disc Blu-ray,  is now available at Cathode Ray Tube's home on Medium.

'I should rank The Curse of Frankenstein among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have encountered in the course of some 10,000 miles of film reviewing.' That was C.J. Lajeune's humble, if not hyperbolic, opinion, in The Observer of 5 May 1957, of Hammer's first horror film made in colour which established the signature of their Gothic horror cycle revival and the credentials of the team that formed to produce them.

For Hammer, this was an extraordinary convocation of the talents they had been nurturing through the 1940s and 1950s, particularly director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, producers Anthony Hinds and Anthony Nelson Keys, cinematographer Jack Asher, production designer Bernard Robinson, composer James Bernard and make-up designer Phil Leakey.

Nelson Keys was actually instrumental in bringing the talents of Robinson and Asher to the company. Keys, Fisher, Asher and Len Harris, the camera operator, had worked together at Gainsborough Studios in the late 1940s. These individuals would create in The Curse of Frankenstein a template for Hammer horror that continues to be admired to this day and it remains a key film in the evolution of British cinema per se.

'to exaggerate what is brutal and nauseating, as opposed to what is merely good, tense horror'
It was the first British horror film in colour, and the first of their films to pair together two actors now synonymous with Hammer, the legendary Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Its humble origins can be found in the aftermath of Hammer's success with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), itself a co-production and distribution deal with American film producer Robert Lippert who supplied the finance, American actors and distribution. Hammer, under its Exclusive moniker, distributed his films in the UK. After the film's success, Hammer were keen to develop further finance and distribution deals and it would be executive James Carreras's association with the Variety Club that would lead him to Eliot Hyman.

Hyman, based in New York, was head of Associated Artists Pictures and he was, by a circuitous route, presented with an adaptation of Frankenstein from Max J Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky (they would later form Amicus, one of Hammer's rivals in the 1960s and 1970s). He was unsure that the pair had the experience to produce the film but knew exactly who to approach and sent the script to Carreras in London.

As Quatermass 2 went into production, Carreras's son Michael spent some time corresponding with Subotsky and Rosenberg about the inadequacies of the script and the potential legal problems they might face with Universal in trying to avoid duplication of elements from their 1931 Frankenstein. He eventually invited them to a meeting in London on 9 May 1956.

A revised screenplay from Subotsky, now titled Frankenstein - the Monster, was submitted to the BBFC for their consideration. They immediately categorised it as an X and their reader Audrey Field offered that the script tended 'to exaggerate what is brutal and nauseating, as opposed to what is merely good, tense horror'. (1) Hammer were dictated a memo requesting many changes, reducing the focus on the more horrific elements such as the scenes involving surgery on the monster, various strangulations, screams, rats and rotting corpses.

Anthony Hinds stepped in at this juncture, unhappy with the Subotsky script and somewhat disheartened by James Carreras's notion that this would be made quickly, cheaply and in black and white. He eventually turned to Jimmy Sangster to write an alternative script after Sangster had professed an interest in taking a shot at it. He had joined Hammer in 1949, working as an assistant director and production manager on many of the pre-Gothic horror cycle B-pictures the studio made. By 1955, he had scripted a short film, A Man On the Beach and had written his first feature, X the Unknown (1956), which was planned as a Quatermass sequel but then changed when Nigel Kneale refused Hammer permission to use the character.

Sangster's screenplay reinvigorated the studio's approach to the property and Hinds pushed for the film to get the resources he felt it deserved and, in collaboration with Anthony Nelson Keys and Jack Asher, budgeted and scheduled for the film to be made in colour. Meanwhile, Universal were getting twitchy about Hammer's decision to go into pre-production on Frankenstein and, with impending litigation on the horizon, Hammer's lawyers set to work.

Their conclusion was that Hammer was free to adapt the original Mary Shelley book, as it was in the public domain, but that the company should avoid reproducing any material specifically created by Universal in their own adaptation. This would have repercussions down the line, particularly when Phil Leakey was assigned to design the creature make-up for The Curse of Frankenstein.

Hinds was meticulous and, after studying Universal's Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), he recommended using Sangster's script as he felt that the Subotsky version used too many ideas from the Universal films, particularly Bride, and it would require some painstaking revisions. Meanwhile, Eliot Hyman was kept informed of the decision to use the Sangster script and Subotsky and Rosenberg were offered a percentage deal for their work in developing the project. He was also party to Universal's constant legal threats, which would continue throughout production of The Curse of Frankenstein, and was instrumental in Hammer closing a distribution deal with Warner.

Sangster submitted what was now titled The Curse of Frankenstein to the BBFC on 9 October 1956. His take on the Frankenstein story would usher in a significant refocusing on the central character of Victor Frankenstein, rejecting, as David Pirie notes, 'the bland and self-pitying martyr of fate, whom Mary Shelley envisaged' and replacing him with 'a magnificently arrogant rebel... with an utterly unscrupulous and authoritative elegance'. (2) This Byronic figure would also find favour with Peter Cushing's approach to the role, one that never entertained the idea that the Baron was mad but rather was an intelligent, passionate scientist steadfastly determined to prove his ideas.
'infinitely more disgusting than the first script' 
As an indication of the bumpy road ahead for the censors and Hammer, the BBFC were equally appalled at Sangster's script. Readers Audrey Field and Frank Crofts were unanimous in their apoplexy, with Fields describing it as 'infinitely more disgusting than the first script' and 'really evil' and Crofts attacking Sangster's intention to 'pile horror on horror' in 'a monstrous script'. (3) Both recommended significant changes would be needed for the BBFC to even consider an X certificate.

Among the various bones of contention, they demanded restraint in the depiction of the young Victor performing vivisection on a rabbit; the revival of the puppy in Victor and Paul Krempe's first experiment; the cutting down of a corpse from a gibbet; the attack on the old man and the little boy and the use of close ups of the dismembered hands; the mutilated head that is destined for the acid bath; eyeballs; bodies in coffins; the creature's body and face. They also found the association between this sturm und drang and Victor's infidelity with his maid Justine, and her subsequent pregnancy, very unsavory.

Hinds ploughed on regardless and made some amends to the script as the £65,000 production took up residency at Bray Studios and he gathered together his cast and crew. Peter Cushing was an award winning television actor, fresh from success with the BBC's adaptation, by Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier, of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Hinds and James Carreras had been pursuing him, hoping his presence in a Hammer film would grant them a certain kudos.

Cushing actually saw the announcements for Hammer's colour Frankenstein in the trade press and asked his agent, John Redway, to submit his name just as Hinds and casting director Dorothy Holloway were considering a further approach to him. Even though James Carreras had, however, promised Lippert that the film's cast 'would have no trace whatsoever of British accent' the film was cast completely with British actors. 

It was a fortuitous move for Cushing. The theatre world, to be followed shortly by television and film, was in thrall to the era of the 'Angry Young Man' and 'kitchen sink drama' after the huge success of Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1956. Coward and Rattigan, often vehicles for Cushing, were now in retreat. How apt then that, after he attended a private screening of X the Unknown to gauge Hammer's suitability as an employer, 'in one move he established a new career for himself and was given a rather different type of angry young man to play' when he signed on the dotted line to play the Baron on 26 October 1956. (4)

For their fee of £1,400 pounds, Hammer engaged a perfectionist in Cushing, a meticulous craftsman grateful that at least one British studio hadn't dismissed him as merely a television actor, an actor who would research anatomy, learn how to handle medical instruments and the intricacies of medical procedure. He was fastidious about props and costumes and first assistant Derek Whitehurst recalled, 'he was very particular about the whole set up, the fob watch, the magnifying glass, the boots and the cane.' (5)

Robert Urquhart, playing the Baron's tutor and associate Paul Krempe, had won an ex-serviceman's scholarship to RADA and had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1948. After working in rep and the West End, he made his film debut in 1952 with You're Only Young Twice, followed by Tread Softly and Paul Temple Returns (one of his co-stars was Christopher Lee) in the same year. This garnered him a contract with Associated British (ABPC). ABPC's co-financing deal with Hammer for The Curse of Frankenstein suggests he was cast as part of the deal.

Urquhart, initially enthusiastic about the project, became rather antagonistic towards the film and, according to co-star Hazel Court, regretted his involvement and even walked out half way through the film's premier screening. Marcus Hearn elaborates on this in the commentary and details how he irked the Hammer executives by openly criticising the film to journalists. Rigby quotes a 1994 interview with him where he praises the competence with which the film was made but was horrified at 'what it did' to audiences.

As for his co-star Christopher Lee, it was agent John Redway (he and Cushing shared the same agent) who volunteered him for the role of the creature when Hammer had requested to see tall actors. For a while, the casting was between him and future Carry On stalwart, the slightly taller at 6' 5" Bernard Bresslaw. According to Melvyn Hayes, Lee came cheaper. He was signed the day shooting commenced, leaving make-up artist Phil Leakey with roughly 20 hours to come up with the creature's appearance.
... the creature 'should look like it had been put together, literally'
Leakey came from a family of doctors and scientists, had developed an understanding of medical procedures and used his experience in the film industry to experiment with new materials. He joined Hammer, then known as Exclusive, in the 1940s and moved with them to Down Place, a country house on the banks of the River Thames between the towns of Bray and Windsor, which would eventually become Bray Studios. There he worked on the more elaborate make up effects for Stolen Face (1952), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X the Unknown (1956) and Quatermass II (1957) before being thrown in the deep end with The Curse of Frankenstein.

Leakey had to create a unique creature and Lee recalls Leakey didn't have much of a brief and was constantly being reminded by Tony Hinds not to mimic the Karloff make up for fear of legal proceedings from Universal. As well as testing on Lee, Leakey would try things out on other members of the team, including Derek Whitehurst.

'I remember two - one of which was totally grotesque and made me look like the Elephant Man... and another test on me which made me look like an animal, really', recalled Lee of Leakey's experiments. (6) The tests were deemed unsuccessful and, after Leakey struggled to come up with ideas, he and Lee discussed how the creature 'should look like it had been put together, literally'. Using mortician's wax, Leakey improvised to replicate the kind of surgical procedures the Baron would have used.

Although the cameras began rolling on 19 November 1956, with the priest's arrival at the prison the first scene to be filmed, Leakey was under considerable pressure to get the creature make up ready for a press junket in London on 21 November. Leakey considered that the version of the make up revealed to the press was only the first steps to something more elaborate and he wasn't entirely happy with the outcome, deciding it was 'a bit of a mess'. To alleviate the boredom of replicating and applying the make up on shooting days, Lee and Leakey used to listen to the Olympic Games coverage on the radio.

He also took Lee to Paxtons, an opthalmic specialist in London, to measure him for the prosthetic misted cornea that he would require for the creature, and was asked to create the severed head for the notorious acid bath scene, a long lost sequence, and the severed hands that Frankenstein proudly displays to Krempe. Leakey tells an amusing story that, as he drove to the studio with the head and had stopped to buy some cigarettes, a cyclist parked by his car and, alarmed to see the prop on the front seat, made a hurried exit. The head was cast in wax, inserted with rabbit innards, Alka Seltzer tablets and a reactive dye and suitably frothed away when Cushing dropped it into boiling water on the set.

Frankenstein's laboratory, lounge, hall and stairs were shot on one of two stages, the New Stage, while the prison cell was filmed on the Ballroom Stage at Down Place. Chief electrician Jack Curtis created the electrical effects for Bernard Robinson's laboratory set and, among the luridly coloured bottles, test tubes and valves, he installed a functioning Wimshurst generator that could produce lethal voltages in the wrong hands.

Director Terence Fisher was picked to make The Curse of Frankenstein by Hinds because he knew that Fisher's abilities could bring the film to life and fulfill his idea that this new Hammer horror should be 'rich looking, slow, deliberately paced, bursting with unstated sex but with nothing overt.' (7) Fisher had been a jobbing director since 1947 at various studios, including Highbury and Gainsborough, and was noted as a man with much experience in low-budget film making. 'To the Public Danger (1948), an impressively staged adaptation of a Patrick Hamilton radio play, was the best of these, and some critics have retrospectively seen it as anticipating Fisher's later horror work', notes Peter Hutchings. (8)  

After the closure of Gainsborough, where he had directed four films, Fisher spent a period making support features, many of them for Hammer. Films such as Stolen Face and The Four Sided Triangle hinted at his talent and some of the themes he would articulate to a greater degree in the horror films made at Hammer from 1956 onwards. He was a man of meticulous detail and recalled a fruitful collaboration with Jack Asher on The Curse of Frankenstein, where they both wanted to see how far they could push their experimentation with colour. 'Jack Asher makes a very stylised use of colours... and can also create a highly surreal atmosphere with very little means', recalled Fisher. (9) While shooting the encounter between the creature and the blind old man, Fisher also painted leaves and berries red to underline the symbolic use of colour, the hidden meanings it conveyed in the film.

The film completed shooting on 3 January 1957 and by 11 January, Hinds had submitted a black and white print of the first cut to the BBFC. They were still concerned about the sounds of heads being severed from bodies and wanted these and the screams of the burning creature at the film's climax removed altogether. The dropping of the severed head into the acid was also seen as excessive and they asked for that shot to be excised too. When they finally saw the colour version in February, they demanded further changes to shots featuring the severed hands, the eyeball sequence and the creature's bloodied face. The film was eventually awarded an X certificate on 8 April and was premiered at the Warner Theatre Leicester Square on 2 May 1957. (10) And the rest is history...
... a symbol of Hammer's exploration of authority and masculinity
The Curse of Frankenstein offers something of a test run when it comes to the creation of the signature Hammer style. It was also a style that performed as a barometer of the times. The film was released at a period when Britain, as a world power, was in retreat, when consumerism was in its ascendance and when deference to class and age were being challenged by the shifts in popular culture marked by the emergence of the teenager and the 'Angry Young Man'.

It's notable that for their first colour horror film, one based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the emphasis that was placed on the creature in Universal's adaptation is entirely redirected to the character of Baron Frankenstein himself. The Baron becomes a rebel with a cause and as Peter Hutchings has examined, he is a symbol of Hammer's exploration of authority and masculinity,  'where the unassailable confidence of Baron Frankenstein, Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes sits along side slightly more troubled representations of professional activity.' (11)
The Curse of Frankenstein therefore emerges at a time of shifting patterns in national identity but also within a period where masculine authority is being questioned. In Hammer's first foray into Gothic horror these enquiries are mounted within a lush, period fairy tale where troublesome desires are restricted to the drawing room and not the laboratory. As Marcia Landy succinctly puts it about Hammer horror, 'such films worked over issues of authority gone awry and of beleaguered masculinity and femininity in an anti-realist cinematic language that invoked the sexual images and scenarios earlier identified in Gainsborough melodramas.' (12)

As the film progresses, the male dominated world of Frankenstein and Krempe is purely concerned with exploring knowledge and acquiring academic and professional success. In fact, the two men, with Krempe as tutor to pupil Frankenstein early in the film, swap places in the echelons of authority. Frankenstein becomes the driven, professional supreme and Krempe the nagging moral consciousness of the film. Sangster and Fisher then use the characters of Elizabeth (Hazel Court), the child bride cousin promised to Victor, and Justine (Valerie Gaunt), the maid with whom he has an affair and makes pregnant, to puncture Frankenstein's authoritarian detachment.

Granted that the female characters in early Hammer horror are never really given autonomy, their decorative presence is often enough to suggest female desire as a provocative influence on male authority in these films. Justine demands the sexual attentions of her lover while Elizabeth demands the proper role of the husband in domestic and social relationships.

There's tension here between men and women that reflects the view, in popular culture of the 1945-65 period, that women who deviated from their assigned gender order (here the categories of wife and servant) were often punished symbolically for daring to display autonomy of thought and action. Frankenstein is allowed to aspire and move between the domestic and private spheres whereas his women are not.

When women do threaten to interfere with his work in The Curse of Frankenstein, Frankenstein offers the guarded warning given to Elizabeth or the final punishment as reward for Justine. This theme would permeate Fisher's work well into the late 1960s, 'with male authority figures increasingly viewed with suspicion and doubt especially in their dealings with women'. (13)

Frankenstein pays lip service to both women but rejects their attempts to become involved in his academic life. He even uses the threat of bringing Elizabeth into his experiments to manipulate Krempe into continuing as his associate. That academic life is, of course, devoted to the creation of his mirror image in the creature. It is a symbol of masculinity, his narcissism reproduced in the ideal, sophisticated man, with the hands of a renowned sculptor and the brain of Professor Bernstein, an eminent intellectual.

His ambivalence to female figures is present from the start to the end of the film. In the opening, young Frankenstein (Melvyn Hayes) fobs off a young Elizabeth and her aunt with the continuance of an annual allowance and later, he'd rather salivate over a pair of severed hands than welcome her to her new home, satisfy himself with the maid, spend his wedding night in the laboratory consummating a marriage of a different kind and use his creature to murder/rape the pregnant Justine. The latter is one of the central scenes of the film, evoking German expressionist horror, an undercurrent of transgressive female sexuality and situating the creature, already 'aborted' once by Krempe shooting it in the head, as his doppelganger in the relationship with Justine.
It is the birth of Hammer horror. 
The Curse of Frankenstein tentatively and often soberly gathers momentum, reflecting Hind's opinion that this new horror, which would go on to revitalise the genre in cinema, should be conducted at a gradual pace. The film is framed by a prologue and epilogue and the events in between are a flashback related by Frankenstein from his cell. As noted on the commentary, if you didn't know any better then you'd almost believe that the first twenty minutes of the film was a Gainsborough bodice-ripper and not a horror film.

Sangster's economic narrative takes a left turn only ten minutes into the film when Frankenstein and Krempe revive the puppy and he steers the script towards the grander themes of Frankenstein's single-minded, god-like ambitions. The sedate opening evolves into a series of set pieces, each escalating the mounting horror as Frankenstein fulfills his ambitions to build a man and bring him to life.

A quarter of an hour in and the film's Gainsborough origins have been replaced by two men cutting a body down from a gibbet, a steely scientist cutting the corpse's head off, casually wiping blood on his frock coat after he's done, and then dumping the head in a bath of acid. All this is done with casual effrontery by Fisher, in full colour, and with James Bernard's score of brass and strings ratcheting up the hysteria. It is the birth of Hammer horror.

Naturally, this is where the Cushing iconography begins too, with the close up on his bright blue eyes as he listens for the puppy's heartbeat as an opening invitation to the sequence where he peers through a magnifying glass at an eye, admires a nice pair of severed hands or eyes up Professor Bernstein's brain. These are further indications from Fisher where 'apparent sobriety was punctuated by moments and segments that could in certain instances reasonably be described as expressive' and escalate in intensity towards the most explosive moment of all - the reveal of the creature, with its overcranked camera zooming into it as it rips off its bandages. This in itself shows how Fisher's dynamism would eventually mature and shape the kinetics of Dracula (1958). (14)

There are also examples of Fisher's maturing style in the way that humour is placed within the film. As well as the legendary 'pass the marmalade, my dear' of the breakfast scene that's adjacent to the murder of Justine, from which Frankenstein gets a certain amount of arousal by the looks of it, there is the subtlety of Bernstein's final moments at the top of the stairs. Here, Frankenstein asks him to peer at a reproduction of Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson' before pushing him to his death. His penchant for dropping in a bit of comedy is also prefigured in that brief moment at the wedding reception when one of the male guests overindulges in a series of toasts. British character actor Miles Malleson would provide similar comedy relief in Fisher's Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960).

As well as Cushing's meticulous and precise performance, praise should be directed at Christopher Lee. He is only now getting proper acknowledgement for a very physical and affective presence in the film. The creature is like a puppet with broken strings, evoking a great deal of pity through its dumbness and inarticulacy, and Lee transmits the physical and mental damage in a spasmodic way, through his sheer physicality and mimetic abilities. It culminates in that disturbing scene where Frankenstein treats the creature like a lap dog, triumphantly presenting to Krempe its wretched attempt to sit down as some sort of evolutionary advance.

The Curse of Frankenstein is a collaborative effort and is not only the summation, at that point, of the talents of Fisher and his actors but also of composer James Bernard, production designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher. Bernard's music, all soaring strings, bellowing woodwind and brass, is established as a signature of Hammer's output and his themes tease out the disturbing psychological undercurrents in the film. Robinson's genius was to create luxury out of nothing and the laboratory set is simply but effectively executed and very much a taste of the lavishness to come.

Asher uses colour very radically for the time, using green and red as symbolic totems throughout the film. The laboratory is particularly a kaleidoscope of colour but the red and green palette is accentuated in the costumes, especially Krempe's bright red dressing gown and Frankenstein's green overcoat, in the green tinge of the creature's flesh in contrast to the garish blood that drips from its eye after Krempe shoots it, and with the greenery of the locations and their highlighted red leaves and berries.

As David Pirie notes: 'For a combination of reasons, the rich mix of personalities who contributed to Hammer films originated a revolutionary kind of popular art.' (15) With the incredible success of The Curse of Frankenstein neither would screen horror nor British cinema be the same again. The re-emergence of Hammer and the restoration and rediscovery of its legacy will hopefully allow a greater understanding of the impact their 'revolutionary popular art' had, and continues to have, on British cinema and culture.

(1) Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films - The Bray Studios Years
(2) David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror - The English Gothic Cinema
(3) Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films - The Bray Studios Years
(4) David Miller, The Peter Cushing Companion
(5) Ibid
(6) Christopher Lee and Phil Leakey DVD interviews from Greasepaint and Gore: Phil Leakey
(7) Fangoria, Tony Hinds tribute to Terence Fisher
(8) Peter Hutchings, Terence Fisher: BFI Screenonline
(9) Terence Fisher interview, Richard Klemensen, Little Shoppe of Horrors
(10) Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films - The Bray Studios Years
(11) Peter Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond
(12) Marcia Landy, British Cinema Past and Present 
(13) Peter Hutchings, British Film Makers - Terence Fisher 
(14) Ibid
(15) David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror - The English Gothic Cinema

About the transfer
**UPDATE: Frame grabs above are now images taken directly from the Blu Ray disc. The 1.66:1 images below are from the standard definition DVD.
This is somewhat disappointing for what is the best quality release of Hammer's 'ground zero' Gothic horror film and a landmark in British cinema. The positives first. Unlike the Warner DVD release of 2002 - presented in 1.85:1 - the grain has not been obliterated by DVNR. It is present and correct. The transfer is clean and dirt free, practically immaculate in that regard. Colour is richer too, tending to accentuate the reds and green of Jack Asher's original palette, and this certainly benefits the laboratory scenes and locations. However, it's not as vivid a transfer as I was expecting.

BD capture
DVD capture

The image is soft overall, rather lacks consistent sharpness and can be a little bright as a result perhaps of contrast boosting. This gives the picture some excellent black levels but the finer detail in the lighter areas of the picture is sometimes lost. It only really comes alive in big close ups or relatively tight two shots. The layers of depth and sharpness one expects from an HD presentation are absent and the condition of the original materials might be the issue here. The 2002 DVD does show detail and sharpness but I do think that's by way of enthusiastic use of edge enhancement. So, don't go expecting anything of the standard of StudioCanal's Quatermass and the Pit transfer. It was unlikely that it would ever come close to that benchmark but this is quite poor as an HD experience.

The other immediate worry is that the DVD and the Blu-ray versions in this package are almost indistinguishable and I'd go so far to say that to my eyes the SD transfer on DVD is actually sharper than the HD transfer on the BD. This potentially opens up questions about bit rates for the two versions of the film in respect of squeezing all the featurettes and extras together on the BD. *Update 4/10/2012: According to the Hammer restoration blog all the features on the BD are in standard def and the "The bitrate of BOTH versions of the feature is ~25Mbps. There was ZERO additional/further compression used to fit both versions on the Blu-ray. If the HD version looks “softer”, it’s because the resolution is better and any flaws are being highlighted to a greater degree" and "any perceived “softness” is due to the source materials and to our unwillingness to over-manipulate the picture captured from them."
Special Features - Blu-Ray:

The Curse of Frankenstein 1.66:1 ratio
*Review amended 6/10/2012*
There is much debate over which aspect ratio the film was projected at in cinemas with a suggestion that it was either composed for eventual projection in 1.66:1 or 1.85:1. Here, as well as presenting the 1.37:1 ratio, you have the option to see the film in a matted 1.66:1 widescreen format which was probably how UK audiences saw the film back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I was informed by Bob Furmanek at www.3dfilmarchive.com that "as a matter of studio policy, Exclusive/Hammer began composing for 1.66:1 widescreen while still protecting for the 1.37:1 standard ratio in August, 1953"

Furmanek also offers further research about the possibility that 1.85:1 was also a composition ratio: "Sometime in 1955, Exclusive had adopted 1.85:1 as their widescreen standard. Curse began filming on Monday, November 19. Only eight days later on November 27, a distribution deal was announced with Warner Bros. in Daily Variety.

It's very likely that WB, now funding the production, would have instructed Exclusive to compose for 1.85:1. The world premiere took place at the Warner Theatre on Leicester Square which had been converted to widescreen sometime in late 1953.

When it premiered in the U.S. the following June, 1.85:1 is the ratio that was recommended to exhibitors. Therefore, the badly matted 1.66:1 version on this disc is not only framed improperly which is why heads are getting clipped in medium shots, it's the wrong ratio."

I have also had the pleasure of discussing this further with Hammer historian Marcus Hearn since Bob Furmanek offered his comments here on the 4 October. Marcus, who has worked with Hammer over the last 18 years, offers that during this period of "studying the paperwork in their archive, I have never seen anything to suggest that the company adopted a blanket policy of composing for 1.66:1 in 1953."

"I agree with Bob Furmanek’s view that the (non Scope) films were generally protected for 1.37:1 - I believe this is because many British cinemas in the 1950s were still not equipped for widescreen. I have spoken to people who vividly remember seeing the original Hammer horrors projected in 1.37:1, and I understand that this is the way Michael Carreras projected his own 16mm prints of these films.

There is a lot of paperwork from Warner Bros in the archive, but absolutely none of it instructs Hammer to compose The Curse of Frankenstein for 1.85:1 or indeed any other ratio. While I am aware that 1.85:1 was a common projection ratio for these films in the US I do not believe it was favoured for Hammer films in this country during the 1950s and 60s. It certainly doesn't do any favours to the DVDs of Hammer films that have been issued in this ratio (e.g. Dracula)."

"The point will remain subjective unless any contemporary paperwork turns up. I have never found any such paperwork relating to The Curse of Frankenstein in the Hammer archive or the British Film Institute, and have never seen any reported in the trade press of the day.

If anyone does have any documents that prove this film had a definitive aspect ratio – as opposed to different ratios that were considered equally acceptable in British cinemas – then I would very much like to see it. But in the meantime I must say I'm very happy with the carefully considered decisions that went into the presentation of the film on these new discs."

After watching these discs, the 1.66:1 presentation seems, to me, very tight visually and loses picture information at the top and bottom of the frame but gains slightly right and left and vice versa for the 1.37:1 version. There are instances were the frame is so tight that tops of heads do get cropped and in the bottom of the frame hands also disappear. I quite admire the 1.37:1 ratio but the handling of the 1.66:1 framing has been insensitively carried out. I also re-viewed the original Warner 1.85:1 DVD of 2002 during the process of reviewing and I believe it offers a better example of how to compose widescreen formatting on DVD for films such as these but I do note that the 1.85:1 framing on the Warner DVD is not centrally cropped all the time but occasionally pushed towards the top of the frame in comparison with the 1.66:1.

Marcus Hearn also kindly responded to my observation that the cropping to 1.66:1 was too tight to the bottom of the frame and that the 1.37:1 offered plenty of head room to better accommodate a 1.66:1 composition: "As for the new BD of The Curse of Frankenstein, I can recall two instances where heads are briefly cropped in the 1.66:1 version. I would argue that this is probably how the film would have appeared when it was masked at this ratio on its original projection. Having spent a lot of time with this film over the last few months, I now consider 1.37:1 to be its ideal format."

Update 16/10/12: Bob Furmanek
"New documents have been discovered which confirm that Exclusive was composing for 1.65:1 widescreen, with a common top.

Please see this post for the relative data: http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/319469/aspect-ratio-research/1140#post_3989270 "

Commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby
Available on both aspect ratio presentations of the film, this really is a delight. Two horror and Hammer experts amiably engage in a lively conversation about the film and from the off provide nuggets about the cast, Sangster's original script depicting a ten-year old Frankenstein in the film's opening, the fate of the original dog that the Baron and Krempe revive, Urquhart's disgust at the film, the BBFC's concerns and the missing head-in-the acid scene. They discuss the way colour is used in the film, the 'Cushing finger', the return of the 'eyeball scene', Lee's performance, unsung heroes such as Bernard Robinson, Phil Leakey and Les Bowie, and the debut of Hammer glamour. Recorded in August 2011, this is absolutely essential listening.
Frankenstein Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic (32:53)
The origins of the film are explored with a wide variety of Hammer stalwarts and many others. Archive interviews with Hammer executive Michael Carreras are included with newly shot material featuring writer Jimmy Sangster, horror cinema experts Denis Meikle, Jonathan Rigby and actor Melvyn Hayes. They briefly and entertainingly trace the development of The Curse of Frankenstein from an initial script by Milton Subotsky and how Hammer horror emerged during a period in Britain where there was a 'drive for change'.

Sangster reflects on the relief of suspense with humour and Hayes charmingly recounts his encounter with actor Peter Cushing. Sangster refers to him, quite rightly, as 'the backbone of Hammer films'. David Miller, author of 'The Complete Peter Cushing', provides plenty of background about Cushing's career to that point, how he was cast for the film, recounts his particular way of preparing for a role, the legacy of the Lee-Cushing screen partnership and his status as 'horror's Olivier'. Hayes supplies wonderful stories about working with him on Basil Dearden's Violent Playground and why Christopher Lee was cast as the creature (Bernard Bresslaw was up for the role too). Rigby discusses the development of the creature's make-up, Lee's mime skills and his extraordinary performance.

Hayes discusses his casting and working with the 'laid back' Robert Urquhart and Rigby notes Hazel Court's appearance as the epitome of Hammer horror glamour. The documentary then turns to the methodical skills of director Terence Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher's use of colour and we also welcome back David Huckvale whose knowledge about composer James Bernard is erudite and invaluable. There is even a brief visit to Deluxe 142 to note how the film was restored from the only available materials, using a colour interpositive scanned by Warner, the recovery of the infamous 'eyeball' scene from a separate source held at the BFI, grading the film and working with aspect ratios.

Denis Meikle concludes this fascinating half-hour, produced and directed by Marcus Hearn, with a summary of the talents that went into creating what we now know as Hammer horror - the Gainsborough legacy of Terence Fisher, Anthony Nelson Keys, Jack Asher and operator Len Harris and the influx of new talent such as Sangster and Anthony Hinds.

Life With Sir (12:05)
A rather moving tribute to Peter Cushing from his personal secretary Joyce Broughton. Broughton was assistant to 'Sir', as he was known, and she particularly helped him through the loss of his wife Helen, through his illness and supported him until the day he died. In his last years, he lived with Joyce and her family and she eventually encouraged him to take up painting again. She confirms what many of us knew, that Cushing was a sensitive, gentle man. 
Four Sided Triangle (1:17:59)
Terence Fisher's 1953 science fiction B movie wherein boyhood friends Bill and Robin compete for the affections of Lena, a beautiful girl about their own age. In adulthood, the two men collaborate on the invention of the Reproducer, a machine that can exactly duplicate physical objects. Bill is disappointed to discover that Lena loves Robin and intends to marry him. Seeing the hopelessness of winning Lena for himself, Bill convinces the young woman to allow him to use the Reproducer to create a duplicate of her. As Robert Simpson expertly notes in his PDF booklet, this film and Fisher's Stolen Face (1952) are considered the stepping stones towards his work on the Gothic romances of the late 1950s and 1960s. Both explore the tropes of scientists 'playing God' and, as Peter Hutchings notes, Four Sided Triangle's themes 'dwell upon some of the more disturbing aspects of male desire'.
Tales of Frankenstein television pilot (27:27)
Hammer's pilot, produced with Columbia's Screen Gems television arm, for a proposed 26 half-hour Frankenstein television series, with half of the episodes shot at Bray and the other half in Hollywood, didn't quite turn out as they wanted. Sangster's promising pitch for the series, very much in the idiom of the Frankenstein Hammer had resurrected, remained just a promise and when Michael Carreras arrived in Los Angeles on 12 November 1957 he found that Sangster's pilot script 'The Single Minded Blackmailer' had been rejected. Columbia weren't interested in Hammer's ideas and merely saw them as a third party to a separate contract Screen Gems had set up in Hollywood with another production company. In the end James Carreras realised that Screen Gems were trying to 'pull a fast one'. It was all too late and, with Anton Diffring on board as Frankenstein, Screen Gems proceeded with their own script 'Face in the Tombstone Mirror', directed by Curt Siodmak. Siodmak, no stranger to the diminishing returns of the Universal horror cycle, simply replicated what had gone before. A curio but miles away from the Hammer style and Sangster's take on the Baron. Note: The documentary about Tales of Frankenstein is now absent from this release.
World of Hammer - The Curse of Frankenstein (24:54)
Another edition of the Sidaway series, covering all the Hammer Frankenstein cycle. Cue clips and Oliver Reed's rumbling narration.  
Gallery (7:50)
Wonderful gallery of rare colour and black and white stills from the film, many I haven't seen before, and a great selection of studio portraits, front of house lobby cards, posters, ads and behind the scenes material.

Main Feature - DVD Disc 1:
The Curse of Frankenstein 1.37:1 'Academy' ratio 
The Curse of Frankenstein 1.66:1 ratio
Commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby

Special Features - DVD Disc 2:
Frankenstein Reborn: The Making of a Hammer Classic
Life With Sir
Four Sided Triangle
Tales of Frankenstein television pilot
World of Hammer - The Curse of Frankenstein
Easter Egg: Melvyn Hayes
Comedy business from our Melvyn with a lovely Hammer mug
PDF - The Creator's Spark: Hammer's Frankenstein Begins
A beautifully designed booklet crammed with information covering the development of Hammer's Gothic horror films, the origin of Terence Fisher's style in The Stolen Face and Four Sided Triangle, the production of The Curse of Frankenstein and the aborted Tales of Frankenstein television series. Illustrated throughout with colour and black and white stills and wonderfully written and researched by Robert J. Simpson.

The Curse of Frankenstein
Hammer Films Production 1957
Distributed by Warner Brothers

Icon/Lionsgate Double Play Edition 1 x BD and 2 x DVD / Region B/2 / LGD94955 / Released 15 October 2012
BD: 1.37:1 and 1.66:1 and DTS MA 2.0 Audio / English HOH subtitles on main feature
DVD Disc 1: 1.37:1 and 1.66:1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio / English HOH subtitles

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28 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: The Curse of Frankenstein / 3-Disc Double Play Blu-Ray Review”
  1. Alan says:

    Great review, Frank. Thanks. (A pity it doesn't seem possible to say the same thing about the Blu-ray transfer of the main attraction!) Just wondering about the Tales of Frankenstein pilot. Is it newly transferred from film or is it the same old ropey public domain print? SD or HD?

  2. Alan!

    Thank you for dropping by.

    'Tales of Frankenstein looks' like an old telecine. It's not newly transferred and looks quite ropey quality wise. Full of dropouts, dirt, scratches etc and very much in Standard Def.

    'Four Sided Triangle' is also in SD for your information.

  3. Unknown says:

    Thanks for the review, Frank.

    Looks that that's two Hammer Blu-rays I won't be buying this month.

  4. Unknown says:

    Frank: I enjoyed your article and have one correction: this was not Exclusive's first color film. The first was MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST, photographed for 1.66:1 widescreen and Eastman color in May, 1954.

    As a matter of studio policy, Exclusive/Hammer began composing for 1.66:1 widescreen while still protecting for the 1.37:1 standard ratio in August, 1953.

    Their first production composed for widescreen was HEAT WAVE, which rolled August 4, 1953.

    Bob Furmanek

  5. Bob - thanks for your positive comments. I've amended accordingly and thank you for your detailed response.

    I'm not an expert and it's always good to hear from someone who can provide this kind of detail. Much appreciated.

  6. Yes, TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN is an old telecine transfer. Unfortunately we weren't able to locate/access a print in order to do a fresh transfer (and we did look) for this release.

    This is the first time, however, that TALES has been released in the UK, and it is an important part of the Frankenstein development, along with FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE.

  7. Hi, Robert

    Yes, and it's sad that the documentary about TALES of FRANKENSTEIN didn't get included here. Because it is a fascinating addendum to Hammer's development of Frankenstein.

    Agreed, STOLEN FACE and FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE are important steps in Hammer's development and in Fisher's themes.

  8. Unknown says:

    I've done some additional research and want to share this with you.

    Sometime in 1955, Exclusive had adopted 1.85:1 as their widescreen standard. Their first two productions in 1956 (X THE UNKNOWN, QUATERMASS II) were composed for this ratio and the next film to go into production, THE STEEL HELMET, was composed for 2.35:1.

    By September 1956, the dust on the various aspect ratios had finally settled after more than three years of fluctuation. 1.85:1 had become the accepted non-anamorphic standard in the U.S.

    CURSE began filming on Monday, November 19. Only eight days later on November 27, a distribution deal was announced with Warner Bros. in Daily Variety.

    It's VERY likely that WB, now funding the production, would have instructed Exclusive to compose for 1.85:1.

    The world premiere took place at the Warner Theatre on Leicester Square which had been converted to widescreen sometime in late 1953.

    When it premiered in the U.S. the following June, 1.85:1 is the ratio that was recommended to exhibitors.

    Therefore, the badly matted 1.66:1 version on this disc is not only framed improperly which is why heads are getting clipped in medium shots, it's the wrong ratio.

    Bob Furmanek

  9. I have been in touch with Marcus Hearn, Hammer's historian, and he has very kindly offered some comments on the aspect ratios and composing for 1.66:1 which I have now added into the above review's discussion of the 1.66:1 and 1.37:1 aspect ratios.

  10. I have to say that Marcus Hearn's comments appear to fly in the face of all extant facts. Disregarding the 1.85:1 v 1.66:1 argument (and the arguments for the former are compelling if not cast iron), it's disappointing to read that Hearn, whose work I admire, sticking to the Academy line, whilst damning a 1.66:1 presentation that has plainly been incompetently framed.

    I want to see the film how Jack Asher composed it. He didn't compose his shots principally for Academy, and from the screenshots in Frank's superb review, he certainly didn't frame his widescreen shots as seen here.

  11. Unknown says:

    I've just read the comments from Mr. Hearn regarding Exclusive/Hammer and their changeover to widescreen composition.

    Please see these posts for more information and documentation concerning Exclusive's change to widescreen cinematography:



  12. Anonymous says:

    A quick word about the aspect ratio & framing. The one thing we know for sure is that the WB 1.85:1 framing is wrong (even if 1.85:1 is the correct ration).

    In the '50s the 1.37:1 viewfinders were marked with guidelines at 1.85:1. These guidelines were equidistant from the top and bottom. In other words, when the 1.37:1 image was cropped to 1.85:1, an equal amount would be cut from both top and bottom. The same would be true of projection; 1.85:1 masking plates masked equal amounts from the top and bottom of the image.

    Studying the Hammer 1.37:1 frames and the WB 1.85:1 image, it's clear that the top of the WB 1.85 image is pretty much the top of the 1.37:1 image. This is known as 'Common Top Line'. It's a practice applied to modern Super 35 films, but it wasn't used on open matte 1.85:1 films in the '50s.

    So, when the director & DoP composed the film (IF they composed it for 1.85:1) they didn't compose it as seen on the WB disc. And if you saw it in the cinema in the '50s, it wouldn't be masked like the WB disc.

    I've posted an example of what central 1.85:1 cropping would do to Curse of Frankenstein here:


    Given what that shows, in this as well as other comparisons, my personal opinion is that 1.85:1 is not correct.

  13. Richard Taylor says:


    I am confused if the film was framed for 1.85 wouldn't the heads be cut off even more.

    Cheers Rick

  14. Richard Taylor says:


    Sorry but you are stating that 1.66:1 is chopping of heads and therefore is incorrect as a ratio, the correct ratio being 185:1. This ratio would actual give a tighter crop and you would lose more of the head and foot room. John Hodson talks of incompetent framing, however there was no tilting or panning when projecting a film. The projector gate is locked so Hearn's comment is correct.

    'I would argue that this is probably how the film would have appeared when it was masked at this ratio on its original projection'

    In fact if you mask off your television with gaffer tape 1.85:1 looks too tight and you lose so much of the production design that seems to me to be specifically placed in frame.

    It does annoy me when people make sweeping statements just to jump on the band wagon.

  15. Richard I'm not 'making sweeping statements to jump on the bandwagon'. I'm simply reporting what I see with my own eyes on DVD.

    Clearly what has emerged during the on going discussions is that masking for projection in cinema at 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 is tight and crops off heads in both cases.

    1.66:1 as composed on the current disc, replicating the masking you'd find in cinema projection, chops heads off as Marcus Hearn has clearly acknowledged.

    However, I don't think it works as a ratio on DVD unless the composition is moved to the top of the frame as has been suggested.

    That's obviously what Warner did with their 1.85:1 DVD as that avoids chopping heads off even though I'd agree that it is still tight. Therefore, as has been pointed out, by doing this the Warner DVD version does not replicate the 1.85:1 widescreen cinema projection. It is a manipulated DVD version of it.

    In the review, I am not talking about how the film would have looked if projected at those ratios. I discuss what they look like on DVD. I'm talking about how the way the ratio has been manipulated for the Warner DVD for 1.85:1 and how it has been accomplished very differently from the 1.66:1 applied on the new set. The 1.85:1 has been manipulated to allow for head room whereas this seems to have been ignored on the new BD and DVD's 1.66:1 ratio.

    If you check my review I personally do not say that 1.85:1 was the ratio that The Curse of Frankenstein was prepared and projected in. Those deductions are suggestions from Bob Furmanek and I have also posted Marcus's own response to that in the review where he believes the film is best seen in 1.37:1

    In my view, the 1.66:1 ratio on this DVD set needs to shift to the top of the frame to allow more head room. But then that would not be true to its projected ratio if we take on board the information in the forum debates.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Hi Frank, I think actually the 1.37:1 version is unbalanced, and since they stuck a center extraction in 1.66:1 from the 1.37:1 already scanned and unbalanced version, they botched the framing.

    The 1.37:1 is adjusted to the bottom to avoid too much excessive headroom.

    You presume the 1.37:1 is perfectly framed an center adjusted, where it's not.

    The original widescreen DVD is correctly center extracted at 1.85:1.

    Hammer probably needs to recall this disc (especially as the DVD is sharper than the Blu version) and redo the whole thing from scratch with competent telecine operators.

  17. An interesting and alternative view point.

    I had presumed, as many have, that they'd got the framing on the 1.37:1 correct and issues stemmed from an incorrect 1.66:1 framing. Has this been discussed/evidenced elsewhere?

    What with the OAR debate and the grade on the DVD being different and producing a sharper picture than the one on BD, I have my doubts Hammer will recall it as they are adamant that what they have done is correct.

  18. Anonymous says:

    At this stage it would be wonderful if Hammer could produce for us an image of the scan of the I/P right up to (and even past) the edges of the 35mm frame, and the same frame from the 1.37:1 Blu-Ray Disc version. We could then see how much/little has been cropped.

  19. Richard Taylor says:

    Thanks for the reply Frank. Apologies I was referring to John Hodson's comment that the film has been incompetently framed. I read a lot of reviews talking about keeping the film as it was shown at the first screening, not destroying the grain for example. To my mind which ever ratio is used it should be a centre extraction as I said in my last email because you couldn't move the gate in projection to see more head room etc. Although it might be a better framed shot, is it for WB to decide this over the Director/DOP. I guess we will never know for definite because we can't ask the Dir/DOP. Thanks for putting across the differing views though.

    In terms of Anoms posting this morning at 9am it is not possible to adjust the 1.37 framing up or down as you are seeing the whole frame that was originally shot unless he wants the frame bar in picture. Let’s hope these 'competent telecine operators' he speaks of know this.

  20. Thanks, Richard.

    Indeed, it is a decision for those releasing the BDs and DVDs as to whether they should alter the framing because we can no longer consult the likes of Jack Asher. I assume Hammer did not want to 'cheat' the framing with the 1.66:1 as WB did with the 1.85:1

    I doubt we'll ever get a definitive answer to these questions.

  21. If there has been no incompetence with regards to the framing as presented by Hammer at 1.66:1, then the only conclusion, from Frank's comments here and accompanying screenshots, is that Jack Asher was incompetent with regards to his widescreen framing. And I don't believe that - or Hammer's conclusion that it was framed principally for Academy - for a second. The whole thing is quite bizarre.

  22. Anonymous says:

    John, there is another alternative - that Asher simply composed for 1.37:1, as Hammer have said all along.

  23. Unknown says:

    IF this was intended for 1.37:1 in the UK (which it was not) can anyone explain why it has a 1.66:1 BBFC card at the beginning?

    Also, the titles are blocked for 1.85:1. Just saying.

    It's possible the IP utilized for this new transfer was created for either television or 16mm printing and has been optically zoomed in.

  24. I would have thought Jack Asher knew what he was doing. Just a pity we can't ask him!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Great review Frank, extremely informative. In regards to Bob's last comment, to take supposition on the IP utilized even further, is it possible that parts of the film were not only cropped on this IP, but segments that appear to have an overabundance of headroom be from open matte shots that were intended to be matted, but were left open for this IP? Not an expert, just curious :)

  26. Unknown says:

    New documents have been discovered which confirm that Exclusive was composing for 1.65:1 widescreen, with a common top.

    Please see this post for the relative data: http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/319469/aspect-ratio-research/1140#post_3989270

  27. Thanks Bob for all your tenacious research!

  28. Frank; you were brave enough to stick your neck right out with regard to the AR problems, and now you're vindicated totally. Excellent - bravo.

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