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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Curse Of Frankenstein Would Haunt Me Forever!

Kids today aren’t going to levitate over The Curse Of Frankenstein. They’d likely say it’s dull, slow, nothing happening --- the customary branding iron applied to so many old movies, particularly horror ones, where explicit gore has been industry standard for going on, what, forty years? Good luck convincing youthful doubters it was Curse Of Frankenstein that actually led the way toward wide-open charnel houses that are screen horror today. To know Curse's impact, to feel the shudders going through crowded auditoriums that summer in 1957, you really have to will yourself back --- see it through their eyes. Warners distributed this breakout Hammer film from England. They knew they had something special from the day Jack Warner first screened it. Comparisons with WB's previous horror smash, House Of Wax, were inevitable --- but showmen knew this was a radical departure from that buoyant, gay-nineties funhouse so amusing to audiences in 1953. If anything, House Of Wax was a throwback to Gentleman Jim, The Strawberry Blonde, and other nostalgia trips popular in the forties. Curse Of Frankenstein was not built for laughs nor fun. It was dirty lab jackets smeared with blood, heads cleaved off just below the frame line, eyeballs and dismembered hands daintily wrapped in burlap swatches --- all of which genuinely shocked viewers unaccustomed to such clinical laboratory detail, never mind it's being served in color. Some were disappointed by the monster’s appearance. Hammer couldn’t use the familiar Karloff visage, but Universal’s copyrighted Frankenstein conception had been more or less out of circulation for a while anyway. Comparisons would soon be made as originals took their television bow within a few months of Curse openings (July 1957), and cheapjack theatrical knock-offs Frankenstein’s Daughter and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein would follow. Soon home and theatre screens would be fairly inundated with Frankenstein product, though none of these would achieve the startling success enjoyed by Warners with The Curse Of Frankenstein. Domestic rentals totalled $1.4 million, with foreign at $1.0, for a worldwide $2.6 million. Profits for Warners amounted to a bountiful $1.6 --- fantastic money for an exploitation horror show.

Curse Of Frankenstein was a natural for round the clock shows. This shot of opening night at NYC's Paramount theatre delivered on the promise of sock numbers previously counted in London (love those entrances!), and stunt ballys were all over streets in cities across the country, as sampled here. That "monster mask for the kids" doesn’t inspire much confidence, considering it’s just a blown-up paper ad mat presumably ripped to shreds the moment you tried putting it on. This comic version of Curse Of Frankenstein was actually published in 1964 when the feature was re-issued and Warren Publications came on board with a montage of stills and frame blow-ups telling the story and promoting the film. My first real acquaintance with Curse Of Frankenstein came by way of this magazine, stirring determination to see it ASAP. Little did I realize that adolescent odyssey would be at least as strenuous as that of Perseus seeking the head of Medusa...

There used to be a drive-in theatre about six miles out from town. It was nestled on a blind curve just off a two-lane road very much like the one that put Bob Mitchum into a tail-spin toward that power plant. Yes, the devil got Bob first, but our particular Thunder Road snaked along a ribbon of rural desolation few of us had occasion to explore, as it seemed to lead nowhere other than backwoods oblivion. The prospect of opening a theatre amidst such wilderness may have seemed misguided, but the small farmer who erected his movie screen between two chicken houses on an open pasture soon found a ready audience for the odd assemblage of programs he brought to that benighted region. There were "B" westerns, long after they’d disappeared elsewhere, Judy Canova hillbilly laffers, hot car actioners --- and horror shows. I’d never been out there, though I’d been informed that wandering cattle often peeked into patron’s cars during shows. A few times I tried, but how do you attend drive-ins without a driving license? Family outings were all well and good --- for other families. Mine never, ever saw outdoor movies. My father considered that plain foolishness, what with M Squad available within comforts of home. This weighed not so heavily upon me, as Judy Canova was an unknown quantity (still is) and my curiosity was not so intense as to embark upon Herculean efforts of getting someone to take me. All of that changed in August 1968 when The Curse Of Frankenstein finally showed up.

The intensity of my fourteen-year old desire to see Curse Of Frankenstein was a canker festering since 1965 when Liberty management resolutely avoided the combo reissue of Curse with Horror Of Dracula, even as they seemingly played every single other venue in North Carolina. Out-of-town cousins had seen them. Print ads far and wide trumpeted both. Famous Monsters and Castle Of Frankenstein waxed eloquently over the combo (Frankenstein Spills It --- Dracula Drinks It!). For all I knew, boys in reformatories got to see them --- but so far not me. Too young to have enjoyed initial releases in the fifties, now I was determined to at last see Curse Of Frankenstein, no matter what obstacle fate and parental resistance might throw upon my path. The first hurdle was simply getting there --- but how? Do I walk six miles, go in afoot, stand alone in that pasture with a speaker in my hand? No, someone had to take me, and that someone might just as well be my sister’s boyfriend. And why not? He and I got along. What if she had left for college? Richard was a good sport, and no doubt realized there are worse ways to spend a Sunday evening than taking your girlfriend's little brother to a drive-in to see an already fading print of an eleven-year old horror film. To his eternal credit, and my everlasting gratitude, Richard agreed to be my escort. It would seem the mission was accomplished, but wait --- they’d booked Curse Of Frankenstein for one night only --- a Sunday night --- with a new school year beginning the next morning! No way my folks would let me stay out past 10:30. Worse still, Curse Of Frankenstein was the second feature, bringing up the rear for Gamera The Invincible ("A giant, jet-propelled fire-breathing space turtle terrorizes the earth," says Maltin Reviews). Gamera as opener would be my downfall unless I could persuade the owner to bump it in favor of Curse Of Frankenstein. Perhaps the prospect of two paid admissions on an otherwise bleak Sunday night induced him to accommodate me --- or maybe he just felt sorry for a boy whose priorities were dreadfully misaligned. Whatever his reasoning, my thanks were profuse. To this day, I hope his fields are prospering, for it was he, and gallant Richard, who made it possible for me to finally see The Curse Of Frankenstein.


Anonymous Griff said...

Superb tale of "A Real 1957 Super Deluxe Model Thriller" -- likely one of the most influential genre films ever made -- and yout wonderful personal saga of Seeking the Baron.

This website has no peer.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

But you left out the most important part. How was it? Did it live up to your expectations?

5:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Guess I should have mentioned --- yes, I thought it was terrific in 1968. I've seen it several times since, and watched it again this past week as I got ready to write the post. It still works for me, though a lot of that is personal sentiment, I know --- but isn't sentiment and nostalgia the very thing that drives us to watch and re-watch these films in the first place?

7:06 AM  

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