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Thursday, May 25, 2006





The Curse Of Frankenstein Would Haunt Me Forever!

Kids today won’t levitate over The Curse Of Frankenstein. They’ll call it dull, slow, nothing happening, the customary branding iron applied to most old movies, particularly of horror type, explicit gore ingrained since ... well, since The Curse Of Frankenstein and Hammer films first arrived. Good luck convincing doubters that it was this one leading ways to wide-open charnel house that is screen horror today. To know Curse's impact, to feel shudders it evoked during summer 1957, is possible only by having been there, seeing it somehow through their eyes, this a transport fewer of us each year can make. To stream these epochal chillers, to own them in whatever souped-up rendition Blu-Ray affords, these still are replicas to suggest a feeling, not duplicate it. The Curse Of Frankenstein in 1957 was less movie than live performance, for at no time in decades to come would it play again like this.

Warners saw and knew Hammer's merchandise could sell, given proper exploitation. "Above average for this kind" was probably how they figured it, gore the novelty to prop up ads. Comparisons with WB's previous House Of Wax were inevitable, trade screeners quick to realize The Curse Of Frankenstein was radical depart from 1953's gay nineties fun house that few took seriously. If anything, House Of Wax harked back to Gentleman Jim, The Strawberry Blonde, and other nostalgia trips popular in the forties. The Curse Of Frankenstein was not built for laughs nor fun. Here were dirty lab jackets smeared with blood, heads cleaved off just below the frame line, eyeballs and cut off hands daintily wrapped in burlap swatches, clinical lab detail to shock viewers, who in a previous year had seen something close (The Black Sleep), but this time there was color, and nothing of known chillers, let alone what television offered, could approach it.


Some were disappointed by Hammer's monster. They couldn’t use the familiar Karloff visage,  Universal having issued warning in advance of Curse production. The 1931 Frankenstein, plus sequels, had been out of circulation a while anyway. Comparisons would be made as originals took their television bow within a few months of Curse openings (July 1957), and micro budget Frankenstein’s Daughter and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein would feed on scraps left by The Curse Of Frankenstein. Home and theatre screens were soon inundated with Frankenstein output of new or old vintage.
Domestic rentals for The Curse Of Frankenstein totaled $1.4 million, with foreign at $1.0, for a worldwide $2.6 million. Profits for Warners amounted to a bountiful $1.6 million, considerable money for a genre wherein expectations were generally lower.





Curse Of Frankenstein was a natural for round the clock showing. Advertising was rightly aimed at kids and teens. A "monster mask for the kids" was actually a blown-up paper ad mat likely to fall apart the moment you tried putting it on. The Curse Of Frankenstein stayed evergreen for years to follow. A comic version was published in 1964 when the feature was reissued and Warren Publications, publisher of Famous Monsters magazine, came aboard with a montage of stills plus frame blow-ups to tell the story and promote the film. My first acquaintance with The Curse Of Frankenstein, along with resolve to someday see it, came by way of this magazine. 



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 Robert Mitchum into a tail-spin toward the power plant in Thunder Road. Our own Thunder Road snaked along rural desolation best avoided past nightfall, leading to nowhere, it seemed, other than backwoods oblivion. The small farmer who erected his movie screen between two chicken houses on an open pasture found a ready audience for odd assemblage of programs he rented for cheap, or cheaper. There were "B" westerns, long after they had disappeared elsewhere, Judy Canova hillbilly frolics, hot car actioners ... and horror shows. I had never been out there, but was informed that wandering cattle often peeked into patron cars. 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 comfort of home. This weighed not so heavily upon me until August 1968 when The Curse Of Frankenstein finally showed up.





Intensity of fourteen-year old desire to see The Curse Of Frankenstein was a rock in my shoe from 1965 when Liberty management ducked revivals of Curse with Horror Of Dracula, even as they seemingly played every other NC theatre but ours. Out-of-town cousins had seen them. Print ads far and wide trumpeted both. Famous Monsters and Castle Of Frankenstein wrote eloquently of the combo (Frankenstein Spills It --- Dracula Drinks It!). For all I knew, boys in reformatories got to see them. Too young to have caught initial release in the fifties, I was determined to at last see The Curse Of Frankenstein, whatever obstacles fate and parental resistance might throw in my path. A first hurdle was getting there. Do I walk six miles, go in afoot, stand alone in that pasture with a speaker in my hand? Someone would have 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, realized perhaps there were 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 had booked The Curse Of Frankenstein for one night only --- a Sunday night --- a new school term to begin the next morning. No way my folks would let me stay out past 10:30. Worse still, The Curse Of Frankenstein was set to run behind Gamera The Invincible ("A giant, jet-propelled fire-breathing space turtle terrorizes the earth," says Maltin Reviews). Seeing both would keep us out after midnight. Gamera as opener would be my downfall unless I could persuade the drive-in operator to reverse positions and play The Curse Of Frankenstein first. Perhaps the prospect of at least two paid admissions on an otherwise bleak Sunday night induced him to accommodate me, or maybe he felt sorry for a boy whose priorities were dreadfully misaligned. Whatever the reasoning, I hope his fields prosper yet, for it was he, and gallant Richard, who made it possible for me to finally see The Curse Of Frankenstein.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous 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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