UK-based teacher, actor, musician and fearful film enthusiast Nigel Parkin presents a new SHOCK column charting covert perversion in classic horror films.
Back in 1957 Hammer’s first foray into Gothic horror, Terrence Fishers THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, pushed the envelope of cinematic disgust as far as possible. Critics and censors found it ‘repulsive’, ‘degrading’ and ‘horrendously explicit’ – precisely the kind of terms that would excite horror hounds!
Now it is generally perceived as a tame museum piece. Well, I beg to differ! There is nothing tame about this movie. Its bold delight in cruelty and perversion still bursts from the screen. The very fact that it is not explicit by today’s standards is what actually makes it so insidiously effective. This is a film that twists and squeezes our imaginations until it has wrung out every hideous thought. It makes out brains bubble away with unspeakable thoughts in the glass jars of our own laboratory. It takes our eyes and transplants them into the head of a monster, forcing us to see things in our minds that still would not be acceptable on any screen.
This is not Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Her guilt-ridden Romantic artist with the need to project himself into an eight foot Byron is nowhere in sight. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was instructed to ‘make Frankenstein a shit’, which he duly did. And what a shit! Peter Cushing’s cold aristocrat is a perfect study in heartless manipulation, obsessive arrogance and carefully calculated cruelty. Nothing particularly challenging there, you might think. Indeed, those are all the very qualities he would later bring to Grand Moff Tarkin!
But look and think more closely when watching his Victor Frankenstein and you will become aware of a deep vein of perversion that is thrillingly daring. For all the legendary and ground-breaking detail of eyeballs, brains and severed hands it is the way in which Victor handles the living that gives the film its true heart of horror. Especially it is the way he handles his mistress, the maid Justine. The look of disdain mixed with lust on his face as he embraces her is chilling enough but far more scintillatingly sadistic is his expression of ecstasy as he leans against the door to the ante-room of his laboratory, listening to Justine being violently killed by the Creature. He has used this woman many times but has clearly never derived any pleasure to match this moment. Riding the crescendo of fevered music and her scream it is a climax in every sense of the word. In this rapturous state you are forced to wonder quite what he is imagining. That Creature’s hands are not just stopping at Justine’s neck!
That moment defines the film. The perverse pleasures of playing with the dead is really the key theme. It’s there in the sensually heightened colors of the fluids in Victor’s jars. It is there in the rasping, wheezing voice of the mysterious figure who works in the charnel house; this is the voice of a man who spends too long in close, damp, intimate contact with the bloated and rotting dead.
This is a film that has always belonged in the pit of the perverse and can still proudly hold its place there. The critics who were so appalled at the time had been magnificently manipulated by the film’s lurid color and vivid music and by the cool commitment of Cushing to imagine far more than they could see. That suggestive power still calls to our darkest dreams and should still be celebrated.