Significance to Frankenstein Legacy
In order to understand Hammer’s effect on the narrative of Frankenstein, it is important to address aspects of Britain’s social atmosphere prior to the company’s first Frankenstein production. British commercial television was introduced in September of 1955. This presented many restrictions and obstacles around which Hammer would have to navigate. The process of working around the demands of a new medium would eventually lend The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a landmark film for the horror genre, some distinctive aspects of its style and tone.
Television audiences and executives expected different content and material than that which was available to film audiences, and this led to Hammer steering away from potboilers, the safe-bets of radio adaptations, and common British historical tropes such as the Robin Hood myth (Hearn, Barnes 12). Hammer, needing to make a characteristic mark on the industry, presented audiences with the “lurid content” and the exploitation of a “vulgar trend of film making” (Hearn, Barnes 12) in The Quatermass Experiment (1955). This television series brought Hammer some much needed attention in the industry and spawned a second and third sequel: X The Unknown (1956) and Quatermass 2 (1957). The series’ achievements subsequently secured the funds to produce a fresh take on the adaptations of the Frankenstein narrative.
Collaboration and Copyrights
The Curse of Frankenstein was originally conceived by two American writers, Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenburg, as an installment for an educational television series. Their adaptation eventually made its way out of the intended market and into the hands of Eliot Hyman, a financier of Associated Artists Productions. Hyman thereafter acquired the script and turned it over to Hammer films. The initial writers were still attached to the project, and several elements of their screenplay remained in the final product, notably Victor’s frame narration from the insane asylum. However, the film was first envisioned to star Boris Karloff, the declining star of Universal film’s “golden age” monster movies. This is where the production ran into major factors that would shape the Frankenstein Hammer series. News of Karloff’s desired casting made its way to Universal, and they threatened multiple lawsuits due to copyright infringements. The makeup, narratives and plotlines, “any elements textual or otherwise” were under copyright. So, many elements were to be given a wide berth in the Hammer script (Hearn, Barnes 22). There was also copyright pressure from Mary Shelley’s original text, “from which the film would have to be demonstrably adapted” (Hearn, Barnes 23). These circumstances brought about substantial changes from the familiar, well known series of adaptations by Universal films.
Hammer made use of the innovation of color film, which at the time was a serious decision in the way of production costs; the film operated on a meager budget that David Pirie in A New Heritage of Horror (2008) records as $400,000. The choice of color, however, was a leading factor in the film’s success. Kevin Heffernan attributes Hammer’s vision of a color horror film as a key turning point for the company: “Hammer and its American partners saw color as a crucial element in avoiding the supporting-feature fate of Hammer’s previous American releases” (48). Heffernan is referring to the film industry’s practice of billing horror films as “secondary films,” films shown after a main attraction. Horror films before The Curse of Frankenstein were essentially "B-films," but the use of color unexpectedly appealed to viewers’ enthusiastic consumption of gore. The innovation of color, the “grisly images,” helped to initiate “the worldwide success of tiny Hammer Films from England as the major re-interpreter of horror myths” (Heffernan 44).
Some contemporary scholars call for a reevaluation of the way filmgoers and critics view and interpret adaptations, particularly with respect to a film’s so called “faithfulness” or fidelity to the source text, in this case: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). The overarching concept of this reevaluation is to consider the process of adaptation, to focus the discussion not on what the creator(s) of a film, musical, videogame, etc. choose to cut or remove from a source, but why those decisions are made and what they reflect about the period in which an adaptation is made. In this way adaptations act as a sort of cultural indicator. Focusing on the changes in this light then directs the discussion of adaptations to consider what is gained rather than lost by the adaptation process. Linda Hutcheon and Gary Bortolotti, in a co-written publication, “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and "Success"—Biologically” (2007), advocate a biological perspective in which an adaptation is seen as an instrument in the “survival” of a narrative. Narratives then undergo an evolution in which cultural selection gives rise to a text’s survival.
With this approach in mind, Hammer becomes a major agent in the “survival” of the Frankenstein legacy. The commercial environment of the film industry in the late fifties called for several maneuvers on Hammer’s part. The writers and producers had to evade the narratives of the Universal films, respond to an evolving demand for content with the introduction of commercial television, yet they had to stay close enough to the novel so that the film could be identified as a Frankenstein adaptation. These demands created a monster very unlike that which had been seen in previous Frankenstein films. Though the film’s special-effects and the level of gore by contemporary standards may seem relatively tame, that type of bloody, gory spectacle had never been portrayed in a horror film, and it had long-term effects on the genre.
The Curse of Frankenstein features many horrific images that black and white film simply could not capture. The Baron at one point disposes of a cadaver’s head from a white sheet into a vat of acid—a gruesome idea in and of itself—and the viewer catches a very brief glimpse of severed head. But, more importantly the camera exploits the new technology as the Baron (Peter Cushing) is very careful to unfurl the white sheet and reveal center-frame the bright red splotches of blood; the camera lingers for an extra beat on this shot. Imagery of this sort is one-upped through the series of Frankensteins and cannot be underestimated as a precursor to the major genre of gore-horror familiar to contemporary audiences today.
A new generation of Frankenstein consumers were to come in the sixties and seventies, and Hammer’s innovations catered to the demands by adapting the narrative so that it appealed to the corresponding changes in cultural values, tastes, content demands, and media demands. Pirie argues that Hammer’s adaptations of the Frankenstein myth initiated a Gothic revival in British cinema that provides a historical path, so to speak, by which those conventions in the Romantic period can be revisited, providing an important cultural link. Universal films and eventually Hammer films sustained Frankenstein through a tumultuous period of media change, and this perhaps ensured that it make its way to the various critical and scholarly interpretations of the adaptations.
The success of The Curse of Frankenstein produced the funds to make not just the sequels for the Frankenstein narrative, but also for productions of films that featured and supported the continuation of cultural icons such as Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959). Hammer films is an important agent of change in the direction of film, and the company was a primary contributor to the ongoing and widespread legacy of Frankenstein and his monster in popular culture.
Bortolotti, Gary R. and Linda Hutcheon. "On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fedelity Discourse and "Success"--Biologically." New Literary History Vol. 38, Number 3 (2007): 443-458. Project Muse.
Hearn, Marcus and Alan Barnes. The Hammer Story. London: Titan, 2007. Print.
Heffernan, Kevin. Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold. London: Duke, 2004. Print.
Pirie, David. A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema. New York: Tauris, 2008. Print.