Curse of Frankenstein (1957) is a very different beast from its Universal counterpart. That was pretty much deliberate given that Universal had threatened to sue if there were any obvious similarities. Much more gruesome and in-your-face, Victor Frankenstein is the focus of the film. He's also the monster, to all intents and purposes. Oh, Christopher Lee does a great job of playing his creation, but it's the actions of Victor Frankenstein, his disregard for the dignity or pains of others as he pursues his goals, that mark him out as monstrous.
Interestingly, this film has a very ambiguous ending, leaving one wondering if it was all in his mind...
Horror of Dracula (1958) doesn't muck about with its retelling of Dracula. From their previous experience with Universal, Hammer knew they would have to make significant changes to the story. So, rather than a slow build, you get some full-on vamp action in the first quarter-hour. The first shot of Christopher Lee vamped up is shocking simply because of his ferocity - Dracula is pissed off, and look out! The film's main theme is revenge - people want revenge on Dracula, he wants revenge on them, and he's far better at it than they.
On the strength of these first two films, Universal signed over the rights to Hammer to remake all their classic monsters, if they wished.
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1959) picks up where the first film left off. The Doctor goes on to continue his experiments, naturally. In some ways he's a changed man, in others he's still the monster of the piece. But there's no doubt that, when not hampered by misfortune, he actually knows what he's doing. It's a good film, but a very different beast to the first one, and certainly wasn't going in a direction that would have let them continue the gruesomeness that was drawing in the movie-going public.
And so to tonight's film. In The Brides of Dracula (1960), initially we're introduced to three quite interesting female characters. The lead seeming rather naive but still fairly strong. No Christopher Lee for this one. The legacy of Dracula pervades the film and starts out concentrating on our three women.
In fact half an hour into the film, just when I was wondering where things would lead, I was totally surprised (and initially a little disappointed) by the appearance of Peter Cushing - I'd been so into the movie, I'd quite forgotten he was in it, even though he has top billing. My disappointment was with the knowledge that now we'd have to concentrate on his character. However, by this point one has realised that the female lead isn't naive, she's really just stupid, so it's something of a blessing. And the other two women stay suitably interesting characters.
The performance by Cushing is simply brilliant. It's his portrayal of Van Helsing that makes the film truly memorable and elevates it beyond becoming just another vampire movie. One forgets, in an age of workmanlike actors, what someone truly great can bring to a part. He layers a fairly two-dimensional role with subtlety, and manages to show the character's emotions with the briefest of looks. One early scene I was struck with the full force of just how fearless Van Helsing is, ready to do what's needed to be done at risk to his own life, and it came from a glance in the middle of a fight - genuine determination.
I started watching these films in an effort to see what others had done with these ideas, to pin down what was wrong with Stephen Sommer's Van Helsing, and I think this film has shown it clearly.
Towards the end, Cushing's Van Helsing shows that a real hard core vampire hunter doesn't need fancy gadgets, just the ability to be able to think on his feet, and the guts to do what needs to be done. It's a visceral moment where, because he is as frail and human as the viewer, you're gobsmacked at his actions, and left wondering if you could have taken the same action. The thing is, I'd seen this scene previously, a friend had shown it to me, so I knew what was coming. And it still packed a hell of a punch.
Certainly one of the more interesting films I've watched recently, even with so many elements that were cliched even back in 1960. But that's the point, isn't it? You make the journey interesting enough, it doesn't matter if the core ideas are old because you breath fresh life into them. The film has many flaws, but I could write pages on its more interesting ideas, and a couple of surprises that I've never seen replicated in another movie.
Four down, twelve to go, and so far it's been well worth the ride.