Released onto a market dominated by science fiction 'creature features', the success of Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) revitalised and reinvented the ailing horror genre. Critics were horrified by the colourful blend of blood and sex, but the film was a huge commercial and artistic success.
Despite the success of Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment (d. Val Guest, 1955) and X - The Unknown (d. Leslie Norman, 1956), and other studios' efforts like Devil Girl From Mars (d. David MacDonald, 1954) and Fiend Without A Face (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1958), the science fiction genre belonged firmly to the Americans. Fisher's retelling of Mary Shelley's classic (which could itself be classed as science fiction) would prove to be Hammer's first successful foray into the closely related but temporarily stalled horror film market.
Fearing litigation by Universal, owners of the 'classic' 1930s and '40s films, Fisher had to rethink certain elements of the Frankenstein story. Universal were particularly protective of the Monster's image - the flat topped head, the electrodes (or bolts, as many people mistakenly assume) on the sides of the neck - and refused to allow its likeness to appear in other films. Make-up artist Phil Leakey returned to Mary Shelley's novel for inspiration, avoiding any resemblance to Jack Pierce's design for the Universal films. The Monster's new appearance was suitably gruesome. Played by Christopher Lee, it now seemed recognisably stitched together from assorted body parts.
Shot in colour, The Curse of Frankenstein proved a visceral retelling of Mary Shelley's story. Eyeballs, severed hands and surgical procedures are presented in a relatively unflinching style. At one point, the Monster is shot in the head and blood gushes from its wound. This approach distanced the film from Universal's monochrome, more suggestive horrors. The film was met with great enthusiasm by paying audiences, but alienated and horrified critics.
Another important departure from the established pattern of Frankenstein films was the emphasis on the Baron, played with cool, calculating brilliance by Peter Cushing, rather than his creation. It was Cushing who would return in subsequent films, not his ill-fated first attempt at creating life.
The Curse of Frankenstein was also the first horror film to feature Cushing and Christopher Lee together. This successful partnership would be repeated in Fisher's Dracula (1958), and soon became a regular feature of many British horror films.