In Switzerland, in the 19th Century, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is about to be executed for the murder of his maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt). He tells his story to a priest (Alex Galier).
At age 15 (Melvyn Hayes), his mother’s death gives him control over the Frankenstein estate, though he continues to support his Aunt Sophia (Noel Hood) and Cousin Elizabeth (Sally Walsh as a child, Hazel Court as an adult). He is tutored by scientist Paul Kempe (Robert Urquhart), with whom he engages in experiments. After bringing a dog back to life, they decide to create a man from body parts. Paul quits, disturbed by the grave-robbing, especially as Elizabeth has come to live with them.
But Victor continues, stealing a robber’s corpse from a gibbet and eyes and hands from a charnel house. He invites the distinguished Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) to the house and kills him for his brain. Paul tries to stop him and the brain is damaged in the scuffle. He brings the creature (Christopher Lee) to life, but it is violent and psychotic. He locks it up but it escapes and kills a blind man in the woods. Paul shoots it in the eye and he and Victor bury it, but Victor digs it up again and brings it back to life. He has the creature kill his maid Justine because she is pregnant and threatens to name him as the father.
The evening before Victor and Elizabeth are to be married, Victor shows Paul the creature and Paul threatens to report him. The monster escapes onto the roof and threatens Elizabeth. Victor accidentally shoots her instead of the monster and causes it to fall in a vat of acid. The priest does not believe that a monster killed the maid, and Paul will not back the story up. He leaves with Elizabeth and Victor is led to the guillotine.
The film was directed by Terence Fisher, the first in a collection of films by Hammer Film Productions, using characters from the Universal Studios monster series of the Thirties and Forties, but much more gory and sensational. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, aware of production costs, left out such expensive scenes as the torch-bearing mob storming the castle. It was the first lead role for Peter Cushing, who was best known for television. The makeup was specially designed not to resemble that worn by Boris Karloff. The entire movie was different from Frankenstein (1931) because Universal Studios threatened to sue if anything was the same.
It was a great success in the U.S. In the U.K., it outraged many reviewers—Americans not so much. It has been claimed as an influence by Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton and has 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Peter Cushing went on to play Baron Frankenstein in Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969), and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). Christopher Lee was cast as the monster because he was six-foot-five. He beat out another tall actor, Bernard Bresslaw, for the monster role because he was two pounds a day cheaper. Hazel Court wore actual Victorian dresses.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing met for the first time on the set of Curse of Frankenstein, even though they had both appeared in Hamlet in 1948, Moulin Rouge in 1952, and Alexander the Great in 1956. Lee rushed into Cushing’s dressing room and shouted, “I’ve got no lines!” Cushing replied, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” They became fast friends for their entire lives. Peter Cushing was born on May 26th, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price on May 27th. The painting on the stairs is “The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp,” by Rembrandt. Patrick Troughton ( the second Doctor Who) had a part in the movie that was cut out.