Written by Bert Batt
Based on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward
US Release Feb. 11, 1970
RT 101 min.
Home Video Warner Home Video (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
We can likely credit my love of Hammer Films to the first two of them I saw when I was growing up: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Taste the Blood of Dracula. As an adult, these may or may not remain my favorite Hammer horrors; nevertheless, they burrowed into my heart and made a permanent spot for the famous “Studio That Dripped Blood”.
One Friday night, either on March 10, 1972, July 19, 1972, or November 23, 1973, I first watched Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed on the CBS Late Movie. To be honest, I don’t know that I remember actually watching the movie as much as I remember the short teaser commercials CBS ran for it, as well as the ads in TV Guide. I was either 9 or 10 years old and would have had to ask my parents’ permission to stay up that late. (Then, I would likely have fallen asleep during the movie.)
I’ve watched Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed several times over the years, but had to refresh myself recently in order to accurately write about it. Of the Hammer Frankenstein movies starring Peter Cushing, this is the fifth, and it remains one of the best. While I haven’t had current viewings of the others to compare, this is likely one of the most monstrous portrayals of Baron Frankenstein by Cushing that you will see.
In the course of its 101-minute running time, Frankenstein shows all his flaws, which include pride, contempt, relentlessness, lying, thievery, vanity, need for control and, of course, a God complex. Early on, as he overhears his colleagues talking about the institutionalized Dr. Brandt, he can’t help but interrupt them, “I didn’t know you were doctors. I thought you knew what you were talking about.”
He continues, “Had man not been given to invention and experiment, then tonight, sir, you would have eaten your dinner in a cave. You would’ve strewn the bones about the floor then wiped your fingers on a coat of animal skin. In fact, your lapels do look a bit greasy. Good night.” That’s just one example of the sharp dialog in the only screenplay that occasional Hammer assistant director Bert Batt ever wrote. Well, Batt is credited, but I wonder how much producer Anthony Nelson Keys had to do with it; he’s co-credited for the story with Batt.
Most of the personalities involved in Hammer production during its peak of popularity were involved with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. It was directed by Terence Fisher (his next-to-last movie for Hammer) and utilized Arthur Grant (Director of Photography), Bernard Robinson (Art Direction) and James Bernard (Original Music). The team seems to have been firing on all cylinders because this is one well-staged, suspenseful movie that clips along at a perfect pace. It is very entertaining with a particularly well-crafted opening.
What I like about most of the Hammer Frankenstein sequels is that although they usually end up with the creature becoming the Baron’s downfall, the path to arrive at that point is usually different. Here, vital information Frankenstein needs is buried in the insane mind of Dr. Brandt. He thinks he can cure him by relieving the pressure on his brain, but when Brandt suffers a heart attack during a harrowing escape from the institution, Frankenstein must first transplant his brain into another body so he can then successfully perform the procedure.
One specific thing I like about Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is that the result of the experiment is not a failure; he does not create a monster. Instead, he simply awakens Dr. Brandt in the body of another man. Of course, Brandt is not particularly happy about this, but it does keep the idea crystal clear that Frankenstein is the only monster here.
A controversial scene in the movie is when the Baron attacks the woman (Anna, played by Veronica Carlson) in whose boarding house he resides. After blackmailing her and her fiancée to harbor and assist him, he wanders by her room one night and throws himself upon her. Cushing supposedly hated this scene and Fisher was supposedly forced by the studio to include it. Even though it’s not mentioned in the movie after it happens, I think it makes sense to include it. We seldom see the Baron in a sexual situation. But, they say that rape is not sexual; it’s about anger and control. Therefore, it perfectly fits Frankenstein’s modus operandi.
I also like the idea that in the age of horse and buggy, unless you actually encountered someone, you wouldn’t know what he or she looked like. This allows Frankenstein to wander among his peers unnoticed. When Brandt’s wife thinks she recognizes him on the street, she has only a caricature of him in an editorial cartoon in the newspaper to make a proper identification.
While relatively bloodless, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is nevertheless gruesome. With clever use of both camera and sound, the mostly unseen brain transplant scene is nearly unbearable. Close-up on Cushing, we can tell he’s making an incision around Brandt’s scalp. Pan down, we see a bloody ring around his head. Cushing then grabs a bone saw and places it along the ring. Pan up as Cushing begins sawing. We hear the horrible sound. Pan down, Cushing begins to twist the top of Brandt’s head. Pan up, the expression on Cushing’s face tells us he’s removed it.
Part of his portrayal of Frankenstein that makes Cushing so brilliant is that among all his bad behavior, he’s always a proper gentleman. Dressed impeccably, following murder, rape or surgery, he still expects to follow social graces. Staying at the boarding house, he tells Anna he expects his tea at 7:00 sharp or that he wants two soft-boiled eggs first thing in the morning.
Nearly equal to the terrific opening sequence is the finale, although the actual end of the movie is slightly abrupt. Brandt lures the Baron into a game, telling him that the answers he seeks are behind one of the doors off the foyer. As Frankenstein attempts to open each door, Brandt throws a lantern at him. Having previously spread fuel throughout the house, this eventually creates a conflagration that traps both men inside the burning house.
Regardless of any childhood memories attached to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, I continue to truly enjoy it. Although it’s technically a sequel, if stands on its own. In fact, I’m pretty sure the explanation given for the Baron’s whereabouts before this movie does not describe the events of the previous sequel, Frankenstein Created Woman. Not all sequels are this good. Not all Hammer films are this good. Heck, not all movies, period, are this good.