29 October 2009

Frankenstein Apex: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, Thorley Walters, Maxine Audley.

Hammer’s Dracula series reached its summit early, with the best films—Dracula / Horror of Dracula and The Brides of Dracula—coming first. Conversely, the Frankenstein series reached its peak in 1969, right when most of Hammer’s House of Horrors was dwindling. The fifth movie of the franchise, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, is not only the best of Hammer’s Frankenstein movies, but is also one of the masterpieces from the studio and its director, Terence Fisher.

Peter Cushing starred as Dr. Frankenstein in all the movies up to this point, although continuity vanished after the second, The Revenge of Frankenstein. The character softened from his villainous portrayal in the first film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). But with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he returned to his evil ways in a fury. The doctor is utterly reprehensible in this movie: murderer, rapist, thief, blackmailer. The man will stop at no depravity in his scientific quest to show that he’s just so much damn smarter than everybody else. Even viewers who know something about the more ethically troubled character of the Hammer series will find his actions in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed shocking and his manipulation and rudeness repulsive. And if you’ve just come from the two James Whale films of the 1930s . . . well, get ready to duck when that scythe comes whipping across the screen, with Dr. Frankenstein’s hand guiding it. It will take your head off as well.

That’s one of the images that opens the film. The doctor, who has relocated to London, snicks off the head of a certain Dr. Heidecke as he walks down the street. He plants the head in a handy head-carrying tote, and returns to his secret lab, only to confront an unfortunate thief who has broken inside. The thief escapes after a fight, and the doctor has to relocate from his lab quickly, disposing of some of his dead bodies and other evidence before the police arrive.

The opening doesn’t unspool in the straightforward way I’ve explained it, which shows one of the great strengths of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Director Fisher accents suspense and visual trickery in the film, displaying storytelling complexity that his detractors seem to miss in their criticisms. A number of other perfectly orchestrated thrill-scenes occur throughout, keeping the movie a pressure-cooker even though its version of the Frankenstein Monster doesn’t appear until very late. Some of the sequences compare favorably to Hitchcock, such as two scenes where the protagonists have to hide a corpse from a police inspection.

The Hammer Frankenstein films never used a continuing monster, coming up with a new idea for each installment that was usually far removed from the Universal version of the creature. (The Evil of Frankenstein is the sole exception to.) To accompany the darkest version ever of the doctor, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed comes up with the most interesting version of the “monster” to appear in the Hammer franchise. Although its origin is nothing like that in Shelley’s novel, the result is similar: an erudite, scheming creature looking to avenge itself on its creator for giving it hellish life.

It requires a roundabout way to create the monster (played by Freddie Jones), but the trip is worth taking. (Well, maybe not if the idea of surgery makes you queasy. But I don’t understand why you would be watching the film in the first place if that were the case.)

While the police and pompous snuff-taking Inspector Frisch (Thorley Walter) poke around looking for the murderer of Dr. Heidecke, Frankenstein finds new headquarters in a boarding house run by young and beautiful Anna (Veronica Carlson). Frankenstein finds out that Anna’s finacĂ© Dr. Karl Holst (Simon Ward) has been stealing cocaine from the hospital to help Anna’s suffering mother. Frankenstein uses the information to blackmail the two of them into helping him set up his surgical nightmare shop in the boarding house (first ejecting all the other guests) and stealing the supplies he needs for the projects. Poor Karl immediately gets in deep when he accidentally kills a man during one of the thefts. Frankenstein couldn’t be more pleased to have a chance to get Karl and his bride-to-be more under his power.
Frankenstein’s plan this time requires getting his old compatriot Dr. Brandt (George Pravda) out of a nearby insane asylum. He and Dr. Brandt have corresponded about their twin brain-transplant projects, but right before Dr. Brandt could tell Frankenstein his Great Secret, the man went incurably and violently insane. Frankenstein still hopes to get the information from Dr. Brandt, but during the asylum break-in—another great suspense piece—the man falls further into his mental catatonia. This doesn’t bother Frankenstein one bit. He decides to remove Brandt’s brain from his injured body and stick it in a new one, where he can cure the insanity. He forces Karl to help him kidnap and kill Dr. Richter (Freddie Jones), head of the asylum, and then puts Brandt’s mind into this body.

And because this is a Frankenstein film, things go very wrong. There aren’t any winners at the fiery finale of this one—except the audience, of course, who gets to enjoy an outrageous thrill ride and the foul doctor’s comeuppance.

Telling you that Peter Cushing is great at playing Dr. Frankenstein is like saying that Two-Buck Chuck is cheap wine. Of course he’s great in the part! Cushing’s portrait of cold calculation and smug superiority create a Frankenstein who makes your skin crawl. Across from hapless innocent Simon Ward and sweet Veronica Carlson, Cushing is pure repulsion. It’s as thrilling as a murder scene just to listen to Cushing give the other boarders in Anna’s house a dressing down after hearing them discuss the topic of the horrors of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments, unware the man is sitting in their midst:
“Excuse me. I didn’t know that you were doctors.”

“Doctors? We’re not doctors.”

“I beg your pardon, I thought you knew what you were talking about.”

“You’re damn rude, sir.”

“I’m afraid that stupidity always brings out the worst in me.”
The boarders are lucky that Frankenstein is incorrect about this statement: the worst in him would have them all dead and on slabs waiting for brain transplants.

But the real worst behavior of the doctor is raping Anna. Cushing ardently objected to this scene. It wasn’t part of Bert Batt’s original screenplay, but was an interpolation from the producers for the U.S. market to “sex up” the movie. It doesn’t affect anything later in the film, since neither character mentions it again, but it does create an even greater sense of tension between them. For this reason, I don’t find it gratuitous—it’s acutely disturbing, and this is already a disturbing film. It’s certainly not “sexy,” if that was the studio’s intention. My only objection to the scene is that it doesn’t quite fit the normally asexual Dr. Frankenstein that Cushing plays. However, the rape seems like something the doctor does simply to exert more superiority over the people he controls, and makes sense in this context.

Freddie Jones as the Brandt-monster is superlative. The film’s most emotional moments are when “Brandt,” locked in another man’s body, returns to his grieving wife (Maxine Audley) to explain what has happened. The final confrontation between the Brandt-monster and his former colleage/creator is an electric one, as Frankenstein now has met his intellectual match: “I fancy that I am the spider and you are the fly, Frankenstein.” The taunting Jones hurling exploding lamps to set everything on fire while Frankenstein scrambles to escape is another example of a rip-roaring Terence Fisher ending.
The one flaw with the presentation of the monster is that Freddie Jones only gets to play one scene as Dr. Richter, so it’s difficult to see the massive difference in his mannerism as the Brandt-monster on a first viewing. Richter isn’t established enough as a character before Frankenstein picks him as the host body for Dr. Brandt’s brain.

When Hammer first burst into horror in the 1950s, their presentation of blood and gore were considered outrageous and sick. Ten years later, gore had made more inroads into mainstream film, and Hammer cranked up the quotient considerably here: this is the most grisly of their Frankenstein movies, and doesn’t flinch from showing queasy surgical procedures. It isn’t so much the visuals as it is the sound effects that make me shudder. The sound textures of bonesaw-on-skill and drill-on-cranium are unpleasantly realized while the doctor coldly does his work.

The movie isn’t perfect. Thorley Walters’s comic police inspector and his surgeon sidekick were late additions to the script, and feel like it. Walters’s character might have worked well in some of Hammer’s earlier movies, but Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed has scant room for comic relief, especially if it deviates too far from the main storyline. Making the police look a bit clumsy also undercuts the tension in the scenes where they are hunting for dead bodies in Anna’s guesthouse. When the Brandt-monster taunts Frankenstein that he must choose between the police and the flames, it doesn’t seem like a tough choice to make. Take the police!

As great as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is, Hammer tried to restart the whole series with the next film. The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) was part of the studio’s campaign to inject more youth appeal to their aging series. Cushing was dumped, Ralph Bates brought in—and the movie flopped. I think it’s a candidate for the worst Hammer horror movie ever. Cushing was brought back for one more Frankenstein movie, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (filmed in 1972, released 1974), which was also Terence Fisher’s last movie. It has some interesting points, but Cushing’s Frakenstein and director Fisher had already reached their crescendo.