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Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Tonight's Feature Presentation

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)

Starring: Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Thorley Walters

Written By: Bert Batt (also story), Anthony Nelson Keys Directed By: Terence Fisher

The Short Version

Peter Cushing is brilliant, as always, and his Frankenstein is e-vil.

Freddie Jones is outstanding, even though he is low on screen time.

This is one of those movies that can be called “technically very good, but...”

If you’re looking for a fun horror movie, try something else.

If you’re looking for a dark horror movie, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed counts, “but...”


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

LIMBURGER.

There’s some good inside, but you have to get past a strong atmosphere to find it, and most people just aren’t going to be up for that.


Pairs Well With...

HOUSE BRANDY.

This one demands a stiff drink, but nothing to ask for by name.

“If you want to go to the theatre tonight, you’d better have that drink.”


Hammer directorial legend Terence Fisher recalled Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, his next to last go at the helm, as his favorite amongst his films.  While on a technical level it’s possible to understand why, on an entertainment level, I just can’t see very many people counting it as a favorite anything.  Whether or not one ends up even liking Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed at all very much depends on the answer to the question of what it is about horror movies that one likes, and to what degree.

As for myself, there are many things that I can appreciate about Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, especially on a critical level, but in terms of entertainment, as most easily defined by answering the question of “having to choose between this and three other films, how likely would I be to voluntarily choose to watch this one,” no, I don’t really like this movie very much.

As our story begins, we happen upon an unfortunate fellow going about his business on the sidewalk when someone else lops his head off with a hand scythe.  Next, we cut over to a thief who is in the process of burglarizing a building when he hears its occupant returning up the steps.  When the thief seeks shelter in the basement, he finds himself in a lab; specifically, a lab with a corpse in it.  Worse for the thief, that’s just where the building’s occupant was headed.  The thief is discovered, and fight ensues.  The thief manages to get away, but not before he gets a good look at his bald and scarred opponent and causes him to drop his bag to reveal the freshly severed head inside.

Realizing that the thief can and likely will expose him, the building’s occupant goes swiftly into action.  He dumps the head plus the corpse he’d already had down the sewer drain, after which he takes off the mask he’d been using to disguise himself.  Regular Hammer viewers (or anyone who’d noticed the film’s title) will recognize the revealed man instantly as none other than Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, The Hound of the Baskervilles).  And now that his hideout has been blown, Frankenstein will need to find quarters elsewhere.

He finds them in the nearby town of Autumnburg, where an innocent young lady named Anna (Veronica Carlson, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) is running a boarding house that had belonged to her mother before the unfortunate older woman fell ill.  In short order, he chances to discover that Anna’s fiancé, Karl (Simon Ward, Supergirl), is a doctor who deals illegal drugs that he steals from the local asylum’s pharmacy in order to pay for the health care of Anna’s mother.  He uses this information to blackmail the two into helping him to set up a new laboratory where he can continue his experiments: experiments involving brain transplant surgery…

There are many different varieties of horror movies made to appeal to many different kinds of fans.  There are the old fashioned gothic tales of the supernatural; The Golem and Vampyr are good examples of these.  There are the fun horror movies where the scares and the killings end up being something of a game; this is your classic slasher formula flick like Friday the 13th.  There are the deep, unrelenting thrillers that are meant to be disturbing and take the term “horror” quite seriously; The Exorcist and Session 9 come to mind.  This, I think, is where Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed wants to be, and while it does get much of the way there, it has just enough parts that don’t fit to make the film fall just short of its overall goal.

That Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a dark film is a fact beyond dispute.  This is the fifth in Hammer’s Frankenstein line, and as things have been since the beginning in The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein is no mere scientist blinded by ambition, but rather, a truly evil psychopath.  By this point, however, that initial psychopathy has evolved into an even deeper, more menacing insanity,  leaving a protagonist who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever other than the fact that he’s still played by Peter Cushing, a man second only to Vincent Price in terms of color film era gothic horror acting genius.  Indeed, Cushing’s performance takes an already evilly written character and pushes him to his limits, with the result being one of the most menacing portrayals of a mortal man in a horror film that you will ever see.  (Many have called this his finest performance; I’ll say that it’s great, but not his very best, which only shows just how talented the man is if he can top this.)  If the intellectual human evil portrayed by Cushing were the only standard by which Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed were to be judged, then it would indeed be a masterpiece.

[A moment should be taken to discuss one particular point of Baron Frankenstein’s evil in this film: specifically, the scene where he rapes Anna.  This was added to the film quite late, and Cushing himself was appalled by the addition, to the point where he actually apologized to Veronica Carlson, even though it was certainly not his fault that the scene was put in.  It is often commented that this scene is unnecessary and does not fit the character; I will buy one of those two arguments.  The film is indeed already oppressive enough that it certainly needs no rape to get its point across, but I would say that it is within the Baron’s character as written in the Hammer version of the lore, ironically for a reason that the Hammer honcho who demanded the scene’s inclusion – studio boss James Carreras – apparently did not understand.  His reported reasoning for having the scene written in was to add “sex” to the picture, but anyone who understands anything about psychology also understands that rape generally has relatively little to do with sex and everything to do with power and control.  Power and control are very much what Baron Frankenstein is all about, and since his goal throughout the film is to control Anna and Karl, yes – unnecessary and distasteful though the scene may be, it does fit the character.]

The absolute evil of Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Baron Frankenstein is furthered by the dark and oppressive atmosphere created by Director Terence Fisher.  There is no figurative light in this film; no coming up for air.  From the moment that Frankenstein asserts control over Anna and Karl, there is no peace right up through the end of the film…

With one, glaring exception.  If Terence Fisher indeed was looking to make the darkest, most foreboding picture he could think of, then his ambition was completely wrecked somewhere between himself and the casting director, depending on which was ultimately responsible for hiring Thorley Walters (Vampire Circus) as Inspector Frisch.  The kindest, least offensive term I can think of to describe his performance here is “asthmatic.”  From the moment he opens his mouth, he literally ruins the picture.  If he was cast as comic relief, the gamble fails; he’s never funny in the least with his rapid-fire wheezing of his lines, and in fact the complete idiocy of his performance resembles nothing more than it does a primary schoolboy in old man clothes being told to read off a cue card and do it in one take.  Rather, he’s simply annoying, and since he never reaches a level of fun to break the oppressive atmosphere and let the audience breathe, he thus sabotages that atmosphere and poisons the film.  His character is nearly useless anyway: a red herring with far too much screen time whose only real function is to pass bad news on to someone at one point.  Given that the rest of the cast plays things absolutely straight, someone should have hired an actor for this role who was capable of doing the same, or at least capable of sounding like an adult while trying.

The sin of allowing Thorley Walters onto the set aside, Fisher does a technically outstanding job as he goes about his dark direction.  Along with maintaining his oppressive atmosphere (at which point it can be argued that he does his job too well), he also points the camera in all the right directions at all the right times, and even makes scenes that the audience can see coming a mile away play out as suspenseful and effective (like the climax, for example).  He also manages to take the film’s single greatest facepalm moment (something involving a water main breaking) and salvage it by apparent sheer force of will.

And yet, for all he does right… would it have been too much for him to throttle things back just a little?

The audience gets no relief from our two hapless victims.  Karl is written as a tool to begin with, and Simon Ward’s performance is haltingly unexciting in every way, occasionally sounding like he’s gone to reading from cue cards.  Veronica Carlson plays her role well enough, but unfortunately, her role is exclusively to be scared and to be victimized, so she really has nothing to work with to allow her an “in” with the audience.  (Being innocent and crying isn’t enough.)  Yes, the audience feels sorry for her, but cheering for her?  That’s a bit much to ask.

The one performance for which the audience can have sympathy is that of Freddie Jones (Dune) as Frankenstein’s ultimate victim, and this film’s substitute for a “monster.”  (Some people mistakenly identify him as such, but he’s not; he’s just the victim of an unwanted brain transplant, but otherwise quite human.)  Despite having little screen time, Jones in utterly brilliant here, easily delivering the most memorable performance after that of Peter Cushing himself.  His character is the ultimate contrast to the evil of Frankenstein, and indeed can be seen as parallel to the character of Henry Frankenstein as written in the old Universal horror films, for when one considers the biography, he might as well be (though of course he is not).  He is the misguided scientist who must now face up to his mistakes, and with his portrayal, Freddie Jones provides the heart to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed that one could hitherto have decided to be absent.  The sympathy he generates, however, still does not break the film’s oppressive atmosphere; instead, it only builds it up further as the audience feels pity for his plight.

And so it goes, until the flames finally engulf the end credits.

Even recognizing that there can be entertainment in a dark, unrelentingly oppressive horror film, I cannot bring myself to enjoy Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed even on that level.  The complete idiocy of the Inspector character and the truly wretched performance of Thorley Walters in that role destroys the fear potential of the film as a whole, and when combined with the completely unsympathetic victim portrayal of Veronica Carlson (at no real fault of her own) and the utter uselessness of her fiancé (with some real blame thrust upon Simon Ward for his performance), the dark atmosphere is rendered as simply an hour and a half of bile-inducing oppression and nothing more.  And since that atmosphere is the entire driving force of the film… realistically, unless someone specifically requests it, I can’t see myself ever voluntarily watching this movie again.  I can recognize and appreciate the true excellence of the work of Peter Cushing and Freddie Jones, but the film they’re in is simply not entertaining.

Bottom line, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed features two amazing performances and an atmosphere that never quits, but even fans of dark horror may have trouble finding fun here.  With that in mind, though, this movie really is only for those folks to try, or for Hammer completists.  For casual horror fans or anyone else in general, this is simply too oppressive to be any fun.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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