I often like to revisit films I haven’t seen in many years, not only to see if they’ve held up, but also to discover how I’ve held up, particularly in my ongoing development as a moviegoer. In the case of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), which I first saw when I was seven, I obviously missed a lot, only seeing it on a surface level.
In fact I wondered if this was one of those movies I “saw” at the Town Theatre in Forest, Mississippi as a kid. I place “saw” in quotes since there were occasional instances of my buddies and me using the movie theater as a place to talk and cut up, especially when the theater manager was not roving the aisles, as was likely the case for this horror film.
Yet most audiences (even the most distracted seven-year-olds) will pay attention to the beginning of any film, which always holds the promise for something exciting. The use of bright red titles on a black background was nothing new for Hammer films, so while the opening for Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed signaled familiarity, it also set the stage in our minds that some good scares were just around the corner.
We didn’t have long to wait. The murder of a doctor walking the London streets at night isn’t totally depicted onscreen, but a splatter of thick blood on a building wall tells us what we’re in for. Putting two and two together, even young viewers understand that the canister we see in the next scene is the good doctor’s head being carried into an underground laboratory. This lab, filled with beakers and test tubes illuminated with green and red light, places us in another world, separating the vibrant possibilities of scientific discovery from the drab ordinariness of the city’s daily routines, danger and excitement working hand-in-hand.
A thief breaks into the lab and is frightened by a disfigured man, who happens to be none other than Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), still up to his old tricks. Satisfied that the intruder will no doubt continue to run as far away from the lab as possible, Frankenstein gets to work, but not the work he had originally intended. Now that the lab has been discovered, it’s time to find a new location.
So far, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is off to a good start. We’ve got murder, mayhem, mad scientist work going on, and Peter Cushing, a known quantity, especially in Hammer pictures. (This was his 15th movie for Hammer.) But this is not typical Peter Cushing, as we shall see.
Knowing that the intruder probably stopped running at the doors of the police station, and that Police Inspector Frisch (Thorley Walters) is after him, Frankenstein - now calling himself Fenner - rents a room at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson). Listening to a discussion between the other lodgers, Frankenstein discovers that a colleague, Dr. Brandt (George Pravda) is under lock and key at a local asylum. Normally Frankenstein could care less, but he remembers that Brandt had been developing a technique for transplanting brains, which apparently drove Brandt mad. If Frankenstein could just talk with Brandt…
Karl (Simon Ward), Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), Anna (Veronica Carlson)
But Frankenstein needs a connection, and he finds it. Anna’s fiancé Karl (Simon Ward) is a physician at the same asylum where Brandt is being held. When Frankenstein discovers that Karl has been stealing and selling drugs to fund his future mother-in-law’s medical expenses, Frankenstein knows just what to do: blackmail Karl into helping him kidnap Brandt.
I won’t tell you all of what happens next, except that - as usually happens in horror films - something goes wrong. Very wrong, and Frankenstein is forced to change his plans. If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading right now. Go watch the movie and rejoin me.
Freddie Jones, receipient of the worst haircut ever
If you’ve seen the film you know that Dr. Brandt suffers a heart attack while Frankenstein and Karl kidnap him from the asylum. Frankenstein can’t afford to have the knowledge locked in Brandt’s brain die with him, so the Baron additionally seizes Dr. Richter (Freddie Jones), who also works at the asylum. If he can just transplant Brandt’s brain into Richter’s body… Of course we’re left with the problem of what to do with Richter’s brain. Toss it in the street? Give it to some kid? Save it for the next movie? No, put it in Brandt’s (dead) body, then dispose of it. (This could’ve gone so wrong in so many comedic ways, which Mel Brooks clearly recognized.)
More immediate concerns cause Frankenstein to alter his plans. Mrs. Brandt (Maxine Audley), who had been asked to no longer visit her husband at the asylum, learns from Frisch that her husband has been kidnapped. During his questioning of the woman, Frisch learns that Brandt, before he went mad, had been corresponding with Frankenstein. And, walking down the street, Mrs. Brandt passes by Frankenstein and something in her brain (Sorry, couldn’t help myself) tells her she’s seen this man before…
Mrs. Brandt’s tracking down Frankenstein results in one of the more interesting moments in the film. After accusing Frankenstein of driving her husband mad, the Baron proves to her that he has, in fact, restored Brandt’s mind, proving it by having his brain (now in the body of Richter) to send signals to his body, raising his hand in response to Mrs. Brandt’s questions.
We don’t know what’s going on in Frankenstein’s mind during this exchange, but he’s such a master of lies and deception, Mrs. Brandt believes him. Everything the Baron tells her seems to be for her and her husband’s good, and he’s so convincing. She even thanks Karl, whose face displays deep regret for being thanked for something so odious to him. Yet as soon as she leaves, Frankenstein announces to Karl and Anna that they’re packing everything up immediately. Once again, he’s forced to relocate.
Here’s where things get really interesting. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed takes a bold step in allowing the creature (Brandt’s brain in Richter’s body) speech and an intelligent mind, both of which he puts to good use. (I don’t know my Frankenstein films well enough to know whether this is the first time such a device has been used since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original novel, but if so, it’s about time.) In previous films we’ve witnessed a confused creature unsure of his body, the world, and his place in it, desperately making attempts to connect with others, yet always suffering from an inability to communicate freely and clearly. Brandt - intelligent and articulate - is able to do both with respect to his wife, but he’s also intelligent enough to know that any sense of normalcy can never happen. Frankenstein has ruined what was once good in this life, and on a larger scale, what was once good in the world.
This creature not only knows exactly what’s been done to him and why, he also understands that the only way to defeat Frankenstein is through his arrogant pride. Take away the thing he wants the most: the ability to fully transfer brains, thus bringing recognition and glory to himself. Theologically speaking, he’s playing God. Frankenstein really isn’t interested in helping others or advancing the cause of science, but rather promoting himself. Aware of this, Brandt (the creature) knows that destruction is the only way to stop the Baron. Brandt finally gives us a creature that is Frankenstein’s match in every possible way, again, something unique in the Frankenstein canon, yet more in line with the original Mary Shelley novel.
But he is also destroying himself and everything he owns. Thanks to Frankenstein, his relationship to his wife is ruined forever. What, then, does a house matter? What does his life matter when everything that has meaning for him has been ripped from him?
Before we go further, let’s take a closer look at both Frankenstein and Cushing’s performance. Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein here is not only a brilliant scientist, he’s also uncompromisingly driven, arrogant, and odious. We have no sympathy for the character at any point, but Frankenstein eventually passes the point of no return in his corruption, starting with his blackmail of Karl early in the film, his deception of Mrs. Brandt, and especially in raping Anna, a scene which was cut from some versions of the film, restored for the Warner Blu-ray.
Many have cited that the rape scene is unnecessary to the story and should be eliminated (which it was in many cases). Cushing himself was very opposed to the scene as was Carlson, yet Hammer executive James Carreras added the scene, which was not part of the original script, thinking the film needed more sex for American audiences. Carlson, interviewed in 1991 by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio and appearing in the book Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, states,
I couldn’t refuse to do it. Peter was disgusted with the scene, and he didn’t want to do it. Terence Fisher was very understanding, but it was totally embarrassing and humiliating. It gives my character no credence. (p. 310)
I am not suggesting that Carreras was justified filming a scene that was so distasteful and revolting to Carlson and other cast and crew, yet the scene clearly affects Anna’s character throughout the remainder of the film. Without the scene, subsequent moments appear to show her walking in a fog, aimless and clearly not herself with no explanation. None of this makes sense without the rape scene, which has less to do with sex than it does power. If Frankenstein wasn’t content with the power to create life from death (again, playing God), in the frustration of his current situation, he can, with absolutely cruelty, seek to dominate and violate Anna. He will stop at nothing. Ironically, his own creation, Brandt in Richter’s body, will be the instrument of his downfall.
Brandt knows exactly where to strike: at Frankenstein’s pride. The baron cannot imagine his work and legacy going up in flames, but that’s exactly what Brandt does in destroying his own notes as well as his home, creating a legacy of ashes for Frankenstein. Brandt dies, but what does he have left to live for? This climactic scene is powerful, and to be honest, it is the only moment I actually remember from seeing the film as a child. I didn’t understand the significance of Brandt’s choice, yet I knew that the fire which encompassed the entire screen was destroying everything in this poor creature’s life. I knew enough to know that Brandt was a pathetic, miserable creature with no hopes of anything approaching a normal future, and the fact that he was intelligent and able to articulate his thoughts with clarity made him an even more miserable creature.
It also caused me to think of people I knew in my small town who suffered with deformities or were mentally challenged. There was something in Freddie Jones’s performance that conveyed a sorrow for such people, understanding that they were humans like all of us, but different, undeserving of ridicule, scorn, or the worst possible fate, to suffer the indignity of indifference, thus becoming invisible.
Perhaps this line of thought made Cushing’s performance of Frankenstein in this film so repellent. Here’s a man of science and intelligence willing to lie, cheat, steal, and murder, all to bring glory to himself. Add to his crimes the rape of Anna, the blackmail of Karl, and so much more, and we quickly understand the identity of the real monster. Yet Cushing is exceptionally good in this role. I haven’t seen all of his work, but Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed must stand as one of the actor’s finest moments.
Revisiting the film made me examine our purposes, desires, goals. What or who are they for? Are there parts of science should be off-limits? Which ones? Yet these are fundamental thoughts even a seven-year-old (okay, maybe an older kid) could eventually have brought up. More important, perhaps, is an examination of evil, where it comes from, what it seeks to do, and how, why, and when it departs from good. These are questions that have been asked for centuries. The fact that these questions are asked doesn’t necessarily make Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed a great film, but I believe it’s a good one. And it makes me still ask some of the same questions I asked when I was seven.