Image B Sound B+
starring Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward
screenplay by Bert Batt
directed by Terence Fisher
by Jefferson Robbins I've wondered for a long time why I love the Hammer Film takes on the Universal monsters. I discovered them in my youth, so there's the nostalgia thing; and they typically involve stuff a young man loves: disfigurement, cleavage, viscera, cleavage, death. But the communion is somehow deeper than that. Guillermo del Toro describes his youthful exposure to creature features in the language of a Catholic embracing Jesus: "At a certain age, I accepted monsters in my heart." Yeah.
I think at bottom, I've always found Hammer's creatures realistic. That's a strange thing to say about staggering mummies and lesbian vampiresses, but actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee seldom brought anything other than their A-game to these often-low-rent enterprises, and their portrayals earned them sainthood in my cinematic pantheon. Terence Fisher's Frankenstein films for Hammer eschewed the Universal (and Mary Shelley) presentation of Baron Frankenstein as an obsessive neurasthenic, instead depicting a scientist of will and fortitude whose only handicap is the lesser men surrounding him. On blogger Chris Braak's taxonomy of monsters, his motivation falls somewhere between ego and superego.
If you wanted an actor to convey this kind of genteel but commanding brilliance, Peter Cushing was your guy, his performances more physical than you probably remember. His eyes are razors. Across six films, Cushing's Frankenstein is neither cackling-mad nor tormented-mad; he's beyond classification. All his fellow humans' dreams, desires, and fears are as consequential to him as a fart from a mosquito. No matter how many corpses he stitches up and sends out on a rampage, Frankenstein himself remains the real monster.
Thus Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Hammer's fifth Frankenstein film and the fourth to be directed by Fisher, paints the good Baron as a blackmailer, thief, murderer, rapist, and pompous houseguest, on top of the graverobbing and God's-domain-tampering inherent to his nature. Fleeing his latest lab disaster, Frankenstein falls in with young asylum physician Karl Holst (Simon Ward), who's in over his head trying to provide for fiancée Anna (Veronica Carlson). The frustrated Baron hopes to freeze the brains of dying geniuses for future use, preserving the same sort of intellect that makes him special in his own right. A disabled scientist in Holst's care holds the key.
Frankenstein enters the film at loose ends, and he uses every force at his command to re-establish control over his environment. To secure his grip on Holst, he rapes Anna--a scene characterized today as a last-minute addition to the film, one that Cushing and Carlson allegedly played under protest but that works in context. Everyone who falls into Frankenstein's orbit becomes a victim--even or especially the damaged scientist, whose brain Frankenstein cures only to transplant it into the body of Freddie Jones. Jones affectingly plays two different characters, and his "Creature" is hardly a creature at all, but a good man deeply wronged, seizing on the monster's traditional nemesis--fire--as the instrument of his revenge.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed lacks the psychosexual charge of Hammer's first entry in this series, The Curse of Frankenstein, and its guignol yields the stage too much of the time to graverobbing intrigue, such as the inconvenient re-emergence of a corpse thought disposed-of. There's not much splatter here--unlike the concluding film in the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, with its gooey eyeball-squishings and crowning, bloody dismemberment.* But it's concerned with the way wrongdoing radiates to poison the most distant innocents. Note how the addled scientist's wife (Maxine Audley) suffers at three different removes from her husband--first alienated by his madness, then speaking to him through a dressing screen while he converses through the mouth of another man. Crying out for the comeuppance of the title, Baron Frankenstein blights the lives of people he's never met.
Warner's 2004 DVD release of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed uses a chalky but lovely print singing with Hammer's trademark attention to colour process, which offers bloody reds and fleshy fleshtones. Unfortunately, the 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced image is beset by an intermittent fleck in the lower left-hand corner of the frame that suggests a lens aberration in its fixed placement and the way it will persist for the duration of shots. The Dolby 1.0 mono sound does what it must, granting room to the James Bernard score and allowing for subtleties in the foley work, like the skreeee of Frankenstein's scalpel circumscribing a skull. There's a refreshing lack of startup nonsense on loading--it's straight to the main menu, where the only extra awaiting you is the customarily overwrought theatrical trailer. Originally published: February 23, 2010.