Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys
Starring Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Thorley Walters, Maxine Audley, and George Pravda
Peter Cushing starred as Baron Frankenstein in six Hammer films, which is an awful lot of appearances as the same character. You might expect that as the series went on he’d start phoning in his performances, but if so then you don’t know Peter Cushing. Not only was he a consummate professional, but Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed — the fifth in the series — is 98% of his best turn as the relentless Baron.
For this outing, Frankenstein has been forced to relocate due to the discovery of his lab. He settles on the boarding house of Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson), which he quickly assumes control over through blackmail. Once the other tenants are forced out it’s back to grisly business, with Anna’s fiancé Dr. Karl Holst (Simon Ward) forced to assist in operations and acquisitions. Frankenstein needs just one thing to perfect his technique: the formula for freezing cells, developed by Dr. Frederick Brandt (George Pravda) before losing his mind.
Simple, right? It hardly matters. There are only two important things in a Hammer Frankenstein: the surgeries and Baron Frankenstein himself. As to the first, the effects are tame by today’s standards but generally solid. There’s some scalp cutting and head sawing, and a fun trepanation scene. The blood is, as usual, a garish crimson — but that’s a feature, not a bug. The only sour note is an awful severed head that rolls out of a box in the opening sequence. It… it isn’t convincing, I’ll leave it at that.
Frankenstein, though. Cushing delivers a superlative performance this time out, and it’s not as though he hadn’t been good before. It’s just that in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed he gets some fantastic character moments, through which he can fully convey Frankenstein’s obsessive personality. Perhaps the best takes place in Spengler’s parlor, before the other tenants are evicted. It’s a pivotal scene, because it’s where Frankenstein learns that his friend Brandt is in the asylum. The conversation that reveals this tidbit leads to a broad condemnation of both Brandt and Frankenstein for their macabre experiments. The Baron naturally takes offense, but the way he expresses it is with the savagery of mannered indignation.
Frankenstein: I wasn’t aware you were doctors.
Resident: We’re not.
Frankenstein: I’m sorry. I thought you knew what you were talking about.
Frankenstein’s contempt for others comes from his preoccupation with conquering death, which fuels his ego as a master surgeon. He doesn’t have patience for anyone who distracts his mission or detracts his methods. In short, people are either assisting him or in his way; he has no other mode of interaction, and his inability to comprehend the emotions and drives of others is typically what leads to his downfall. He has a somewhat tenuous grasp on what motivates Spengler and Holst, but his utter failure to understand Brandt is disastrous. Because his character is fully exposed in this story, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the film that defines Cushing’s Frankenstein, his strengths, and his weaknesses.
Unfortunately, it’s also the movie that includes an inserted rape scene, grafted onto the story with palpable embarrassment. Even before reading about the studio’s demand to put in a rape to sex up the movie, I could tell that it didn’t belong. For one thing, Cushing displays reluctance to close the door and initiate the assault. It’s over very quickly, cutting as soon as Frankenstein positions Spengler on the bed. Then it’s never mentioned again. There was no purpose, and it had no effect. Spengler acted no differently afterward than she had before, and there was no attempt to so much as hint to Holst that anything had occurred. Management wanted it there, so in it went with as little effort as possible.
My advice is to just shake your head sadly when that scene plays. It’s a blemish on an otherwise great film. Think of it as a cinematic beauty mark, setting off the beauty of the whole.