Another in the ongoing series looking at the individual movies that make up the SLIFR Top 100.
Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page*. But in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. They specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare that touched on all tones and subject matter, but found their greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output. They embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable, and their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were directed by Fisher (and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee). Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.
By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing) and seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hi-jinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder on those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high.
(The previous entry, The Evil of Frankenstein, was director Freddie Francis' first contribution to the Hammer monster cycle-- he had previously directed Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and Nightmare (1964) for the studio. Unfortunately, Evil was largely content to rehash the motif of the monster lumbering through the countryside which, aided not at all by the series’ worst make-up effects, assured that Evil would be generally considered to occupy a spot near the bottom of Hammer’s Frankenstein well.)
Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In fact, whereas in previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. In Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even through the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation. This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein has to dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.
Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.
Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer stock siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates other medical professionals for their dismissive attitude toward his own experiments conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD release, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).
Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) It was, I’m sure, the first time I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of head from body courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) Upon seeing it again as an adult, what it seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive. He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a silk changing curtain as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.
Other recommended Terence Fisher/Hammer films:
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The Mummy (1959)
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
The Gorgon (1964)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Island of Terror (1966)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Thanks to cinephile par excellence Peter Nellhaus for the clarification re The Last Page. Peter also recommends those interested in Fisher check out Four-Sided Triangle.