Baron Frankenstein moves into a boarding house and takes over the lives of the lovely proprietor and her fiancé, a doctor who is illegally selling drugs he has stolen from the mental hospital where he is employed. Using blackmail, extortion and even physical violence, the Baron forces the couple to help him complete his experiments in the preservation of the human brain after the death of the body.
In his fifth turn as Victor Frankenstein, Peter Cushing is chillingly sadistic, a completely ruthless and amoral fiend with virtually no redeeming qualities, save his charm and a tendency to wittily dress down bureaucrats and aristocratic fools. Having suffered so many setbacks and interruptions in his work by this point, he has become so determined to complete his experiments that he murders innocents without a second thought, manipulates everyone he comes in contact with, and even commits rape when his physical lusts need an outlet after a hard day in the lab. At this point in Hammer’s long-running series, the Baron himself is the monster, his patchwork creations as much victims of his diabolical schemes as the people terrorized and killed in the process. Close examination of the entire series, however, will show that this cruel and unrepentant Frankenstein is actually closer to Cushing’s performance in the first entry, 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, than generally acknowledged. In that film, the good doctor murdered a brilliant colleague by pushing him over a balcony, forced his friend to continue to help with his experiments through threats and intimidation, and falsely promised marriage to a servant girl (who he later purposefully “feeds” to his murderous monster) so that he could enjoy an illicit affair with her until his true betrothed arrives. Taken in context, the despicable evil of the Baron in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED isn’t as big a leap from his past character as film historians and critics often indicate. He displays none of the fleeting moments of compassion shown in some of the entries in between, but he’s still the same old Victor he’s always been.
The supporting cast is typically good. Thorley Walters is great fun as Inspector Frisch, a somewhat absent-minded detective investigating the trail of death and carnage that Frankenstein leaves in his wake. This character is an effective pressure valve for the audience, lightening the mood and relieving the considerable tension created by the ghastly string of horrific events leading to the fiery climax. Freddie Jones starts the film as Professor Richter, director of the mental hospital, but ends up the unwitting recipient of the brain of poor Dr. Brandt (initially played by George Pravda), a former colleague of Frankenstein’s who went mad keeping a secret vital to the Baron’s work. Jones’ Brandt is heartbreaking and tragic, a man who knows he should not be alive and must suffer agonizing rejection by his beloved wife (Maxine Audley), who cannot accept her husband’s mind in another man’s body. Simon Ward is the only weak link in the cast, playing the doctor forced to help Frankenstein break Brandt out of the institution and perform the brain transplant. Though serviceable, Ward’s performance is not particularly emotional or sympathetic. As such, he’s upstaged by most of his costars, including Veronica Carlson.
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED was the beautiful Carlson’s second Hammer film, and it is by far her best work for the studio. As Anna Spengler, she is sympathetic and vulnerable, a character caught up in a nightmare simply because she allowed her concern for a loved one (she and Ward’s Karl are selling the stolen narcotics to pay for her ailing mother’s medical treatment) to lead her down a criminal path. From the start, Frankenstein singles out Anna as the focus of much of his manipulation, and it is she who suffers the most. Carlson has never looked more stunning or sexy than she does here, but it is her oft-overlooked acting prowess which makes this her top turn for Hammer. The terror and revulsion she feels at the horrible sights she is forced to witness and the powerlessness she conveys throughout are thoroughly convincing. The Baron’s physical and psychological torture of Anna and her fiancé is so overwhelming, and her reaction to it so real, that the audience cannot help but hope for her escape. Her ordeal ends in tragedy, further enhancing a great performance and making Anna Spengler one of the most pitiable and memorable Hammer heroines.
There are too many great moments in this film to cover in one review, but a few must be mentioned to demonstrate the movie’s macabre power. In the opening sequence, the unseen Baron uses a scythe to decapitate a passing physician on a public sidewalk. He returns to his lab with the head and finds a thief on the premises, and we see that Frankenstein’s face is a horrific, hairless mass of scar tissue. Before he kills the intruder, however, he pulls off the hideous face, revealing that it is really a latex mask. Later, Anna is passing the garden at the boarding house when an underground water pipe breaks, sending a torrent of water up through the freshly worked soil. Unfortunately, the leak is right under a body that has been buried in the garden, flailing arms bursting up from the dirt as though the cadaver were still alive and trying to escape its shallow grave. The tense climax has the vengeful Brandt playing a cruel game with Frankenstein, having placed his secret in a folder on a desk but setting every entrance to the study (and exit from the house) ablaze one by one before his former friend can get there. These tense and terrifying bits only scratch the surface. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is packed with more chills and grisly humor than the four films that preceded it in the series combined.
The most controversial element of the movie is a scene in which Frankenstein, spying the voluptuous Anna changing into a low-cut nightgown through her open bedroom door, enters the room and rapes her. Most of the cast and crew subsequently denounced this scene, arguing that it was too cruel and exploitative even for a movie this brutal. While it is certainly repugnant, it is also quite chilling and, as noted, more consistent with the Baron’s character than most Hammer fans contend. His sexual appetite firmly established in CURSE (and alluded to by the “improvements” he makes to the scarred Christina in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN), there is no reason to believe that Frankenstein would be oblivious to his hostess’ incredible sex appeal in this entry, and his physical assault of her only increases his control over both her and Karl. The fact is that Frankenstein is the undisputed villain of this film, and this particular act of villainy, while certainly unforgivable, is hardly more diabolical than chopping heads off innocent pedestrians with a garden implement. One consistent element of the cinematic Frankenstein mythos and the creature feature genre as a whole is the notion of the monster lusting after a beautiful girl. Well, monsters don’t get much more monstrous – and girls certainly don’t get much more beautiful – than the one showcased in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. In this case, the monster simply opts to act on his lecherous desires.
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED embodies the very best of Hammer Films. It’s frightening, gory, sexy and perversely funny. From its fantastic title to its compelling, charismatic stars, it is a perfect example of why British horror ruled the day in the 1960s. Bursting bodices and bloody brains, presented with gorgeous gothic authenticity and a macabre spirit of fun and irreverence are the hallmarks of the films of Terence Fisher and his brethren in the United Kingdom of that decade. Here, Fisher delivers what might just be the perfect Frankenstein outing, a supremely suspenseful, delightfully ghoulish concoction worthy of watching again and again.