Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was one of the first Hammer films I ever watched and frankly, I didn’t like it. Looking at it again, I can see that it’s an exceptional movie with a great deal to recommend it — and one glaring flaw. Most horror movies, I suppose, have some element of gratuitous nastiness to them. Where exactly the line is drawn between ‘enjoyable awfulness’ and ‘no, no, no’ is very much up to the individual viewer. But for me, the rape scene in this film leaves such a bitter taste that I can only enjoy the movie by skipping over it.
I’m sorry to get ahead of myself, but I’ll just talk about it here, so I can get it out of the way, and if you’d rather not read about it at all you can just jump ahead a paragraph. The scene in question involves Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) violently sexually assaulting his landlady, Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson). By all accounts, this was a late addition to the movie forced upon the filmmakers by the American distributor. Carlson, Cushing and director Terrence Fisher all objected to the scene, and with good cause. It adds precisely nothing to the film in terms of plot or theme and is detrimental in terms of characterization. Rape is, unfortunately, a part of the human condition and as such I don’t think it should be off limits to portray it in fiction. But, holy crap, how it is portrayed matters. Just throwing a rape scene in as a cheap throwaway shock is a bad move on so, so many levels.
Anyway, on to the rest of the movie. Destroyed follows Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein at his most outrageously villainous. He’s moved on from ‘occasional murder when necessary’ to effectively becoming a serial killer to satisfy his demand for human organs for his experiments. Driven out of his lab by the unexpected interference of a petty criminal, Frankenstein is forced to search for a new lair. Pursued (slowly and ineffectively) by comedy relief policemen lead by Thorley Waters, he stays at the (ridiculously plush) boarding house of Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson), sharing the place with some of his fellow medical men — who he naturally finds ridiculous.
Frankenstein discovers that Anna’s boyfriend, Karl (Simon Ward), has been stealing drugs from the mental hospital where he works, in order to pay for Anna’s mother’s medical treatment. He immediately begins blackmailing Anna and Karl. He forces out the other residents, turns the basement into a lab and forces Karl to be his assistant/accomplice.
The Baron’s plan is to free a former associate and current mental patient named Dr Brandt. Frankenstein and Brandt had been working on a scheme for brain transplants, but Brandt was driven mad by his discoveries and is now virtually catatonic. Frankenstein and Karl free Brandt, but Brandt has a heart attack during the escape. Naturally, Frankenstein transplants Brandt’s brain into a new body, at the same time surgically curing Brandt’s mental illness.
After a long sequence about trying to stay ahead of the police, Dr Brandt (now played by Freddie Jones) awakes. He attempts to convince Anna that he means no harm, but she freaks out and stabs him with a scalpel. Brandt escapes, injured. Cushing is furious at Anna and murders her.
The injured Brandt returns to his house, where with difficulty he convinces his wife of his identity. She agrees to get out of the way while Brandt has his revenge on the Baron. When Frankenstein arrives, Brandt is waiting for him. There follows one of the best conclusions to any Hammer movie, as Brandt manipulates the Baron into a deadly battle of wits for possession of his scientific papers. Victor nearly escapes with the forbidden scientific knowledge and his life, but with the unexpected help of Karl, Brandt defeats him. The film ends with Brandt dragging the screaming Baron into a burning house.
I may have mentioned my theory about the Hammer Frankenstein movies – namely, that only the first film (1956’s Curse of Frankenstein) is a pure Frankenstein story. The series remains fresh over the years by adding different horror tropes to the basic Frankenstein story. Revenge of Frankenstein adds the vampire genre, with the Baron rising from a graveyard and sustaining himself with the lives of his social inferiors. Evil of Frankenstein combines Frankenstein with a Dr Caligari-like character in the form of Zoltan. Frankenstein Created Woman is in many ways a ghost story and Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, pitting the Baron against his non-evil doppelganger.
The backstory of Brandt and Frankenstein is the biggest clue to this. The implication is that they began as fairly similar characters. Partway through the film, we see an editorial cartoon attacking their work, depicting them both as vultures grinning at a pile of corpses – literally birds of a feather. Both men are brilliant, and both were driven mad by their work – the difference being that Frankenstein’s madness is a compulsion to continue his gristly work, while Brandt’s madness forced him to turn away.
Brandt’s relationship with women is shown as much healthier than Frankenstein’s. Even ignoring the scene-we-will-not-speak-of, Cushing often depicts Frankenstein as charming to women but also contemptuous of them; while Brandt’s genuine concern for his wife is obvious. Each man turns a house into a chamber of horrors, but even here there are differences. Frankenstein takes over someone else’s house and turns it into a place of cruelty, manipulation and carnage, while Brandt turns his own house into a place of righteous retribution.
In short, Brandt is Frankenstein with a conscience — or Frankenstein is Brandt without one, take your pick. And it makes sense – in all his appearances, Cushing’s Frankenstein has been defeated many times, but never before in a straight-up battle of wits. And who could possibly beat the Baron in such a battle except the Baron himself? Like many Frankenstein movies Destroyed ends in flames — but this time it’s as if Baron Frankenstein is being dragged into Hell by the avatar of his own better nature. It’s genuinely powerful stuff.
But… what is it that Frankenstein and Brandt did wrong? What forbidden experiment sent them spiraling into madness?
This is where it gets a little weird. According to Victor, he and Brandt were working on was brain transplantation. It’s a little difficult to imagine now, but this film was made was a time when transplantation surgery was controversial. The first successful heart transplant took place in December 1967, meaning that it – and the debates surrounding it — were still big news in 1968 when Destroyed was in production. The idea of heart transplantation blurs the line between ‘life’ and ‘death’ to a point that many people found uncomfortable. Jurisdictions around the world grappled with whether to allow the procedure. While the lionisation of pioneering heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard began early, he also had his detractors. Add this to the fact that Barnard was working in Apartheid-era South Africa and all that implies, and it’s understandable that what’s now seen as a heroic medical success was then considered somewhat more murky and questionable.
(As an aside, the British satirical magazine Private Eye made some very unsavoury allegations about Barnard’s work in the late ’60s. I know this because I used to own a decaying collection of articles from said magazine. Emphasis on used to – I’ve got no idea where it is now. An attempt on my part to track down a non-paywalled version of this article has turned up nothing, so I’m not 100% sure what it was they considered questionable about Barnard. I do remember that the article was illustrated with a caricature of Barnard as a vulture, pulling a man’s heart from his chest with his beak. The similarity to the caricature of Frankenstein and Brandt might be coincidental… but it also might not be.)
Getting back to the film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed takes this uncertainty surrounding transplantation and turns it into body horror. There’s a standard trope in Frankenstein movies where the Monster sees itself for the first time and we see its pathetic reaction to its appearance. Destroyed makes this fresh, because Brandt knows exactly what is going on. It’s a beautiful performance, mixing surprise and resignation. The moment he looks at his hands, Brandt knows what’s happened to him. Finding the scar on his head and looking in a mirror just confirms what he already knows – but it still hurts when it happens.
There’s a lot to like in Destroyed. It’s not the last Hammer Frankenstein, or even the last good Hammer Frankenstein, but it’s the last very good one. The supporting cast is excellent, in spite of the inconsequential nature of Thorley Water’s entire subplot. Cushing’s Frankenstein here is at his most chilling – a completely cold-blooded manipulator without a shred of decency. Jones is definitely Cushing’s most memorable adversary. In another review, I lamented that Cushing’s Frankenstein could never go up against Cushing’s van Helsing. Jones’ Brandt is as close to this dream as I’ll ever get.
As always, the sets and costumes are wonderful. There are a couple of odd elements, like cocaine being somehow illegal in the nineteenth century and an abdominal injury with a small scalpel being instantly fatal. But honestly the film’s earned enough goodwill to let those issues pass.