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, will have some element of gratuitous nastiness to them. Where exactly the line goes between ‘enjoyable awfulness’ and ‘no, no, no’ goes is 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 fast forwarding 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 skip 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 it in as a cheap throwaway shock is a bad move on 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 need 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) by the comedy relief police lead by Thorley Waters, he stays at the (ridiculously plush) boarding house of Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson), which he shares with some 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 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 accomplice/assistant.
The Baron’s plan is to free a former associate and current mental patient named Dr Brandt. The pair 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, who has a heart attack during the escape. Naturally, Frankenstein transplants his 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 leave. 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 battle of wits for possession of his scientific papers – and his life. With the unexpected help of Karl, Brandt wins. The film ends with him 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 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 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 Frankenstein in such a battle except Frankenstein 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?
This is where it gets a little weird. According to Frankenstein, what he and Brandt were working on was brain transplantation. It’s a little difficult to imagine now, but this 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 had his detractors. Add to the fact that he 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 they considered questionable about Barnard, but 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, he knows what’s happened to him. Finding the scar on his head, and looking in a mirror just confirms what he already knows – but is 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 ultimate 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.