The Hammer film company would eventually make six Frankenstein films starring the venerable Peter Cushing, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the second to last of them. Unlike Universal's Frankenstein monster films of three decades earlier, Hammer had so much confidence in their Baron Frankenstein that they let him carry this film by himself. It's tough to disagree: Cushing makes any production classier by his intense screen presence and professionalism, whether it be Star Wars or Horror Express.
In an unnamed vaguely German town, a sneak thief breaks into an underground laboratory, only to be confronted by a horrible monster. The thief flees after it becomes obvious that the monster was carrying a severed head. Once alone, the monster rips off his face, revealing the hideous skeletal visage of... Peter Cushing!
"So he switched my brain, did he have
to make me look like Bob Hoskins?"
Okay, Cushing isn't quite as thin as he would in appear in films made just a few years down the road (Dracula 1972 A.D. comes to mind), but he still looks a little scrawny to be engaging strangers in unarmed combat. In this film, however, Baron Frankenstein kicks major ass. Traditionally, people think of Frankenstein as being kind of wimpy, all the better to contrast with the hideous strength of the brute monster he creates. Sure, there are exceptions. Colin Clive's Frankenstein managed to survive to appear in Bride of Frankenstein, despite being thrown from atop a windmill, but this probably had more to do with Universal's studio contract system than with resilience on the good doctor's part. Kenneth Branagh played some strange version of the doctor that seemed to be melded with Fabio in Not Really Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But they all pale compared to Cushing's Baron. Despite being built like Calista Flockhart, the Baron subdues men half his age, breaks into heavily guarded mental asylums, blackmails people with impunity, and even beheads someone off screen. For an encore, we expected him to grip a knife in his teeth and wrestle a shark.
Forced to flee the unnamed, vaguely German town he was using for a base of operations, Frankenstein relocates to another unnamed, vaguely German town. There he meets Anna (Veronica Carlson), the owner of a small boarding house, and her fiance Dr. Karl Holt (Simon Ward), who works as a doctor at a local asylum. Conveniently, the asylum houses Frankenstein's former collaborator, Dr. Frederick Brandt, who has gone mad from the stress of developing a method of transplanting brains from one body to another.
"I'm sorry, but Dantoonine was too
remote to make an effective demonstration."
Of course, you can't even mention the possibility of brain transplantation in a movie without one such procedure taking place, so the screenwriter whips up a complicated set of circumstances to make it necessary. Frankenstein discovers that Karl is stealing drugs from the asylum pharmacy to provide for Anna's ailing mother, and thus is able to blackmail Anna into evicting her other tenants (he needs the space for a new laboratory) while forcing Karl to become the new Igor. We wish we could tell you that he develops a hump in his back and begins to speak like Peter Lorre, but alas, that doesn't happen.
The brain transplant? We're getting there. While Dr. F can perform straight one-to-one noggin swaps, Dr. Brandt perfected a method of preserving a brain outside of a host body. Dr. F desperately needs this technology so that a future generation of horror films featuring disembodied brains might be made. So into the asylum he goes, kidnapping Brandt with Karl's assistance. In addition to being a right good re-animator and smashing brain-switcher, Frankenstein has also learned to cure madness with surgery. So with all the seriousness of a manicure, he transplants Brandt's brain from his own ailing corpus into the body of another doctor (Freddie Jones) so that Brandt might live until the surgery to cure the madness can be performed.
"No, I didn't give him a bigger one of those."
Of course the disappearance of two prominent doctors doesn't go unnoticed, even if one of them is mad. In addition, Karl's procurement of certain medical equipment for the doctor's experiments involved murdering a night watchman or two, so it's only a matter of time before the police come a-knockin' at Anna's door. Frankenstein and his two hapless lackeys disappear into the countryside, where Brandt will presumably give up his secret and Dr. F's ambitions will be finally fulfilled.
No one in a Hammer horror film can ever get what they really want, so of course the newly sane Brandt has other plans. As a brain transplantee, he sees the horror of all this slinging around of gray matter, and so departs from Dr. F's company, accidentally killing Anna in the process. In the meantime, Karl has grown a spine, so he finds himself mixing it up with Frankenstein in a nearby stable while Brandt makes his getaway. Brandt of course goes running home to his wife, who doesn't recognize the man with the strange head wound who claims to be her husband....
"I knew asking Ash to give me
a haircut was a bad idea"
What really sets Hammer films apart from their competition is the seriousness with which everyone involved engages in their business. The writers, asked to resurrect tired old Victor Frankenstein for another go, don't settle for a hackneyed retread of the monster. Instead, this re-imagined Dr. F branches out into other fields of research, still homing in on the freakish advance of medicine, but no longer so obsessed with creating life. It's a good way of bringing back an old character but giving him new things to do.
British actors, God love 'em, put as much effort into schlocky sci-fi/horror flicks as they do high-brow mystery or drama productions; the result is a heightened sense of realism in a fantasy story. Peter Cushing delivers a couple of terrific speeches as only Peter Cushing could. Cushing really sounds like a mad scientist, an illusion supported by actors like Freddie Jones and Hammer regulars like Veronica Carlson.
Most of all we were struck by the novelty of a Frankenstein movie that doesn't feature a monster. The climax, in which Frankenstein and Brandt engage in a battle of wits (but in a tip of the hat to tradition, it does take place in burning house), is not what one expects from a Frankenstein film. Hats (or heads) off to Hammer, for reminding us that Frankenstein has not been destroyed, even after all these years.