Six weeks long. Two rehearsals, then the shot. Very rarely more than four takes. That’s all it took on average to make a Hammer horror film. It’s hard to believe so much magic, mastery and intensity was captured in so little time. Take, for instance, the Frankenstein film that many Hammer fans consider the best of the best (at least from the Elstree years): Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Take also into account, just for a moment, that this film (including a beheading, stabbing, brain-swapping, and rape) was released the same year that John Wayne won his only best actor Oscar for True Grit.
It’s a film rife with so many bloody scenes of depravity and violence it’s a wonder it ever saw the light of day at all. This may explain why it has withstood the test of time and has gone on to become one of the most revered pictures in the Hammer canon. Of course, the version we know now (and commonly take for granted) was not the same that was released to audiences in 1969. Now we can watch Terence Fisher’s full, bloody, hatbox of horrors and marvel at the ingenious performances from some of the team’s greatest veterans and bravest recruits.
The lovely Veronica Carlson had already made her debut for Hammer the year before in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). She literally radiates from the screen with beauty (perhaps it’s that sunshiny hair). Her Anna is more like a Prussian girl next door than aristocratic prude. Her scenes alone or with Simon Ward, Freddie Jones and Peter Cushing are what keep the whole film from tipping over entirely into the murky depths of doom. She’s always been an extraordinarily talented actress and an absolute doll-face to boot.
Simon Ward was the new kid on the block. His performance grows throughout the film as he is subjected to the Baron’s increasing cruelty and imposing desires. Ward plays the fifth and penultimate assistant to Cushing’s cunning and sometimes devious Baron and he seems like the youngest, at least in physical appearance. There is a refreshing naivety to him and at times he even appears more angelic than Carlson. It’s easy to see why he was cast in the role.
Enter Jones, Freddie Jones that is, playing the sad and tormented ‘monster’ of the piece. And what a piece if work it is. Jones is quite simply electrifying in his first and best Hammer performance. There’s not an ounce of insincerity in him. He owns it from the get-go. You just know before the Baron’s evil plot has even fully hatched that Freddie is going to be the victim. It’s been cited before that you’d have to go all the way back to Karloff to find a creature with more pathos. I’d have to agree with that astute conclusion and I’d cite one scene in particular between Jones and Maxine Audley (you’ll know when you see it) as being one of the finest and most supreme moments Fisher and company ever put on film. The scene when Jones awakens to discover he’s not quite who he remembered he was is Oscar-worthy in it’s own right. This masterfully cuts to the Baron, the architect of the nightmare, coolly puffing on a cigar by a roaring fire.
That brings us to the man himself, Peter Cushing - nothing short of austere, nothing less than genius, always committed to perfection from the spats on his shoes to the gleam in his eye. Here the Baron graduates to total ruthlessness and uncontrolled homicidal rage. He would have one more go at it (to soften him considerably into madness) before his final Franken-bow but this is the one for which he is most remembered. Perhaps it was past time to shake things up a little
Gone are the conflicted stares at his bewildered assistants in hopes of gaining their confidence. Gone are the moments of reflection or introspection (and the ‘maybe I shouldn’t have done this’ instants). This time out, the only motto that comes to mind is: hell hath no fury. The rape scene, which has been restored, will seem tame by today’s standards, but it’s still heavy stuff. Cushing took Carlson out to dinner before filming it and they discussed how it might play out. Always the gentleman, an innocent at heart, he was constantly concerned for others. Ultimately, I prefer Cushing’s more hardy and hero-like Baron in The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) but he couldn’t keep playing the heavy as somewhat redeemable (he seemed positively paternal in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)). Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed put a permanent end to that particular streak.
Fisher’s tracking shots of the disguised Baron in fancy flight at the beginning are some of the best moments in the whole series. Only Fisher and Cushing could turn simple shots of a man walking into a classic. Then again, there are those who might say this sequence is so good only because it’s the most animated thing in a Terence Fisher film, besides the corpse. Thorley Walters turns up again, this time playing a grumbling inspector instead of a pitch-perfect Renfield or dotty old sidekick. It’s a throwaway part but Walters goes at it full-throttle, perhaps sensing he had to chew what little he could out of the scenery. Geoffrey Bayldon has even less to do as the somewhat reluctant-to-ride-along partner. Windsor Davies is perhaps the most memorable of the bit players as a gruff (go figure) and slightly intimidating police sergeant in one standout scene.
Now for the bad: it’s a little far-fetched, even for a Hammer film. Brain swapping and whatnot; suspension of disbelief is a no-brainer. I was confused as hell the first time I saw this movie as a kid. No doubt I was just as confused watching Wayne in True Grit, but alas. It has aged remarkably well, and it is without a doubt one of the most memorable and respected entries in the series; but maybe I was just slightly confused by the time and setting of this film. Maybe I’m battier than the Baron, but to me there seemed to be an odd sense about the setting that perhaps can only be blamed on the film’s thematic modernism. Still, the Baron’s mention of “Burke and Hare” at one point never ceases to make me smile (Cushing played Dr. Knox nine years earlier in the Burke and Hare-based film, The Flesh and the Fiends).
It doesn’t matter if you actively worship its genuine attributes or simply admire from afar, it’s hard to criticize a film like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, especially outside of the genre. Within the Gothic horror sense, it rises to the top and nearly overshadows the rest. This is dark and dreary stuff, even for a horror/thriller. It stands apart from the series in which it was rooted and reminds us how inventive Fisher could be at times with his usual partners and familiar resources. It’s a shame he only made one more film after this. There’s simply no reason why Fisher should not be as elevated as Hitchcock (The Devil Rides Out can best any Hitchcock film that I’ve ever seen) in terms of directorship. This talk of Fisher being a better technician than an auteur is hogwash. Perhaps no other film exemplifies Fisher’s principle themes of man as organizer of evil and sex meets fable than this one right here.