RECENT POST FROM THE BLACK BOX CLUB

Monday, 11 March 2013

FEATURE AND GALLERY: 'TRUST ME, I'M A DOCTOR' PETER CUSHING AND VERONICA CARLSON : HAMMER FILMS: FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)


In 1969, Hammer Films was in a precarious position. The company had long occupied a secure position in the British film industry, with one box office success after another. They had helped to revitalize the public’s interest in Gothic horror, and in the process they helped to make Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee icons of the genre. However, change was in the air - and Hammer simply wasn’t prepared to deal with it. 1968 saw the release of two watershed horror films, each signalling a major shift in the genre as a whole. On the one end of the spectrum, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Polish expatriate Roman Polanski, showed that horror was no longer the province of B-level filmmaking.

 
At the opposite end, Pittsburgh-based George A. Romero demonstrated what spit, polish, no small amount of technical know-how and sheer determination could do in lieu of adequate resources with Night of the Living Dead. The former demonstrated that it was possible for horror movies to be blockbuster successes, even netting Oscar nominations (and one win) in the process. The latter signalled a new interest in graphic violence. If Hammer previously seemed edgy, they suddenly seemed quaint. Even in the UK, rival company Tigon Productions managed to out-Hammer Hammer with their brutal expose of one of the darkest chapters of British history, in Witchfinder General. Up until that point, Hammer was still espousing the natural superiority of good versus evil; these films rejected quaint moralizing in favor of painting a grimmer portrait of fate and its wrong doings. Hammer held firm in their conviction that audiences were still interested in Dracula and Frankenstein films, however, and while box office receipts would begin to taper off, they managed to deliver a late period return to form with their latest instalments in these respective franchises: Taste the Blood of Dracula and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Of the two, however, only the latter seems genuinely in-tune with the pessimism of the era.


The screenplay by long time assistant director Bert Batt, with some assistance from associate producer Anthony Nelson Keys (as well as some uncredited input by director Terence Fisher), is uncommonly complex, especially in light of Anthony Hinds’ more genteel approach to the subject matter in The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1966). Here, the Baron (Cushing) has been reduced to the status of villain - but given the world he inhabits, one is reluctant to fall back on such labels. The hypocrisy of the society at large is exposed at every turn, with the indignant Baron seizing every opportunity to exploit those around him in the effort to find a final validation in his work. After the more overtly fantastical narrative leaps of Frankenstein Created Woman - wherein the Baron is engaged in the transplantation of human souls - he is here “merely” concerned with advanced brain surgery. Looking to pick the brain of a colleague driven to insanity by the derision of his colleagues, the Baron determines to abduct said colleague from the madhouse and transplant his brain into the body of another scientist. In so doing, he hopes to cure the colleague’s insanity - and have concrete, living proof of the validity of their research and years of hard work. Needless to say, it does not go well…


In Hammer’s original “crack” at Mary Shelley’s story, The Curse of Frankenstein, the Baron was presented as a dandy with a sadistic streak - a sort of spoiled child desperate for attention at any cost, and one who is willing to stoop to anything to prove his genius to the world. The character evolved through the ensuing entries, with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster bringing the story to an effective close in the very first sequel, Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), which climaxes with the Baron - whose close brush with the guillotine has made him a kinder, more tolerant individual - literally becoming his own creation. Sangster refused the option to continue writing Frankenstein sequels, and his successor, producer/writer Anthony Hinds, really had nowhere to go - but back to the drawing board. He effectively rebooted the series with Evil of Frankenstein, making the Baron into something of a hero in the process. The trend continued with Frankenstein Created Woman, but things take a far darker turn in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Whether by accident or by design, Batt and his collaborators created a take on the character which was far more in tune with Sangster’s, and the end result can certainly be viewed as something of a denouement to the initial saga.


Director Terence Fisher brings his A game to the proceedings. Fisher often referred to this as his favorite of the films he directed, and it’s easy to see why. Despite a few narrative hiccups - more on that in a moment - he displays a customarily sure and steady hand with plot and character development. Fisher’s horror films work because he makes the audience believe in them - they are not overly fantastical or even stylized in nature, and even if the situations the characters are in are outlandish, how they react within them seems totally credible. As a stylist, Fisher tended to be more “prosaic” than some of his contemporaries within the genre, but his decision to foreground emotion and characterization over baroque affect was definitely a conscious one. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed sees him working from a screenplay he cared passionately about, and he responds with some of the most exquisite and beautifully rendered staging and blocking of his career. Interestingly, the film came at something of a lull in his life and career - he had been denied the opportunity to continue the Dracula series with Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), owing to an alcohol-related traffic accident. After a period of enforced rest and rehabilitation, he clearly attacked Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed with the renewed vigor of an artist with something to say. Sadly, for Fisher, the comeback would prove short-lived - after the release of this film, he found himself in exactly the same position (the story goes that he had a love of playing “chicken” with passing cars while he was drinking; advancing age didn’t improve his speed), and he would only be able to complete one more feature - Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1972) - before spending his remaining years in enforced retirement. He died in 1980. 


The cast assembled is absolutely perfect, and Fisher definitely deserves credit in this as well. Cushing was, of course, the only man to carry the picture - and it can be argued that this was his finest screen performance. The character, as written, is complex and rife with potential - and Cushing exploits every nuance to its full effect. The Baron’s ability to turn on the charm, thus masking his moral deterioration, comes through very strongly, notably during the scene where he puts off a concerned woman with unctuous assurances that her husband is safe and sound - only to close the door and turn into a steely close-up, barking orders to his compatriots that they need to get the hell out of dodge (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea). The Baron remains every bit the fastidious dandy conceived in the initial entries, but he has no difficulty resorting the blackmail, murder, even rape (more on that, as well!) to achieve his ends. In order to assist with his venture, he enlists the aid of a pitiable couple played by Simon Ward and Veronica Carlson. 


The recently deceased Ward was apparently hired by Fisher himself, who had seen the young actor in a television play. Ward brings considerably more depth to the role than the usual bland stooge who is duped into assisting the Baron. Carlson was then riding high as Hammer’s new “star discovery,” having already appeared opposite Christopher Lee in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. In addition to possessing beautiful looks and a killer body, Carlson also had genuine acting ability - she was used more for decorative purposes in Risen, perhaps, but she really comes into her own here. Fisher’s other casting master stroke was Freddie Jones, later to become something of a favorite of iconic “cult” filmmaker David Lynch, who would cast him in The Elephant Man, Dune, and Wild at Heart. Jones, a twitchy, idiosyncratic character actor of the Charles Laughton school, could slice ham with the best of them - but when properly reigned in, as he is here, he was capable of tremendous depth. He plays the Baron’s latest “creature,” and he is arguably the saddest and most heart-rending of them all. 


The narrative proceeds smoothly, but for the intrusion of some rather gratuitous police procedural scenes. These scenes really seem to have no narrative justifcation beyond allowing Fisher favorite Thorley Walters an opportunity to inject some humor into the proceedings. True, this is a very grim film - but the scenes in question do little but restate the obvious; tellingly, the subplot is dropped before the climax


Much has been written about the inclusion of a rape scene, and while it is definitely an uncomfortable sequence, it does not feel like a hasty, last minute addition. Carlson, for her part, has always maintained that it was added in at the behest of Hammer executive Sir James Carreras, who felt the film needed some “sex appeal.” The notion of adding a rape scene for sex appeal is, of course, the epitome of bad taste. Carlson has always pointed to her character’s reactions to the Baron, following the assault, as proof of her argument. Truthfully, her reactions seem entirely in keeping with what has happened, as she reacts with fear and revulsion towards the Baron from that point on. It could be that Carlson simply wasn’t keen on the scene from the start, but it seems unlikely that it was added in so hastily. Not only is the scene appropriately harrowing, but there is nothing leering in how it is staged; there isn’t even any nudity on display, and Hammer was already flirting with adding such material into their films, as evidenced by Taste the Blood of Dracula. While the scene was removed from US prints for a number of years, it is now visible in seemingly every home video release of the film. One can theorize as much as one wants, but to this reviewer the scene seems wholly consistent with the film’s depiction of the Baron - for whom this is an act of cruelty and control, not of lust - and if anybody had a mind to tack it on for the purposes of crass exploitation, it does not come across that way in Fisher’s handling of the material.


In addition to a strong script and stellar performances, the film is graced with excellent production values. By 1970, Hammer’s QC would be on the decline - as evidenced by such bargain basement productions as Scars of Dracula, Lust for a Vampire and The Horror of Frankenstein - but at this stage in the game, they were still able to offer real production gloss. The film marked the final work of Hammer’s great production designer Bernard Robinson, whose abilities to craft a silk purse out of the proverbial sow’s ear was as instrumental as anything in establishing the Hammer aesthetic. He delivers some realistically detailed sets, and the Baron’s makeshift “mad labs” are in keeping with the more grounded approach. James Bernard contributes one of his finest soundtracks, as well. From the pounding opening theme to the final, triumphant strains as all hell breaks loose, he complements the mood and action beautifully. Cinematographer Arthur Grant, normally given to the efficient rather than the inspired, provides some excellent, low key lighting. Together with Fisher’s keen sense of framing and camera movement, the lighting helps to give the film a strong sense of mood and atmosphere.


Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed may not have capped the series altogether, but it is, in a sense, the ultimate “final word” in all things Frankenstein, at least so far as Hammer is concerned. It remains one of the finest films they ever produced - and arguably the apex of their Gothic movement. 

 

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