The three years from 1968-1970 were a period of tremendous possibility and crisis for Hammer Film Productions: still at the peak of its popularity, the company had to deal with a sudden explosion in the degree to which sex and violence could be depicted in English-language cinema, which was far less prominent in the United Kingdom than in the United States; though by this point, Hammer's business model had become reliant enough upon American viewership that any changes in that market (as, for example, the introduction of the MPAA ratings system in 1968) had a definite, if muted, impact on their movies. Then too, there was the matter of continental European horror, which was around this time starting to overtake Hammer in the "Gothic but with lush color cinematography" department, and also had more violence presented more explicitly than even Hammer ever had dreamed of. Lastly, and ultimately most damagingly, the youth market which was then as now the chief target for horror throughout the world, had grown a lot savvier very quickly in the mid-to-late '60s, and Hammer's brand of stately horror was beginning to be seen as quaint in some quarters.
The worst was yet to come, but the studio was already starting to lose its way as early as 1968's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the fourth Dracula film, and arguably the first one that dropped from "excellent" to "good", a descent that would end in misery and tears a few years later. Moreover, their focus on the TV anthology series Journey to the Unknown, which premiered in 1968, meant that there was less time and resources to go around, and 1969 saw a significant reduction in the number of Hammer theatrical productions - only two features, in fact (Journey to the Unknown was to have a more dire effect on the company's fortunes: Anthony Hinds, at the behest of the U.S. moneymen, was demoted to associate producer on the series, and in short order left Hammer, which his father had founded in the '30s. It is an article of faith that Hammer's serious artistic floundering was a direct result of Hinds's departure).
One of those two films was the science-fiction flop Moon Zero Two, a further step down the road to Hammer's obsolescence after the new decade began. The other, however, was a work of the greatest self-assurance, a movie that took advantage of the new possibilities of a more liberal film marketplace while telling a story firmly ensconced in the best tradition of Hammer's Gothics. This was Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the fifth entry in its series, almost uniformly considered one of the best. And certainly considered the darkest. For in this film, the gradual leeching-out of all of the humanity to be found in Baron Victor Frankenstein (played as always by the absolutely essential Peter Cushing), replaced by an erudite monster driven only by the desire to push knowledge to its farthest extent, reaches an absolute state here, in the grimmest and most merciless, inhumane depiction of the genius and madman that Hammer and Cushing ever portrayed.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed hits the ground running, find Terence Fisher in particularly fine form with the opening few scenes, which feature a certain Dr. Heidecke (Jim Collier) returning to his office late at night, where he meets a most unfortunate end: a man identified only by the large hatbox he carries around beheads the poor doctor, in a moment of inspired, impressionistic violence (the sight of Heidecke's blood splattering all over his signboard is one of the most poetic touches of gore in the Hammer corpus). This does not end the murder's evening, either; when he returns to his laboratory in an abandoned house, he interrupts a burglar (Harold Goodwin), who manages to barely escape, only after we've seen the killer to be a grotesquely deformed fellow with scars all over his face. Whcih we discover, a few moments later, to be a grotesquely deformed mask; it is, to nobody's genuine surprise, Baron Frankenstein hiding underneath, and he takes immediate steps to destroy and then vacate his hidey-hole before the police, led by the blustering Inspector Frisch (Thorley Walters) can find him.
It's a big, wonderful opening, full of delicate visual grace notes and bold lighting - this is the most conspicuously "lit" of Hammer's Frankenstein films since The Revenge of Frankenstein, 11 years prior - Fisher and his DP, Arthur Grant (in his second and final Frankenstein movie) were feeling brave on this one, and the opening is so visually evocative, relying entirely on fragmentary images to drive the narrative, it's reminiscent of the period's Italian horror as much as anything going on in Britain at the time.
Following from this most promising and excellent starter, the story (by Anthony Nelson Keys and Bert Batt, two Hammer worker bees with no other writing credits in their career; Batt wrote the finished screenplay) continues the trend of finding new and even experimental things to do with the overworked cinematic figure of Frankenstein. Having been forced out of his secret lair, he finds refuge in a boarding house run by a young woman named Anna (Veronica Carlson). This proves to be doubly fortunate when it turns out that Anna's fiancé, Karl (Simon Ward), is a doctor at the very insane asylum where a former colleague of Frankenstein's has been imprisoned. Part of Frankenstein's motivation in camping out in this flyspeck village has been to find that man, cure his insanity through surgery, and learn about an important breakthrough this man had made with profound implications for Frankenstein's own research - which, as ever, involved the preservation and resurrection of dead brains. Luckiest of all, Karl and Anna are dabbling in some illegal activities to raise money for Anna's sickly mother, and Frankenstein finds out about it: this leads in no time at all to a most cruel blackmailing scheme, whereby the young couple is kept in thrall to the baron's whims.
There's more to it than that - in due course, Frankenstein of course has to create a false being in order to further his aims, and the treatment of this creature is unlike any other screen depiction of a Frankensteinian monster up that point - but the heart of the film lies in the cruel, even devilish treatment that the young couple endures at the hands of the smiling, morally bankrupt scientist. This includes a notorious rape scene inserted at the insistence of the American distributors late in production; so late that it is never referenced afterward, and seems to come form nowhere. And given Cushing's outrage over having to play the scene, it's not entirely believable even on its own; yet the slack, uninvolved face of the doctor as he attacks poor Anna just serves to make it that much darker, as though Frankenstein were attempting to remind himself of some core of feeling that he had long since abandoned in his quest for knowledge above humanity.
For that is the very center of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed: having watched this character descend from willful idealist to magnificent bastard, he now finally bottoms out in pure, unbridled misanthropy and wickedness. It is dark, far darker than any other Hammer film I have seen; but it is great both despite and because of that darkness. There is nothing more horrifying in any other Hammer Frankenstein picture than the sight of a man as arch and cold as Cushing's Frankenstein ordering Anna and Karl about simply because he can; even as he dresses his actions in a kind of desire to better the world, one that he probably even believes, we never once get the sense that we sometimes get in the other films that he is at heart trying to be good. Here, he completes his transition to become a monster.
Unsurprisingly, given such a heady variation on the character, Cushing gives a truly amazing performance (absent that rape scene). Always a thin man, the actor had by this point started down the road to abject emaciation that made him look something of an ambulatory skeleton in his later performances; I do not imagine for a second that Cushing did this out a desire to improve his acting, but it adds a great deal to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed that the central character is so gaunt, so eaten from within. That's not all, though: his performance is in every detail a carefully augmented depiction of a man driven, at last, by his own private amusements and little else (Cushing's tremendously balanced work in a scene where Frankenstein overhears some upstanding citizens criticising his research is one of the great moments in the actor's career, propelled forward by a thin smile and the driest, most subtly ironic line deliveries imaginable). It is a magnificent portrayal of... not evil, exactly. But careless, thoughtless, merciless egomania, at its most suffocating.
In contrast, the rest of the cast can't measure up, though they're actually pretty wonderful in the main. Walters tops the great work he did in Frankenstein Created Woman, playing a character who could easily be comic puffery as an exercise in frustration and anger and ill-temper. The young co-leads are much better than Hammer usually managed to find by the late '60s; while Freddie Jones, as the creature (and before that, a hapless bureaucrat who gets on Frankenstein's bad side) and Maxine Audley as his wife, sort of, are tremendously effective in small roles as the more mature, sadder victims of Frankenstein's caprice.
But really, this is Cushing's show, more than just about any other Frankenstein film; not even Fisher's excellent direction, the richer-than-usual sets, and the deeply moody lighting can take our attention off of the mad doctor at the very depths of his anti-humanity. It's not uncommon the find this film regarded as the absolute best Hammer Frankenstein film; I do not agree, finding the first two in the series to be more "complete" films, as it were, but certainly I can't deny that the sheer nihilistic power of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed finds the studio at its very height of abilities, when money and audience were both united for the last time before the bottom fell out. For those of us who love Hammer horror, this is an unmarred example of all the reasons why.
Reviews in this series
The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1958)
The Evil of Frankenstein (Francis, 1964)
Frankenstein Created Woman (Fisher, 1967)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher, 1969)
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Fisher, 1974)