Tuesday, October 20, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: Peter Cushing at His Very Best in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed

Victor Frankenstein is conducting his experiments when a random break-in causes him to flee and leave everything behind. He hides at a boarding house, calling himself Mr. Fenner. When he learns that a young doctor, Karl, is selling hospital drugs to help the ailing mother of his fiancee, Anna, he blackmails Karl into assisting him. They plan to release Dr. Brandt from an asylum. Brandt has been deemed "incurable" by a doctor at the institution, but Frankenstein needs Brandt's research. His goal is to successfully perform a brain transplant to cure Brandt's insanity and use the man's knowledge to further his nefarious experiments.

When struggling movie studio Hammer Film Productions released The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, it was rewarded with huge success and, not surprisingly, decided to focus on vibrant, gothic horror films. Equally as expected, Hammer began reviving other Universal classics, releasing Horror of Dracula (titled Dracula in the U.K.) the following year and The Mummy in 1959. Sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein were inevitable, and the evolution of the Frankenstein character, admirably portrayed by Peter Cushing, is fascinating. In Mary Shelley's original novel, Victor Frankenstein was a misunderstood genius, while his creation was a sympathetic being. Many adaptations, including James Whale's 1931 classic, have defined the characters similarly. In the Hammer series, Frankenstein begins as a determined, heartless man (Curse), then becomes more of a compassionate man in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1959), a romantic hero in The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and something of a father figure in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). By The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), he was a sexy leading man (this time played by Ralph Bates in lieu of Cushing), and in the final film of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), he was a shadow of a man, devoid of any emotion.

Terence Fisher's Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) presents the audience with the most vicious titular character of all the Hammer movies. He does whatever he can to complete his life's work. Once the operation is finished, Frankenstein's "creature" is not a creature at all. He is a man, forced to be an unwitting patient of Frankenstein. Consequently he generates a great deal of sympathy almost immediately, much more so than the other films of the Hammer series. It's abundantly clear that Frankenstein, with all of his malevolent deeds, is the monster of the movie. Viewers can therefore take the title quite literally. Frankenstein may be the "mad scientist" of the story, but it is not his product that audiences should fear, but rather the man himself.

Cushing was an outstanding and versatile actor, and
Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is undeniably one of his very finest performances. His natural delivery and astonishing presence add charm to his villain. In one excellent sequence, Frankenstein convinces a woman that her missing husband is perfectly fine and that Frankenstein will do all he can to help her. Viewers have no discernible reason to trust in what the man is saying, but it is difficult not to believe Frankenstein, as Cushing plays the scene in such a wonderfully soothing manner. The actor is aided by terrific dialogue, including this small exchange between Karl and Frankenstein:

"I thought the world had seen the last of you."

"So did a lot of other people."

Freddie Jones, as the "creature," is likewise strong. There is no question that he is a victim, and as a result, his performance is emotional and poignant. Veronica Carlson is very good as Anna, but the rest of the cast almost fades into the background, as the man who "must be destroyed" steals the spotlight.

The only flaw in an otherwise distinguished film is a rape scene, Frankenstein committing the horrible act upon Anna. Hammer exec James Carreras reportedly stopped by the set during filming and insisted the scene be added, against the objections of the director and the two actors involved. The sequence is not only vulgar, but it also makes little sense, that a man fully dedicated to his wicked craft would suddenly have a compulsion so contradictory in character. Although the scene was reputedly meant to appeal to American audiences, it was excised from the original U.S. version and most video releases.

Hammer Film Productions released many extraordinary and memorable films. The
Frankenstein movies formed a particularly strong series, and Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is not only one of the best, it's also indicative of Hammer's strongest work. A splendid director and actors within a sophisticated period piece. Throw in some blood in glorious color, and you've got prime choice Hammer!


  1. Sark, this is one of your best “31 Days of Halloween” reviews. I really like how you cast the character of Victor Frankenstein into different “roles” in different films in the Hammer series. I agree absolutely that Victor is the villain in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (which, incidentally, is my favorite in the series, edging out the subtle, underrated REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN). What’s interesting is that this is a movie with the villain as the lead. Simon Ward (one of the best of young male leads Hammer tried to groom) is quite good as the traditional hero, but the bottom line is his hero is pretty much ineffective. As for Peter Cushing , he rarely got an opportunity to play the bad guy (other than STAR WARS), but I agree with you (again) that he gives an outstanding performance as an obsessed scientist. I think it’s also Fisher’s finest FRANKENSTEIN film. There’s a scene involving a buried corpse that’s worthy of Hitchcock at his best. My video of the film omits the offensive scene you describe and I think the film is better for it. Love this pick and your well-written, engrossing essay!

  2. Sark,ohmygosh....this gives a different meaning to "Hammer Time".

  3. Sark, this a terrific review of my favorite Hammer Frankenstein movie with the great Peter Cushing. I have thought of him as a handsome leading man and so pleasant to watch on screen. I am glad I never saw the rape seen in this movie. Rick, do you know that the role of Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS THE NEW HOPE was offered to Christopher Lee who turned it down. Then George Lucas offered to his good friend, Peter Cushing. A nicely written review, Sark. I enjoyed reading it.

  4. Peter Cushing as a rapist? Only an idiot in a business suit would think such a thing was a good idea. I love these Hammer films, and Peter Cushing is one of my favorite actors. Really wonderful article, Sark.

  5. What an outstanding essay, Sark! Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher would truly have been honored by your gracious words. You made this film come to life for us. And Rick made an excellent observation, too, that the villainous Victor is, surprisingly, the leading character. Sark, I also really enjoyed your walk through the Hammer Frankenstein pictures. Remarkable research! Bravo!

  6. Thank you so much for all the kind words. It's comforting to know that there are so many fans of Peter Cushing and Hammer films. Let's all have a Hammer Frankenstein marathon! Alphabetical or chronological? You decide!