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Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) is a catchy title. But that's typical of Hammer films, which usually came up with distinctive monikers that soon entered the cultural vocabulary, or at least the horror-geek lexicon. But otherwise, the cult around Hammer horror films is inexplicable. These turgid, gloomy, lifeless movies also commit the worst sin of the horror genre — they aren't scary. Viewed as unusually brainy and "atmospheric" by their devoted fans, Hammer horror films actually are lethargic and talky, in the grand tradition of British filmmaking in general. Like Universal studios before them, the fledgling studio turned to recognizable monsters in order to save the company, but because they appropriated creatures commonly associated with Universal, Hammer got into a little trouble with the American studio: Universal threatened to sue Hammer, and Hammer then altered its first foray into Universal territory, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), enough to stay within the bounds of Mary Shelley's novel, which was in the public domain (however, the studio later worked with Universal on one or two films). Hammer carried on, as did Dracula, Phantom, werewolf, and Mummy movies, to the apparent gratitude of undiscriminating fans who appreciated Hammer picking up the cudgel dropped by Universal. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed was the fifth of six Frankenstein films Hammer made from 1956 on (and it was the fourth directed by Terence Fisher). Made in 1969 and released in 1970, Destroyed finds Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) on the run, still obsessed with his Promethean medical experiments. He appears to be in England, given that all the characters have English accents, but the hats on the "Bobbies" and the design of the streets hint that we are still in Europe somewhere (this is typical of the script's incoherence). In any case, Frankenstein has become a fugitive. He ends up in a boarding house, where he blackmails the proprietor Anna (Veronica Carlson) and her fiancé, Dr. Holst (Simon Ward) into helping him engage in yet another scheme — in this case, kidnapping the mentally disturbed Dr. Brant, supposedly an old colleague of Frankenstein's who has in his notes the secret of brain transplanting (and whom we haven't seen in any previous Hammer 'stein movies). Frankenstein wants to put his brain in a new body, thus curing Brandt's madness, and then wresting his secrets from him. "Why does Frankenstein need the brain transplant secrets if he is capable of doing the operation in the first place?," you may well ask. The film doesn't ask itself the same question, and no explanation is offered. When Brandt's brain is in a new body (that of Freddie Jones), he escapes the mad doctor's clutches and returns to his wife, who recoils from his form. Then Brandt plots Frankenstein's demise — in a rather convoluted and sluggish climax.

*          *          *

Destroyed offers up a colder, more calculating and callous Frankenstein. He seems driven by vengeance more than science, walking around in some kind of consciousness-clouding rage against the medical profession that has spurned him. He also finds blackmail a creditable medical technique, and even rapes Anna at one point when he happens to be passing by her room and notices her in characteristically Hammerian décolletage (and anyone who is startled by Cushing's strange attire of tight fitting tux and spats in the film's beginning now knows what inspired Riff Raff 's costume in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Hammer was working in a new soundstage for this film but is still plagued by cramped, dreary interiors and an aversion to outdoor scenes. The logic-challenged plot is also padded out with unnecessary, utterly unnecessary, scenes with a comically stupid police inspector always about four blocks behind Frankenstein. Besides breast sizes, Hammer was also famous for inserting a higher level of grossness to its films, and here the viewer may cringe when the good doctor takes to Brandt's head with a wood-saw. The resulting man-blend, however, looks like Curley Joe after a Tor Johnson makeover. So why, despite all these deficits — bad effects, incoherent plots, a dearth of scares — the continuing fascination with Hammer? It's not just because they are bad, in a camp sense, but because of sentimentality about their origins: The little company that could, Hammer forged films for its fans out of virtually nothing, and the fans continue to appreciate it. Those not raised on Hammer in the '50s and '60s will demur. Warner presents Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed in a nice anamorphic transfer of the color film (1.85:1) with adequate sound (monaural Dolby Digital). The movie also comes with a French track, and with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. By the way, Warner is releasing the film on disc instead of MGM, which has done several previous Hammer DVDs — Hammer had made a deal with Seven Arts back in the mid-'60s, which then acquired Warner Bros. for $95 million dollars (MGM Home Entertainment distributed some of the Hammers because it handles United Artists films, which also distributed Hammer films). Nonetheless, extras on Destroyed are impoverished, comprising only a trailer for the film. This represents a lost opportunity — most of the MGM Hammers have audio tracks, among them the weird track for Countess Dracula, in which star Ingrid Pitt disparages the director in a thick accent for vaguely stated reasons. Since Destroyed is one of the Hammer films most esteemed by students of the studio, one of the scholarly types, such as Howard Maxford or Jonathan Rigby, who have written extensively about Hammer, might have used this forum to expound on why Hammer, or at least this film, is so good. On the other hand, this is the complete version of Destroyed, with two deleted scenes (the rape, and a scene with the dumb cop) back in. Snap-case.
—D.K. Holm

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