Friday, October 31, 2014

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Frankenstein must be Destroyed (1969)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Bert Batt
Starring Peter Cushing, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Thorley Walters

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED begins with arguably the best introduction in the long-running Hammer series (of which this is the fifth installment). A wealthy looking doctor is walking the shadowy, almost expressionistic city streets to his office door. Unbeknownst to him, though, there’s a figure waiting for him the the shadows, brandishing a cruel-looking scythe and a worrisome hatbox. Before long, the incoming doctor’s blood is splashing on his office signboard (in one of Hammer’s more poetic images of gore) and his head is accompanying the mysterious figure back home in a handsome hatbox. But the night is not over yet -- while all this is happening, a scruffy burglar has broken into a dreary basement and discovered a laboratory setup which by this point looks troublingly familiar to fans of the series. The dead body in a glass box, the inexplicable chemistry set, the vaguely sourced green lighting -- we know what this means all too well. So it’s a huge surprise when the owner of the lab violently accosts the burglar (who just barely escapes with his life) and reveals himself to be a bald, horribly scarred monster.

It is our boy Victor Frankenstein, of course, hiding under a mask (and once again played by the indispensable Peter Cushing). But man, what an opening -- it gets right down to the business of being violent and mysterious while at the same time boldly stating its intention to shake the series out of its potential complacency by never doing quite what you expect.

What's a good lab without a little mood lighting?

1969 was an interesting year for Hammer; they’d been unexpectedly reinvented as a horror factory with 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN more than a decade earlier, and had dominated the increasingly youth-oriented horror movie market since that time, essentially reinventing it in Hammer’s own image. They were still at the peak of their powers and their resources here, but the times were definitely changing -- the stately, implied sexuality and violence that made their name synonymous with boundary-pushing in the late 50’s was now starting to look quaint in the wake of the increasingly explicit American cinema, and meanwhile mainland European cinema (particularly Italian, of course) was challenging Hammer in terms of sharp gothic style as well, while simultaneously pushing the limits of shock cinema far beyond anything the English censors would allow. Eventually, this tension would push Hammer to make pandering, embarrassing messes like DRACULA: AD 1972 and THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. But here, in 1969, it seems to have pushed director Terence Fisher and our dear Baron Frankenstein to up their game, to go darker and deeper into the Baron’s twisted psyche than ever before, resulting in what is likely the darkest (and in some ways the best) film in the entire franchise.

After the gripping, lightning-paced opening, things slow down a little as the film sets up. Frankenstein, forced to flee his old lab after his encounter with the burglar, has to move on to new digs, and eventually ends up at a boarding house run by Anna (Veronica Carlson, from the one non-Cushing Hammer Frankenstein sequel THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN) and her physician fiance Karl (Simon Ward, “Angel Caine” in HOLOCAUST 2000*). Frankenstein quickly discovers that Karl has been stealing drugs and supplies to afford medical care for Anna’s sickly mother, and uses this knowledge to blackmail and browbeat the unfortunate young couple into putting him up and aiding him in his work. (He doesn’t mention it, but this is his second assistant named Karl, after his run of three “Hans”es in the last three movies).

Measure twice. Cut once.

Frankenstein opens the movie with a cold-blooded murder, his first since the original CURSE, but for awhile he seems like he might still be bordering on the lovably cantankerous old bastard we got in the last film, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. There’s a great scene where he verbally eviscerates a few of his fellow boarders (who don’t realize who they’re now rooming with) for judgmentally poo-pooing the work of one Dr. Frankenstein. He’s super mean, but he’s also undeniably funny in his cutting kind of way, and he’s dressed in a maroon leisure jacket like Hugh Hefner so you can’t help but kind of chuckle at the bastard. He makes very convincing speeches about how his work could help mankind, and how really it’s the fault of the meddling peasants who don’t understand his work that has forced him into criminality. Besides, even if he’s a murderer, he has a good cause here: a former colleague with special knowledge that Frankenstein requires --one Dr. Brandt-- has gone mad and been committed to an asylum. Frankenstein knows he can restore his sanity with a simple surgery, but the uptight assholes in charge of the asylum won’t let him get anywhere near their patient. So for awhile it turns into something of a heist movie, with Frankenstein and the kids desperate to break a man out of a mental hospital to cure him and restore his mind. That’s a cause we can all get behind, and there is admittedly sort of a giddy pleasure to be tagging along with someone as iron-willed and frighteningly capable as the Baron is. We get swept up in his boldness and ambitious imagination, and can kind of overlook his casually murderous side.

But things get worse quickly; after conscripting Karl as his assistant, he pushes the youngster into his first murder in frighteningly short order. The traumatized youth is a subject of obvious amusement for the Baron, who becomes increasingly sadistic in tormenting the young couple trapped in his iron grip. He’s exciting to be around, but after awhile you can’t help but notice how gleefully he crosses moral lines simply for his own convenience or amusement. I mean, he’s right, i agree with him in a way: these discoveries really could fundamentally change mankind for the better, and the people really are a bunch of medieval ninnies for forcing this life-saving knowledge to go underground and scrounge for resources that can only be acquired illegally. Even Karl is sort of intrigued and excited by the work he’s being forced to do. He knows that only Frankenstein could ever push him so much further than anyone else has ever gone in the field of medicine. But as time goes on, both he and the audience inevitably grow increasingly disillusioned about the doctor. Despite his pretty speeches, despite the good his work could do, HE has finally crossed the line and definitively become an egomaniacal, inhuman monster, hiding behind the principle of scientific progress as an excuse to justify his petty cruelties and self-serving whims. His belief that the work is important has slowly transmuted into a belief that therefore he is fundamentally important, and that other people are valuable only to the degree that they serve his interests. He has such amazing ability to improve human life, and he’s able to articulate worthy goals which would improve the world, but at the same time he clearly has utter contempt for all human life. So why is he even doing this? At this point, it’s purely a game to him. He wants to take humanity apart and rebuild it bit by bit, simply because it amuses him, like a bored schoolboy tormenting insects.

He's got a good head on his shoulder.

About halfway through, a tipping point occurs: Frankenstein sends Karl out on an errand, and while he’s gone...well, there’s no other way to say it… he violently rapes Anna. This scene seems to come out of the blue to some extent; while he’s crossed many, many lines over the many sequels, and even been shown to kill without remorse, this is surely the most nakedly sadistic thing he’s ever done. The way he impassively toys with her before the assault begins makes your skin crawl; she’s vulnerable to him in every possible way, and he’s savoring her sense of frustrated powerlessness. There’s nothing even remotely sexual here, this is purely the act of a man who ceased to be human a long time ago, idely torturing someone because he’s bored and he can. And suddenly, it’s clear that this is who he’s been all along. If he ever helped anyone, it was only the result of his selfish desire to push boundaries for his own amusement; he’s totally incapable by this point of seeing any other value than his own immediate pleasures, if indeed he ever was to begin with.

The rape scene has long been a source of controversy for Hammer fans; in fact, it comes out of the blue because it wasn’t in the original script, having been forced on the production (despite the strenuous protests of both director Fisher and Cushing) by its American producers who felt the film lacked the sex appeal needed to sell it to young people.** In my opinion seeing skeletal, coldly intellectual 50-somethings violently attacking screaming, weeping young women is not exactly what the youth culture had in mind when they invented the concept of sex appeal, but there you go, apparently Italy wasn’t the only country with producers who believe in the enduring sex appeal of leering rape scenes. It’s in there for purely prurient commercial reasons (though it’s acted and shot so resolutely unsexily you’d never know it) but I actually think it ends up being essential to the plot. Without that scene, Frankenstein could still hide behind his correct claim that his research is more important than the people’s delicate sensibilities and restrictive religious law. With it, he’s revealed as what he’s probably alway been: a monster that truly must be destroyed. Since it was inserted late in the production, the assault is never referenced again, which actually makes it even worse: watching the Baron casually demanding Anna make him coffee two scenes later is even more cold-blooded. He’s moved on to something else now, and has all but forgotten this minor incident from earlier. For a crass commercial concession, the whole episode in context makes perfect sense for the character: he’s simply such an egomaniacal monster that he only sees people as objects to suit his particular whim. He doesn’t even really realize he’s become evil, he’s just utterly detached from anything remotely resembling empathy or humanity.

Lest you worry that this scene was too traumatizing for poor Veronica Carlson, here's a glossy photo of it she autographed "to dear Stephen." Actually, you almost gotta feel worse for poor old unfailingly gentlemanly Peter Cushing, who felt so bad about the scene that he reportedly profusely apologized to his co-star. 

This scene refocuses the film and ultimately signals a change in direction. Things get darker and bleaker; the police (led by the blustery Thorley Walters from FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN) are closing in, and it’s up to Anna to try and protect the Baron from discovery for fear of dooming her fiance to execution along with her tormenter. How fucked up is that? A sequence where a broken water pipe dislodges a buried victim and requires her to crawl through the corpse-strewn mud to hide it recalls the frantic grossout finale of DRAG ME TO HELL and was very likely an inspiration, but there’s also something perverse and Hitchcockian about it. Frankenstein must be stopped, and Anna knows that better than anyone, but she’s forced to struggle through a gauntlet of tense and degrading close calls to protect him. Meanwhile even as things spiral out of control, Frankenstein succeeds in curing his colleague’s madness, but in the process is forced to transfer the cured brain into a new body (procured from an unfortunate bureaucrat who had earlier provoked the Baron’s displeasure). The new Dr. Brandt (now played by English character actor Freddie Jones --father of Toby Jones, it turns out-- in a splendid and surprisingly moving performance) awakens in a new body and immediately knows who was responsible and what has been done.

Brandt is the first of Frankenstein’s experiments to emerge in a new body with total physical and mental facilities intact, but he’s now faced with the idea of trying to resume his life, go back to his wife, in the body of a murdered acquaintance. The great irony is that Brandt had been a colleague --even a peer-- of Frankenstein; the Baron considers him to be perhaps the only other person who understands what he’s doing and operates on the same level. But Brandt is merely a boundary-pushing scientist, he hasn’t lost all ties to humanity the way Frankenstein has, and now he sees all too clearly the horrifying joke that fate has played on him. Brandt shows up late in the film, but he turns out to make a much better foil for Frankenstein than the poor kids; this is a rare man who might be almost Frankenstein’s equal, and certainly does understand and empathize with the work he’s doing… but to whom it is now painfully obvious that FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. The Baron doesn’t understand his former colleague’s anger, simply has no concept of why he might feel irrecoverably violated by being uprooted from his own body, and Brandt, for his part, seems resigned that the doctor is well beyond understanding such things and simply needs to be stopped. The final confrontation between Brandt and the Baron in a burning house is a doozy, inarguably the strongest and most wrenching finale the series has to offer, and ending in a truly bleak climax which is, by that point, richly deserved.

The "monster" is mad as hell and is not going to take this anymore.

It’s not a perfect film, of course; any movie that has a rape scene added at the last minute by the producers was probably beset by commercial concession and too many studio cooks from the start. I have no direct proof that this is the case here, but the narrative is all over the place, sometimes dramatically changing direction or introducing new conflicts out of the blue. That always suggests something that was likely being rewritten on the fly to please different parties, instead of evolving naturally from the story. Karl and Anna get incredibly shortchanged by the end of the film, despite all they’ve suffered through, and some unwieldy tonal shifts (including some fairly broad comic scenes with Thorley Walters) make for a somewhat confusing experience. But somehow the good here overwhelms all that. There’s a genuine tension at work which some of the other films in the series lack, a sense that this time, the title character has crossed irredeemably over the line and that there must be serious consequences. The pathos Jones brings to his role as the “monster” somehow manages to make his late introduction still work to bring the film to a satisfying close.

Cushing, composed as he is primarily of balsa wood and tissue paper, is particularly vulnerable.

And then there’s Cushing himself. Man, is this guy an amazing actor. Even though the series doesn’t have a lot of continuity to it, Cushing’s Frankenstein has steadily and subtly evolved, and here he finally delivers, in his penultimate performance of the character, a vision of a man who has well and truly left behind whatever fleeting bit of his humanity remained. I’ve griped before (for example, in REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) that this series sometimes seems to have an irritating anti-science bent, as though the problem is that the Baron is “meddling in God’s domain” or trying to learn things that “man was not meant to know” or some such hooey. But this performance finally puts the lie to that; it’s not his science that’s the problem, it’s his merciless, suffocating contempt for human feeling. It’s a fitting bookend to CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN --which also presents the character as surprisingly vicious-- but a decade later Cushing brings a kind of time-worn and frayed madness to similar material. Even all these years later, Frankenstein still simply doesn’t understand that he’s the bad guy. His inability (or unwillingness) to even grasp the harm that he’s doing makes him all the more alien and terrifying than it would be if he was nakedly villainous. Even at the end, as everyone turns against him, the look on his face says he can hardly believe the terrible luck he’s having. What was once perhaps attributable to the arrogance of youth and wealth finally looks simply pathetic and desperate, the hollow-eyed confusion of a man who knows an incredible amount, but understands very little. A mad scientist indeed.

On the plus, side, he finally learned how to pronounce his own name correctly. Check it out, he says “Frahnk-ehn-schtein,” very German. Maybe the old guy’s capable of a little self-improvement afterall.


**Way to go, America.




The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Still vaguely linked to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, but the film does not credit her.
  • SEQUEL: Fifth sequel in Hammer's series
  • REMAKE: None
  • FOREIGNER: British, Hammer studios
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Peter Cushing. I guess he doesn't quite count, but Freddie Jones has also been in about a million things.
  • BOOBIES: None, nudity was still not gonna fly in 1968 England, although rape would.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Yes, a particularly unpleasant one.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Head removed, brain removed
  • MONSTER: The "monster" this time is just a normal guy with a scar.
  • THE UNDEAD: Nah, no one comes back from the dead, just body-swapping.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Actually Frankenstein might count here.
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Still no dolls.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Body swapped, leading to much angst
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, well-known franchise
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If you're going to meddle in the realm of God, at least don't be such a fucking dick about it.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: 100% in agreement with it.
Very tempted to go five thumbs here, I think the story's a little too loose for me to quite do it. But think A-, B+

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