The evil, seemingly indestructible Baron Frankenstein is up to his old tricks again, elbow deep in entrails as he conducts more illegal medical operations on suspiciously fresh cadavers. Having narrowly escaped discovery he relocates to a quiet boarding house. He soon discovers that his landlady’s fiancé, Karl Holst, is a Doctor at the local asylum, that just so happens to have Frankenstein’s old associate as one of its residents. Blackmailing the couple he sets out to begin his bizarre experiments anew, continuing his very hands on research into brain transplantation. But first he needs to kidnap his former collaborator, Dr Brandt, from the asylum.
This, the fifth in Hammer’s series of Frankenstein movies, was Peter Cushing’s penultimate outing as the nefarious Baron. By this time Cushing was comfortable with the character, his ease in the role evident from the off, and his performance is one of the many pleasures to be had in this film. An aloof, cold individual who is totally driven by his medical desires at the cost of any sense of morality, Cushing’s performance is the flipside of his interpretation of Van Helsing, a similarly single-minded, driven man, but for the forces of good. Simon Ward is the coerced assistant, a pretty ineffectual individual who is basically along for the ride until circumstance forces him to act, and Veronica Carlson is on hand to provide that Hammer staple, the busty blonde.
Over the course of seven films Hammer were able to, by and large, successfully reinvigorate the Frankenstein myth, twist it to new formulas and give the familiar story an original spin. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a perfect example of this. Rather than have the Baron stitch together another monster to wreak havoc on the innocent here he is obsessed by the desire to successfully transplant brains from one body to another. This fresh approach works really well without sacrificing the traditional elements fans expect from the mad doctor movie. However not all of the new ideas are successful. An incongruous rape scene in the film is totally misjudged; maybe the filmmakers thought blackmail, brain theft and multiple murder were not sufficient in making the Baron a suitably evil character. It is not surprising to discover that this was a last minute addition to the film and it’s hard to imagine Cushing being happy with having to perform the scene.
Another late addition, and one which is far more engaging, is the police investigation subplot. Thorley Walters and Geoffrey Bayldon bring to life the detective duo who investigate a rather grisly murder which starts them on the trail of Frankenstein. They work well together, their characters as different as their physiques with Walters in particular providing some comic relief. This idea, that the cops are on the case and slowly piecing together what’s happening, adds a sense of urgency to proceedings. Unfortunately this plot thread gets forgotten towards the end of the picture. A shame but the climax is not really hindered by this omission, Frankenstein has more pressing matters to contend with in a striking dénouement which involves a confrontation with the unwilling recipient of his brain transplant operation. There is no real monster on the rampage in this film but this successful recipient fills that role to an extent, a character full of humanity and not a little pathos.
Much of the films success rests on the shoulders of veteran director Terence Fisher. Responsible for many of the better Hammer movies he was a master at creating a suitably gothic atmosphere and able to effectively layer suspense. A prime example is the opening of the film in which the audience’s first glimpse of the Baron is unbearably drawn out, Fisher racking up the tension perfectly. The rich colourful costumes and lavish looking sets that were the trademark of Hammer are also lovingly evident as is a healthy dose of blood and gore. As this is a film about brain transplantation the long awaited transplant scene is good, relying more on sound effects than overly explicit visuals. The finale is also particularly well staged with a burning mansion a fitting locale for a very final duel. It’s just a shame that this ends rather abruptly.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a welcome addition to Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise, a franchise that was far more consistent than their cycle of Dracula films. Complete with bodysnatching, evil experiments and a good versus evil climax it strays from Shelley's original classic but not to its detriment. Even those over familiar with one of the benchmark novels of English literature will find something new and refreshing in this fun treatment.