Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Who is Baron Frankenstein to Hammer anyway? I only ask because Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed feels to me like it was made to be the final Frankenstein movie. It wasn’t of course, it wasn’t even Peter Cushing’s last Frankenstein movie. But it certainly seems like it as you watch Frankenstein pushed to absolute evil, with every other character’s thirst for revenge and justice seemingly representing for everyone Frankenstein has wronged throughout his storied career. Even the title is a reflection of a cosmic certainty shared by each person who has ever crossed paths with the Baron. The whole movie is built towards constructing a richly deserved end for Franky, and it’s a deserves that takes a lot of its weight from all the previous movies. Frankenstein is at his most Frankensteiny in this one, and so it does beg the question - who is this character to Hammer? You see, with Dracula you know what you get - a tall, dark mysterious bringer of sex and death. With a shedload of gothic atmosphere and plenty of heaving bosoms, you understand why they made so many Dracula movies. And you get an iconic role for one of your big names, because whether Christopher Lee likes it or not people want to see him put on a cape and hiss at pillocks with big sideburns. Now, obviously Frankenstein is their other big name, Peter Cushing’s, iconic role. But what is it about this character that turned him into such a Hammer staple?
One thing’s for sure, it’s not character development. Just like with Dracula, Hammer couldn’t give a monkey’s about continuity between movies. Revenge followed Curse alright, but after that they don’t even bother. It gets to a point where they introduce a new backstory for him in every movie, so it’s tricky to see what Frankenstein is learning after each simultaneously successful and doomed experiment. He is a completely different man in every movie. Now, I suppose it’s possible to imagine some way in which all these stories make sense together. He is a mad scientist after all, so it’s perfectly within character for him to be wildly unpredictable as well as almost illogically busy. Plus Cushing also has the incredible capacity to be coldly evil OR brave and noble, and sometimes as Frankenstein he is both at the same time. In fact, a lot of the difference between the Frankensteins is how high Pete has turned up ‘evil’ or ‘noble’ for that particular movie.
So O.K., maybe there’s a way in which the Baron bounces from different experiment to different experiment, never mentioning them again because he achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve, and he can’t be blamed if the result of those very successful experiments went around trying to murder everybody. And maybe his character varies wildly between movies because he has never been beholden to anyone’s standards but his own. But even if there is a way to explain away the wild inconsistencies between movies, Hammer are clearly not establishing a smooth, flowing cinematic universe here. So what is it about an old man fiddling about in a laboratory that meant Hammer could cheerfully keep chucking money at the screen, confident it would come bouncing back to them in significantly greater quantities?
My guess is - the all important ‘ick!’ factor, because audiences are inexorably drawn to movies that make them go ‘ewww!’ as something hideous is done to the human body. One of the best moments of Destroyed is when the ‘monster’ wakes up and looks at his hands and realises that the Baron has put his brain into someone else’s body. Because that is one seriously metaphysical ‘ick’. More viscerally, when the Baron cures the same man’s insanity by gently plunging a long needle into his brain, it is impossible not to squirm. So even though it is more than a little strange that people will pay good money to watch disgusting things being done to bodies just like ones they own, who is Hammer to argue with having a character who quite literally tears people to pieces in pursuit of twisted glory?
I suspect that Frankenstein’s appeal also has to do with seeing one man bend nature utterly to his will. A man who doesn’t care what society, the police, or even God thinks of him. An absolute certainty that you are right, and hang what anyone else thinks, has always been a pretty powerful motivator throughout human history. So watching one man spit in God’s eye not just because he can, but because he thinks he should - well, that’s a character anyone would want to watch.
Of course, the flip side of that is watching it all spin horribly out of control. The audience want to see a man defy all convention to remind themselves that it can be done, but they also want to see it go really very badly wrong to feel better about the fact that they never step out of line themselves, and they need to remember why that is in fact the smart move.
There isn’t even much in the way of sex in Frankenstein movies, which is very unlike Dracula; because while the posters insist that a monster will carry a scantily clad woman - the must-have fashion accessory for every uncontrollable fiend in that cinematic era - they never, ever do. I am purposefully ignoring the dubious scene in Destroyed where Cushing tries to have his way with the female lead, because no-one (except apparently American distributors) wanted that scene to happen. And I prefer to see it as the Baron succumbing to absolute egomania and treating everyone and everything as nothing more than flesh and bones for him to play with. He also seems to get sort of bored, and nothing is consummated on-screen, as if even Franky suddenly finds the whole thing unspeakably depressing.
So it seems that the answer to the question ‘what is Baron Frankenstein to Hammer?’ is relatively simple. He is box office gold; with the audience getting the undeniable thrill of watching one man defy God to do the ickiest things imaginable. And Cushing brings magnetic intensity to this man who does these things not just because he can, but because if he can then he MUST.
In the end though, Hammer felt Frankenstein must be destroyed. They couldn’t turn down the chance to let the audience see the Baron get what had been coming to him for so long. And it is a testament to the power of that character, to the power of Cushing, that even that wasn’t enough to kill him. Because a man is never dead in cinema if it’s worth enough to bring him back to life; a conclusion I’m sure old Frankenstein would agree with. It just goes to show that you can have whatever you want, if you want it enough. Speaking of which…