Saturday, October 31, 2009

All That We Can See Is The Brain

Sometimes in films the things that are scary to us, the most effective moments, turn out to be this way because they go beyond what we’re expecting for our own reasons. As a person gets older they might find themselves giving more thought to the actual behavior, as well as the responses to that behavior, that certain characters in films may have. And we might find that this happens even in films where those elements might not seem at first to be particularly important. This occurred to me recently during a Halloween season viewing of Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. Considered to be one of the very best (if not the best) of all films produced by Hammer, the 1969 film still plays extremely well today and while a few flaws may have occurred to me this time around what stood out for me the most was just how absolutely, positively bleak the film was. And more to the point, I found myself feeling great sorrow for female lead Anna Spengler as played by the lovely Veronica Carlson, one of the most purely beautiful of all the Hammer heroines. Yes, she and boyfriend Karl as played by Simon Ward are trafficking in a little cocaine for some badly-needed funds but not for any insidious gain--it’s simply to help out her mother who’s off in a hospital, which seems about as noble a reason as you could get (“It’s dreadful that you have to buy a life,” offers Karl in a line that still makes sense today). And it’s this one tiny flaw of theirs which allows Baron Victor Frankenstein, played once again by Peter Cushing, to take advantage of the situation, taking over their lives so that they will do everything he needs to aid in his experiments. Everything. It turns out to be a punishment which far outweighs their modest crime, certainly a greater one that they would have received if the law had gotten involved. Carlson seems to play the character as undergoing a gradual implosion through the course of the film and many have said that the film goes too far in what happens to her. I don’t know if that’s the case, but the end result is certainly an experience in which the horror is felt more than usual.

Awareness of the previous four entries is not really necessary, outside of knowing that Peter Cushing plays Baron Victor Frankenstein, continually in the search of the means to create life. By the time of this entry he is living under a pseudonym, continuing his experiments in secret. He takes a room in a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Carlson) and once he has a piece of information about she and her boyfriend Karl (Ward) he is able to use to his advantage Karl’s position in the local insane asylum. Frankenstein, you see, is very interested in the brain of Dr. Frederick Brandt, who before he went insane, believed to have solved some of the problems that have been plaguing Dr. Frankenstein through his years of experimentation. As the young couple quickly and separately learns, Frankenstein will go to any extreme to fulfill his ultimate goal.

The characters in this particular film are drawn more vividly than they often can be in other Hammer entries and the story is stronger as well—at around 100 minutes it’s allowed to breathe a little more than those that seem locked into the 90 minute running time come hell or high water and seem to stop abruptly after a perfunctory finish. It might not be the classic Hammer of HORROR OF DRACULA but it is one of the best examples of storytelling to ever come from the studio. The screenplay is credited to Bert Batt (story by Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys) who mostly worked as an assistant director and since he has no other screenplay credits it makes the quality of this particular entry even more of a mystery but there’s definitely a force brought to it all by director Terence Fisher that is undeniable. It’s as if the best elements of previous Frankenstein entries (and other films from the studio that Fisher and Cushing were involved in, for that matter) all culminated with this one big blow-out, possibly the last one from Hammer which could be placed anywhere in shouting position of the word great. It pushes boundaries in a way that you wouldn’t expect from the fifth entry in any series and it makes you wish that films from the company could have risen to such an occasion more often.

If anything, it’s one of those films which I look at now and think that as good as it is a few of the story points could have been pushed even further. If they’d done one more rewrite by an expert hand, maybe someone who wasn’t so locked into the Hammer formula, a few of the plot developments in the home stretch might not have seemed so half baked (actually, I’ll be more generous than that—three-quarters baked). As it is, it’s like something that might have been a true genre classic but doesn’t quite get there, even if where it does wind up is pretty close. The threads in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED do lead to a satisfying finish (one that could have concluded the series though Cushing did play the role one more time) but a number of pieces never do feel fully resolved—the cops drop out of the picture, the mother we hear about that gets the plot rolling is never seen or referred to past a certain point and the end involving the Brandts—touchingly played by DUNE’s Freddie Jones and Maxine Audley—never gets a satisfying conclusion on its own.

But it’s the pure, irredeemable nastiness of the Frankenstein character goes a long way towards making the film work so well—as presented here, the character may be the biggest bastard that Cushing ever played (“Pack! We’re leaving.”) and, yes, that includes the time that he ordered the destruction of Alderaan. Part of this has to do with the utter coldness that Cushing fearlessly brings to the role, but part of it also has to do with the character trajectory of Anna Spengler as played by Veronica Carlson. It’s her section of the plot that stays with me and her tragedy, combined with Fisher’s insistence on portraying the character of Frankenstein at his most vicious, seems to move the film as close towards greatness as it can get. It’s surprising to look at the actress’s filmography today and see how few films she really did appear in. Of course, the only ones that anyone cares about are this film, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and the non-Cushing entry HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Extremely beautiful, she’s not only very effecting here, but what the character of Frankenstein seems to do to destroy her very spirit almost instantly—I always remember the way she just stands there, silent, as her former boarders protest being ejected from the house—strikes me as just so damn sad.

The most controversial element involving Carlson is, as anyone who's seen it knows, the Baron’s genuinely shocking rape of Anna. Reports have the scene being added very late in the shooting, at the protest of the two actors involved, because the powers that be at Hammer decided the film was lacking in sex—so a rape scene presumably took care of that, unfortunate as that may be. I’m not sure that the scene (which apparently was not included during the film's original U.S. release) is necessary either for any number of reasons but it does somewhat unintentionally help to bridge this film between earlier Hammer and the somewhat more adult (read: copious amounts of nudity) entries from the studio that would begin a few years later. That the scene was added so late reportedly upset the actors in question, who felt that scenes occurring later would have been played differently by them (not the mention their dislike of including a rape scene in the first place) but even though it’s never referenced in dialogue it is consistent with Anna’s behavior at some points and really does make her continued psychological collapse more believable---not to mention, more tragic. Even her exit from the picture—sooner than we expect and definitely sooner than the character deserves—feels in line with this. It feels like a number of elements involved—to give Karl a real motivation for revenge (which itself isn’t fully dealt with), to be able to spend more time with the Brandt’s in their storyline and maybe just rewrite issues that were possibly occuring in general. But the fact is that the sadness of her face, so prevalent throughout much of the film, is what stays with me more than anything. The inferno of the climax is fairly well-staged but even with the extra running time it still feels like the very end comes in a “Well, I guess that’s it,” kind of way that was fairly common with films from Hammer which even James Bernard’s majestic score can’t fully help. I still wish that it were a little better than it is, but there’s no denying how effective it remains to this day and it continues to be rewarding to return to. I don’t know if it’s the best Hammer film that I’ve ever seen—I could say that and easily change my mind tomorrow—but it is one of the very best examples of what they were capable of.

The attention-getting fake-out opening of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED features what we take to be some sort of monster…who is then revealed to be a normal-looking human being underneath that mask. This person in question is eventually revealed to be the greatest monster of all, much more so than the one who has his brain placed into another body ever is—as Freddie Jones portrays that creation here, when he steps forward gently saying “I mean you know harm,” it’s a moment that deserves to be remembered among the very best of the creations by all of the Frankensteins ever portrayed on film. The vivid portrayal of that evil by Peter Cushing makes what happens to Veronica Carlson’s character in the film all the more tragic—someone without a selfish bone in her body wiped out by someone who cares about her as much as he does about a fly he just swatted. It kind of kills the idea of watching this film as an enjoyable Halloween viewing experience but it does certainly remind me of the evil that can be found in people who appear to be normal—even when they’re in 60s horror films which are sometimes thought of as camp or laughable. It’s not really right that they should be remembered that way—just as what happens to Anna Spengler isn’t at all deserved. But as time goes on, I realize that few things that happen are ever really deserved anyway.

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