We can likely credit my love of Hammer Films to the first two of them I saw when I was growing up: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Taste the Blood of Dracula. As an adult, these may or may not remain my favorite Hammer horrors; nevertheless, they burrowed into my heart and made a permanent spot for the famous “Studio That Dripped Blood”.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Of the Hammer Frankenstein movies starring Peter Cushing, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the fifth, and it remains one of the best. While I haven’t had current viewings of the others to compare, this is likely one of the most monstrous portrayals of Baron Frankenstein by Cushing that you will see.
In the course of its 101-minute running time, Frankenstein shows all his flaws, which include pride, contempt, relentlessness, lying, thievery, vanity, need for control and, of course, a God complex. Early on, as he overhears his colleagues talking about the institutionalized Dr. Brandt, he can’t help but interrupt them, “I didn’t know you were doctors. I thought you knew what you were talking about.”
He continues, “Had man not been given to invention and experiment, then tonight, sir, you would have eaten your dinner in a cave. You would’ve strewn the bones about the floor then wiped your fingers on a coat of animal skin. In fact, your lapels do look a bit greasy. Good night.” That’s just one example of the sharp dialog in the only screenplay that occasional Hammer assistant director Bert Batt ever wrote. Well, Batt is credited, but I wonder how much producer Anthony Nelson Keys had to do with it; he’s co-credited for the story with Batt.
Most of the personalities involved in Hammer production during its peak of popularity were involved with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. It was directed by Terence Fisher (his next-to-last movie for Hammer) and utilized Arthur Grant (Director of Photography), Bernard Robinson (Art Direction) and James Bernard (Original Music). The team seems to have been firing on all cylinders because this is one well-staged, suspenseful movie that clips along at a perfect pace. It is very entertaining with a particularly well-crafted opening.
What I like about most of the Hammer Frankenstein sequels is that although they usually end up with the creature becoming the Baron’s downfall, the path to arrive at that point is usually different. Here, vital information Frankenstein needs is buried in the insane mind of Dr. Brandt. He thinks he can cure him by relieving the pressure on his brain, but when Brandt suffers a heart attack during a harrowing escape from the institution, Frankenstein must first transplant his brain into another body so he can then successfully perform the procedure.
One thing I like about Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is that the result of the experiment is not a failure; he does not create a monster. Instead, he simply awakens Dr. Brandt in the body of another man. Of course, Brandt is not particularly happy about this, but it does keep the idea crystal clear that Frankenstein is the only monster here.
A controversial scene in the movie is when the Baron attacks the woman (Anna, played by Veronica Carlson) in whose boarding house he resides. After blackmailing her and her fiancée to harbor and assist him, he wanders by her room one night and throws himself upon her. Cushing supposedly hated this scene and Fisher was supposedly forced by the studio to include it. Even though it’s not mentioned in the movie after it happens, I think it makes sense to include it. We seldom see the Baron in a sexual situation. But, they say that rape is not sexual; it’s about anger and control. Therefore, it perfectly fits Frankenstein’s modus operandi.
I also like the idea that in the age of horse and buggy, unless you actually encountered someone, you wouldn’t know what he or she looked like. This allows Frankenstein to wander among his peers unnoticed. When Brandt’s wife thinks she recognizes him on the street, she has only a caricature of him in an editorial cartoon in the newspaper to make a proper identification.
While relatively bloodless, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is nevertheless gruesome. With clever use of both camera and sound, the mostly unseen brain transplant scene is nearly unbearable. Close-up on Cushing, we can tell he’s making an incision around Brandt’s scalp. Pan down, we see a bloody ring around his head. Cushing then grabs a bone saw and places it along the ring. Pan up as Cushing begins sawing. We hear the horrible sound. Pan down, Cushing begins to twist the top of Brandt’s head. Pan up, the expression on Cushing’s face tells us he’s removed it.
Part of his portrayal of Frankenstein that makes Cushing so brilliant is that among all his bad behavior, he’s always a proper gentleman. Dressed impeccably, following murder, rape or surgery, he still expects to follow social graces. Staying at the boarding house, he tells Anna he expects his tea at 7:00 sharp or that he wants two soft-boiled eggs first thing in the morning.
Nearly equal to the terrific opening sequence is the finale, although the actual end of the movie is slightly abrupt. Brandt lures the Baron into a game, telling him that the answers he seeks are behind one of the doors off the foyer. As Frankenstein attempts to open each door, Brandt throws a lantern at him. Having previously spread fuel throughout the house, this eventually creates a conflagration that traps both men inside the burning house.
I continue to truly enjoy Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Although it’s technically a sequel, if stands on it’s own. In fact, I’m pretty sure the explanation given for the Baron’s whereabouts before this movie does not describe the events of the previous sequel, Frankenstein Created Woman. Not all sequels are this good. Not all Hammer films are this good. Heck, not all movies, period, are this good.
Taste the Blood of Dracula
Made about the same time as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Taste the Blood of Dracula was released in the United States on June 7, 1970. For a movie with “Dracula” in the title that barely features the character, it has its moments. One of the better scenes in the movie is the ceremony in which the three members of an exclusive gentleman’s club, under the tutelage of the arrogant Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), attempt to raise Dracula from the grave by drinking the vampire’s blood (hence the title).
But the rest of the movie… Well, let’s just say it’s not one of my favorites. The aforementioned ceremony does not take place until 32 minutes into the movie, which means there’s a lot of exposition before that. And since the main characters are three older men, it’s not that exciting an exposition. There is a younger set of corresponding cast members, but their importance doesn’t become clear until later in the movie. When it does, I must admit it made me appreciate the first 30 minutes more (and perhaps made me wish I had paid better attention).
What I like about all the Hammer Dracula sequels is the way they transition from one to the other. Dracula is usually killed in a dramatic way at the end of one, then brought back to life in the next one from the very place the story left off. The continuity of it all has always engaged me. This is a different approach from the Hammer Frankenstein sequels, which were not always so literally connected.
In Taste the Blood of Dracula, a salesman named Weller (Roy Kinnear) stumbles into the ending of the previous sequel, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and witnesses the vampire’s death. Snatching up the “cloak, signet ring, clasp” and some of his powdered blood, these become the “relics” he can later sell so that Dracula can be brought back to life during a black mass.
Supposedly, Christopher Lee was not going to be in this movie. Instead, Ralph Bates was going to become the Prince of Darkness after the black mass. However, the movie could not be financed without Lee, so this explains the disappearance of Lord Courtley when Dracula appears. It also gives the purpose for the rest of the plot. As Dracula states, “They have destroyed my servant… They will be destroyed.”
And so, Dracula begins a variety of attacks on the three men and their offspring. Sometimes he commands the lovely Alice (Linda Hayden) to do his bidding and sometimes he performs the attacks himself. In either case, he concludes a death by counting down… “the firrrst”, “the seeecond” and “the thirrrd”. And that’s about as much dialog as Dracula has. Regardless of the amount of screen time, it can be argued that Lee’s presence as Dracula still resonates throughout the movie. It’s almost more suspenseful to see what the monster will do to exact his revenge by using other people as his puppets.
As long as there’s a big finale with Dracula, I think it’s fine. And Taste the Blood of Dracula has a pretty good one (although not my favorite of the sequels). Young hero Paul (Anthony Higgins) strips the altar and lays down white cloth and candles. Trapping Dracula inside the abandoned church, he’s forced to the rafters where a cross in the stained glass burns his back and begins the choreography of his eventual demise.
There aren’t as many familiar names behind the scenes in Taste the Blood of Dracula as in most other Hammer films around this time. This was when the public’s taste was changing and the studio was beginning to focus more on the “Hammer Glamour” aspects of its movies. This was the first of four movies Peter Sasdy would direct for Hammer. And the reigns of art direction were taken by Scott MacGregor. After the next sequel, the remaining two would find Dracula in modern times. Even though this one takes place in horse and buggy days, it has a more 60s feel, particularly within the seedy nightclub where the gentlemen’s club meets.
I’m not as fond of the Hammer Dracula movies as I am of the Hammer Frankenstein movies. Taste the Blood of Dracula is not a movie I enjoy revisiting very often. It’s not horrible, I guess, but I do like some of the others, even the later ones, better.
For more on these movies, visit It Came From Beneath My Mind and the Countdown to Halloween 2014.