Hammer Horror Series: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
by Steve Habrat
That evil Baron Victor Frankenstein is back and more hellish than ever in director Terence Fisher’s 1969 Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the fifth entry in Hammer’s brutal and bloody Frankenstein series. Back with a vengeance, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ushers in a pulverizing wave of emotion that will shatter your heart and a number of unbearably tense moments that Hammer’s Frankenstein series was noted for. A bit different than other Frankenstein films, this entry in the series lacks a grunting, groaning hulk of a monster and replaces him with a mad colleague who has undergone an icky brain transplant. Not as heavy on the horror and more of a thrill ride, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed finds Peter Cushing once again stepping in as the infamous mad scientist and playing him with such demented fury, it practically sends the viewer into shock. While the lack of a deformed corpse shuffling around the countryside may be a bit of a disappointment, the twisted story and the lack of a clean cut hero makes this installment one that really hits you right in the gut. And I dare you not to be downright mesmerized by the chilling opening sequence and that grim ending.
The monstrous Baron Victor Frankenstein (Played by Peter Cushing) has been prowling the streets in secret and gruesomely claiming victims for his terrifying experiments. After one of his victims survives and discovers the whereabouts of his secret lab, Frankenstein is forced to take shelter at a local boarding house that is run by young landlady named Anna (Played by Veronica Carlson). Under a new name, Frankenstein keeps largely to himself but after he discovers Anna’s fiancé, Karl (Played by Simon Ward), who happens to be a doctor at the local mental asylum, is stealing drugs and selling them, he blackmails the young couple into helping him with his macabre work. The couple soon learns that Frankenstein is attempting a brain transplant on a former colleague named Professor Richter (Played by Freddie Francis) who has been locked up in an insane asylum for many years. As the police close in on the trio, the experiment on Professor Richter doesn’t go according to Frankenstein’s plan and Richter sets out to make Frankenstein pay for his ungodly experiments.
Perhaps the strangest touch to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the fact that there isn’t the usual Frankenstein Monster that we are all familiar with. This creature is certainly sympathetic as everyone he stumbles across is terrified of him (he means them no harm) but he actually speaks and very intelligently at that. The only thing truly horrifying about his appearance is the slew of stitches that dot his forehead like a hellish crown. Later in the film, the Monster (or Professor Richter) goes to see his wife who is just sickened over what Frankenstein has done to her husband. It is emotionally intimate and touching as Professor Richter hides out of his wife’s sight and calmly tries to comfort her. Mind you, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed certainly asks for plenty of empathy but this isn’t all a pity party. Fisher opens the film with plenty of bloody, gore, and severed limbs to make us all a little queasy. The opening finds a masked Frankenstein prowling the shadows and lobbing off heads as blood splatters every which way. If that scene doesn’t get your heart pounding, surely the sequence that finds a water main suddenly bursting and a rotten corpses bubbling up from its muddy grave as Anna tries desperately to hide the body from onlookers will have you covering your eyes. It’s smartly conceived horror sequences like this that prove to the viewer that Fisher and Hammer may have been making a spin-off franchise film but they were determined to do it with plenty of style and fury.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also gets a boost from the always-spectacular Cushing as the demented Frankenstein. If you think you’ve seen him at the height of his evil, wait until you see him here. He hilariously cuts down a group of over opinionated gentlemen who criticize his past experiments. As he overhears their conversation, the sullen Frankenstein turns to them and says, “I didn’t know you were all doctors!” They quickly explain that they are not doctors and Frankenstein hits them with, “Oh, I thought you knew what you were talking about.” When he is verbally ripping someone to shreds, Frankenstein commits other monstrous acts including a heartless murder and the stomach-churning assault of Anna. It is also terrifying the way he forces Karl into murder but what is even more chilling is that Karl doesn’t put up much of a fight, although he does squirm but mostly during the experiments. The climax of the film largely belongs to Francis, who really manages to get us on his side as Richter. Then we have Carlson and Ward as the young couple forced into terrible acts by their evil puppet master. It certainly isn’t easy to watch Karl get tangled in a web of death but there are points where he doesn’t seem to mind at all. Anna, meanwhile, is more of a prisoner than Karl, kept around only for Frankenstein to rape and make coffee.
In typical Frankenstein fashion, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ends with a fiery confrontation between Richter and his creator. You will be cheering as Richter unleashes charred revenge on the sick and twisted Frankenstein. In a way, the film is disappointing because we are so naturally used to seeing a decaying corpse brought back to life through electricity that it does come as a bit of a shock when this “Monster” begins speaking in a polite manner. The positive is that it does add a fresh spin on the material and it doesn’t resort to rehashing what we have already seen in previous Frankenstein films. The other disappointment is that most of the scares are found at the beginning and then the film transitions into a more of a suspense thriller with lots of bright red blood. Overall, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is certainly a strong installment in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, one that isn’t afraid to embrace plenty of extremely unethical behavior and plenty of fiery doom and gloom when the curtains fall on the climax. This is a nasty movie with infinite amounts of madness burning in its blood red eyes. An essential film for Hammer fans.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is available on DVD.
The Damned (1969)
by Steve Habrat
There is much to behold and be repulsed at in Italian director Luchino Visconti’s erotic and melodramatic The Damned. Mirroring the rise and fall of Nazi Germany in a wealthy industrialist family, The Damned is an immensely profound film, slower than molasses and extremely homoerotic, certainly not a film for a mainstream viewer and only for a cinephile. At 155 minutes, Visconti puts quite a bit on our plate from the very beginning and does not hesitate to wear you out by attempting to keep up with everything that plays out in The Damned. It certainly had me at the brink of taking a time out half way through it to gather myself for the second act. A highly acclaimed film, The Damned is a hearty examination of what caused the Nazi party to cave in on itself, the perfidy, selfishness, corruption, and perversion that caused what was seen by many at the time as an unstoppable machine to rust and malfunction. As I watched The Damned, I became concerned with how all of these events were going to pay off and how they were going to affect me. On one hand, I was disturbed by the despicable nature of these monsters but on the other, I was saddened by their greed and deceit, their willingness to cut each other’s throats without blinking an eye.
The Damned introduces us to the members of the von Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family who is now facing the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany. The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Played by Albrecht Schoenhals) calls a meeting on the night of the Reichstag fire to discuss the future of the family and their company. After a spat about doing business with the Nazi party, the Baron ends up murdered. The vice president of the family firm, Herbert Thalmann (Played by Umberto Orsini), who detests the Nazi party, is framed for the murder of the baron and he ends up fleeing the Gestapo. The uncouth SA officer Konstantin (Played by René Koldehoff) takes control of the family firm in the wake of the baron’s death. When Konstantin takes control, a battle begins within the family about who will get control over Konstantin. The showdown sucks in Konstantin’s disinterested son Gunther (Played by Renaud Verley), the scheming widow of the Baron’s only son Sophie (Played by Ingrid Thulin), Sophie’s new lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Played by Dirk Bogarde), and her sinister and pedophilic son Martin (Played by Helmut Berger). Playing the family members against each other is SS officer Aschenbach (Played by Helmut Griem), who is only interested in convincing the family to partner with the Nazi party so they can use them for weapons manufacturing.
The Damned is an epic film that is proficiently made and ends up being a soaring force. The cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi is absolutely spectacular as they are largely working within a moody mansion where the family members lurk in the shadows and plot against one another. They approach the material with a soft focus, making the film seems like a bloody and ominous soap opera rather than a full-blown drama. The film should be shown in film school for it’s lighting, as it has to be some of the most dazzlingly lighting I have ever laid eyes on outside of an Ingmar Bergman film. At times, it resembles a film noir and then at times, it is lit in bright reds, indicating to the viewer that we are in a hellish nightmare. I also found the way that Visconti would suddenly push his camera in at his characters to be an interesting choice, one where he pushes the viewer right into the personal space of these vile individuals. At times, I wanted to be as far away from them as I possible could.
The Damned also features a legendary performance from Helmut Berger as the bisexual Martin, a frightening drug addicted pedophile that sexually assaults his mother and performs a dance routine in drag. A good majority of The Damned’s run time is shared with Martin and his decadent ways, the film becoming a faint study of a disturbed man in addition to the parallel that it already is. Yet even in all of his devilish ways, Martin is quite a sympathetic character due to the neglect he faces from his selfish mother. He is all but forgotten by the family and when he tries to express himself, he is met with eye rolling disgust from the conservative Baron, who is not very amused by his drag routine. Would things be different for Martin if he had someone genuinely accept and pay attention to him? Would he choose the path the he ultimately does? It’s possible and maybe some of his unforgivable actions would have been avoided. I have always been fascinated by films that force us to get inside the mind of the villain and The Damned ends up being one of those films, but Berger is so persuasive as Martin, allowing himself to get lost in the role, I really wanted out of his mind and to not have to look at his wicked eyes.
I will agree that The Damned is essential viewing for those who wish to study cinema or have a strong interest in the history of Nazi Germany. The film devises ways to work in real events, adding to the epic nature of the film. One scene places us right inside the “Night of the Long Knives,” which was when the SS massacred members of the SA, who were growing dissatisfied with Hitler . The way the scene plays out, heavy on the homoeroticism at first and then the slow build up to a flurry of bullets and death is a testament to how to properly mount tension within a motion picture. Next to Martin’s drag performance, it is one of the film’s highlight moments. The Damned, however, does begin to feel its length and those with a short attention span need to be warned before jumping into this. There are lots of extended conversations between tons of characters, making the task of keeping up with every scheme a real chore. I usually don’t have much of a problem sitting through long films but there were moments that were agonizing to endure. After the film ended, I realized that certain moments are agonizing because of their subject matter and depraved disposition, especially when Martin rapes his mother. The film was met with quite a bit of controversy when it was released and it is certainly not difficult to see why. The film is still harrowing to this day, especially the sequences of implied pedophilia. The Damned is never monotonous but rather the subject matter itself weighs heavy on the viewer, as it should. No one ever said that mingling with the devil and his minions was a walk in the park, and that is just what The Damned forces us to do.
The Damned is now available on DVD.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.
by Steve Habrat
If you’ve ever found yourself pondering about what film Roman Polanski made after Charles Manson and his bloodthirsty band of cult killers slaughtered his wife, his unborn baby, and a handful of his friends, the answer to that question is a dreary, mud caked version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps one of the bleakest films you will ever see, considering that in August of 1969, several of his loved ones were so senselessly slain, the film was made out of his engulfing depression, and the result is all sound and fury indeed, but not necessarily signifying nothing. In fact, Macbeth signifies a lot, mostly the events that surrounded the Tate-LaBianca murders. There have been a handful of films made on the notorious Charles Manson, but none have been as lingering as Macbeth is. Polanski molds the tragedy to fit with certain events from the infamous murders, descending into trippy montages, blood-spattered hallucinations, and at the center, a devious Macbeth who dispatches his loyal cohorts to slaughter at will to make the prophecy that was predicted by a motley band of witches remains true. Of course, anyone who has studied the Manson Family murders understands that Charles Manson was a fan of the psychedelic rock record The White Album by The Beatles. He was convinced the album was a witchy message to him about the end of the world, a race riot between the whites and blacks that would devour the earth and leave only him and his followers to rule the world.
In Roger Ebert’s review of Macbeth, Ebert declares that the reason the provocative Polanski elected Macbeth as the film he would make in the wake of his beautiful wife’s death is elusive, and I have to agree with his insight to an extent. It is confounding that he would find solace in the Bard’s material, but Polanski has also made the point that he found himself in a bottomless pit of depression, a depression he had to so desperately shake from his life. He makes the claim that he always wanted to tackle a Shakespearean project and that critics would have labeled any film he would have made as a subtle commentary on the murders. After watching his vision, I found it be one of his most terrifying films (creepier than Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby), and perhaps a more personal, cathartic film. It’s virtually impossible to watch the intrusion on Macduff’s castle while he is away by two murderers who hack up his wife and children. Maybe it is, after all, easy to see why Polanski gravitated to this material. There is fury and superstation leaking out every shot in this film to the point where watching it in halves makes it easier to endure. I should add that it is even harder to watch the climax, which is a handheld shot of a savage fight between Macbeth and Macduff, and not think that maybe this is a personal fantasy of Polanski, where he imagines himself as the vengeful Macduff attacking the despotic and ignorant “king”–Manson.
If you find yourself drawn to this film, you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is Shakespeare after all and the furthest thing from modern day interpretations like 1996’s Romero & Juliet or 2001’s O. The medieval surroundings may send some casual film viewers fleeing, especially when the Bard’s dialogue starts erupting from the mouths of these thespians. For the viewers who watch this with a glass of red wine in their hand, theater junkies at that, they will be tantalized with overdramatic delight as they quote along with the renowned dialogue. I’ve always found medieval projects a tough pill to swallow, and theater even more grueling. Although I find that the underlying implications this film contains to be attention grabbing and an opportunity to watch someone mend wounds that will never truly fade. I don’t believe Polanski when he says that this was an excuse to get back to work. In fact, I think it would be more commendable if he were to admit just that, that it was made in response to the atrocity that shook his very existence and to publicly mend.
Polanski’s Macbeth is a gruesome affair, one that seems hell-bent on showing the audience the carnage that Polanski saw in his home. The film is also a Playboy Production, yes the same Playboy responsible for the nudie magazines created by Hugh Hefner. He serves as a producer here, and judging by some of the films graphic nudity, heavily involved with some of the production, especially with the casting of the beautiful Francesca Annais as Lady Macbeth. This film contains a sequence in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nude, a result of oppressive fear, guilt, and paranoia for all the terrible manipulation running rampant in her life. I will only sum up Macbeth briefly, as many should already be familiar with the story. The story follows a Scottish lord Macbeth (Played by Jon Finch) who stumbles upon three witches whom prophesize that he will become king. Macbeth becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming the ruler, taking control of fate and destiny, and murdering the current king. Macbeth gets what he wants and becomes a vicious ruler who will stop at nothing to keep his secret that he murdered the previous ruler to ascend the throne even as suspicion bears down on him. Meanwhile, his wife Lady Macbeth slowly descends into madness in the wake of her guilt.
There is much to compare and contrast with real events in Polanski’s Macbeth. The witches could be seen as mirroring The Beatles, who Manson believed were predicting Helter Skelter, which would bring about the end of the world. He believed that he was to become king of a new world and his followers would be his loyal disciples. Loyal in the pre-apocalypse they were, when at his command, they were sent out to butcher innocent people, primarily wealthy white families and leave “witchy” messages in the hopes that the white cops who would find the scene blame African Americans, sparking a race war. The witches prove to be false, dabbling with psychedelics, which coincidentally The Beatles were too at the time. I have also pointed out the similarities in the siege on Macduff’s home, which ends in slaughter. Funny enough, he is away while this takes place. Polanski has said that he found the inspiration for this scene from when a Nazi SS officer terrorized his home. Manson was also rumored to be a sympathizer of the Nazi party. The scene in which Macbeth stabs to death King Duncan is also graphically violent as Macbeth stabs relentlessly, evocative of what the Manson Family did to his friends and family, all of which were stabbed multiple times all over their bodies. Even during a trippy hallucination montage, we catch a brief glimpse of a baby being ripped from the mother’s womb, an image all to personal to Polanski, who lost his unborn child at the hands of the murderous intruders.
Earlier on in this review, I said that Macbeth was Polanski’s most terrifying film, even more so than Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, two films I highly respect and our proud members of the horror community. Macbeth scares because of it’s scowling pessimism, understandable at the time. It scares because of Polanski’s bobbing authenticity and the darkness of its soul. Macbeth is the ultimate Manson Family film, proving to be higher brow than the decadent exploitation wannabe The Manson Family and more eloquent than Manson, My Name is Evil, which both tackle the Family head on. I believe that Polanski denies that this film is about Manson because he wishes to give Manson zero satisfaction. Manson was blatantly power hungry and had a voracious desire for fame. Definitive if slyly indirect, Macbeth peers into a troubled soul, stanch and grisly about what it displays, even if there is some dishonesty and recoil when it is confronted.