Sunday, October 23, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Terror of Frankenstein' (1977)

Originally titled Victor Frankenstein, this Swedish-Irish co-production was presumably retitled Terror of Frankenstein to entice American home-video audiences, but there is very little terror in director and co-writer Calvin Floyd's sedate adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. Although Shelley's name is misspelled in the opening credits, Terror is touted by its small but devoted fanbase as one of the most faithful takes on her story, and it indeed follows the story beats faithfully, albeit condensed into a 90-minute running time. But while Floyd effectively captures the events of the narrative, his low-key style fails to bring out any of the passion in Shelley's story, or any unique perspective in his telling of it. Terror has about as much artistic vision as an edition of Cliffs Notes.

Shot in a flat, unremarkable style often in overly harsh lighting, Terror avoids being lurid but also avoids being particularly exciting. Leon Vitali, best known for his work with Stanley Kubrick both behind and in front of the camera, plays Victor Frankenstein with a perpetually stunned expression, while Swedish actor Per Oscarsson plays a version of the monster who isn't particularly monstrous. Floyd underplays nearly every element of the story, from the framing device set in the extreme conditions of the Arctic to the horrific acts committed by the monster to the monster's creation itself. Vitali's reaction to the success of his experiment is the exact opposite of screaming "It's alive!" He simply sits holding a bit of copper wire, which he abruptly disconnects once the monster stirs. That's all there is to indicate Victor's remorse at what he's created.

The subdued nature of the storytelling isn't all bad, and Floyd is able to convey a great deal of the narrative with minimal or no dialogue. Shelley's novel is narrated in the first person (in the form of letters and monologues) by various characters, and the movie loses their perspectives without any voiceover narration. But stretches of it become almost like a silent movie, and if Floyd had a more sophisticated visual style, he could have told the story in an interesting, expressionistic way. Instead he just strips it to its most rudimentary elements, and only rarely manages to generate memorable moments. The movie's low budget leads to lots of under-populated locations, but it works in the movie's favor during the sequence when the monster attacks Victor's bride Elizabeth on their wedding night. There's a genuine sense of dread as Victor wanders through his empty mansion, as his entire world has been reduced to the woman he loves and the creation that despises him.

Floyd brings the story to a close with a whimper, as both Victor's death and the monster's farewell make underwhelming impressions. Terror makes a solid case for Shelley's novel as the kind of serious literature that gets adapted into staid movie and TV productions, which bolsters its credibility but doesn't make for a particularly engaging movie.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Young Frankenstein' (1974)

With the relatively recent death of Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein has been getting a lot of renewed attention, and I was a little worried that I'd find it disappointing when watching it again, many years after first seeing it. Honestly, I am not much of a Mel Brooks fan, and while I have a soft spot for Spaceballs because I saw it so many times (mostly in bits and pieces on TV) as a kid, for the most part his humor just doesn't work for me. Blazing Saddles and The Producers both disappointed me when I finally caught up with them as an adult, so I wondered if nostalgia was the only thing behind my enjoyment of Brooks' movies.

But Young Frankenstein holds up remarkably well, and although it's been a while since I last saw Spaceballs, I think I can call Young Frankenstein Brooks' best film. Aside from the clever writing (far less reliant on lowbrow humor and manic desperation than Brooks' other work) and the consistently strong performances, what impressed me most this time around was the direction, something Brooks (like most comedy filmmakers) doesn't get enough credit for. Having watched all the Universal Frankenstein movies so recently, I was really impressed with how Brooks mimics their look and style, in addition to the characters and plot elements he parodies. Brooks actually enlisted the help of set designer Ken Strickfaden, who worked on the original James Whale Frankenstein and brought along many of the original pieces of the set, giving Young Frankenstein an extra level of authenticity.

It's that level of authenticity that really makes the movie work; although it's full of jokes, the story and setting are played straight, and the actors walk a fine line between mocking and respecting their characters. Wilder, who came up with the initial idea and co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks, is fantastic as Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the original Victor Frankenstein and a fellow scientist who at first wants to disavow his ancestor's work. Frederick's evolution from shame over his family name (even changing the pronunciation) to completely embracing his grandfather's legacy is actually pretty compelling, with Wilder conveying real depth along with all of the ridiculous humor. Wilder's steadily rising mania as Frederick becomes more and more caught up in the project of resurrecting the monster (Peter Boyle) never gets old, and it has a certain emotional power to it amid the absurdity.

Wilder gives just one of the movie's numerous great comedic performances; Marty Feldman as overeager hunchbacked assistant Igor, Teri Garr as sexpot Inga and Madeline Khan as Frederick's indifferent fiancee Elizabeth are all excellent, and there are comic gems in many of the smaller roles. Brooks really nails the heightened gothic tone of the Universal Frankenstein movies (particularly the first three), and he parodies iconic elements including the monster's encounters with a little girl and a lonely blind man (played here by Gene Hackman), the intense creation sequence, the town meetings of angry villagers (who later wield torches and pitchforks), and even a very specific parody of Lionel Atwill's one-armed inspector character from Son of Frankenstein. The parody is clearly loving, and it pays tribute to the classic movies without pulling any punches. It's also consistently funny, something that Brooks had trouble with in his later parodies. The combination of style and humor elevates it above a mere spoof into a real cinematic achievement.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell' (1974)

The final movie in Hammer's Frankenstein series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell brings back Peter Cushing to the title role, although as has become customary, it doesn't follow on the continuity of any previous entries. Looking a bit haggard (still recovering from the death of his wife the previous year), Cushing plays a slightly more subdued version of Baron Frankenstein, here sharing screen time with his latest protege, a young doctor named Simon Helder (Shane Briant) who is a devoted disciple of Frankenstein's theories. Attempting to replicate Frankenstein's experiments (albeit unsuccessfully) lands Simon in trouble with the law, and he's convicted of sorcery and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane, where Frankenstein is conveniently the head doctor, practicing under an assumed name. Simon quickly figures out the doctor's true identity, and soon the two have teamed on the latest effort to give life to dead tissue.

The broad strokes of the story are familiar, and some of the ideas are recycled from previous Hammer movies, including giving Frankenstein a mute young woman as a reluctant assistant. But director Terence Fisher, who helmed Hammer's best Frankenstein movies, screenwriter John Elder and Cushing himself know how to give this material an air of class and style, even if the monster (played again by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, returning from The Horror of Frankenstein) looks completely cheap and ridiculous. For reasons that are not quite clear, Prowse plays a sort of Neanderthal man and looks like he's wearing an ape outfit from a '50s monster movie. That makes it tougher to take the movie's ethical quandaries seriously, but Cushing, Briant and the other actors play everything straight, and there are some genuinely disturbing moments.

Many of those come from the movie's setting in the mental institution, where both Frankenstein and Simon live and work (partially because, technically, they're both inmates there). Fisher stages some pretty grotesque scenes involving disturbed patients as well as the asylum's lecherous director (John Stratton), who only tolerates Frankenstein because he's being blackmailed. There's actually a somewhat powerful storyline about trauma for mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith), who doesn't speak because she was shocked into silence when her father attempted to rape her, and only finds her voice again when the monster is being threatened. She still ends up standing in the background most of the time, but at least she has a character arc of sorts.

The other inmates are more cartoonish, and the movie forgets them for long stretches as it focuses on Frankenstein and Simon's experiments, but they help contribute to the atmosphere of danger and unpredictability. Frankenstein here is more sympathetic than he's been in the past, expressing genuine concern for his patients and even admonishing Simon that he would never commit murder in the name of his experiments (which of course he has done in nearly every previous Hammer movie). He's still obsessive and arrogant, but there's a tinge of melancholy and regret to the performance that is appropriate for what would turn out to be his swan song. Although it's not Hammer's best effort, Monster From Hell still sends the series out on a high note.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Flesh for Frankenstein' (1973)

Presented by Andy Warhol, Flesh for Frankenstein is as much an art project as a horror movie, with its deliberately shocking sex and violence taking precedence over scares or narrative coherence. The acting is either deliberately over-the-top or just flat-out bad, depending on your perspective, and the same goes for the screenplay, from writer-director Paul Morrissey. There's an obvious element of camp to the movie, but it also seems to want to be taken seriously, and it's never quite as funny or as unsettling as it sets out to be. Still, it's a bold take on the familiar story, building on the work of the Universal and Hammer series and adding a snide, self-aware Warhol touch.

In one of his earliest roles, character actor Udo Kier plays Baron Frankenstein, although the Frankenstein name is never mentioned in the movie. Kier's Frankenstein is depraved and megalomaniacal, determined to create not one but two creatures (which he refers to as "zombies"), a male and a female, so that they can procreate and spawn a race of super-beings who will obey only Frankenstein. It's a comic-book supervillain's plan, and of course it doesn't make any real sense (nor does it ever seem remotely likely that it will work). Detailed plotting is not this movie's strong suit, but that's not the point of what Morrissey and Warhol are trying to do. They're using the basics of the Frankenstein story to explore sexual debauchery and violence, and how the two go together, which is a worthwhile project even if it mostly just results in a lot of button-pushing grossness.

Some of that grossness is pretty entertaining, as is Kier's ridiculously overheated performance, in which he yells practically all of his lines. There are lots of internal organs spilling out of bodies as Frankenstein attempts to stitch together his two creations; he also eagerly has sex with the mostly lifeless body of the female creation, and not in the standard orifices either (leading to the movie's most famous line, delivered by Frankenstein to his assistant: "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life ... in the gall bladder!"). There's lots of sex and nudity, but it's all grotesque and unpleasant; Frankenstein's wife Katrin (Monique van Vooren), who's also his sister, takes a hunky farmhand (Warhol favorite Joe Dallesandro) as a lover, and one sex scene shows her licking his armpit as icky slurping sounds (clearly post-dubbed) play on the soundtrack.

Not surprisingly, there's homoerotic subtext (or text, really) in the relationship between Katrin's lover and his best friend (Srdjan Zelenovic), whom Frankenstein mistakes for a virulent ladies' man and captures to use as the head and brain of his male creature. Frankenstein wants a creature who'll ravish his female counterpart, but instead he gets a mopey introvert who pines for the strapping servant. That leads to a pretty hilarious scene of Frankenstein and Otto staring down at the male monster's crotch, waiting for some reaction as he's presented with the naked, willing body of his intended mate. Like all of the movie, it's idiotic and clumsy and funny and clever and off-putting in equal measure. That doesn't make it good, per se, but it can be pretty amusing to watch.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Frankenstein: The True Story' (1973)

Originally premiered as a two-part TV movie on NBC in 1973, Frankenstein: The True Story was also released in shorter cuts theatrically overseas, and it appears on DVD as a single three-hour movie, which mostly holds together, although a shorter version might have been a little easier to sit through (I admit I broke up my viewing into segments). Despite its unwieldy length, though, True Story is one of the most sophisticated versions of the Frankenstein story ever filmed, and one that should really be more widely appreciated. Contrary to its title (and to an introduction on the version I watched, hosted by actor James Mason, in which he touts Mary Shelley's boundless imagination), True Story doesn't stick closely to Mary Shelley's novel, nor does it incorporate any real details from the author's life. The closest it comes on that last point is in the character of Dr. Polidori (Mason), who's named after one of the people present during the sojourn in Switzerland when Shelley conceived of the Frankenstein story.

But the movie's Polidori has no connection to the real person; here he's presented as an older scientist who swoops in on the work of Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) and co-opts it for his own ends, and becomes in a way the movie's villain. He takes over the action in the final hour, but despite Mason's top billing, he has very little presence before then. The first hour or so focuses on the relationship between Victor and his colleague Henri Clerval (David McCallum), who's been reimagined as the true inventor of the process that allows Victor to bring his creature to life. McCallum plays Clerval as an obsessive, moody, unpleasant man whose single-minded dedication to discovering the secret to life pushes away everyone around him, except for Victor. The two form a close relationship that is a bit homoerotic, and when Clervel dies suddenly, Victor puts his colleague's brain into the newly formed creature (Michael Sarrazin).

The focus then shifts to the relationship between Victor and the creature, which also has homoerotic undertones, as Victor teaches the childlike creature to appreciate music and natural beauty, only to lock the creature away as it starts to deteriorate. That's when Polidori comes in, demanding that Victor help him in animating another creature, this one female, although it's less about creating a companion for the original creature than it is about Polidori creating a puppet to do his bidding in an ill-defined plan to take over the world.

There's a lot of plot packed into the movie's three hours, including riffs on elements from the novel (like the blind man and his family), but it never feels overcrowded, although the shifts in focus are sometimes a bit jarring. As much as it deviates from the novel, the screenplay co-written by noted novelist Christopher Isherwood grapples with many of the same themes, about the hubris of creating a living being, the line between life and death, the complicated relationship between a being and its creator. The creature here never really evolves beyond a rudimentary intelligence, but it does develop emotionally, from a childlike wide-eyed innocence to a grim vengeance, as mirrored in its physical deterioration. That's contrasted with the second creature, this movie's version of the bride of Frankenstein, whom Polidori creates from the remains of the blind man's granddaughter (Jane Seymour). Named Prima, she's cunning and ruthless, and Seymour is great at delivering her sweetly menacing lines. It's a bit disappointing that she's only in the movie for a short time.

The shorter theatrical cuts of this movie might be a bit more streamlined, but all of its detours are interesting, and until the last 20 minutes or so, the pacing doesn't really flag. The performances are all strong, with Mason and McCallum embodying the mad scientists, and Whiting playing Victor as a sort of hapless, naive bumbler. The climactic confrontation between Victor and the creature is a bit of a letdown (with some poor use of stock footage), but almost everything leading up to it is uncommonly thoughtful, mature and engrossing for a network TV production from the 1970s.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Blackenstein' (1973)

Like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (rushed into production to capitalize on the success of I Was a Teenage Werewolf), Blackenstein was created solely to ride the coattails of a similar low-budget exploitation gimmick, the previous year's Blacula. But whereas Blacula had a certain scrappy charm that has turned it into a cult classic over time, Blackenstein is just an amateurish mess, failing to capture anything entertaining or interesting about the Frankenstein mythos or about the blaxploitation style it's trying to co-opt. It stumbles around as clumsily as its poorly conceived version of the monster, with shapeless scenes, awful prosthetic effects, slack pacing and stilted acting.

Although it's helpfully subtitled The Black Frankenstein, Blackenstein actually features a white guy as its version of Victor Frankenstein, John Hart as Dr. Stein. Holed up in his palatial Southern California estate, Dr. Stein does research on reattaching limbs, and his latest project is Eddie Turner (Joe De Sue), a military veteran who lost both arms and both legs in Vietnam. Stein takes on Eddie's case thanks to Eddie's fiancee Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone), Stein's former protege, who moves in with her mentor while helping Eddie recover. The process that Stein uses makes no real sense ("Dr. Stein just won the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the DNA genetic code," Winifred helpfully explains to Eddie), and unlike Frankenstein, he's not reanimating corpses, merely attaching new limbs to living people (and it's never explained where the limbs come from).

Eddie becomes a monster not as a result of this process, but thanks to sabotage from Stein's assistant Malcolm (Roosevelt Jackson), who's jealous of Eddie and wants Winifred for himself. He switches out some formula in Eddie's injections, and Eddie transforms into a hulking brute who sort of resembles the Universal version of the Frankenstein monster. Eddie wanders off at night and kills mostly random people, eating their entrails like he's a zombie. He goes from a quiet but articulate man in pain to a grunting monster, pretty much the opposite of how the monster develops in Mary Shelley's novel and the better adaptations. There are long, dull sequences of Eddie wandering around deserted alleys, and there's a random interlude in a nightclub, as a comedian tells a rambling joke about a talking dog, and then a lounge singer performs nearly an entire song. Even the climax feels like blatant filler, as Eddie's final confrontation is not with Winifred or Dr. Stein (who take a ridiculously long time to notice that he keeps escaping to kill people) but with a random woman who's never been seen before. He slowly (very slowly) stalks her before being killed by a pack of dogs, even though point-blank bullets had no effect on him just a few scenes earlier.

The best part of the movie comes early on, when Eddie is still in the VA hospital and an angry nurse berates him for buying into the false patriotism of joining the army, and refuses to help him get a drink for his parched throat. It's a glimpse at the blunt social commentary an exploitation movie like this can throw in along with its gore and nudity, but director William A. Levey and screenwriter/producer Frank R. Saletri never follow up on it (the nurse is Eddie's first victim, but he doesn't get a chance to talk again). Instead they just cobble together bits of what has worked for other movies, without any regard for whether they fit together or make sense in context. No wonder the result is such an ugly beast.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Lady Frankenstein' (1971)

The Italian B-movie Lady Frankenstein gets an unexpected boost from screen legend Joseph Cotten, whose career downturn is this movie's good fortune. Cotten only shows up as Baron Frankenstein for a little less than half the movie, because he has to give way to the title character, but he brings a certain gravitas to his cheesy dialogue while he's there. The Baron's daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri) decides to carry on her father's work after he is killed by his first creation, which of course does not work out well for anyone. The elder Frankenstein has spent his entire life working on a formula to revive dead tissue, and just as Tania returns home from her own studies, he's finally perfected it, using the damaged brain of an executed criminal in the body he's cobbled together. But the brain is damaged and the creature ends up with a deformed face and a bulbous head that kind of looks like Marvel Comics villain the Leader. He kills Frankenstein, and then goes on a rampage in the surrounding town.

Tania's idea for stopping this creature? Make another creature, of course! She's convinced that a new creature will be able to stop the damaged original, who kills more people every day. Tania and her father's longtime assistant Charles (Paul Muller) are kind of hilariously inept at covering up what really happened to Tania's father, and the local police inspector (Mickey Hargitay, father of Mariska) is on to them from the start. Charles is not-so-secretly in love with Tania, despite being much older than her and presumably having known her since she was a child, but Tania cruelly and matter-of-factly points out to him that he's just not attractive enough for her, physically. However, she's attracted to his brain, so what if they put his brain in the hunky body of the mentally challenged stable boy? That would totally work, right?

Well, not quite, although it does afford director Mel Welles the chance to showcase several sex scenes that were no doubt a requirement from the Italian production company, and it gives Lady Frankenstein a bit of a feminist perspective, in that Tania takes complete charge of the process, proving herself just as amoral and arrogant as any previous Frankenstein. She dismisses men who downplay her academic accomplishments, orders Charles around and eventually creates a monster that is more powerful and sophisticated than the one her father created. Of course, she also ends up consumed by her own god complex, just like pretty much every iteration of Frankenstein, and eventually dies in the requisite destruction of her lab, which burns around her as she has sex with her creation. It's a kinky ending for a film that strives to transcend its softcore B-movie origins, and succeeds more often than you might expect.