Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lady Frankenstein (Italy, 1970)

One of the more infamous films that has entered the public domain in the US and that, as such, can be viewed for free on any number of film websites, including here at the fabulous Internet Archives. Lady Frankenstein combines everything that is good and bad about Eurotrash horror, and as such it seems almost to have as many yay-sayers as nay-saysers: tendentially, perhaps more people seem to find that the film sucks the big one, but others are just as willing to claim that “Lady Frankenstein has to be one of the most seriously underrated horror films of all time” (to quote
Yes, Lady Frankenstein is indeed underrated: it is both worse than you've probably heard, but more entertaining as well. It is the type of film that has you laugh out loud at the ridiculousness and cheapness of the production as often as you drop your jaw at the audacity of what just happened. But face it: any film that shows a hot babe like Rosalba Neri (as Tania Frankenstein) naked, biting her hand to stifle her orgasm just as her crippled husband Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller, of Vampiros Lesbos [1971 / trailer] and dozens of other Eurotrash major and minor classics) kills her hunky fuck (an uncredited Marino Masé of Contamination [1980 / trailer] as Thomas Stack, the mentally deficient young handyman) can’t be all bad.
Somewhere in Europe in the early 18th century—maybe the time and setting is revealed in the film, but then in passing—Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotton, of Citizen Kane [1941 / trailer], The Third Man
[1949 / trailer], Niagara [1953 / trailer], Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964 / trailer], The Abominable Dr. Phibes [1971 / trailer] and Soylent Green [1973 / trailer], to list but a few of his good ones) is as always busy trying to create life from the human body parts, which he purchases from the local group of grave robbers led by Tom Lynch (Herbert Fux of Der Gorilla von Soho [1968 / trailer] and Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält [1970 / trailer]) and sews back together again with the help of his intelligent, game-legged and morally torn assistant Dr. Marshall (Muller). The good doctor’s daughter Tania (Neri), having finished her studies at the university to become a surgeon—a plot device that is probably less proto-feminist than the director Mel Welles was apt to claim than simply expedient for the plot—arrives home and reveals herself as equally obsessed to create new life from dead people as her daddy. A night or two later, Daddy Frankenstein finally succeeds using the damaged brain of a recently hanged murderer, but the funky-looking creature (Paul Whiteman, in his only known film) ain’t too happy about it: he promptly bear-hugs the doctor to death and then literally saunters out the front door and across the countryside killing those who stole his remains and an occasional villager or naked girl. (There is a great scene in which the creature stumbles upon a dressed man making out with a naked lass; in an odd homage to the original Frankenstein [1931 / trailer] he promptly pick her up and tosses her into the water.) In the meantime, Dr Marshall and Tania marry and the law shows up on the scene in the guise of Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay of Jayne Mansfield's bed [1958-1964], Bloody Pit of Horror [1965 / trailer] and Delirium [1972 / unofficial trailer]) to investigate the "murder" of the Baron by someone unknown. He hardly believes their story, but has no proof otherwise. Harris wanders around most of the film making sly insinuations and insults, but he is soon distracted by the many murders of the wandering creature. Tania pussywhips her new husband into helping her kill the dumb stud houseboy Thomas—a literal case of la petite mort, as the French say—so as to exchange the two men’s brains. Then Marshall would be strong and healthy and good looking, and Tania would have a strong, intelligent stud muffin that can bonk her brains out and revenge the death of her daddy. She gets everything she wants and more just as the angry villagers, following the destructive path of the creature, storm the castle….
Wow. They really don’t make movies like this anymore, do they?
Director Mel Welles, who died in 2005, was an American character actor who moved to Europe in the mid-60s and is best remembered (if at all) as Gravis Mushnik, the flower shop owner in the original version of Little Shop of Horrors (1960 / trailer / full movie). In Europe, in addition to his successful career as an actor, Welles also wrote, produced and even directed a few films—Lady Frankenstein being the best known and, perhaps, the "best". (Island of the Doomed / Maneater of Hydra [1967 / short clip]—a Eurotrash distant cousin of Little Shop of Horrors starring the legendary Cameron Mitchell—is undoubtedly the worst.)
For a low budget production, Lady Frankenstein looks pretty good outside of the laboratory and when not focused on the creature. The typically atrocious dubbing of the film hurts only in the accents: Neri sound properly European, but almost everyone else seems to have been dubbed by Californians and the accents grate with the visual tone of the film. There are titties galore and a little bit of blood now and then, but the gore is not that much more than an early Hammer film, the look of which Welles was obviously trying to emulate in his own, less-than-successful manner. The film music is startlingly and effectively Brian Enoish on occasion (not his Roxy Music or pop album days, but his ambient noise days), on other occasions it is oddly bland. (Composer Alessandro Alessandroni, by the way, is a name not unknown to those who love Italian "Incredibly Strange Music"; he also scored such "classics" as The Devil’s Nightmare [1971 / trailer], The Mad Butcher [1972 / trailer] and Bruno Mattei’s infamous S.S. Extermination Love Cap [1977].)
The film is surprisingly quick, its 96 minutes flying by more quickly than with many other better-made film, and some of the humor actually seems on purpose (like the scene in which a naked babe suddenly pops out from beneath the covers of Lynch’s bed to supply him an alibi). Neri looks hot in and out of her clothes, but she is actually a better actress physically than verbally. (No, it's not about mammeries here: she can simply do more with her eyes and body language than with her voice.) Were Lady Frankenstein a man she would probably be described as "driven" instead of with terms like "cold-hearted bitch", as she is in more than one online review, for she shows all the heartlessness and single-mindedness of a CEO—only she gets her rocks of with the reanimated dead instead of with call girls. Still, even if she is much too conniving and cold-hearted to gain the viewer’s sympathy—other than as an anti-hero—she is actually a better monster-maker than her own dad. Daddy Frankenstein’s monster, with his dorky head and deformed face and inability to figure out how he wants to walk, is a laugh every time the camera actually focuses on him.
To be blunt, Lady Frankenstein probably succeeds despite itself. It displays none of the class or talent found in such Eurotrash masterpieces as Nightmare Castle (1965 / trailer)—which also features Paul Muller—or Daughters of Darkness (1971 / trailer) or even well-produced trash such as Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973 / trailer), but for all its flaws, Lady Frankenstein never bores and its underlying perversity is oddly appealing. It is, in the end, a mildly well-made piece of gothic Eurotrash with titties and blood—and as such, all that it needs to make for a fun night is a six-pack or two in the fridge.

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