Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

Baron von Frankenstein (Udo Kier) lives in isolation with his sister Baroness Katrina von Frankenstein (Monique van Vooren) and their children Monica (Nicoletta Elmi) and Erik (Marco Liofredi). The Baron has already completed a female creature (or zombie, as he calls her, played by gorgeous Italian model Dalila Di Lazzaro) and has nearly finished her male counterpart; he is now looking for a suitably virile head, and for some reason he is determined that it must have the perfect nose. Once the male is completed, he plans to mate them to breed a Serbian master race (presumably all with perfect noses) that he can rule over.

As the Baron's sexual energy is all poured into his creations (quite literally), the Baroness seeks sexual fulfilment with a horny young farmhand, Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro), who she has caught in flagrante delicto with several young women. By sheer coincidence, the Baron also has his eye on Nicholas, but in a case of mistaken identity he decides that Nicholas's friend Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic) is the one with the perfect head ("Look at that nasem!"), not realising that Sacha is a sexually repressed homosexual on the verge of entering a monastery. One enormous pair of shears later, the Baron's male creature has a new head, but the Baron's plans to mate him with the female creature do not go as planned. Indeed, the final act of the movie sees almost every character having their desires thwarted in extremely gruesome fashion.

The only exceptions are the Baron and Baroness's two young children. Through all of this, Monica and Erik have been watching their parents' activities closely. The movie opened with them imitating the Baron's experiments using a doll (which bled when decapitated); it ends with them taking up scalpels and closing in on sole survivor Nicholas, who is suspended helpless from the ceiling. It had been mentioned that the Baron and Baroness's parents are coming to visit. I wonder how they will react to what they find...

It's easy to see why Flesh for Frankenstein horrified many viewers on its first release in 1973. It was released with Andy Warhol's name attached to it, which drew in people who would normally not go anywhere near an exploitative horror movie. Even those who heeded Warhol's affinity for trash as art would have been troubled by what they saw here. The combination of hoary horror tropes with vivid gore and sex would be troubling enough, but the bloody and explicit scenes of necrophilia are still beyond the pale forty years later. Not content with the usual orifices, the Baron opens the stitching on his female creation and penetrates her internal organs, leading to the movie's most infamous line (parodying Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris): "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder!"

I first saw Flesh for Frankenstein on video in the '90s, and loved its pitch-black humour and outrageous combination of sex and gore. Watching it again now, it seems more extreme than ever and just as entertaining. It's a good looking, lushly produced movie with a beautiful score, which just makes all of the taboo-busting seem all the more ripe. I'd love to see it in its original 3D, just to see the various scenes where blood and guts were clearly supposed to jut out at the audience. I'd snap up a 3D blu-ray in a second, but I'd much rather see it on the big screen.

The blood and gore is played for laughs, with the camera often lingering on patently fake props of severed heads and limbs, and yet I still found much of it to be quite queasy. Part of this is doubtless because of the atmosphere of absolute depravity that permeates the entire movie. I doubt that many people get turned on watching it. In fact, most scenes featuring sex and nudity are immediately followed by scenes of extreme gore, as if the movie is deliberately cock-blocking the audience. Not that the sex is itself particularly titillating; one hilarious scene features full-on armpit sucking, complete with the wettest sound effects imaginable.

It's fun to look at the ways in which the filmmakers play with and invert ideas from earlier takes on Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley's novel and James Whale's movie Bride of Frankenstein, a male creature is made first, and then a mate is provided; here the female creature is the first to be completed, and a male is created specifically to mate with her (Husbandry of Frankenstein). In Whale's first Frankenstein movie, a "criminal brain" is accidentally substituted for the desired "normal brain"; here the desired "virile heterosexual" head is missed and a "repressed homosexual" head is substituted in error. In the novel, Frankenstein marries his adopted sister; here he has married his biological sister. And then there's the simple fact that Frankenstein's creature(s) are usually depicted as looking monstrous (a rare exception is the made-for-tv movie Frankenstein: the True Story, also from 1973 and co-written by Christopher Isherwood); here they are both depicted as attractive and desirable, despite their wetly fresh scars complete with heavy stitching.

German actor Udo Kier is perfect in the role of Baron von Frankenstein. His unique line delivery and distinctive good looks ensure that the Baron is a consistently funny and charismatic presence, even though he is never even remotely sympathetic. Kier had already been in several movies - most notably the notoriously gruesome Mark of the Devil, for which audiences were given sick bags - but Baron von Frankenstein was his breakthrough role and lead to a prolific career as a beloved cult actor in all manner of genre, mainstream and arthouse movies. Writer/director Paul Morrissey quite literally discovered Kier on his way to make the movie - they just happened to be sitting next to each other on the plane to Italy and struck up a friendship.

For me, the other most notable cast member is Nicoletta Elmi as Monica. A very distinctive-looking young girl with red hair and freckles, Elmi made memorable appearances in a number of Italian horror movies of the period. Many people remember her as the cruel child who impales a lizard (seemingly for real) in Dario Argento's Deep Red; she also had notable roles in two Mario Bava movies, Baron Blood and Twitch of the Death Nerve, Luigi Bazzoni's Footprints on the Moon, and as the main victim in Aldo Lado's chilling child-murder giallo Who Saw Her Die?

Elmi's biggest role was as the lead in Massimo Dallamano's possession movie The Cursed Medallion, at age 11. Her final film to date was as the beautiful, sinister usherette in Lamberto Bava's Demons. She subsequently retired from acting (aged 21!) and has since become either a doctor or a speech therapist, depending on which source you trust. I'd love for someone to track her down and interview her about her sterling Italian horror movie career.

The other actors acquit themselves well enough, although campy over-acting or wooden non-acting are the order of the day. Arno Juerging is particularly funny as Frankenstein's assistant Otto, though he would make a bigger mark in Blood for Dracula (more about that later). Monique van Vooren is effective as Baroness Katrina von Frankenstein, managing to create some sympathy for a self-centred character whose dialogue is largely savage invective.

Although it was written & directed by the American Paul Morrissey, best known for the films he made for Andy Warhol, Flesh for Frankenstein was made in Italy with a mostly European cast and a talented Italian crew. For example, cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller had shot the classic Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and went on to such things as Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso and Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper, while special effects designer Carlo Rambaldi worked on everything from Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve to Alien and E.T.. Morrissey's only import was Joe Dallesandro, from his Warhol movies, whose New York accent sticks out like a sore thumb.

Prolific genre director Antonio Marghareti was credited as co-director on Italian prints for quota purposes, and in an interview in Fangoria he took credit for "saving" the movie, saying that he took over directing both this and its sister film Blood for Dracula at the producers' insistence because of Paul Morrissey's incompetence. Both Morrissey and Udo Kier have disputed this, with Kier saying that he was never directed by anyone other than Morrissey. It seems likely that Marghareti did some second-unit work, directing some special effects sequences (e.g. a bat attack on Monica & Eric).

Speaking of Blood for Dracula, that movie was made back-to-back with this one. The story goes that they wrapped this one in the morning, Udo Kier, Arno Juerging and Joe Dallesandro got their hair cut during the lunch break, and then they started filming Blood for Dracula that afternoon. We'll be looking at that one next. Until next time, then...

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