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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lady Frankenstein (1971) review


Rosalba Neri (Tania Frankenstein), Joseph Cotten (Baron Frankenstein), Paul Muller (Dr. Charles Marshall), Paul Whiteman (Frankenstein's Monster), Herbert Fux (Tom Lynch), Mickey Hargitay (Captain Harris)

Directed by Mel Welles

The Short Version: Simultaneously intriguing and irrepressibly bad Italian horror picture benefits from some provocative sexual subtext in its script that starts off as a typical Frank flick, but quickly morphs into something far more salacious and sleazy. A good cast is on hand amidst the menagerie of choppy editing, sex, nudity and mild gore. Rosalba Neri's Tania Frankenstein makes this failed experiment worthwhile and Eurotrash fans will no doubt have a grand time with this stitched together mishmash of boobs, blood, body parts, bits and pieces.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity and sexual situations***

Baron Frankenstein conducts his experiments in bringing the dead back to life in secret with the help of Dr. Marshall and a slimy grave robber named Lynch. Fresh out of medical school, Tania Frankenstein arrives at her father's castle frustrated over her opposition to become a master surgeon. Immediately after discovering the truth behind her father's work, she wishes to assist him, but he refuses. Upon bringing the creature to life, the thing turns on its creator killing the Baron in the process. The monster escapes and goes on a rampage. Meanwhile, Tania decides to carry on her father's work, but for her own purposes. Initially she convinces Marshall into believing she wishes to build another monster to combat the murderous one. However, her real desire is to build a better lover. Promising her body to the intellectual, yet aged Marshall, Tania manipulates him into assisting her in the creation of another being. By using him as a willing donor, the plan is to transplant Marshall's brain into the body of a much younger, more virile man.

The actor who played Gravis Mushnik in the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) directed this fascinating, if fairly unremarkable take on the Frankenstein mythos. Oddly enough, this Italian film has remained lost in the shuffle for years toiling away in obscurity while the classick FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (1974) or even dreck like FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (1974) get the bulk of the Euro coverage. Welles movie falls somewhere in between those two and while it isn't a particularly good movie, it distinguishes itself by starting out as one thing and ending up as something else. Reportedly this was to have been a Dracula tale, but quickly retooled when production problems arose. Either way, Neri (billed here as Sarah Bay) was signed to be the lead.

Despite looking quite good and semi extravagant in terms of production value, these older movies--and foreign films in particular--could make $200,000 look like a million bucks. Taking the low budget into consideration, the participation of Joseph Cotten was cut down due to his loftier price tag. At the end of his career, the man who starred in Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE (1941) was appearing in Japanese productions such as Toho's fanciful LATITUDE ZERO (1969) other Euro horrors such as Bava's BARON BLOOD (1972) and Martino's ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) as well as Italian crime flicks like Lenzi's SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975). Cotten's exit 35 minutes into the picture would seem to have been for the better since the movie transforms into something else entirely and a far more interesting entity.

The first half is a faithful Italian variant on the classic Shelley story that was being brought to life with rapidity by Britain's Hammer Films, the production company that had made the mad scientist a popular commodity again since 1957. Curiously, LADY FRANKENSTEIN mimics the early Hammer Frank flicks till about midway through when it disposes of the familiar trappings and settles for crass sensationalism and sleaze. It's during the latter half that the movie takes the form of Hammer's Frankenstein films of the 1970s, but pushes the envelope significantly further than Britain's chief horror export ever did. It's also this portion of the film that's the most interesting as well as the most perverse.

There are two monsters here and the one that gets the most screen time is of course the one that's the most hideous. Looking like the Toxic Avenger with an inflated head, the Creature lumbers around at a frenetic pace swatting people left and right with his burly appendages. Curiously enough, most all the women it kills just happen to be naked. There's even a trashy homage to the controversial scene with the little girl by the lake scene in the original FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Here, our monstrous oaf tosses an unconscious, yet pretty and totally nude blonde into a river. While the best of these movies presented their creature as a pitiable, tragic being, the beast on display here is little more than a mindless, vengeful automaton akin to the slab of beefcake seen in Hammer's THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970). In LADY FRANKENSTEIN, the rampage scenes look as if they were shot as an afterthought, or merely included to ramp up the sleazier elements inherent in the script. Up to the moment where the creature kills his creator, there's no indication that the film is going to take the salaciously perverse turn it is about to take.

The other creature in question is the one that Tania is preoccupied with building. In the other films, Frankenstein had noble intentions even if he was murderously delusional in accomplishing his god-like ambitions. For him, it was the betterment of mankind through science. In this film, the doctor's daughter has a more personable agenda. It would seem Tania is only interested in satisfying her lust for sex by creating the perfect lover. Tania falls in love with her father's assistant, Dr. Marshall (his brain, anyways), but considering his age, Tania wishes his intellect to be housed in a much more desirable shell. Since he loves her, Marshall decides to allow his brain to be transplanted into the body of Thomas, a much younger, if mentally handicapped man. The only snag is that Thomas must die first.

Whether it was intended or not, there are some underlying themes of the empowerment and sexual liberation of women. Tania's not only highly intelligent, but a manipulator and a murderess. When we first meet her, there's nothing about her personality that foreshadows the evil hidden within her soul. Likewise, Tania's libido is evidently very healthy. She isn't content with settling for just any man, either. She wants both brains and brawn, wisdom and youth and the only way for her to attain this is to kill people. In the real world, both men and women generally look at what's on the outside as being the chief selling point in deciding who they wish to be with regardless of who the actual person really is on the inside. We can't just do a Dr. Frankenstein and build the perfect mate from various bits and pieces from living and dead subjects. However, Tania does just that, although her true self is revealed at the end during the big monster mash finale when the two superhuman creations battle it out breaking assorted pieces of paper mache furniture over each others heads and dismembering one another.

In making her man, Tania is attracted to Thomas, a retarded groundskeeper. After convincing Charles to conspire in his murder, she seduces Thomas while Charles watches voyeuristically from behind a curtain. During the height of their sex session, Charles suffocates the man while Tania is brought to ecstasy. This whole sequence is rife with perversion the likes of which Hammer would likely never have explored much less flirted with. A similar scene of sexual morbidity is found during the closing moments of the film in what is essentially a flip-side to the sequence described above. Even with its few daring moments and intriguing subtext, LADY FRANKENSTEIN suffers from terrible editing and is covered in a lackluster sheen that nonetheless makes for an entertaining mishmash of provocative themes married to cheap exploitation thrills.

Smut peddler and trash icon Dick Randall wrote the original story which should speak volumes about what you're getting yourself into here. It should also be noted that the import version lost 13 minutes of exposition making an already sloppily edited movie even more haphazard (the recent DVD restoration incorporates the missing footage sourced from what appears to be a cable television broadcast). Even so, it's all held together--shakily as it may be--by Neri's sensual performance. Just as the film is essentially two different styles combined together, so is Tania Frankenstein first shown to be a likable, proud daughter wishing to make a respectable living in a noble profession. Halfway through the picture, her real self spills over revealing a guileful, selfish vixen with strong sexual desires that prove to be her undoing.

Rosalba Neri is easily one of the most familiar Euro starlets in Italian cinema and she often fluctuated between bit parts to supporting roles and the occasional lead like she gets here. Curiously, she was often cast as the love interest in numerous peplums and adventure movies, but when the spaghetti westerns took over, Neri rarely got a substantial part. In the Euroaters, she's around briefly during the first half only for her characters to be killed off shortly thereafter. LADY FRANKENSTEIN is undoubtedly one of her best as it gives her a chance to really cut loose. She did eventually get around to portraying a blood drinking role as the Countess in the trashy THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT (1973) starring Mark Damon and directed by Luigi Batzella who was soon to helm the atrocious SS HELL CAMP (1977).

Euro cult fans will also spy Mickey Hargitay, the star of numerous and occasionally enjoyable barrel scrapers like THE LOVES OF HERCULES (1960), BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965) and 3 BULLETS FOR RINGO (1966). Herbert Fux is a familiar face in a number of European productions possibly most infamously in the controversial international hit, MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) and even in Italian westerns such as Sergio Corbucci's SONNY & JED (1972) starring Tomas Milian, Susan George and Telly Savalas.

Prior to and after LADY FRANKENSTEIN, there had been a number of movies that featured either a mad female scientist or a feminine monstrosity. These include such pictures as BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1958), the hilariously awful JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1966), the subversive FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1966) and even the craptacular Mexican masked wrestling nonsense of SANTO AGAINST THE DAUGHTER OF FRANKENSTEIN (1972). Some of these are notable classics of the good and bad sort, others are well made variants on frequently traveled territory and others are just disposable entertainment. LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971) is something of a combination of all of those. In more capable hands it could have been a far more stable, thought provoking take on the subject. As it stands, it's simply an exploitation picture spearheaded by a dominating female lead and punctuated by a few instances of fleeting brilliance.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory 2 disc set paired with THE VELVET VAMPIRE (1971), TIME WALKER (1982) and GROTESQUE (1988).


Bill D. Courtney said...

I have not seen this in sometime and am downloading it now for a rewatch. I am sure I still have it burned to disk somewhere but can't find it.

Thanks for the all the back story and trivia.

Bill @ The Uranium Cafe

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

Great post! I didn't know "Lady Frankenstein" was to have been a Dracula picture originally.

Speaking of lady mad scientists... have you seen "The Man Who Changed His Mind"?

It's not quite the sort of movie you are discussing here, but at the end of that movie, Anna Lee plays a woman scientist with a glint of madness in her eye that is extremely effective. And she's not even the primary mad scientist in the movie... at least not until the very end.

Maynard Morrissey said...

ah, seen a trailer for this a couple of years ago and immediately knew that I need to watch this. Sadly, it's not that easy to find here in Europe - and it's also not on YT at the moment :)

venoms5 said...

@ Bill: You're welcome. Both LADY FRANK and THE VELVET VAMPIRE are worth purchasing this four film set by themselves.

@ Steve: I reviewed a Roger Corman book by Chris T. Koetting some time back and it's packed with info regarding all of Corman's New World movies. I highly recommend that book, too! No, not seen that one, but I have heard of it.

@ Harry: For four films on that set with extras, it's a bargain. Personally, LADY FRANK and VELVET VAMPIRE (the latter reminds me a lot of Kumels DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS) are worth the set alone.

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