Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

21 Nov

You know what? The most disturbing thing in this image is poor Otto's criminally bad wig. At least, I hope it's a wig.

I cannot, in good conscience, say that “Flesh for Frankenstein” is a good film. It is, in fact, a bad film. But it’s a really good bad film. Following me? Some moviegoers love a good bad movie every now and again while others just can’t stand them, period. I’m of the former camp, and this odd re-imagining of the classic Frankenstein tale is ripe with welcome weirdness for those inclined to enjoy this type of film.

Baron Frankenstein (the incomparable Udo Kier) is an egotistical and self-absorbed scientist obsessed with creating a master race who will do only his bidding. He believes the Serbian people to possess the proper genetic material for his uber-race and so has devoted his attention to having his henchman/assistant Otto (Arno Juerging) procure only the highest quality Serbian parts for his creations. Frankenstein believes he has built the perfect female (Dalila Di Lazzaro), but his male is lacking a head, and the scientist is especially concerned about locating one with a perfect “nasum” and one which will have the appropriate drives to begin producing his master race.

Meanwhile his sister/wife, the Baroness Katrin Frankenstein (Monique van Vooren) is feeling neglected by her brother/husband and is irritated by having to constantly deal with her son and daughter/nephew and niece. (Yep.) She’s especially perturbed by a farmhand she keeps catching in various states of undress with various village girls. When Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro) mars a picnic she’s planned with her children with his gallivanting, she orders him to appear at the castle the following morning for a reprimand.

Unencumbered by the thought of losing his job (or worse), Nicholas persuades his friend Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic) to join him in an afternoon of fun at a local brothel. This friend has recently decided to join a monastery. The reasoning behind his decision becomes clear when he appears to be more interested in Nicholas than in the willing ladies vying for attention. Unfortunately for both the men, Baron Frankenstein has spied them entering the brothel and has decided one of them will provide his missing head. Most unfortunately for the reluctant Sacha, the Baron wrongly identifies him as the lustier of the pair, and so he loses his head in the name of science.

Nicholas awakes and not-so-quickly realizes something terrible has happened, but he makes his appointment with the Baroness anyway. She gets to the point quickly. His reprimand is more of  a “reprimand”; she has certain, ahem, matters she needs tended to, and she hires Nicholas to see those needs get met. With the Baron stitching a dead man’s head onto a body downstairs, and the Baroness putting the only man who can link the scientist to the crime to work upstairs, it’s only a matter of time before the situation gets dangerous … for everyone involved.

Knowing the plot of “Flesh for Frankenstein” is really only tangential to enjoyment of the film. Much of the best action is  fairly unrelated to the story as a whole, and includes the needless bits of gore, violence, nudity and sex that take this movie from a schlocky horror knock-off to a fantastic cult gigglefest. There’s no way to keep a straight face through most of the yuckiness, including Baron Frankenstein’s seemingly endless death soliloquy, his hot/cold treatment of his sister/wife, her intellectualizing of her attraction to Nicholas and, perhaps above all, Nicholas’ utterly out-of-place New York accent. The film presents a slavish devotion to eccentricity, and it’s entirely charming in its oddity.

It's really, really hard to find SFW stills from this film. Even this one is a cropped version of the full frame.

The acting is completely over-the-top, melodramatic and bad, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s a fault of the actors or whether the performances were purposefully designed to be that way. “Flesh for Frankenstein” is, among other things, a send-up of traditional gothic horror, so it’s conceivable (although somewhat difficult to believe) the performances are willfully laughable. Udo Kier is maybe the best worst actor I’ve ever seen. He’s utterly commanding in every scene he’s in, and he’s never boring. He has a fantastic, expressive face that just dominates the camera whenever he’s on-screen. Dallesandro is also undeniably charismatic and, dare I say, beautiful. He’s known for his physical attributes, and “Flesh for Frankenstein” makes a show of them. His speech is stilted and wooden, but he moves through the film gracefully. He’s great fun to watch. Van Vooren is the weakest link here; she really goes for it with her performance, but the film waits too long before letting her go to the kind of straight weird territory Kier’s Frankenstein occupies from the start. She’s great toward the end of the film but is rather boring through the first three-quarters of the action.

Director Paul Morrissey was able to tap into the old-fashioned glamour of the horror genre with “Flesh for Frankenstein,” utilizing impressive sets and camera angles to re-create the feeling of the classic era of horror. But while this film idolizes those musty old favorites, it also mocks them mercilessly, most notably by failing to provide a clear hero among its cast of villains. The film goes out of its way to subvert any character we might think will rise to the occasion and save the day. Baron Frankenstein  is self-centered, perverse and bloodthirsty, Baroness Frankenstein is lusty, hypocritical and callous, Otto is sniveling and psychotic, Nicholas is powerless against his own sexual urges … the list goes on and on. By the end of the film, even the Frankensteins’ children are implicated as less than innocent. Much is made of the film’s overt violence and sexual content, and while those sequences are still shocking, the film’s refusal to designate a “good guy” may be its most subversive aspect.

Again, while I just can’t recommend “Flesh for Frankenstein” as a good film, I’m not alone in appreciating its quirky charm. Criterion has added it to their collection, and it’s been revered as a cult classic almost since its very release. Anyone who can enjoy some light-hearted, trashy cinema will have fun with this gem. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

Flesh for Frankenstein“: NR (Common sense rating — Restricted for an adult audience). Starring Joe Dallesandro, Monique van Vooren, Udo Kier, Arno Juerging, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Srdjan Zelenovic, Nicoletta Elmi, Marco Liofredi, Liu Bosisio, Fiorella Masselli, Cristina Gaioni, Rosita Torosh, Carla Mancini and Imelde Marani. Directed by Paul Morrissey. Written by Paul Morrissey, Tonino Guerra (uncredited), Pat Hackett (uncredited) and Mary Shelley (characters, uncredited). Cinematography by Luigi Kuveiller. Original music by Claudio Gizzi.

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