Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lady Frankenstein (Condor International/New World, 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a peculiar movie last night: Lady Frankenstein, a 1971 Italian movie that we’d downloaded from and which proved to be an O.K. film — it would have been good fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but it’s not so bad as to be unwatchable “straight” — that managed some interesting spins on the basic Frankenstein-movie plot. Baron Frankenstein is played by Joseph Cotten and the film is produced and directed by Mel Welles — when I first saw that name on the credit I immediately assumed it was a pseudonym concocted either by an Italian filmmaker or the U.S. distributor (New World Pictures, the company Roger Corman founded after he left American International), but no-o-o-o-o, assures me that Mel Welles is a real person, mostly an actor (he appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, their final film for Universal-International) but with a handful of directorial credits. While Cotten no doubt looked longingly back at the days when the actor-director he worked for was Orson Welles instead of Mel Welles (and his role here has at least one commonality with his part in Citizen Kane — his best friend is a character named Charles), indeed there are quite a few people on the cast and crew list who have the same last names as far more illustrious celebrities: Peter Whiteman (he plays the monster), Renata Cash (that one is a pseudonym, for Renate Kasché), Adam Welles (the director’s young son, pressed into service when dad needed a child actor), and someone in the crew named “Kenton.” The plot is actually pretty serviceable: Tania Frankenstein (Rosalba Neri, as “Sara Bay”) returns to the ancestral manse from medical school and announces that she is now a licensed surgeon. Dad (Joseph Cotten) asks his daughter if she had any trouble at medical school from being a Frankenstein (maybe she, like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, insisted on calling herself “Frahnken-steen”) and she, a heroine from the first years of second-wave feminism, says, “Actually, I had more trouble just from being a woman.” (The film actually appears to take place in the 1890’s, since horse-drawn carriages are the characters’ principal means of transportation.)

The elder Frankenstein and his assistant, Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Muller), have been working all those years on creating the perfect man-made human and they’re about to do the final step of transplanting the brain — and daddy Frankenstein has tried to keep what they’re really doing a secret from his daughter as well as everyone else (his cover story is they’re only working on animal transplants) but she’s aware of it and wants to be a part of his experiments. The monster gets created but its brain is defective (Dr. Marshall warned Frankenstein about this and said the brain needed to be “repaired” before it was inserted, but Frankenstein was too impatient and too anxious to get the brain in while it was still being kept alive by an artificial heart to do that) and its face ends up badly burned when it catches fire during the vivification process. It immediately knocks off Frankenstein Vater and starts killing all the other townspeople who were responsible for its creation, including Tom Lynch (Herbert Fux) and his gang of grave robbers who had supplied the elder Frankenstein with his raw materials. (One of the grave robbers had a dark beard and looked so much like an Orthodox Jew I joked that the film could have been called When the Hasids Go Really, Really Bad.) Meanwhile, Frankenstein Tochter marries Dr. Marshall (why?) and then seduces a learning-disabled servant named Thomas Stack (Marino Masé), only in the middle of the sex act she smothers him with a pillow while Dr. Marshall is watching. The point of this is that Dr. Marshall’s body is old and not long for this world, so she’s going to transplant his brain into Thomas’s body and have the best of both worlds: a young, studly husband who’s also a brilliant scientist and collaborator.

Only while all this is going on, the villagers (them again!) are getting restless about the failure of the police, led by Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay, the muscleman who sponsored Arnold Schwarzengger’s immigration from Austria to the U.S. and married Jayne Mansfield — I had no idea that their daughter Mariska was following in her dad’s footsteps when she got cast as Detective Olivia Benson in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), to catch the murderous monster, and it all ends up in a bizarre climax that has led quite a few people (including Charles) to think that the film is missing some footage at the end instead of the public-domain prints just missing the closing credits: the villagers burn down the Frankenstein castle (Captain Harris tries unsuccessfully to talk them out of it), they take out the monster, and Thomas’s sister Julia (Renata Cash) is shocked when from a balcony in the Frankenstein castle she sees Thomas and Tania Frankenstein in the throes of sexual passion — only just after she turns her head away and, presumably, gets the hell out of the burning house, we see Thomas’s hands rise up and strangle Tania before the flames consume both of them and the film abruptly comes to a skidding halt. There were enough “Huh?” reactions to that ending that there’s a whole topic on it on the message boards, mostly speculating on why Thomas strangles Lady Frankenstein at the end when they’re clearly both about to burn up anyway — maybe a parallel to the way she killed him the first time they had sex, maybe jealousy in that she called him “Thomas” instead of “Charles” while they were making love, or (my theory) screenwriters Edward Di Lorenzo and Dick Randall once again tapping the Universal Frankenstein mythos (as they’d been doing all movie) and having Thomas consign Tania to oblivion the way the Monster did with Dr. Pretorious at the end of The Bride of Frankenstein, sending Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth out of the castle before it blew up, then turning to Pretorious and saying, “We … belong … dead!”

Lady Frankenstein isn’t a bad movie as early-1970’s horror cheapies go — director Welles and cinematographer Riccardo Pallotini manage to create a convincing Gothic atmosphere (despite some weird color changes in the extant print, notably some scenes in which Tania develops a blue aura and blue hair before things quickly revert to normal color), and though the script gets pretty silly at times and the death of Joseph Cotten’s character 35 minutes into the film’s 82-minute running time doesn’t help, it taps into enough of the conventions of the Frankenstein film that it’s decent enough entertainment even though we do get the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. Incidentally, there’s some confusion about the running time of the film; the longest version is one shown on German TV at 99 minutes, and apparently the shorter versions of the film were created not by trimming the violence or the sex but by taking out important bits of plot exposition and thereby making the film seem much more incoherent than its original writers and director did. (It’s not that different from the restoration of Metropolis, which rehabilitated the reputation of writer Thea von Harbou by letting us know how many of the cut version’s notorious plot holes had been the fault of the people who re-edited it; plot points she had explained credibly were just left hanging in the cut version, but since the re-writers and re-editors weren’t credited, she got blamed for the lacunae.)