Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1972): or, Creating a BDSMonster

Damn it, Jess, you just WON'T make it easy for me, will you?

Much as I want to love the cinema of Jess Franco without reservation, after getting a smattering of his work under my belt I still find myself maddeningly on the fence. My early experience of Oasis of the Zombies put me squarely in the "Jeez, what a hack!" camp; but then he hit me with the beautiful Vampyros Lesbos, and I had to recalibrate my judge-ometer. The Awful Dr. Orloff, while not without its charms, left me cold (sorry, Kate), but then I was blasted into giddy glee by his much more colorful and MAD retelling of a similar story in the excellent Faceless (1987). Succubus hypnotized me with imagery and dreamlike narrative on par with the best work of Vicar-fave director Jean Rollin, but 99 Women seemed pale and uninvolving by comparison. The charming, enthusiastic interviews Franco is famous for only make it that much harder, since often he manages to convince me the movie I just watched was much more impressive and enjoyable than my initial viewing experience would indicate.

I guess what I'm saying is that for me, Franco more than lives up to his billing as a "difficult" filmmaker. And my latest foray into his inarguably unique cinematic vision, 1972's The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (Ritos de Frankenstein, La maldición de Frankenstein), did little to settle the matter. On the one hand, it's largely a poor production with laughable effects and a story so incoherent it would have the late, great Paul Naschy shaking his head in bewilderment; on the other, it has some gorgeous compositions, tasty psychedelic lighting, and enough sexy-horror MADNESS to prevent my dismissing it entirely. Hack or genius? HACK OR GENIUS? GAHHHH!

"My creature will be the greatest Solid Gold Dancer the world has ever known!"

Ritos de Frankenstein hits the ground running and seldom stops for breath. Skipping all preliminaries and niceties, we open in the sparsely appointed lab of Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price), in flagrante de genesis. Highlights here include a nicely disgusting brain in a jar, Franco himself assaying the role of the doctor's skeezy assistant Morpho, and monster makeup consisting of a bodybuilder (Fernando Bilbao) with a cereal box flat-top covered from head to foot in metallic silver body paint! Seconds later the monster is jolted to life and utters his first words--"It HURTS!" Flush with success, Dr. Frankenstein explains that since he put a human brain in the monster, it now has the power of speech and is thus perfect!

There's no time for celebration, however, as at just that moment a strange visitor arrives at the doctor's house. Clad in a full-length robe, anachronistic shiny red platform boots, and little else, Melisa (Anne Libert) is the right-hand girl of the mysterious Cagliostro, an occultist hip to the doc's discoveries and wanting to get in on the action. Together with distinctly Vampyros Lesbos-era Morpho-like henchman Caronte (Luis Barboo), Melisa invades Frankenstein's lab, kills his assistant, and then makes short work of the doctor, revealing under her robe some strange bright green feathers and talon-like fingers, about which there will be more to say in a moment.

Cagliostro, as played by Franco regular Howard Vernon, is a perpeturally reborn supervillain with incredible powers that are apparently based on a combination of telepathy, psychokinesis, and "magnetism" with a dash of Eeevil Spirituality thrown in--sort of a Caligari-meets-Crowley with a bit of R'as Al Ghul added for flavor. By summoning the legions of the dead in service of the great devil-god Panthos, Caligrosto hopes to create a new race of supermen to rule the earth, leveraging Frankenstein's technology to breed his monster with a yet-uncreated female creature.

Caligostro learns the perils of the Taloned Handjob

Melisa is apparently an earlier failed experiment in the whole "perfect being" sweepstakes, a hybrid of a Eurobabe and a bird of prey (hence the talons and feathers) that didn't quite live up to his hopes. However, though she turned out all blind and feathery, Melisa also inherited a bit of clairvoyance and the ability to transmit Caligostro's "magnetism" over great distances, sort of a relay tower between him and his creatures of the night. ("I receive images through your magnetic waves! Pleasure, blood, death! I can see Frankenstein's creature raping beautiful virgins to satisfy your desires!" All righty then!) And all she asks in return is the occasional half-naked woman (or in one case a young boy) chained to the dungeon walls in Caligostro's castle where she can find them by echolocation and drink their sweet hot blood. You know, just like a bird of prey does.

Back at Castle Frankenstein, one of the late doctor's colleagues, Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbés, who played a pretty good mad scientist himself in Paul Naschy's Hunchback of the Morgue) has arrived for the funeral, along with the sole heir, Vera Frankenstein (Beatriz Savón), herself a fledgling mad scientist intent on plumbing the depths of her father's discoveries in order to avenge his death. At this point, my monster-kid brain kind of went into overload--we have Dr. Frankenstein, his creature, La Hija de Frankenstein, a Caligari-figure, a blind, blood-drinking, clairvoyant bird-woman, and the doctor from Bram Stoker's Dracula all tussling with each other with the fate of future generations in the balance. Could it get any crazier?

Have I mentioned the BDSM subtext yet? Well, hang on!

Frankenstein's Daughter: More than a Little Cross

So Vera and her female Igor quickly liberate the body of Dr. Frankenstein from his tomb and hook him up to the old rejuvenating ray, half-succeeding in bringing the old man back to life. Dear Dead Dad tells Vera that only Caligostro could be behind his death, and she swears to hunt him down and make him pay. Meanwhile Big C is sending Frankenstein's monster out to kidnap beautiful women and bring them back to his Build-A-Bride workshop so that he can pick the most perfect parts and stitch them together to create his Eve. Vera has to jolt Dad to life a couple more times (really, she uses him like a Living Dead Magic 8-Ball), but finally manages to trick the slow-witted monster into kidnapping her (instead of one of the other naked Eurobabes he went after) and thus infiltrates Caligostro's compound.

Of course Caligostro sees through the ruse right away and chains Vera in the dungeon along with all Melisa's tasty snack treats. There's already been a lot of leering bondage with these nameless unfortunates, but here Franco kicks the fetish up several notches. Dissatisfied with Caronte for allowing the monster to bring back the wrong dame, Caligostro concocts a fiendish system to kill two birds with one stone: he chains Caronte and Vera together back to back, places them in the center of a roomful of poisoned metal spikes,and decrees that whoever pushes the other onto the fatal spikes and survives will be released. To make it more interesting, he summons a legion of the wandering dead to watch, gives the Monster a cat o' nine tails, and has him get all whip-happy on them till someone dies.

To recap--you've got a mostly naked couple chained to one another surrounded by poisoned spikes, being whipped by a musclebound, silver body-painted Frankenstein's monster, while a bunch of skull-faced zombies look on. "Jaw dropping" is not really the word, but it's all I've got.

There's something you don't see every day.

Vera wins the challenge, earning the right to become Caligostro's mindless slave and work on putting the Bride together. Meanwhile Dr. Seward and the local police inspector have jolted Dr. F to life one more time to find out where Vera went. It turns out it's one time too many, as the Dead Doc becomes a shambling zombie and goes after Seward. Luckily the cop has a jug of hydrochloric acid in hand, which he splashes on the dead man and which immediately dissolves his head to a bloody stump! I mean, in less than a second! Good thing Seward didn't get any splashback.

It all ramps up to a scene where the Bride is brought to life in a wonderfully pervy and very BDSM-tinged scene, and the Monster prepares to mate with her while the Dead Army of Panthos cheers him on. Seward arrives in time to break it to the monster that Caligostro killed his papa, which leads the creature to interrupt his coitus and go after the bad guy for the Final Confrontation.

Oh, and there's a bunch of scenes with Lina Romay as a gypsy writhing by a creek while Caligostro sends her mental messages that really seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie at all.

Most Romantic Honeymoon Ever

Like I say, the madness of the plot is certainly appealing, and the BDSM subtext and kitchen-sink sensibility is something I can get behind even if I can't quite sort it all out. It's about as far removed from the lyrical tristesse of Succubus as you can get, but I've got plenty of room for both under my pleasantly pitched tent.

Where it gets maddening in a bad way is the split-personalty nature of the way the film is made. Franco gets in some truly gorgeous shots here--standouts are an early scene with some henchmen bringing a crate containing Frankenstein's monster up the beach to Caligostro's castle (again reminiscent of some of Rollin's best work, all bright colors and weird visual poetry) and shots of the Children of Panthos creeping through the fog-drenched forest, wrapped in their burial shrouds--just creepy and lovely. However, much of the rest of the movie looks like it was shot by an epileptic ape and edited with a blender. The monster's makeup is "My Kid's First Super-8" level stuff, as is the haphazard feathering of Melisa. The scenes in the dungeon with the chained models are grimy in a grindhouse way that's either terrible or great depending on your perspective. And close-ups of Panthos' Kidz in the final scenes are frankly laughable. And despite my previous statement, sometimes the plot seems SO pulled strait out of Franco's drug-addled ass, some of the joy gives way to frustration.

Performances are all over the place too--Vernon is great as Caligostro, sporting a truly awesome fake beard and some of the craziest wide-eyed stares it's been my pleasure to witness. Vera ranges from competent to bad, and Seward isn't given much to do. I was actually kind of moved by some of the monster's scenes, particularly his painful birth, though I don't know if that's a result of the actor's performance or my own gin intake.

"Wait--you made his wang HOW big?"

I do think The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is an...interesting movie, with flashes of brilliance amid a sea of what-the-fuckery. It doesn't settle my Franco problem, but it's definitely worth at least one viewing--because let's face it, where else are you going to see Frankenstein's Monster whipping a couple of chained up naked folks? 2.25 thumbs.

Nota bene: I actually checked this DVD out of my local public library, which is pretty objectively awesome. The version on the disc is the domestic "clothed" version, but includes the for-export nude versions of the super-pervy scenes as a bonus feature. These improve the proceedings greatly--naked artist's models, the bride in all her birthday-suit glory, and even Vera and Caronte completely unclothed in the climactic whipping scene, offering a rare glimpse of wiggly Eurowang. You know, if that's your thing.

A few more images from The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein:

And this is your brain on really good drugs...

Caligostro: Next on MTV's Cribs

"A little to the left..."

A Haunting Scene

"I knew we should have worn our Ming Dynasty camouflage!"

Caligostro always got a kick out of Melisa's Grover impersonation

"Thow the switch, Jess! THROW THE SWITCH!"


~Trix. said...

Forgive me Vicar for I have sinned. It's been a lifetime since my last confession... I mean comment. ;)
Actually, I felt compelled to stop in and thank you for my lunchtime reading pleasure. I've even filed "wiggly Eurowang" away in my dusty brain with the hopes I'll have at least *one* occasion to use it before I die. :)

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, my own local library has Franco's Count Dracula and The Bloody Judge, but I have to bow to your librarian's crazy courage in carrying such a title as this one.

I'm ambivalent about Franco. I really liked Two Undercover Angels but Kiss Me Monster was so uninspired and has such an afterthought quickie quality to it that I haven't felt motivated to write a review. You review of Erotic Rites makes me sort of interested in seeing the film just to see if it gives me any fresh clues on what makes Franco tick. I guess that makes me an auteurist.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Trix--Welcome back! And if you manage to bust out "wiggly Eurowang" in conversation before you go to your reward, consider yourself absolved! ;)

@Samuel Wilson--If you haven't seen Franco's SUCCUBUS, that's really the best argument I've witnessed for giving him "genius" status. VAMPYROS LESBOS is good too, and I'm given to understand it might be right up your alley. ;)

I've heard it argued that Franco's less-than-revered status could be a function of his manic prolificness--he made so MANY movies, the argument goes, that the percentage of not-so-good attempts overwhelms the smaller percentage of genuinely brilliant stuff. Next on my Franco watchlist is VENUS IN FURS, which people in the know tell me is another tic in the "genius" column, so we'll see.

The Duke of DVD said...

As usual, a superb review, dearest Vicar!

I like the cut of this guy's jib. I mean, if I were building a Frankenstein-esque monster, mine would also be covered in metallic body paint and also go out and fetch fair maidens for me.

Of course, I'd go the extra mile and make mine able to toss a witch and/or gypsy 50 yards without breaking a sweat...

JamiSings said...

Now the whole "build a bride" thing I never got. If I was going to breed a monster I'd breed him to a human woman to get creatures that could pass for human but have the monster's powers. Find me a nice fertile blind woman who's also incredibly broke and would do anything to stay alive. Breed her to the monster. Raise the kids up and send them out into the world to breed with humans as well. Sure, the monster part would get diluted but they'd slowly spread to take over the world and the humans would never know....

Anonymous said...

As one of the many who has been equally frustrated by Franco, I've come to the conclusion that the question of "Hack or Genius" just doesn't apply. It's "Hack AND Genius". And viewer beware.
Can't say this one blew me away, but I was impressed with Jess's conviction -- he created and stayed within the loopy logic his own outre world, and man, it was one nutty ride.
Kudos to you Vicar for making sense of it enough to cull a coherent synopsis out of the proceedings. Can't imagine what that says about you, but I won't go there.
Re: the "unclothed" scenes in the Image DVD extras (And BTW, who THE F*** is your librarian???) -- watching them I had the sense that by viewing the clothed, domestic version, I'd experienced only a sliver of the full-tilt Madness.
I hear there's a Trash Palace DVD-R of the unclothed release. As a rule I try to steer clear of bootlegs, but I have to admit, this one's high up on my X-mas list.

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, ironically enough I have seen Vampyros Lesbos and I happened to like it. Then again I happened to like the rebellious-cannibalism finale of Greta the Torturer/Ilsa the Wicked Warden for the sheer barbaric wackiness of it. Geo is right to emphasize the on-and-off aspect of Franco's compulsive creativity. It's as if he had to misfire several times before he managed something really inspired. I guess that's why we keep looking for the good ones.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke--I imagine Bilbao could toss a gypsy a good distance; he appeared to be in great shape. Plus the final rampage after he dismounts his bride is fairly bombastic and exciting. Though he does lose large swaths of his body paint in the process. :)

@Jami--you make a good point! I'd never really thought of that. Of course in the novel/early movies the idea was to give the monster someone "like him" so that he wouldn't be alone in his wretchedness; after that folks just took the ball and ran with it. Also, I can tell you've given this whole "world domination through monster stock" a great deal of thought...should we mortals be worried? ;)

@Geo--I think "hack AND genius" is where I'll have to end up. He's like the little girl with the curly hair in the old song--when he's good, he's very VERY good, but when he's bad, he's absolute shit. (That was, of course the "too hot for the nickelodeon" version of the song lyric.) Also, I'm thinking I need to make contact with my librarian on a more personal level, IYKWIM...

@Samuel Wilson--"compulsive creativity" is exactly the right phrase for Franco; he famously would start shooting a new picture sometimes before finishing the one he was ostensibly working on, or get bored with current projects and move on after a sloppy, perfunctory completion. Much like the Duke with his serving girls.

I also like the assessment of his having to misfire several times before really hitting the target--much like the Duke with his serving girls. ;)

cinemarchaeologist said...

Franco is, indeed, a hack genius. At his worst, you get something like OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, my stock example of awful Franco for years, now (though, to be fair, it's really a composite film only partly made by Franco). At the top of his form, he can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the genre.

The problems with EROTIC RITES mostly stem from the budget. Franco made a trilogy of "monster mash" movies back-to-back, and all of them were made for a few bologna sandwiches and a roll of quarters. The first (DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN) is all but unwatchable. EROTIC RITES is much better, with a lot of wild experimentation going on, and a lot of very memorable images, but still crippled by that nothing budget.

(BTW, the purpose of the gypsy scenes was to set up the ending. Cagliostro is immortal because he reincarnates, and the gypsy was to be the vessel for his next coming. She has a conversation with an old gypsy woman at the end, after Cagliostro has done himself in, and it turns out the woman was one of his previous "mothers.")

If you're going to watch VENUS IN FURS, you're on the right track in your journey to decide what Franco really is. If I was looking to make a believer of someone, I'd steer them toward it, and items like FEMALE VAMPIRE, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, EUGENIE DE SADE, and (after you've seen more of his work) MACUMBA SEXUAL. Franco is a great big wonderful subject.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@cinemarchaeologist--thanks for all the wonderful info! I'll definitely be delving into more of Franco's work, despite my mixed experience so far. As you say, at his best he's incredible--SUCCUBUS is a fantastic film.

Thanks also for the explanation of the gypsy scenes. I still don't recall Lina ever interacting with anyone else in the movie, which is what made it feel like it wasn't really connected. Maybe she has a scene with Vernon at the end...I honestly don't recall.

VENUS IN FURS is definitely next on my Franco list!

db said...

I'm firmly in the Genius camp when it comes to Franco, but I'm totally a fanboy, and I know a lot of his movies are just not gonna work for most people -- Franco literally can not stop making movies, and he's more than happy to remake the same movie repeatedly (at least once guaranteed to be hardcore porn). I think, for me, the key to being a Franco fan is where your identification lies as a viewer -- if you identify with characters, it's gonna be a tough row to hoe, as his characters are basically wind-up toys built from id-centered impulses and eye candy. If your identification is with the director as storyteller, however, there's something to like in even his worst films (I'd personally put his Fu Manchu films in that category, which I'll just say DON'T), and as a lifelong fan of "How much awesome can you get out of the barest minimum of resources?" I'm more than happy to overlook the technical problems (of which there are many) of his films. I figure the truly great Franco films wouldn't be possible were it not for the fact that Franco really has no filter, and while there's a handful of films you can cherrypick and enjoy on their own I feel like he's very much a "whole trip" kinda filmmaker as opposed to a "greatest hits" type, and while I don't think Venus in Furs is his best film (and there's a *lot* I haven't seen, but my vote goes for Eugenie, but then I've got it *bad* for Soledad Miranda, and her presence in a film pretty much makes it a guaranteed fave) but it's definitely a good choice for giving Franco a fair chance, more so than The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (which is definitely mid-level). Alejandro Jodorowsky once said (this might not be exactly right, but) "I have always been drawn to things I find interesting but do not understand", and that really captures my interest in Franco's films.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I'm in your back catalogue, scoping ur reviews.

I so want to see this now. Running over to Netflix right away!

Darius Whiteplume said...

Fucking Dick-Pill SPAMmers... Glad it got deleted or filtered, but still got to my mailbox. I hate those guys.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Yeah, I'm thinking it may be an actual person whose job it is to paste that stuff in with links to get past the comment verification thing. Been hit a few times the last couple of days. I have resisted turning on the "awaiting moderation" switch here, but if it keeps up I'll have no other option. :P

Darius Whiteplume said...

Blogger's new SPAM filter is working for me, but not sure they have launched it for all blogs.

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