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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!"