Saturday, April 01, 2017


The films of Spanish director Jess Franco can be a hard sell for average film watchers. No matter what film you chose as an entry point, Franco's work is too often a mighty fine cure for insomnia. I understand this problem. I'm not one of the many fans of his movies who is enamored of the long dull stretches in which we watch people smoke in jazz clubs while brooding about their horrible feelings of ennui. Long, languid scenes of bored people acting tired can be of interest for a minute or two but stretched to feature length it begs the question - "What are we doing here?" I need Franco to do something with his camera and since his obsessions and mine overlap in some areas - naked women, old horror tales, pulp adventure stories, monster movies, etc - he occasionally crafts something that keeps my attention for the full runtime. Such is the case here where Uncle Jess is playing with the classic monster characters beloved by generations of horror fans the world over. If he sticks to the tropes of a typical monster story will it serve as a good launching pad to Franco fandom for the 'normal' film viewer? If it deals with the legend of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can it keep tedium at bay? As with all things in his huge back catalog, only time- and the individual watcher's curiosity- will tell.

Franco’s take on the Frankenstein legend is unusual, of course, with nods to both Universal Studios' classics of the 1930's and the more colorful British Hammer efforts if the 1960's mixed with a few cocktails and a possible hit of acid. The title in question, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, now arrives on Blu-ray in its full strength, director-preferred French version complete with English subtitles with the option of the English dub track as well. This release may come as a relief for long time Franco-files even if there are still several other versions out there on the gray market to keep them hunting if they wish. Of course, most Jess Franco movies have multiple versions originally created for different countries' specific cinema laws and the in depth study of alternate edits is a hobby for many Euro-Cult fanatics, so maybe this Blu-Ray just marks the latest chapter to be added to the story.

Although this is a film inspired by the classic monster films of years gone by, it's the erotic aspect of the proceedings that is highlighted throughout. We are introduced to an older, heavier than normal version of Baron Frankenstein played by the slumming Dennis Price. He has just electrically shocked his odd looking silver skinned monster to life and we witness the creature's cries of pain as it calls out for the doctor to stop. I'm not the first to notice that the idea of a man creating life without a female as part of the equation is fascinating in many ways and the monster's begging for relief in this sequence plays into those disturbing ideas of the horrors of an unnatural birth all too well. Soon after this Frankenstein’s castle lab is attacked by the henchman Caronte (Luis Barboo) and a cannibalistic bird woman named Melissa (the gorgeous Anne Libert). Melissa is blind and only has a few green feathers glued to her naked body to indicate her freakish nature - although her set of long claws are a giveaway that she might be more than just a crazy woman with a cape and feather fetish. Caronte and Melissa leave Frankenstein for dead and take the stolen monster to the castle of their master Cagliostro (the legendary Howard Vernon). Cagliostro is an evil, apparently undead magician who can control minds and who is on the hunt for a new body in which to place his immortal mind.

The presumed dead Frankenstein is found by his daughter Vera (Beatriz Savón) who arrives at Castle Frankenstein just a little too late to save him. Being a Frankenstein though she reanimates her father using his own electrical shock therapy which allows him just enough energy to fill her (and us) in on the whole 'monster on the loose and under the control of Cagliostro scenario'. Also in the mix is Dr. Seward (Albert Dalbés) who spoke to Frankenstein before his death and knows about the monster so he’s now paying visits on Vera in an attempt to get his hands on the creature for himself. Vera tracks down the monster in mid abduction of an artist’s model but she can't maintain control of the creature and so Frankenstein’s creation is soon back in control of Cagliostro. At this point there is a try at creating a female being to mate with the monster using another abducted woman from the nearby town but that goes badly. Soon all hell breaks loose as the various players make their stabs at getting what they want from the clever Cagliostro as the magician moves to set himself up for occupation of his next body. Who will survive?  

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is a bizarre film no matter how you chose to approach it. It must be one of the oddest variations on Mary Shelley’s most famous piece of fiction with its oblique storyline, strange visuals and it's odd sexualization of several characters. This isn't the first film to add a daughter to Doctor Frankenstein's family line but it is the first to also add Cagliostro and a nude, blind, bird-woman to the proceedings. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Variety is the spice of life and, in my opinion, cinema as well so adding bizarre elements only increases my interest. Not that everything is pulled off effectively. The most obvious knocks against the movie is that it is incredibly cheap, sloppy, tasteless and usually pretty crude but I think that Franco sometimes makes these things work in his favor. Granted, the entire affair is often just plain weird but, like walking down the main drag of a freak show, it's never boring! You hardly know where to look for the next crazed sight.

This was the second Monster Rally film Franco made with most of the same cast and, if memory serves, the better of the two even if I kind of prefer seeing Vernon playing Dracula. Franco was a master of finding gorgeous locations in which to film his poverty ridden productions and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein shows that skill off to good effect. He was always taking a risk whenever he set his stories in the past but he mostly pulls it off here if you overlook some too modern machinery in the lab and an occasional sighting of streetlights behind the actors. Of course, there are things that can't be overlooked entirely like the monster’s Karloff styled square-head make-up showing its seams and his shiny metallic body paint rubbing off of the sweaty actor in a few scenes. As for the other actors, I can only imagine what was going through Anne Libert's head as she paraded around a gothic castle nearly nude, waving feathered arms and squawking to communicate. She was certainly game for anything, it seems. Dennis Price looks pale and bloated in his pasty make-up as he jerks and flails on a metal table to simulate being revived - repeatedly-  to advance the lurching plot. I almost feel like I should be ashamed for enjoying his performance but I guess you gotta earn a living and he clearly threw himself into his work. Of course, Franco shows up in a wordless cameo playing Frankenstein’s greasy haired assistant Morpho adding another film to the long list for that character name in Franco's filmography. And the Blu-Ray's commentary track confirms that the film's composer Daniel White appears as the hapless police inspector along for the ride with the much more determined Dr. Seward. As you might have surmised, the film is wonderfully crazed and the expected violence is often handled in a way that suggests that everyone involved knew the budget was never going to allow for a totally serious film. The moment when a swift camera edit allows acid to completely remove a person's head shows both a clever filmmaking eye and an acknowledgment of what the production can and cannot accomplish. The fact that you'll never forget the scene once you view it is a nice plus! I can only imagine what 1970's audiences thought of this madness. As Tim Lucas makes clear on his commentary track this is the French version of the film with all the nudity reinstated. The 'clothed' Spanish version was padded out with about ten minutes of scenes featuring Lina Romay in a pointless subplot about a gypsy girl who hears voices from the beyond and talks with an old woman in the woods. Although it might have been nice to have that version as an extra on this disc, having seen that cut I can say it is pretty dull and easily the least interesting version of the film.

Luckily for fans this Redemption/Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein has been mastered in high definition from the original 35mm negative and presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio making it quite probably the definitive edition. The transfer looks very good with much more detail than I remember from past discs with the night scenes noticeably brighter (and therefore understandable) than in the past. Having these day-for-night scenes looking as they should is almost reason enough to see this version. As the co-author of Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas is a perfect choice for the disc's only substantial extra, the aforementioned commentary track, on which he smoothly guides the viewer through the Franco Frankenstein experience. He talks about aspects of the film's conception and production from the Portugal locations, the various actors' histories with Franco, the methods the director used to maximize his time as well as Lucas' musings about how this film fits into the history of Frankenstein cinema. In fact, Lucas has so much information seemingly at his fingertips that the film's 74 minute running time starts to feel too brief to allow it all to be related!  Even if you find this film to be a terrible, slapdash affair I urge you to give this commentary a listen. I suspect it will open your eyes to the joys of not just this film but to a good portion of Jess Franco's filmography. As an extra kind of extra the original French trailer for the film is also included on the disc which has a Tim Lucas commentary on it as well! He really did have more information than the film allowed! 

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