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Archive for March 13th, 2010

Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Director: Mel Welles

I don’t know anything about this Lady Gaga all the kids are talking about, but I can tell you that the Italian entry into the Eurotrash/horror category, Lady Frankenstein (La Figlia di Frankenstein), is worth some attention in the canon of Frankenstein-themed movies. Not the typical B-movie version of the original Universal run, Lady Frankenstein indulges in scenes and characters that manage to subvert past attempts at pure repetition. Case in point: the choice of a woman as the stand-in for the mad scientist role of Dr. Frankenstein. Some writing on this movie has pointed toward the emergence of feminism in the late sixties, early seventies as the catalyst for this decision. True, the Dr. Frankenstein of this film is posited as a strong, ambitious woman, but more anything the notion of Dr. Frankenstein as a woman seems to be a rather transparent excuse for nude scenes rather than a caculated illumination of a political movement such as feminism.

Directed by Mel Welles with a script by cult writer Edward di Lorenzo, this film stars the sultry Rosalba Neri (listed as Sara Bey in America), an Edwige Fenech look-alike who made the rounds of European horror films, spaghetti westerns and euro sleaze in the 60s and 70s and esteemed character actor, Joseph Cotton, who, by this time, was at the end of an eventful career (he is quoted as saying, “Orson Welles lists Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man – and I’m in all of them”). The production is surprisingly high-end, Welles seemingly making a stab at the quality and look of Hammer Films, with specific Italian touches.  The results are notable indeed; Lady Frankenstein feels and looks different than what was current at the time in most Italian horror/Giallo films (in fact it looks like an early Mario Bava production). Imagine a gothic Jane Austen film but with body snatching, and a Frankenstein monster that looks like the Elephant Man on a good day, and Joseph Cotton. 

As Lady Frankenstein opens, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) and his assistant Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller) are in the process of receiving a corpse for their re-animation experiments from the local grave-digger. The next morning the Baron’s daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri) arrives at the Baron’s castle having completed her University course in medicine. She wants to join the family business, but the Baron is resistant to this notion.

The Baron and Dr. Marshall eventually complete their crazy experiments, the culmination of which is implanting the brain of a criminal into a giant Neanderthal. Of course, re-animation is never as easy as it looks, and the newly-minted creature kills his creator, the Baron, by hugging him to death. Perhaps the monster just wanted someone to love. 

With her father dead, Tiana decides to take the mantel of local nut job and create her own monster, one that can kill the first which is now ambling across the countryside in search of locals to squeeze. Her ultimate motivation for this decision is convoluted at best: to save the good name of Frankenstein by creating a monster that will stop the other monster who is killing villagers, which was created by the Baron in the first place. (Well, no one ever said the storyline had to make sense. Throw in a good bit of nudity and plot holes are forgotten.)

Soon a plan is hatched to place the brain of Dr. Marshall into the body of the Baron’s slightly retarded man-servant, Thomas. In one of the weirder scenes in the film, Tiana seduces Thomas with her wares, and, during love-making, Marshall smothers the man-child with a pillow. Tiana soon completes her insane plan to recover the good name of Frankenstein, but everything backfires when an angry mob with torches and pitchforks show up at the castle (it wouldn’t be a Frankenstein movie without an angry mob). The film quickly comes to an abrupt and bizarre end when, amid the fire set by the mob, the new Thomas-Marshall hybrid monster kills Tiana in the throes of passion. It’s an awkward ending, but seems to fit with the somewhat clumsy pacing of the rest of the movie.

As with any B-movie/exploitation outing, the dialogue and acting can be questionable at best, but Lady Frankenstein emerges above other standard Frankenstein-themed schlock like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) mostly due to its production value and the casting of Rosalba NeriIn addition to the more obvious merits, there are some truly strange moments in Lady Frankenstein that save it from being condemned as typical B-Movie faire (the EuroTrash angle at least helps it from being too run of the mill). Most of these moments have to do with Tiana plotting some fiendishly pseudo-sexual manipulation of the weaker sex, which, it would seem, leads to her ultimate downfall.

Now that Lady Frankenstein has been relinquished into the arms of “public domain”, there are several places online to see the film in its entirety for free, which, really, is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

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