The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #3

You Don't Have to Be Pretentious to Enjoy Flesh for Frankenstein, But It Helps Buy now from Movies Unlimited! 

David Christenson

Flesh for Frankenstein, DVD released 1998 by the Criterion Collection. 1973, 95 minutes, not rated. Color, Dolby sound, presented in original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Audio commentary by director Paul Morrissey, star Udo Kier, film historian Maurice Yacowar, plus “stills” gallery. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price, $39.95.

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Flesh for Frankenstein DVD coverThose critics who do not skewer Flesh for Frankenstein for its blatantly gratuitous shock effects and terrible acting praise it as “camp.” Me, I’ve never had a good grasp of the camp phenomenon. To me, camp is not a quality that is self-evident in a work, but a kind of appreciation imposed upon selected works by a certain group of viewers, a group in which I’ve never felt welcome, with all my naïve sentimentality. For me camp is a quality that’s as hard to pin down as “cool,” particularly for the uncool among us. If you’re not cool yourself, forget it, you’ll never recognize cool, or its mirror image, camp.

If one aspect of camp is incompetence in execution, Flesh for Frankenstein has that in abundance. The story plods; the performances are either wooden or wacky; the dialogue could have been written by a half-wit cousin of George Bush; and the actors frequently mangle their lines anyway. This probably has something to do with the fact that director Paul Morrissey dictated new dialogue every morning during the shooting.

Visually, it’s pretty good, even reminiscent of lesser Hammer efforts, though obviously made on the cheap on a few sets decorated with a colorful mix of antiques and pseudo-scientific bric-a-brac. The photography by Luigi Kuveiller is fine, and looks good on this Criterion DVD restoration of the long-censored “director’s cut.” Morrissey does a good job of staging his scenes with some creative touches, especially given his three-week shooting schedule and the language difficulties of an American working in Rome. The music, by Claudio Gizzi, is nice, resembling Ennio Morricone in one of his lyrical moods, and sounds all right in a Dolby mono mix. The sound design is mostly limited to slurping noises, applied lavishly at the appropriate moments.

But nobody’s going to pick up this movie expecting Truffault or David Lean, so let’s step off the midway and into the freak show, shall we? What you need to know is that there’s a lot of nudity and gore, most of which works fine. Fans of Joe Dallesandro’s butt will certainly get their money’s worth, and the “zombies” as portrayed by Dalila di Lazarro and Srdjan Zelenovic look good and keep their mouths shut. Carlo Rambaldi and an uncredited butcher shop provided the visual effects, which consist of internal organs waggled at the camera in the manner of SCTV’s Dr. Tongue. (Although Flesh for Frankenstein was originally a 3-D movie, the 3-D effect was not attempted on this DVD.)

The story, such as it is, casts Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier) as a pseudo-fascist attempting to breed a population of slave zombies from a pair of superior humanoids he has built in his lab. All he needs is a properly lustful male head. Instead of German characteristics for his master race, he’s looking for the perfect Serbian, which probably sounded like a euphemism for racism in 1973 but has more sinister resonance today. Anyway, he waylays Zelenovic and decapitates him with a handy head-clipping device, which would, if real, revolutionize self-defense techniques. Unfortunately, Zelenovic’s head is not interested in breeding; it was last seen at a brothel, attached to its original body, ignoring the advances of a prostitute and staring at Dallesandro’s aforementioned butt, which seems to imply that Zelenovic’s character is gay. (His sexual orientation or lack of it is never fully explained, either in the movie or the DVD commentary, which is an oddly squeamish choice in this context. The character aspires to be a monk, but otherwise his motivation is murky.) Meanwhile, the Baron’s wife/sister Katrin (the otherworldly Monique Van Vooren) takes on Dallesandro as a houseboy (nudge nudge) and the Baron’s assistant is getting increasingly weird and violent, and so on. Oh, and a couple of creepy children are hanging around to help supply an ending to the film, and more importantly peering through doors and windows to provide highbrow critics with evidence of a subtext on voyeurism. If allowed to believe that a movie is really a commentary on voyeurism, a critic can enjoy any number of cheap thrills without guilt.

Critic Maurice Yacowar, who supplied the liner notes and part of the audio commentary to this DVD, doesn’t let us off that easy. “Morrissey deliberately lets his characters speak clichés for his satiric purpose,” Yacowar says in the liner notes. “He lets them act inconsistently to suggest the vagaries of mortal whim. He goes way, way overboard, especially on the in-your-face gore in the rare 3-D version, because he considers both the horror genre and the 3-D fad to be ridiculous indulgences, romantic and commercial respectively. The film is absurd, but that’s calculated—and right in line with Morrissey’s familiar underlying moral spin.”

So, according to Yacowar, what’s the difference between Morrissey and, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis? Morrissey is an artist.

Good thing there are critics around to point out these distinctions, because on the face of it, this is another low-budget horror flick, better than some, worse than others, but sharing many of the same attractions and flaws. There are dull parts and a few original bits, just as in any well-meaning cheapo drive-in movie. There are shocks for the sake of shock, a couple of which are still shocking after all these years. The camera lingers excessively on organs, both internal and external, but if you’ve made it through Hannibal and Dead Alive, this one is a cakewalk. The satirical themes—nothing new to the horror genre, since the ’30s—are evident, but not fully developed. The gender roles don’t break any barriers, and in fact female zombie di Lazarro endures more than her share of humiliation in the film, a sexist tendency all too typical of exploitation horror. Morrissey’s contempt for the material apparently didn’t prevent him from indulging in it.

Ah, but all this is calculated exaggeration, they say. That’s the jaded technique of the Warhol crowd in a nutshell, and maybe a key to camp as well: parody through mock celebration. As Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels made the royalty of Brobdingnag gigantic to magnify their flaws, Warhol enlarged a soup can to examine its blandness. But Brobdingnag was only one chapter in Swift’s opus; for Warhol and his followers, it’s chapter and verse.

What should horror fans think of a film that supposedly holds horror films in contempt? If you’re not too insulted to give it a miss, you can view it at several levels. It does deliver on the promise of softcore sex, exposed innards and general perversity, just like any other early 1970s horror. Or if you’re inclined to read into it, it’s a comment on the moral bankruptcy of the western world, or maybe that’s a stretch, and it’s just an indictment of the aesthetic bankruptcy of a movie genre, circa 1973. Or maybe it’s a hokey comedy by a bunch of artsy goofballs on a lark, the Warhol crowd’s equivalent of The Cannonball Run.

Finally, why should this movie and its companion piece Blood for Dracula (1974) share space in Criterion’s catalog with the likes of Rashomon and The Seventh Seal? The very fact that it raises all of the questions above. Whether or not you like this film or buy its pretensions, its attitude does invite viewers to some self-examination, which can’t be bad.

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.