Written by: Paul Morrissey, Tonino Guerra & Pat Hackett (uncredited), and Mary Shelley (characters)
Directed by: Paul Morrissey
Starring: Joe Dallesandro, Udo Kier and Dalila Di Lazzaro
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life... in the gall bladder!”
Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein committed what is arguably the Original Sin of science fiction: the revolt against nature in an attempt to play God by creating artificial life. When Andy Warhol protégé Paul Morrissey got his hands on Frankenstein, he certainly latched onto this component, only to amplify it to the extreme and intertwine it with the more conventional means of procreation: sex, which is seen more as a force of destruction in Flesh For Frankenstein, a shockingly lurid and black-hearted comedy that doesn’t just see Udo Kier’s Frankenstein revolt against nature. Instead, he revels in completely violating it, and Morrissey presents a tableau of violent and sexually depraved characters whose warring libidos weave a trail of bloody, absurd carnage to a Marxist tune.
Whereas Shelly’s Frankenstein was once a good man driven to madness by his obsessions, it’s difficult to imagine that this Baron Von Frankenstein was ever even approaching decent. When we met him, he’s already fathered two children by more conventional but still unholy means, as they’re the product of his incestuous relationship with his sister and wife (Monique van Vooren); as if this affront to the natural order of things weren’t enough, he’s engaged in the business of constructing and re-animating corpses. When left to their own devices, both of the Frankensteins begin pillaging the local village; the baron plucks a strapping, handsome man (Srdjan Zelenovic) whose head is needed for the mad doctor’s latest cadaver, while the baroness taps his friend (Joe Dallesandro) to be her new servant and sexual plaything.
A minor bad taste classic, Flesh For Frankenstein is crass, obscene, vulgar, but knowingly so, with Morrissey and his crew completely in on the joke. Dialogue isn’t delivered so much as it’s screeched, and the characters are broadly sketched for maximum silliness. Morrissey establishes this farcical world from the opening scene, which finds the Frankenstein children (Marco Liofredi and Nicoletta Elmi) performing their own form of experiments on a doll that winds up on the business end of a guillotine. All the gore and viscera is soon very real, and these two enfants terrible are left to prowl around to casually observe this mad world, where they serve as the butt of the film’s best joke when their mother insists she wants to raise them correctly. She barely shares many scenes with them, of course, and one is dedicated to assuring her children that her parents are okay despite the town’s whispers to the contrary. The rest of the film is dedicated to revealing just how right the townspeople are about this ludicrous duo, both of whom are obsessed with flesh and carnal pleasures, albeit for different reasons.
Kier’s Frankenstein seems to have a libido that’s transcended typical gratification. It’s not enough that he’s had an incestuous relationship with his sister--he has to go beyond that, and it’s almost as if he indulges in the taboo out of compulsion. Unlike most portrayals of Frankenstein, this baron isn’t driven by any initial altruism; when speaking to his own squirrelly man-servant (Arno Juerging), he claims that the “medical profession would love to claim [his] achievement for their own,” but they cannot since it is merely a “giant stride” for himself. Most Frankenstein variations feature at least a modicum of egotism, but this baron is a megalomaniac who embraces his would-be god status. He doesn’t just want to bring life to the dead--he wants to help them propagate into a new master race, brought forth from the seed of his mind--if not the actual seed that he plants in the female cadaver when he screws it before reanimation. The baron even has an Aryan bent, as he intends to model his master race after Serbs, so he’s also an over-zealous nationalist to boot.
Kier is of course delightful in the role and goes right to the awful center of this man in order to proudly display it for 90 minutes. Not nearly as tragically sympathetic as Kier’s Dracula, this Frankenstein is a true bastard, an outrageously sick human being made indomitable by the actor, who runs laps around all of the scenery before lapping it right up into his mouth . His exaggerated deliveries rendered all the more absurd through his thick accent, he’s wonderfully theatrical and a joy to watch. One of Morrissey’s strengths with both of these films is his unflinching, non-judgmental gaze--he just lets these people make fools of themselves, and their exploits are lavishly rendered with incredible gore effects and a willingness to engage in revulsion. Like its title character(s), the film truly delights in perversity but always pillows it with a silly tone that almost makes the film harmless despite its provocation. Both this and its Dracula counterpart almost feel like juvenile art films, existing to mix high and low with gleeful abandon; in both instances, Morrissey takes respected literary institutions and disembowels them with a wink, a nod, and a hearty laugh (it seems impossible not to giggle at Kier when he tosses his own severed hand at Dallesandro out of frustration).
While the incongruously wonderful production values help it transcend its trashy intentions, Flesh for Frankenstein gets its spark of life from the rich subtexts. Blood for Dracula famously wore its politics on its sleeve by having Dallesandro spout Marxist philosophy, but Flesh stops just short of this. Dallesandro once again represents the peasantry here, and Morrissey allows the aristocratic predators reveal their horrible treatment of the poor townspeople that surround them. Their disgust with them is obvious; the baron doesn’t think twice of seeing them as disposable bodies for his experiments, and the baroness literally refers to Dallesandro as her latest “acquisition.” This baron doesn’t just seem preoccupied with changing nature, but with completely owning it as a prideful god looming over his creation with an iron fist. When his creations turn on him, it doesn’t play as the rebellion of a child lashing out against its father; instead, it’s more akin to a slave revolt, though the film hardly has an optimistic outlook on the downtrodden’s attempt to rise up given the cyclical nature of the film’s final shot.
Dallesandro is a better hero this time around, a legitimate charmer, if only because he’s not professing his desire to rape 14 year old girls. His distinct Brooklyn accent reveals the film’s blatant disregard for accuracy, and there’s an anachronistic streetwise quality to his character that obviously contrasts with the Frankensteins. His preoccupation with sex also lands him into trouble; when his buddy begins mulling over his decision to become a monk, Dallesandro convinces him to visit a brothel, where the baron is amazed by his sexual prowess with two women at once. For a man who can now only get his jollies off with corpse-humping, this young peasant is something of an Adonis. Perhaps in a reflection of Frankenstein’s own deferred and twisted sexual desires, his first male corpse is impotent, so he decides to turn this man into his Adam, a perfect mate for the gorgeous Eve of the equation (Dalila Di Lazzaro). Despite the ambitious, world-changing destiny Frankenstein has in mind for these two, they simply become sexual conquests, as both the baron’s sister and his assistant are unable to help themselves, their self-indulgent compulsions a trigger that spells doom.
As a humorous psychosexual commentary, Flesh for Frankenstein is perhaps better than Blood for Dracula; this film was actually conceived first and is arguably the more accomplished of the two, but Dracula has a little bit more of a boisterous energy that leads it down some deranged paths while maintaining a charming sense of sympathy for its characters. Flesh for Frankenstein is ultimately the sillier of the two, and a grand gore show that would have been augmented by the film’s use of 3D back when it was released. Perhaps Morrissey wanted his audiences to feel just as physically culpable, as his bad taste and eviscerated guts spilled right off the screen. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been replicated in 3D at home, but the film has seen two great DVD releases, with Criterion doing the honors first way back in 1999. Typically, that’d be the one to go with, but Image actually outdid the boutique label by upgrading the presentation to include an anamorphic transfer while retaining most of the special features, including the commentary track with Morrissey, Kier, and film historian Maurice Yacowar. Also included are new audio recollections from Morrissey, a screen test, and a still gallery. The Morrissey/Warhol collaborations (which mostly amounted to the latter attaching his name to the projects) are two of the most bizarre but rewarding projects from the 1970s art-house scene. With Flesh for Frankenstein, Morrissey certainly tapped into a gleeful sort of perversity and bawdiness tat I think Lord Byron would have enjoyed had Ms. Shelley been able to conjure up something this wicked during that sordid weekend that actually yielded her version of Frankenstein.
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