“Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (1974)
(Originally posted on April 18, 2013)
Filmed immediately prior to “Andy Warhol’s Dracula”, more popularly known as “Blood For Dracula”, Paul Morrissey’s “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”, filmed under and later re-released under the title “Flesh For Frankenstein” after initial U.S. engagements which capitalized on the fame of the pop art icon who actually had little participation in the actual production itself except for a close prior association with Morrissey, bears little resemblance to prior Warhol–Morrissey collaborations with its reported adoption of a structured screenplay in lieu of the usual spontaneously improvised technique which lent a raggedy aesthetic texture as well as emphasizing the personae of the performers in deference to any appreciable interpretation of written characterization; Morrissey, evidently the more willing of the two film makers to succumb to the necessities of narrative structure despite his previous observance of improvisation armed with little more than an outline. Pre-production and a crew of experienced 35mm technicians- as opposed to the seat-of-the-pants 16mm self-lensed underground shooting -lends itself to a more professionally polished physical production (this is also true of the following “Dracula” film as well, produced under the same circumstances, though that production, due to the absence of the limiting three dimensional lenses made interior location shooting far more flexible than the more theatrically influenced studio bound interior settings of this film) with a genuinely impressive and expressively atmospheric production design, captured with an attractive color and vibrancy by Luigi Kuveiller and accented with a musical score of stately understatement by Claudio Gizzi ; and to underscore the film’s ascension to the unlikely terrain of commercial (sellout) respectability, (as if being produced by Loren spouse Carlo Ponti wasn’t sufficient indication of a complete removal from the “glory days” of underground cinema) it was filmed in the 3-D format.
Unfortunately, what this film does carry over from the earlier days of Warhol-Morrissey collaborations is Joe Dallesandro, as inert a performing presence (if standing as unwavering and as expressively as an oak tree passes for committed performance) as ever graced the proverbial silver screen. Dallesandro’s emotional paralysis actually served him well in Morrissey’s 1970 “Trash” as a strung-out junkie in search of a fix and consciousness (though that film had the good fortune of compensatory entertainment value with the inimitable Holly Woodlawn) and was passable as the Joe Gillis stand-in in Morrissey’s riff on “Sunset Blvd.”, in 1972’s “Heat”, if the film is interpreted as a reverse satire of unsated sexual energies in the older Hollywood (though that film had the good fortunes of compensatory entertainment value with the inimitable Sylvia Miles) who ultimately finds a a lack of fulfillment with the attraction to the younger though empty vessels of New Hollywood. However, cast as an interactive dramatic leading man he is less hero than zero. If Dallesandro’s Marxist proletariat in the subsequent production of “Andy’s Warhol’s Dracula” emphasized his distancing foreign accent (his unconcealed Brooklynese is galaxies away from either the Germanic or Italian accents of the rest of the cast) as a humorous proletariat counterpoint to the aristocratic bearing of the rest of the film’s characters, thus (perhaps) emphasizing the undercurrent of sociopolitical satire in the film, in “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” there exists no such forgiving contextual excuse for his shameless lack of effort. In the Warhol/Morrissey cinema tradition, Dallesandro is once again typecast as the roving gigolo; a willing and available walking phallus (with the exception of his flaccid- in more ways than one -appearance in “Trash”), though ironically the only visibly stiff thing about him is his dramatic range.
The film itself borrows heavily from the recognizable filmic mythos which has evolved with the title character (specifically referring to the creator of “the monster”, not the creation itself which has become a curious tradition of comfortable misidentification throughout its cinematic incarnation) since its initial representation in J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 one-reel version, though even in Morrissey’s sexually derivative mutation, follows the basic concept of Mary Shelley’s novel, featuring Frankenstein creating artificial life from dead tissue, and even features the creation of not only the original “monster” but a female counterpart, but there the resemblances end, as the extreme level of sexual perversity is certainly new, reinterpreting the figure of Baron Frankenstein as a man of deviant appetites aimed at both his wife/sister and his female creation, thus finding avenues toward satisfying his incestuous and necrophiliac cravings within the narrow time frame of the story. This is certainly a new addition to the Frankenstein mythos, at least in the intense, explicitly wrought depiction of those aberrant proclivities, though the gestation of the Frankenstein/sexual obsession is present in the Joseph L. Green film “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, where a scientist abandons his already shaky ethics while experimentally restoring his decapitated fiancee, by changing the exphasis to a newly created body which would satisfy his carnal appetites, and can be found in more overtly related films such as Mel Welles’ 1971 “La Figlia di Frankenstein” and Marc Roddam’s 1985 “The Bride”, though in neither film is there such a derivation from the sexual norm (regardless of partner, artificially animated or not) as depicted by Kier’s Baron as in satisfying his perverse urges. There are several moments in Morrissey’s film when the Baron actually opens a labial-like incision in his female creation and achieves sexual climax while fondling her internal organs. His excited utterance- “To know death , Otto, you’ve got to fuck life in the gall bladder” is fairly indicative of the film’s eccentric view of the rogue scientist: clearly a chosen profession of defiling graves and assembling body parts like a Grand Guignol Rubik’s Cube no longer registers on the pantheon of the sufficiently offbeat. The Baron’s desire to create life is less of solving the mysteries of Nature as in creating breeding stock for a race of Serbian super beings, as if the mating of his creations would hardly the genetic attributes of the combined tissues, nor do his creations seem to be imbued with the invulnerability of the Universal creation, though both are blessed with impressive posture. He is obsessed with the sexual nature of his “zombie” creations (in finding a head for his male, he insists his “overriding urges must be sensual”), assuming they will proliferate and obey only his commands, though it is this sexual preoccupation that will prove the undoing of almost the entire cast of characters.
The sexual aspect of the film is the most pronounced, rather than the creation of life itself which is treated as a rather ho-hum achievement, clearly relying on the over familiarity of the idea in taking the source novel’s central themes as traditionally defined by filmmakers with film audiences, and if one aspect of Morrissey’s thematic indulgence is clear: it is that Man’s sexual impulse is host to all manner of unhealthy appetites. There are no healthy sexual relationships depicted in the film: each is an aberrational version of the cinematic standard of normalcy (even within the often perverse sphere of horror). The creatures of the Baron’s creation are meant entirely for their sexual characteristics (rather like Dr. Strangelove’s conditions for post-apocalyptic female breeding stock brought to realization), with the scientist’s plan for world dominance through procreation (unless he’s altered the female’s reproductive capabilities to deliver progeny in litters, the mathematics of the plan seem rather impractical and time consuming).
The film opens with a pair of children curiously regarding the instruments of a laboratory until they come upon a doll which they proceed to eviscerate, the boy massaging the stuffing of the toy until he casually beheads it with a miniature guillotine- though what dolls or a guillotine are doing in a scientific laboratory remain unexplained mysteries of art direction. Reminiscent of the opening of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” with its own nihilistic vision of innocents unleashed in feral behavior, this prelude may similarly be looked at as a foreboding omen of the complete moral corruption of the entire family line as a matter of an inbred unclean nature. Since it is suggestive that the children are also meant to represent earlier versions of their parents, the incestuous siblings- the Baron and the Baroness -…with both showing a predisposition toward morbidity of attitude and a propensity toward spying on the sexual indulgences of their parents, their own inbred nature relatively unconcealed and their own burgeoning imitative incestuous behavior rather prominently unveiled. From the start, there is an almost puritanical streak of condemnation toward the children as damned from birth, and though the finale of the film is technically open-ended, it is evident Morrissey’s intentions are to show the children as naturally debased by their own nature and therefore bound to carry on the pattern of their parents and to duplicate their behavior in the opening title sequence, only now with a live specimen.
Distinguishing the film apart from other Frankenstein in films, beyond the abnormality of sexual elements, is the increased level of graphic gore, intensified with the use of the rather effective though headache inducing 3-D. The horror film has long been subservient to the thematic intertwining of sex and violence with the former often being the subconscious catalyst for the latter, however in this case, the violence of the film (and there is a plentiful amount) is not joined to the carnal in the expected manner- sex as a neurotic catalyst of both violence and terror -but far more subversively as a perversion of medical science mingled with psychosexual obsession (not dissimilar to the blurring of sex and medically-fed psychosis in Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”). The horror genre is simply the latest backdrop for Morrissey to hang his shingle of outdated underground cinema posturing (a reminder of more adventurous film making days occurs when Nicholas greets the blowsy brothel madam with “Hi Viva”, an obvious, mean spirited reference to the significant Warhol Factory Superstar of whose saucy energy this movie could have benefitted with a healthy infusion). Sex has always been a primal constituent of the Morrissey-Warhol oeuvre, and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (as well as the following Dracula film) might be better understood if the film is viewed, not as a personal embellishment of classical horror themes directly combed from the Mary Shelley novel (any close resemblance between cinematic depictions and the novels have been invisible for years, the most harmonious distillation from one medium to another coming in the unlikely form of Roger Corman’s “Frankenstein Unbound”, and that was based on a Brian Aldiss novel) but from a satiric extension of the familiar narrative tropes which had by that point become to exhausted by overuse, the genre had lost its ability to shock or horrify, instead being regarded as quaint. Certainly not the material which was felt capable to shock and horrify, as was the case in the initial Universal cycle, but of a more familiar formula in which variations were hard won and reaching the point of exhaustion, as in the Hammer cycle. This was also apparent in the timing of the release of the parody “Young Frankenstein” which played on the recognition of the formula in which humor seemed the last natural course of expression, not dissimilar to the production of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” which effectively signaled Universal’s acknowledgement of the end of its own lucrative horror properties.
None of the performances could be remotely considered as characterized by any level of distinction. Though the screen titles credit Morrissey with authorship of the film (which is unusual since his films rely on improvisation), it is doubtful, from the evidence, there was much of a prepared scenario for the actors to work with, with most of dialogue, if not outright ludicrous, then reeking of the desperation of forced spontaneity. As the Baron, Udo Kier (previously featured in Michael Armstrong’s “Mark of the Devil”) speaks with an accent approximating Peter Lorre by way of Elmer Fudd; his line readings providing an equal source of translatable befuddlement and amusement. Kier’s antic behavior evokes a pronounced sense of self-parody though perhaps still less off-putting than the oddball combination of the stiff with the theatrically hammy that informed Colin Clive’s depiction in the James Whale original; but certainly not comparable to the robust serial interpretation of Peter Cushing’s Baron, though Morrissey’s film does share the Hammer angle of making the creator the more increasingly murderous figure than his creation. Arno Juerging, (who serves a similar function in “Andy Warhol’s Dracula”) is monotonously pop-eyed as the feckless lab assistant Otto and Monique van Vooren is merely creepy, resembling an Abyssinian cat, as the Baroness.
Whether meant as satire or as an extreme extension of the traditional elements inherent in the Gothic trappings of the genre, Morrissey’s film fails in two fundamental aspects, both of which are symptomatic of incoherent- if existent -writing: the horrendous level of dialogue which would inhibit the most resourceful of thespians, and an unfocused scenario which introduces a particular strain of consistent sexual depravity into the Frankenstein mythos, yet fails to coalesce this element into the narrative with an intention of a thematic relevance, but rather consigns the film to devolve into a sleazy carnival boardwalk of infelicitous exhibitionism.