Friday, July 21, 2006

Blackenstein (1973)

A few weekends* ago I was down in Texas hanging out with Sandy “Call of Cthulhu” Petersen and Chris Holland of Stomp Tokyo and some of the Jabootu message board crowd, watching movies and stuff. Before the general get-together on Saturday, Sandy (who was kind enough to put me up at his house, which aside from nocturnal raids by roving ferrets is a very nice place) went through his vast video holdings, and produced 1972’s proto-blaxploitation horror flick Blackenstein.

[*This report is late because I returned with a cold, which turned into a bad cold, which turned into one of my regular bouts of bronchitis, so I’m only now with the help of anti-biotics really back on my feet.]

Inspired, no doubt, by the success of 1972’s far superior Blacula, Blackenstein (which on the fairly lame DVD print is actually entitled Blackenstein The Black Frankenstein, lest we don’t ‘get’ it) revolves around young doctor and with-it sistah Winifrid. We meet her as she accepts a research position at the mansion/private experimental clinic of elderly and surprising-good-white-guy medico Dr. Stein. (I don’t think they implied that he was descended from the Frankensteins, as Steins usually are in these things, but I may have missed that part.) Stein kind of looks like the older Dick Van Dyke, but sadly a show called Diagnosis: Mad Science apparently wasn't in the cards.

Stein is experimenting with…some damn thing or other. This allows for limb replacements, and one guy who looks like a Turkish Kojack has had his lost legs replaced with zebra legs. (!!) Why? Uh, again, I wasn’t paying that much attention. I mean, could there be a good reason for that? Also, for no real reason other than to set up an obvious shock effect later in the movie, there’s an old woman kept young by a secret formula she must have a shot of every 24 hours. Three guesses where that goes.

Winifrid just happens to be in love with bitter Viet Nam vet Eddie, who just happened to have had his limbs blown off in the war. Stein brings Eddie to his house and they start work on replacing his lost arms and legs. To keep his trunk from rejecting these new limbs, they develop a formula based on Eddie’s own DNA.

Unfortunately, Stein’s assistant Malcolm (also black; this film didn’t really have the blaxploitation race politcs down) falls for Winifrid. When she rejects him, he seeks revenge by screwing around with Eddie’s DNA formula. The result, naturally, is that Eddie periodically turns into a black version of the old Frankenstein monster. The funniest part of the movie isn’t that he develops the standard ridge brow (nor is it even the guy with zebra legs). It’s that when Eddie transforms he also seems to spontaneously manifest a standard Frankenstein outfit, including tight black sweater, ill-fitting suit coat and built-up platform Frankenstein boots. That’s a hell of a DNA formula, I must say.

So Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) staggers out periodically into the night and gruesomely murders people, along with (I think) a dog. At first his prey is restricted to folks who have wronged him, but eventually he just moves on to the standard whoever is around sort of thing. He tends to disembowel his victims (gee, thanks), and then holds the entrails up in front of his face. Maybe he’s supposed to be eating them; I couldn’t really tell.

So at first Eddie has no memory of his crimes, and nobody else knows what’s going on. Luckily I guess all the blood and body parts disappear when his Frankenstein suit turns back into Eddie’s pajamas. Yet whenever there’s a full moon (I think, maybe he changes every night), Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) staggers forth and commits mayhem. Of course, he moves incredibly slowly, waving his arms around in front of him like the old Frankenstein Monster (although that was only during the period when the Monster was supposed to be blind). However, via the miracle of offscreen teleportation—not to mention victims who naturally refuse to just run away when they have the chance—he kills any number of folks, including two middle-aged white people whose sex scene is easily the most unsettling thing in the movie.

There’s also a long stretch of a horribly unfunny black comic doing standup at a nightclub. For what it’s worth, the clothes of his inexplicably convulsed audience do provide some genuine laughs. Then the film teases us when the comic goes outside for a smoke. Sadly, though, he isn’t killed by Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) but merely witnesses his latest rampage.

Finally there’s a big climatic murder spree, as Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) sloooowly meanders around up and down staircases and kills pretty much everybody in Stein’s house except Winifrid. For some reason he’s bullet proof (Malcolm unloads a revolver into his chest at point blank range, to no apparent effect), but not canine proof, and in the end Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) is literally torn apart by a team of police Dobermans. I’m sure that resonated with lots of viewers, especially given the then recent images of Southern cops setting vicious dogs on black protesters.

Blackenstein (also known as Return of Blackenstein—huh?) is in no way good, but it does provide a fair amount of amusement. Probably the funniest single moment in the film is when Eddie arrives at Stein’s house on a gurney. Despite purportedly being legless, his legs and feet are clearly visible thrusting up under the sheet covering him.

You can also add this to the list of horrible movies (Dracula vs. Frankenstein, etc.) to which prop guy Kenneth Strickfaden lent the mad scientist laboratory equipment he created for the original Universal Frankenstein back in 1931. I’m not sure why Strickfaden’s baroque electrical arc generators would aid in limb graft operations, but then, I’m not a scientist.

Just as a warning, some may be turned off by the explicit (if poorly realized) gore and, naturally, some gratuitous boobage.


At 2:34 PM, Blogger Sandy Petersen said...

Almost looks like one of your Video Nuggets reviews. Hope you're back on your feet soon.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice idea with this site its better than most of the rubbish I come across.

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very pretty site! Keep working. thnx!


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