Blackenstein/Blackenstein: The Black Frankenstein/Black Frankenstein (1973) -**
It had all the inevitability of natural law. In 1972, American International Pictures made proportionately big bucks by combining blaxploitation and horror in Blacula, so how could Blackenstein possibly be far behind? Unfortunately for us, however, AIP weren’t quite fast enough on the draw with the idea, devoting their energies to producing a direct sequel to their hit movie instead. Enter Exclusive International, a company which no one has ever heard of, nor ever will again— actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that “Exclusive International” may be just a fancy way of saying writer/producer Frank R. Saletri’s well-to-do uncle. With a vigor and speed that would, alas, be displayed nowhere in the movie itself, Exclusive International vaulted onto the accelerating bandwagon, and had their rip-off in the can by the end of the year, and in theaters by the beginning of the following one. And whereas the AIP movie surprises those who are willing to give it a chance with an unexpectedly sophisticated story and a riveting performance from star William Marshall, Blackenstein surprises only by being even more stupefyingly awful than its ludicrous title would suggest.
A youngish, reasonably attractive black woman (Ivory Stone) arrives at an exceedingly cool mansion which seems to combine elements of every architectural style ever to grace the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Malcomb the butler (Roosevelt Jackson) looks to be a trifle suspicious of her at first, but he loosens up when she introduces herself as Dr. Winifred Walker, a former student of the master of the house. Walker has returned to California after some years away, and she thought she’d drop in for a visit to her old teacher, Dr. Stein (John Hart, from Atlantis, the Lost Continent and Day of the Nightmare). Mere minutes into the movie, we’re already seeing the first signs of the utter lunacy that will define it for the rest of its listless hour and a half, for though Walker identifies her field as physics, her mentor is quite obviously a medical doctor. Regardless, it seems that Walker’s return is made under less than pleasant circumstances, for her fiance, Eddie Turner (Joe De Sue), has just been shipped home from Vietnam after having all four of his limbs blown off by a landmine. Eddie is now in the local VA hospital, and Winifred has come to town to be close to him. As for the visit to Dr. Stein, it’s a bit more than just a social call, too. Walker has been following Stein’s work in the medical journals, and it seems that he’s very close to perfecting a technique for the transplantation of limbs. Winifred soon convinces the older doctor to come with her to the hospital, and see if Eddie looks like a promising candidate for his experimental treatment.
When the doctors walk in, Eddie is being hassled by an orderly (Bob Brophy) who has a chip on his shoulder because he was refused admittance to the military when he was a young man. What? Foreshadowing? You don’t say! At first, Eddie wants only to be left alone with his self-pity, but he is gradually persuaded to give Dr. Stein a shot. The key factor seems to be Winifred’s breathless pronouncement that Dr. Stein has “won the Nobel Peace Prize for medicine by solving the DNA genetic code”— and that’s as good and sensible as the writing in this movie gets, folks. As soon as Eddie has been safely transferred to Stein’s mansion, it becomes blatantly evident that the people in charge of Blackenstein absolutely do not have a clue. First, we might ask just what a bunch of 30’s-style Strickfaden gear could possibly have to do with complex tissue grafts. Then we might like to know how Stein’s success in regressing his patient, Eleanor (Andrea King, from The Beast with Five Fingers and Red Planet Mars), from her natural age of 90-something back to somewhere around her late 40’s fits into his limb-transplantation research. Finally, when we meet Bruno (Nick Bolin, of The Devil’s Daughter), another of the doctor’s patients, we’ll abandon outright any effort to make sense of things. Bruno, you see, has had two new legs grafted on, using two different procedures. His left leg was attached using “laser fusion” and treated with Stein’s mostly perfected DNA formula. All is basically well with it, but the limb requires booster injections every twelve hours to remain healthy. The right leg, on the other hand, has been treated with a new RNA-based drug, which Stein hopes will require less maintenance— unfortunately, the RNA formula has caused some kind of bullshit evolutionary retrogression reaction, with the result that the skin of that leg has turned tiger-striped! If I were Eddie, I think I’d probably decide to stick with my stumps until Stein had worked a few more of the kinks out of his therapy…
Of course, having gone to all the bother of establishing that Stein’s techniques don’t work quite the way they’re supposed to, Blackenstein proceeds to do nothing at all with that information. Instead, the fuck-up that turns Eddie into a tacky copy of the Universal Frankenstein monster (complete with a huge, squared-off afro to match his huge, squared-off head) is the product of deliberate sabotage. Malcomb, you see, has fallen in love with Dr. Walker during the weeks that she has lived and worked under Stein’s roof, helping him attach new limbs to her fiance’s immobile trunk, but she understandably spurns his advances. In revenge, Malcomb switches the DNA formula which his boss had prepared specially for Eddie with some other chemical. The change comes on gradually, but it soon becomes too obvious to ignore, and the doctors transfer the increasingly violent and inarticulate Eddie to a dungeon-like room in the cellar while they get to work on figuring out just what went wrong.
Oddly enough, however, Stein and Walker never do think to lock the door to Eddie’s cell, any more than they think to run a chemical analysis on the drugs they’ve been shooting him up with all this time. Consequently, as soon as he is able to walk under his own power, Frankeneddie wanders off into town to cause trouble. First, he goes back to the VA hospital, where he rips the arm off of that butt-bastard orderly. (Yep. That was foreshadowing, alright.) Then he swings by a house in the suburbs, where he kills first a dog and then the couple who own it. The woman (ex-stripper Liz Renay, from Desperate Living and Lady Godiva Rides) gets torn in half, at which point Frankeneddie makes a big but none-too-convincing production of playing with her entrails. After that, he heads home, where nobody in the mansion seems to have noticed that he was gone in the first place. On his second night out, Frankeneddie goes to a nightclub (and while we’re on the subject, the way the movie falls flat on its face the second the camera takes up its position in front of the stage will have you wishing it was a Jesus Franco nightclub scene you were watching), where he kills both a would-be rapist and the horny scumball’s intended victim. This gets the cops involved, but we will see almost nothing of Captain Tucker (old-timey bit-player Don Brodie, whom the sharp-eyed can see in Donovan’s Brain and Diary of a Madman), Lieutenant Jackson (Friday Foster’s Jim Cousar), or Lieutenant Jackson’s staggering afro until the final scene— and even then, they won’t accomplish much of anything. Night three brings Frankeneddie to lovers’ lane, where he crosses paths with the World’s Squarest White People; it isn’t a pretty sight. But there will be more than random murder for the police to clean up tonight. This time, the monsterized cripple returns to the mansion to find Malcomb attempting to force himself on Winifred, ushering in a most confusing climax that leaves everybody but Frankeneddie and his erstwhile fiancee dead. There’s still a bit of movie left, though, so Eddie kills the time remaining before his destruction at the hands (well, teeth, really) of a pair of police attack dogs by chasing a girl we’ve never seen before around in some sort of factory. So far as I can determine, the main reason he doesn’t kill this chick outright like he has everyone else up to now is that the Frankenstein monster union rules demand that any monster with more than two minutes of screen time must be seen carrying an unconscious girl around in at least one sequence.
My God, what hath Blacula wrought? Blackenstein is another of those movies which are difficult to describe without conveying the impression that they are far more entertaining than is actually the case. While I certainly don’t share the commonly held opinion that this film is a complete waste of time, absolutely devoid of redeeming features, it is nevertheless nowhere near as much fun as it ought to be. The real problem is a lack of momentum, with far too much time spent following Frankeneddie as he moseys haltingly around town on his nightly missions of unmotivated violence— and let us be perfectly clear that the emphasis in these scenes is solidly on the moseying rather than on the violence. For a while, this glaring defect is fairly amusing in its own right; after all, how can you not laugh when such earnestly oppressive horror movie music is being used to set the tone for a guy with a cuboid afro stumbling down an alley for three and four minutes at a stretch? Unfortunately, the joke gets old long before the credits roll, and when the joke gets old, Blackenstein gets boring. It can still muster a chuckle here and there by means of an especially absurd line of dialogue or a particularly spectacular failure to generate shock or suspense (the inanely meandering stalking scene at the factory, for example), but in the long run, Blackenstein is only slightly less putrid when taken in jest than it is when taken at face value. Not that anyone (except its creators, of course) would be foolish enough to try taking it seriously in the first place…