Frankenstein’s Daughter/She-Monster of the Night (1958) -***½
Despite what you might think, it really was possible to be lower down on the cinematic food chain than American International Pictures, even before the Poe movies of the 1960’s brought that studio some degree of respectability. One of those shabby, benthic muck-dwellers was a little company called Astor, which spent the late 1950’s cranking out films like Giant from the Unknown (about a seven-foot Spanish conquistador who has been kept in suspended animation by the strange chemistry of the soil in which he was buried) and Missile to the Moon (a remake of 1953’s Cat-Women of the Moon, as if such a thing were in any way warranted). Astor, through the person of director William Cunha, also tried its hand at AIP’s signature teens-and-monsters formula, with results that make I Was a Teenage Werewolf look like Son of Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s Daughter/She-Monster of the Night not only has craggy, overaged teenagers, a scene dramatizing the hazards of going parking with a guy you’ve only just met, and a rock and roll band that even the one in The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow would look down on, it also comes complete with double the usual allotment of monsters and mad scientists.
One of those monsters shows up even before the title does. When a somewhat hapless boy named Don (Harold Lloyd Jr., from Girls Town and Mutiny in Outer Space) drops his girlfriend, neighborhood teen floozy Suzie Lawler (Sally Todd, of The Unearthly and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), off after a clandestine date, the girl is horrified to find herself accosted by what she can only call a monster. The creature in question resembles a hideous young woman with bulging eyes, flaring brows, and snaggly, rotten teeth, and oddly enough, she’s dressed in a lacy nightgown. Naturally, no one quite believes Suzie when she tells her friends about her harrowing experience the next morning. Don swears only that he didn’t get the girl drunk, and Johnny Bruder (John Ashley, from The Eye Creatures and Woman Hunt) says for what will only be the first of a great many times that Suzie will do or say anything in the world if it will make her the center of attention. But Johnny’s girlfriend, Trudy Morton (Sandra Knight, from Blood Bath and the 1962 version of Tower of London), isn’t so quick to discount Suzie’s tale. She had a string of bad dreams last night, you see, and her dreams bear a suspicious resemblance to what Suzie describes.
I, for one, think we should be listening to the young ladies. After all, Trudy’s uncle and legal guardian, Carter Morton (Curse of the Faceless Man’s Felix Locher), is a scientist. Not only that, he’s a scientist who is working on a chemical process designed to protect human tissue against the ravages of age— or as we like to call that sort of thing around here, Tampering In God’s Domain. What’s more, the rather doddering Dr. Morton has a much younger and more vigorous assistant named Oliver Frank (Donald Murphy, from Strange Intruder and On the Threshold of Space), about whose background and personal life he knows almost nothing. Again: the assistant’s name is Dr. Frank. So it would surprise only Carter, wouldn’t it, to learn that Frank has somehow constructed an extra-secret laboratory behind his boss’s secret lab, and that Frank has an assistant of his own who emerges from within it each night after Carter hangs up his lab coat. This other assistant is an old man with a funny accent who calls himself Elsu (Homicidal’s Wolfe Barzell). He also calls Frank by his full, untruncated name, much to the doctor’s vexation. For Oliver Frank, of course, is the grandson of the notorious Victor Frankenstein, and Elsu’s services as lab-monkey have been handed down through three generations of the family right along with the notebooks explaining how the original mad doctor created a living man from reconstituted corpses.
The reason Frank seems to know so much more about Carter’s research than Carter does is that he, unlike his boss, has been testing the Morton formula on living subjects. One living subject in particular, in fact: Trudy. Frank snuck a dose of Carter’s drug into the girl’s fruit punch the night before, resulting in her temporary transformation into the creature that frightened Suzie Lawler. He therefore knows exactly what unacceptable side-effects the drug has, and his objections convince Dr. Morton that he needs to sneak back into his old office at Rockwell Laboratories and steal a sample of Digenerol, the experimental drug he was working on when he retired. No one ever bothers to explain what Digenerol is supposed to do, but Morton seems to think that it will counteract the monster-making qualities of his own serum. This has the effect of getting Carter out of the house after dark, and Frank takes advantage of the situation to slip Trudy another monster-mickey that night. This time there are several witnesses to Trudy’s prowling, and the cops receive enough calls reporting a monster in a bathing suit to take the idea seriously. The detective in charge of the case, Lieutenant Boyle (John Zaremba, of The Magnetic Monster and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), also suspects a connection between the monster woman and the evening’s break-in at Rockwell Labs.
Frankly (no pun intended), I’m not at all sure what Oliver’s deal is when he turns Trudy into a monster. He’s already got one of his own in his secret lab, and completing it is the real focus of his after-hours work. The only thing it’s missing is a head, and so far, Elsu’s missions to collect body parts from the sites of auto wrecks have yet to produce a usable one. Fate steps in to assist the doctor, however, when Suzie Lawler stops by to gloat to Trudy and Johnny over the vindication of her monster story. (The paper’s top headline that morning is “Woman Monster Menaces City!”) Suzie sets her sights on Oliver Frank the moment the two meet, and she makes arrangements for him to pick her up from a street corner a discreet distance from her parents’ place at 8:00 that evening. When Suzie decides she’s had enough of Oliver’s insistently animalistic groping and begins walking home from Lover’s Lane without him, he follows her in the car and runs her down once he’s sure no one is looking. Head problem solved.
Now I’m sure you’ve noticed that “Frankenstein’s Grandson” and “Frankenstein’s Daughter” aren’t exactly interchangeable terms, and perhaps you’re wondering where the whole “daughter” thing comes into the picture. That’s easy— it comes with Suzie’s head. The rest of the new monster may be made from male body parts, but because the brain came from a chick, the thing will be “she” throughout the rest of the movie. (There’s a tale there, incidentally. Word is the special effects guys weren’t told the monster was supposed to be female until after they’d already spent their whole share of the budget. The makeup was already designed, and prolific bit-player Harry Wilson had already been cast for the part, and the only thing that could be done in an attempt to preserve some sense of the monster’s femininity was to have Wilson wear lipstick in his closeups.) This is important because the creature’s female brain supposedly makes it more compliant and controllable than the male-brained monsters that Oliver’s ancestors had constructed.
Yeah. Right. So compliant and controllable is Oliver’s monster that it immediately escapes and goes running around town attracting even more attention than Monster Trudy had. And since all that’s going on at the same time that Carter Morton is trying to get his hands on more of his precious Digenerol, it has the ultimate effect of bringing Lieutenant Boyle straight to the Morton place. Frank tries to save himself by selling out Carter, but he is foiled in rapid succession by the suspicions of Detective Dillon (Robert Dix, from Forbidden Planet and Horror of the Blood Monsters), the newly developed affection that Elsu feels for Trudy (whom Frank now wants to monsterize permanently), and the sudden and unexpected activation of Johnny Bruder’s brain. Frank gets his face burned off by a convenient jar of acid, just about everybody who does not strictly count as one of the good guys is killed by the monster, and the thing itself is finally destroyed by fire.
I should have reviewed this movie back at the end of November— there’s more than enough turkey involved to make a respectable Thanksgiving dinner. From the instantaneous appearance of the monstrous Trudy (a makeup effect every bit as bad as that used for the vampire girl in Blood of Dracula) to the cartoon fire that consumes the real monster’s body until it can be safely exchanged for an honestly burning dummy between shots, hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t seem calculated to evince an outburst of, “Guys! What are you doing?!” from the audience. Donald Murphy’s performance as Oliver Frankenstein is competitive with any of Michael Gough’s mad genius gigs, and he steals the show effortlessly. Meanwhile, the so-called teenagers (at least one of whom would still be trying to pass for the occasional high-schooler almost a decade later) reach levels of somnolent vapidity scarcely yet imagined at AIP. The movie’s high point in pain would have to be the pool party scene late in the film, in which Trudy and her pals are “entertained” by a singularly feeble band (note that, though the saxophone is the most prominently featured instrument on the soundtrack, not a single member of the band can be seen playing any sort of horn or woodwind!), and end up forcing Don to sing a couple of numbers, but this thankfully doesn’t go on for too long. Otherwise, there’s nary a dull moment in Frankenstein’s Daughter— just one budget-conscious fiasco after another.