Lady Frankenstein / Madame Frankenstein / Daughter of Frankenstein / La Figlia di Frankenstein (1971) -**½
Okay, so the Equal Rights Amendment was a bust, equal pay for equal work has stubbornly remained just over the horizon, and issues of gender equity ranging from sexual harassment to the division of marital property in divorce would take decades to reach any remotely satisfactory resolution. There was still at least one field in which the women’s movement of the 70’s achieved prompt and decisive results, shattering a glass ceiling that most of the public never realized was there in the first place. In 1971, the world (or at least the portion of it that watched shitty Italian horror movies) saw at last that a woman could be as mad a scientist as any man! I’m not serious, obviously, but astonishingly enough, the makers of Lady Frankenstein sort of were. At the very least, their distaff mad doctor is every bit as much concerned with vindicating herself as a woman in a male-dominated field as she is with vindicating her specific scientific obsessions. And just as astonishing (albeit in the opposite direction), when Lady Frankenstein’s English-language distributors promoted it with the tagline, “Only the monster she made could satisfy her strange desires,” they were serious about that, too.
This being a Frankenstein movie, we’re practically obligated to begin with a grave robbery. The chief resurrection man is named Lynch (Herbert Fux, from Mark of the Devil and Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion), and he and his flunkies have a steady deal worked out with Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten, of The Hearse and The Abominable Dr. Phibes). Frankenstein’s project must be nearing completion, because before he and his partner, Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Müller, from Barbed Wire Dolls and A Virgin Among the Living Dead), take the latest stiff up to the lab, the baron tells Lynch that he’ll have a special assignment for him later this week. Indeed, once Frankenstein and Marshall extract whatever they need from the current corpse, all their artificial man will be lacking is a heart and a brain, both of which will have to come from a body no more than six hours dead. Luckily for Frankenstein, Jack Morgan (Petar Martinovitch, of Leather and Whips), an old enemy of Lynch’s, is set to be hanged in a few days’ time, and the grave-robber and his fellows will be happy to see Morgan put to such a use.
But before any fresh brains or hearts become available, the Frankenstein household is due for a different sort of triumph, for the baron’s daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri, from The Arena and Deadly Sanctuary), is on her way home bearing a degree in medicine from the very same university that he was hounded out of 30 years ago. The girl’s homecoming is as big a thrill for Charles as it is for her father, too, because Marshall is in love with the young baroness despite an age gap of more than a quarter century and a total lack of visible encouragement on her part. Frankenstein gives Charles plenty of encouragement, though, obviously pleased at the prospect of a union between his trusted accomplice and his brilliant and feisty daughter. Either Tania is deliberately playing hard to get and has taken her father into her confidence, or there’s a big blind spot in Frankenstein’s enlightened attitude toward female empowerment. Whichever it is, Tania immediately sets about showing what a handful she’s going to be for both of the men in her life. Frankenstein has always kept the details of his work secret from her, discussing it only to the extent of making it clear that it involves tissue and organ transplants and that the thinking underlying it was what got him drummed out of medical school. And in any event, Tania went away to the university long before Frankenstein and Marshall launched their current man-making project. What Frankenstein does not realize until Tania tells him is that she discovered the secret passageway serving as a back door to the lab when she was just a child, giving her the wherewithal to spy on years’ worth of his experiments. Furthermore, all that surreptitious observation has inspired in Tania the same ambitions that now drive her father. Tania has independently devised her own plan to create and manipulate human life, and now that she’s home, she’s itching to collaborate with Daddy on some advanced Tampering in God’s Domain. Frankenstein is taken more than a little aback at the idea of sharing with his daughter whatever accolades his work might garner, while Marshall would face being completely sidelined if Tania got her way. On the other hand, there’s also a perfectly plausible reason to shut Tania out without coming across as a selfish glory-hog, and the baron forbids her involvement on the grounds that it could expose her to criminal prosecution if either the project were discovered by the authorities before it reached fruition or the unveiling of the finished product were not handled in exactly the right way. Tania grudgingly accepts her father’s interdict, and Marshall, or so we may surmise, heaves a silent sigh of relief.
Frankenstein is not a patient man, however, and his overeager nature proves his undoing. It stands to reason that if Lynch is supplying his heart- and brain-donor from the gallows, then the soon-to-be-late Jack Morgan is a criminal, and we already know from the Universal Frankenstein movies what comes of installing criminal brains in the skulls of synthetic men. What’s more, after the scientists have Morgan’s body in hand, but immediately before the transplantation of his vital organs, Marshall notices that the convict’s brain has suffered damage to the hypothalamus, and we know from The Curse of Frankenstein that damaged brains are even worse than the criminal variety. Frankenstein is on a tight schedule, though. Corpses this fresh don’t come along every day, and neither do thunderstorms strong enough to power his life-giving machinery. It may not be now or never, but it certainly is now or not for some considerable while. Overriding Marshall’s protests, the baron proceeds with the operation, obtaining even less satisfactory results than you would expect. The creature (Paul Whiteman) comes to life, alright, but it does so in a very bad mood, and it bear-hugs Frankenstein to death while Charles is off summoning Tania to witness the successful awakening. By the time the latter pair reach the lab, the monster has wandered off to make further mischief abroad.
The cops have to be called, of course, and Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay, from Delirium and Bloody Pit of Horror) seems not to buy Tania’s cover story about a burglar. Meanwhile, the monster is racking up quite a body count, and while it’s convenient in once sense that it seems somehow and for some reason to be targeting people who had a role in its creation, that very fact makes it more likely that Harris will eventually notice enough connections to make Tania and Charles very uncomfortable. The only thing for it, or so Tania contends, is to build a second monster to destroy the first. And unlike her father, she doesn’t plan on taking any three years to make it, either. Thomas the village idiot (Marino Mase, of The Night Porter and Emanuelle Around the World) is almost as big and brawny as the original creature, and once supercharged with electricity, he should be comparably strong. Not only that, Thomas makes Tania all moist and slippery inside, in a way that Charles conspicuously does not. If Marshall would allow Tania to extract his brain and transfer it to Thomas’s body, the two mad doctors would have not only their monster destroyer, but a solution to their emerging May-September romance problem as well.
So, does the time-honored schoolyard chant, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” hold any water when it comes to mad science? Well, it sure as hell does in Lady Frankenstein. For starters, just look at Tania’s and her father’s respective creations. Baron Frankenstein’s monster easily earns the epithet, with its huge, gourd-shaped cranium and its face and body covered with unsightly and illogically placed sutures, clamps, and pins. Tania’s has a deep scar running the circumference of his skull, but she had the good sense to do her sawing above the hairline, so the Charles-Thomas creature’s appearance should be totally normal in a couple of months, and a good wig will keep anything untoward concealed until then. Frankenstein Senior would accept any old raw materials he could get his hands on, not even bothering to make certain the parts worked before stitching and pinning them together. Frankenstein Junior— working under vastly more serious time and resource pressures, I might add— waits until she has exactly the right brain to install in exactly the right body. Even Tania’s resurrection apparatus is superior. Whereas her father’s system required the creature to be hoisted up through a skylight during a thunderstorm so that the electrodes hooked up to the heart and brain could catch the lightning (one potential hazard of which is highlighted when the monster comes down from the castle roof with its face on fire), Tania uses a chemical reaction to generate the needed electricity. No lighting, no skylights, no bulky and expensive elevating gurney contraption— just a few feet of wire, a pair of metal rods with insulated handles, and a little vat of bubbling liquid. The difference between the elder Frankenstein’s half-assedness and Tania’s meticulousness bears results in the finished product, too. Both mad doctors wind up being destroyed by their creations (oh, come on— like that counts as a spoiler in a Frankenstein movie!), but Daddy’s monster is berserk from practically the moment it opens its eyes, while Tania has to betray hers before he turns on her, and even then, she still gets what she wants out of him. Also, I hasten to remind you that Tania achieves all of her success without any assistance beyond the actual smothering of Thomas, since the only person who might have helped is busy donating his brain. Frankly, if Baron Frankenstein had half his daughter’s competence, two thirds of this movie need never have happened.
There are surely those who would have counted that a good thing, incidentally. Lady Frankenstein is a titanic slab of ripe, stinky cheese, aged to… well, one hardly dares call it perfection, but you see where I’m going with this. Joseph Cotten seems embarrassed and befuddled throughout, as if his acting were competing for mental space with an effort to figure out how in the hell his career could have led him to this point. Paul Whiteman, meanwhile, gives maybe the most phoned-in, noncommittal performance as a Frankenstein monster since Kiwi Kingston’s unforgettably forgettable turn in The Evil of Frankenstein. He doesn’t even seem to have a handle on how fast, agile, or coordinated the creature is supposed to be. And while the monster makeup he wears is somewhat better than what Kingston got lumbered with, it nevertheless falls well short of that in, say, Horror of Frankenstein or Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, two of the most universally un-beloved interpretations of the Frankenstein monster in the annals of film. Mickey Hargitay and Herbert Fux try, but they’re both hampered by the fact that none of the subplots in which their characters figure ever quite get off the ground. Lady Frankenstein wastes a tremendous amount of footage setting up a three-way battle of wits among Harris, Lynch, and Tania, but the monster kills the grave-robber before he gets a chance to make any real trouble for either of his foes, and Harris’s biggest contribution to the story is to stumble upon the scene of the climax after it’s already happened, at which point there’s nothing left to do but put out the fires and clean up the mess. The only things about Lady Frankenstein that are at all impressive are Rosalba Neri and Paul Müller. The former turns what could have been just a sleazy joke into a fairly rewarding role, while the latter disappears so completely into his weak-willed, submissive character that most viewers probably won’t realize what a departure from form the part was for him. At the very least, Charles Marshall is a far cry from the scheming sadist Müller played in Nightmare Castle or his neurotic, stress-plagued businessman in The Arena. As for Neri, it’s easy to believe the rumor that Lady Frankenstein came about because one of the producers was infatuated with her, and wanted to give her a starring role in something. Neri’s dominance over the film is as complete as Tania’s over the various endeavors toward which she directs herself throughout its story. The obvious (if largely undeserved) commitment she brings to Lady Frankenstein is a large part of the reason why it’s only in retrospect that you consciously notice how nonsensical and poorly structured it really is.
This review is part of a much-belated B-Masters Cabal tribute to all the living dead things that we’ve been negelecting in favor of zombies all these years. Click the link below to read all that the Cabal finally came up with to say on the subject.