BR: Blackenstein (1973)

July 9, 2017 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Severin

Region: A

Released:  May 30, 2017

Genre:  Horror / Blaxploitation

Synopsis: Dr. Ivory Stone asks her mentor Dr. Stein (get it?) to re-render her husband back to a fully appendaged man, but a jealous assistant foils the whole plan with corrupted DNA.

Special Features:  3 Featurettes: “Monster Kid” interview with writer-producer Frank R. Saletri’s sister June Kirk (19:02) + producers-directors-actors Ken Osborne And Robert Dix Remember Writer / Producer Frank R. Saletri (6:36) + “Bill Created Blackenstein” interview with creature designer Bill Munns (9:13) / Archival News Broadcast On The Murder Of Writer / producer Frank R. Saletri (6:17) / Theatrical Trailer (3:24).




The wave of blaxploitation films that followed MGM’s blockbuster Shaft (1971) were often made quick & cheap by indie producers, and AIP’s The Thing with Two Heads (1972), Blacula (1972), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), and Abby (1974)  proved the genre could extend into horror, where filmmakers toyed with genre tropes and upscaled their low budgets with gore, nudity, and hip soundtracks.

Blackenstein was the first of several planned ‘horror spoofs’ by Los Angeles attorney, occasional bit player, and aspiring filmmaker Frank R. Saletri, but the film represents his only produced script, which is both good and bad for blaxploitation and bad cinema enthusiasts. In an interview with June Kirk, Saletri’s sister describes him as an avid horror fan longing to break into the movies, and the featurette shows many bound screenplays which never made it to celluloid, including Black the Ripper, a project that might have yielded the same pungent fromage as Blackenstein.

Saletri’s story bears no relation to the original Frankenstein (1931) nor its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), except the monster shares the same box-like head and leadened hand-leg movements.

Dr. Winifred Walker (one-time screen siren Ivory Stone) flies into California and seeks out Dr. Stein (veteran bit player John Hart), a mentor recently awarded the Nobel Prize for his work with something called “DNA.” Arriving at his castle-like estate (the parapet mansion seen in countless L.A.-shot TV and feature films), she’s greeted by butler / research assistant / servant / cook Malcomb (wooden Roosevelt Jackson), who quickly develops the hots for her and repeatedly ogles Winifred over the course of the film.

Walker tells Stein she needs his help in essentially rebuilding her husband (one-time master cinema thespian / former Saletri client Joe De Sue) from an armless & legless Vietnam bomb victim to good old Eddie. The initial tests prove successful, and as easy and 1-2-3, new appendages are grafted with no worry of tissue rejection, thanks to a careful and sophistimakated series of “DNA” and “RNA” injections.

Malcomb, however, can’t let go of an impossible romance, so when Walker rejects his overtures, he sneaks into the laboratory and mixes labeled dollar store bottles of “DNA” with a dangerous concoction that’s sure to initiate a regressive state, turning Eddie into Eddenstein.

The power of this genetic milkshake is telescoped in a tepid montage as Malcomb pours and mixes the fluids while Stein’s voice echoes on the soundtrack – a device director/editor William A. Levey repeats in the final third when Walker tasks herself with Heavy Thinking, holding the same bottles, reading the marker & masking tape labels, and writing unseen notes to herself with Deep Head-Nodding before she triangulates the steps Malcomb took in bastardizing Eddie’s intended “DNA” injection.

Bill Munn’s makeup design is surprisingly good, especially in the stages that transform Eddie’s noggin from normal to flattop, but the motivation for Eddie’s nighttime escapes into suburbia make no sense. Instead of a curiosity to see the world whole again, he stalks anyone after killing the attendant who tormented him so ruthlessly in the hospital. Arms are torn, throats gashed, and women presumably violated off-screen, but it’s hard to tell what Eddie’s trying to accomplish, nor spot Saletri’s intended fine balance of spoofing and shock because the gore shots are severely truncated. To remain within an R-rating, it looks as though Ed Woodian director Levey just sliced out extra frames and made no effort to create logical, smooth transitions.

Levey’s editing also fails to temper jarring jump cuts and spastic scene transitions, and in one transition a flash frame was missed. Saletri’s script may have been designed as a tongue-in-cheek spoof, but Levey clearly didn’t get the memo, treating every scene like serious drama, and unable to guide the amateurish cast towards a more formal performance style.

Hart and Andrea King (playing a 90 year old woman seeking youth through daily “DNA” injections) are the sole silver screen veterans, and sexploitation actress / Saletri client Liz Renay is fine as an uninhibited blonde quickly killed by Eddie, but the cast as a whole are newcomers, with only Stone showing any natural acting talent.

That contrast between good and awful makes for some hysterical moments, especially when director Levey cross-cuts between Malcomb and Walker, never aware that he’s creating a kind of melodic motif or ‘un amour fou’ from bad direction & severe contrasts in acting / non-acting styles: Malcomb glances at his object ‘damour, Walker senses a creepy chill, Malcomb smiles like a sicko, Walker turns to the source of that chilly breeze, and Malcomb suddenly gets pouty, like a child brooding after a parent took away his favourite noisemaker and slapped him across the face for being impudent. Levey repeats the same ridiculous shot order several times in the film, enhancing Blackenstein‘s palpable cheese factor.

The piece de resistance is Stein’s lab, a plainly obvious sound stage where all the props were dragged inside, arranged for one camera angle, and no doubt a challenge to light when the white paint on the walls add zero atmosphere. Incredibly, Saletri was able to rent some of the original Frankenstein electric props, but Levey had no idea how to milk their use and add production value. Cinematographer Robert Caramico’s visual style is somewhat redolent of his first effort – the Ed Wood, Jr. scripted Orgy of the Dead (1965) – with radiant pastel colours and colour filters to dampen the stagey set, but his work ends up pretty mangled under Levey’s editorial choices.

Severin’s Blu-ray sports two versions, and this may be the first time both the widely seen extended video cut (87 mins.) and the rare original theatrical cut (78 mins.) are paired on a single release. The longer cut repositions some material and contains a few alternate takes, but it feels more complete in part because the jarring cuts in music and continuity of scenes are less severe than the shorter version.

Less than great footage from the 1” video master was replaced by shots from the pristine theatrical cut were possible, but in both versions there’s visible compression in the high contrast shots where Caramico placed hard lights on subjects, and the sides drop into patches of dark digital mass – perhaps a sign the theatrical print had some inherent contrast issues which couldn’t be easily solved in the digital realm. Blackenstein still looks surprisingly good, considering its age and tight production values, and the warm colours are very attractive.

With the exception of the lab, most of the locations seem real, including a silly nightclub dive where patrons hear the film’s theme song by Cardella Di Mello. Along with orchestrator Lou Frohman (The Slime People), she’s credited with the score but in reality the score cues are vintage stock music licensed from Walco Productions. The cues may give the film a retro feel which Saletri intended to harken back to the Universal monster movies, but they seem out of place and merely add to the ongoing schism between an intended spoof and the resulting mess.

Pooling resources from Xenon Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome, Severin’s special edition is likely the definitive release of Blackenstein, sporting interview featurettes with Saletri’s sister, makeup man Bill (William) Munns (Swamp Thing), and director-actor Ken Osborne (Cain’s Cutthroats) and actor-writer Robert Dix (Horror of the Blood Monsters, Forbidden Planet), each of whom have positive words for Saletri, but oddly nothing for director Levey. It’s the one glaring omission in this release which seems less of a deliberate move and more due to a lack of information, even though Levey’s filmography as director includes The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977) and Committed (1991).

The interviews with sister Kirk and former colleagues counteract the inevitable perception of Saletri as a crime statistic, but his murder is inexorably linked to the film, and an archival TV report unfolds like a sleazy expose in which the exterior of his house, news clippings, and courtroom drawings detail the night he returned home and was shot in the head by several persons he presumably knew.

It’s had to say whether Saletri would’ve managed to produce further spoofs regardless of his sudden death in 1982, because within that 9 year period, no further films materialized – perhaps because he was too busy with his law practice, or the scripts were on par or of lesser and more ridiculous quality than Blackenstein.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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