If you’re in the mood for a classic Euro-horror film, full of wild n’ woolly erotically-charged bloodshed, daring, stylised direction and mind-bending hallucinogenic weirdness, well, I’m afraid ‘Lady Frankenstein’ is not the film for you.
Indeed, the first time I watched it I found it pretty underwhelming, broadly concurring with critic Jonathan Rigby, who writes it off in his Euro Gothic compendium as “a rhythmless, atmosphere-free bore”. (1)
What a difference a few years – and a beautiful new transfer with fifteen reinstated minutes – can make. Returning to the film with expectations appropriately adjusted and (I hope) a bit more of an appreciation of the more, uh, ambient pleasures of the horror genre, I found ‘Lady Frankenstein’ quite delightful.
Before I try to sell you on this nigh-on Frankensteinian change of heart however, perhaps a bit of background might be in order. (IMDB was running hot as I checked up on all the salty characters who played a role in this film’s genesis, so I hope you appreciate my efforts.)
Though he is probably doomed to forever accept second place when the subject of rotund, deep-voiced Americans named Welles who were hanging around in the ‘60s European film industry arises, Mel Welles (1924-2005) can nonetheless claim a certain degree of cult movie immortality via his performance as the kvetching flower shop owner Gravis Mushnick in Roger Corman’s 1960 ‘Little Shop of Horrors’. (His turn as the rhyme-talking gravedigger in The Undead meanwhile… not so much.)
After relocating to Rome in the early 1960s, Welles carved out a niche for himself as a cornerstone of the dubbing industry, overseeing the Anglicisation of countless continental features whilst also using his contacts to occasionally scrape together funds for some small independent productions of his own. A self-professed devotee of gothic horror and fantasy cinema, Welles' first foray into the genre was 1967’s ‘Island of The Doomed’ (aka ‘Maneater of Hydra’), a sort of killer tree yarn starring Cameron Mitchell, on which he served triple duty as writer, director and producer.
By Welles's account, the project that became ‘Lady Frankenstein’ began when an aspiring producer (identified elsewhere as former Hollywood playboy and heir to the Vanderbilt fortune Harry C. Cushing IV) dropped out of the sky with a confirmed production budget and asked him to direct a script named ‘Lady Dracula’, intended as a vehicle for actress Rosalba Neri. (Allegedly, Cushing was trying to seduce Neri at the time, and figured that the offer of a leading role might help his chances; whatever the case, it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt them, given that the pair were married (briefly) a few years later.)
Somehow however, this initial deal fell through, the rights to the script – written by none other than former Peplum muscleman and ‘Kommissar X’ star Brad Harris - were lost, and Cushing was (seemingly) out of the picture, leaving Welles with a crew and studio time already booked in, but nothing to shoot. (2)
At this point, globe-trotting exploitation producer Dick Randall pops up for cameo, telling Welles “hell, so you can’t make ‘Lady Dracula’, make ‘Lady Frankenstein instead”, and earning himself a generous “original story” credit in the process. Decamping to London, Welles next hooked up with credited writer Edward Di Lorenzo, and after a few weeks of woodshedding, ‘Lady Frankenstein’ was up and running. (3)
In view of the film that eventually resulted, it is instructive I think to consider that ‘Lady Frankenstein’ was written in England, by two Americans. For better or for worse, Welles and Di Lorenzo’s script takes the picture in a very different direction from most early ‘70s continental horrors, rejecting the usual melange of errant craziness and random exploitable elements, and instead telling a story that, though stodgy, conventional and loaded with cliché, is at least coherent and thematically unified, even throwing in a few literary and historical allusions alongside its more obvious borrowings from the Universal canon.
In other words, it is exactly the kind of script Hammer might have filmed for their own Frankenstein series, had they taken a more traditionally gothic direction. This is no bad thing if you’re prepared to take it on its own terms, and indeed, Welles’ solid but unspectacular direction follows suit, as does the careful, moody lighting and the painstaking attention to detail intermittently evident in the production design.
One thing Hammer probably wouldn’t have done however is hire Morricone and Nicolai’s avant garde-leaning right hand man Alessandro Alessandroni to provide a soundtrack, and happily the composer makes his presence felt from the film’s very first second, opening proceedings with a bracing sting of his trademark fuzz guitar, as some thoroughly routine Burke & Hare type business is conducted in a particularly squalid looking graveyard. (4)
The lead grave robber is played by Austrian actor Herbert Fuchs (often credited as Herbert Fux), a possessor of a face-you-won’t-forget whom you’ll probably recall stealing the show in Adrian Hoven’s ‘Mark of the Devil’ (1970). Fuchs makes for a lovably sleazy ne’erdowell here too, aided by the unusual amount of detail the script provides regarding his lifestyle and dwellings, which momentarily reminded me of Jonh Gilling’s excellent The Flesh & The Fiends. (5)
After Fuchs and his boys drag their insalubrious cargo across the foreground of a splendidly ominous establishing shot of the Umbrian castle within which much of the film takes place, we are promptly introduced to Baron Frankenstein himself, embodied here by no less a personage than Joseph Cotten. (6)
In contemplating the circumstances that led to Cotton getting mixed up in a film like ‘Lady Frankenstein’, I’ve often entertained the possibility that perhaps he heard that some American blowhard named Welles was directing, and the ink was already dry on his contract by the time he realised his terrible mistake. Amusing as this thought may be however, the more prosaic truth seems to be that Cotten had enjoyed making ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ in England the preceding year, and, taking inspiration from his friend Vincent Price, thought he’d stay on in Europe and have a bash at becoming a “horror star”.
‘Lady Frankenstein’ represents the first fruit of Cotten’s brief flirtation with this new career path (Bava’s ‘Baron Blood’ would soon follow, after which he seems to have given up on it), and it was perhaps this fleeting sense of enthusiasm that accounts for the fact that he actually delivers something approaching a performance here, rather than just looking disgusted and cheesed off, as per every other film I’ve seen him in post-1960.
Playing opposite Cotton in many of the film’s early scenes meanwhile is the aforementioned Rosalba Neri in the film’s title role as Tania, the Baron’s daughter, who has just returned from university as a fully qualified surgeon (no mean feat for a woman in the 1820s) and is keen to get stuck in at the business end of her beloved father’s experiments.
In later interviews about the film, Mel Welles liked to declare himself as a feminist (“twenty years before my wife”, he endearingly insisted), and although applying such ideological intent to ‘Lady Frankenstein’ will seem a stretch for most modern viewers, the very idea of female character willing to step up to the plate as a fully-fledged mad scientist must in itself have been a novelty within the none-more-patriarchal environment of a ‘70s Italian gothic horror movie [a fact that was certainly not lost on whoever designed the comically salacious poster for the film’s US release via Corman’s New World Pictures – see below].
Though it is difficult to gain a full appreciation of Neri’s performance given that, like everybody else in the film besides Cotton, she is dubbed in both English and Italian versions, insofar as we can tell she seems to considerably upped her game here, perhaps appreciative of a part that took her beyond her usual sex kitten/shameless hussy roles.
Though demure to a fault through the opening half of the movie, Neri nonetheless manages to imbue all of her scenes with a sense of mature, self-confident kinkiness, and, when she eventually gets to let loose in the laboratory, she is very much in charge, reducing her father’s assistant Charles (the ubiquitous Paul Muller) to an even more subservient role than he took when working with the Baron.
Though stiff and mannered as the material demands, the performances by this central trio within the castle are actually all very good. The hawk-featured Muller – who surely needs no introduction to readers who have seen a handful of Spanish horrors or Jess Franco films - is solid as ever here, shouldering an epic quantity of screen time in a pretty thankless role, whilst, all things considered, Cotten gives us a surprisingly subtle and melancholic take on the aging Baron. There’s definitely a touch of Price in his dialogue delivery I think, but he wisely plays it straight, conveying both his resigned reaction to the apparent failure of his climatic experiment and his evident love for his daughter quite convincingly. It’s a shame that -- uh, SPOILER ALERT -- he gets unceremoniously clobbered by his own monster less than halfway through the picture.
That monster, by the way, is probably the reason for a lot of the bad press ‘Lady Frankenstein’ has received over the years. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to deny that he’s pretty damned goofy. The corduroy trousers and woollen smock he’s given to wear are rather charming, but his bulbous head / mutilated eye make-up job was never going to win any prizes, despite the prominence it took in the film’s marketing, and it’s difficult to find an explanation for the traditional, monster-stompin’ platform boots he is already wearing when he first slides off the operating table.
Blandly over-lit and rendered in artless, point n’ shoot fashion, the subsequent scenes in which the monster strolls around the countryside causing trouble have a crude, second unit feel to them that seems a world away from the more classy material with the principals in the castle. But, the bit where he throws a stark naked girl in a very shallow river is pretty funny, so… there’s that.
Most of the scenes dealing with the local townsfolk and the investigation of the monster’s crimes meanwhile feel similarly slapdash. Mickey “Crimson Executioner” Hargitay is given little to work with as the police chief (there’s certainly no hint here of the kind of dementia he exhibited in his better known horror roles), whilst many of the costumes and set dressing seem to have been recycled from the waning Spaghetti Western boom. Combined with some distinctly 1970s-style male grooming, this serves to rather make a mockery of the more carefully rendered period detail of the castle scenes.
Despite all this silliness however, Welles seems to have been in earnest in his love for old school gothic horror, and, like his cast, he plays it straight. A great deal of effort was clearly invested in the film’s laboratory sequences, which (aided no doubt by Carlo Rambaldi’s effects work) are an absolute treat for connoisseurs of mad scientist movies, incorporating some of the finest fizzing electrical arcs, byzantine glassware and bubbling beakers of blood seen on-screen since the glory days of the 1930s, with some first class ‘pulsing organs in jars’ thrown in to appease the gorier tastes of early ‘70s viewers.
Clearly somewhat of an enthusiast for such business, Welles allows time for both of his Frankensteins to describe their experimental processes in quite some detail, including a discussion of how the recent discoveries of Volta and Galvani have been incorporated into their work. I’m fairly certain too that this must be the only Frankenstein film in history that actually took the time to design and construct period appropriate surgical lamps and dry-cell batteries in the name of historical verisimilitude – a detail of which Welles seems to have been particularly proud, on the basis of his later interviews.
The scale of the De Paolis soundstage on which the lab set was constructed is also impressive, as is vast, stained glass skylight seen opening during resurrection of first monster. It’s little wonder that the whole shebang was repurposed in its entirety by Paul Morrissey’s ‘Flesh For Frankenstein’ a year later – a movie that, to a significant extent, basically plays like an exaggerated spoof of this one, I should note.
Indeed, whilst the approach Welles took in directing ‘Lady Frankenstein’ was innately conservative, the central ‘high concept’ that provided the impetus for the film’s script – namely, the idea that Tania plans to create the perfect lover for herself by transplanting Dr Charles’s “brilliant” brain into the body of Thomas, the castle’s beautiful but simple-minded handyman – is actually fairly startling. (7)
Although this notion is not given as much screen-time as more sensation hungry viewers might have wished, when the movie does finally get around to it, it certainly doesn’t flinch, especially as regards Tania’s decision to seduce both of her experimental subjects prior to the big operation - a development that certainly lends itself to some queasily Freudian interpretations, suggesting that she needs to copulate with these two ‘fathers’ in order to ‘conceive’ the new monster that will replace her own recently departed father in her affections. (Not, you will note, exactly the most feminist twist on the Frankenstein mythos that could be imagined.)
Anyway – after using her wiles to ensure the cooperation of the hopelessly devoted Charles, Tania next takes poor Thomas to bed, just in order to, I dunno, test out the merchandise, I suppose. This latter scene culminates in what is far and away ‘Lady Frankenstein’s most transgressive moment, when Charles, who has been discreetly observing Tania’s tryst with Thomas, emerges at the climactic moment to smother him to death with a pillow.
Though reminiscent of a number of ‘erotic asphyxiation’ scenes that had already made their way into Jess Franco’s filmography by this point, this is still genuinely shocking stuff, jolting us out of the ‘ersatz Hammer’ mindset and into the realms of full-on Italio-exploitation. The film’s straight-laced dramatic context renders it more disturbing than any of the tongue-in-cheek outrages Morrissey would soon perpetrate on the same sets, and the scene gains a particularly sinister sex-horror frisson from Rosalba’s reaction shots, which see her biting her wrist in orgasmic ecstasy as her lover expires beneath her.
Whilst there is a touch of ‘House of Frankenstein’s “whose brain goes where” farce to the proceedings that follow, the fact that Tania and Charles seem so casually disinterested in the travails of their first monster – who is still throttling peasants at a steady rate - speaks eloquently both of the growing madness that is consuming them and of the thoughtless cruelty that naturally accompanies their aristocratic background, as does the fact that poor old Thomas’s brain has presumably been tossed in the bin, declared ‘worthless’ in typical proto-fascist fashion, even as his devoted sister frantically searches for him, haranguing various members of the cast about her brother’s disappearance.
All of this is standard issue Frankenstein movie stuff of course, but it is nicely done here, quietly drawing our attention to the moral (and mental) degradation of the characters we are ostensibly following whilst avoiding the need for any ‘message’ speeches or hand-wringing moralising.
Despite its infusion of (moderate) sex and (mild) gore however, ‘Lady Frankenstein’ must nonetheless have seemed ponderous and old fashioned to many of its contemporary viewers. In terms of its pacing and atmosphere, it is very much of a piece with the somewhat patience-testing gothics that Italy largely phased out when Barbara Steele disappeared from screens in 1966, whilst its director’s inspirations were clearly still rooted three decades before that.
Although many gothic horror films were still being produced in the early ‘70s – more than ever before, probably – by the time ‘Lady Frankenstein’ hit screens, just about all of its competitors were in some way reinventing themselves, adding either softcore erotica, psychedelic freak-outs, self-conscious genre deconstruction or goofy comedy to the mix, and even Hammer had almost entirely moved away from their more traditional period pieces by this point.
Though there were a few stragglers in the following years, ‘Lady Frankenstein’ thus stands as one of the very last gothic horror films made anywhere in the world that plays things totally straight. Respectfully abiding by the established conventions of the genre, it never offers the audience a wink or nudge, withholds the easy wins of sex n’ violence from all but its most crucial moments, and tries instead to ensnare its viewers through the simple pleasures of a hoary old yarn, adequately told.
The extent to which Welles and his collaborators succeeded even in this modest goal might be debatable, but it is difficult not to admire the earnestness of their intent on some level, and, for those of us so jaded we can take pleasure in seeing the bones of these old gothic tropes dug out of the closet and paraded around one last time, there remains much here to enjoy.
Also, this movie had a lot of great posters.
(1) ‘Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema’ (Signum Books, 2016), p. 295
(2) For anyone keeping track here, Harris’s ‘Lady Dracula’ script was eventually filmed as a comedy in Germany in 1977. It looks terrible.
(3) Perhaps stung by being shut out of the production of ‘Lady Frankenstein’, Randall went on to pretty much corner the market in shoddy Italian Frankenstein movies in the year that followed, covertly masterminding ‘Frankenstein ‘80’ and directing ‘Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks’, both in 1972. Of the latter, Rigby accurately notes that “..the childishly nonsensical result makes ‘Lady Frankenstein’ look like an unsung masterpiece”. (ibid.)
(4) For what it’s worth, I get the feeling that ‘Lady Frankenstein’s soundtrack was probably a bit of a mix n’ match affair, much in the manner of contemporary Jess Franco or Paul Naschy films. Although Alessandroni gets sole credit, and was presumably responsible for all the weird, atonal laboratory music and the occasional fuzz-drenched transition cue, the far more conventional orchestral music that accompanies the monster’s rampages and other ‘action’-based moments definitely sounds canned, perhaps pulled off some ancient library disc or something?
(5) Just for laughs, I feel like noting that Fuchs/Fux’s other credits for 1970 include ‘Secrets of a Vice Cop's Wife’, ‘Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion’, ‘The Naked Wytche’, ‘Gentlemen in White Vests’, ‘The Amorous Adventures of a Young Postman’ and ‘Strogoff’, an Italian swashbuckler in which he makes an uncredited appearance as The Pope. What a year!
(6) Identified on IMDB as the Castello Piccolomini in the Province of L'Aquila in Southern Italy, the castle used in ‘Lady Frankenstein’ also apparently played host to ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’, ‘The Devil’s Wedding Night’, Radley Metzger’s ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ and Polselli’s ‘Black Magic Rites’ / ‘The Reincarnation of Isobel’. What a line up! I feel a plan for a new holiday forming… (Also: did Mickey Hargitay live down the road or something? Three of the four Italian horror movies he appeared in were filmed in this place!)
(7) Thomas, incidentally, is played – uncredited - by Marino Masé, an actor who enjoyed a rich and varied career far too extensive for me to spend time running down here. (Would you believe that the same man appeared in ‘Lady Frankenstein’, Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ AND an episode of ‘East Enders’? IT HAPPENED.)