Judge Brett Cullum says this film can be summed up in three words: sex with intestines.
"You don't know life, Otto, until you've f@#*ed death in the gall
If you told me years ago Flesh for Frankenstein would be triple dipped on the DVD format (once by the Criterion Collection even), I would have laughed. When I was a teenager, my poor father let me pick the movies, and I took him to a 3-D showing of the film. We both ankled out of the theatre once Udo Kier was up there making love to innards, and we realized the film was going to deal with necrophilia. There are many films I can handle with my parental units in tow, but someone getting busy with an intestine in 3-D just ain't one of them. But if my dad weren't sitting to my right, I probably would have stayed. These days I have a deep appreciation for the film, but I still wouldn't subject family to it. This review will take a look at the Image release, which promises all the bells and whistles of The Criterion Collection edition (currently out of print), but with a new anamorphic transfer. Apparently there are also some new extras. So get the parents out of the room so I can speak freely about sex with dead bodies and siblings.
Facts of the Case
The Baron Frankenstein wants to build a couple of zombies to start his own version of the Serbian race. He dreams of pure, perfect people who worship him as their creator. The Baron probably just needs someone to take his mind off his nymphomaniac wife, who happens to also be his sister, and his creepy children, who like to dissect their dolls. Meanwhile, a sexually active farmhand tries to talk his best friend out of becoming a monk. To try and sway him, he takes the spiritual youth to a brothel to see if he can stir some carnal lust in his loins. The baron mistakenly sees the future monk coming out of the brothel, and assumes the young man is possessed of a ferocious sexual appetite. He also has a perfect nose for his male zombie. He steals the poor boy's head, and attaches it to said male zombie. Now he has the perfect monster—who isn't even slightly interested in reproducing. Bet Mary Shelly never thought of this scenario.
Often Flesh for Frankenstein is mistakenly titled Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, which was a title created by savvy marketing people. Paul Morrissey officed out of The Factory (Warhol's New York headquarters), but the Pop Artist had little to do with the production other than lending his name to the project. Funding came from Rome, and Morrissey wrote and directed the film on his own without any Warholian input. The director shot this film back-to-back with Blood for Dracula, which uses the same sets and the same cast for the most part. Flesh for Frankenstein is a film that could only be made in Europe in 1973, because it pushes eroticism to the brink of horror in a way that now would be considered widely unacceptable. It's a strange gem of a movie that has quite a healthy cult following.
Flesh for Frankenstein rejects reality to get at a strange twisted truth. The movie is not played for realism—director Paul Morrissey intentionally rejected naturalistic acting as a conceit of studio Hollywood. He wanted something heightened, very stylized, and a sense of twisted kink to get across his message. Many people don't see it as skillful satire, but cut deep enough under the sex and gore and you'll find an oddly conservative take on the sexual liberation movement of the early '70s. Paul Morrissey vents his own frustration with the hippie ideal that free love will save us all, and uses the trappings of a literary classic to deliver a highly stylized set piece with a wicked sense of humor and propriety. The Frankenstein family have taken sex too far, and they've grown bored with just flesh. Spin this disc right after Cronenberg's Crash, and you have an entire evening of sexual malaise of the highest order. This is not my father's vision of Frankenstein, but it speaks volumes even today.
The cast of oddball European actors probably had very little idea what they were making. Morrissey cast personalities rather than skillfully trained actors, and got some real characters to throw around on his gothic sets. Joe Dallesandro (Flesh) plays the innocent farmhand who is comfortable screwing and drinking to excess. Monique Van Vooren (Tarzan and the She Devil) plays the beauty-obsessed wife and sister of the Baron, and looks luminous even without a trace of eyebrows. SrdJan Zelenovic plays the innocent aspiring monk who is turned into a monster, and lumbers along well looking dour throughout. Dalila Di Lazzaro (Frankenstein 80) plays the "bride" role, often without clothing. The film launched her prolific screen career in Italy. But if there is one standout and discovery, it is Udo Kier (My Own Private Idaho, Blade) as Baron Frankenstein. Udo pouts and preens, and sells every crazy line of dialogue as if he were cast in Hamlet. He makes a dazzling doctor. This is where his career started—it's an audacious debut, considering he had to make love to a gallbladder and still come off dignified enough to be believable as the scientist. He does everything well, and his performance takes joy in excess.
Image has done something unique with their release of Flesh for Frankenstein. The disc is similar to the Criterion release, but the transfer is now anamorphic, as well as pristine and clear. They keep the commentary track with Udo Kier, Paul Morrissey, and film historian Maurice Yacowar. They also add screen tests for SrdJan Zelenovic, with new commentary from Morrissey, as well as a photo montage of production shots, narrated (in 2005) by the director. The price is lower than Criterion's, and it has more features and a better transfer. There's no reason to double dip if you own the previous release, but if you're looking for a first time purchase, this one will cost you less and serve you more. Soundtrack is still in mono, but it's clear. The picture is sparkling, and it allows the set design to really be showcased. I had never seen the wallpaper in the dining room so clearly, and everything looks marvelous.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Flesh for Frankenstein isn't a film suited for all tastes. If you don't like gore or extended nudity, this is not the film for you. Image has chosen a completely unedited cut of the film, so there are quite a few gory scenes coupled with full frontal nudity. The cut assembled even goes farther than the X-rated version shown theatrically in the United States, but it helps to clarify a good deal of the plot. The director intended to saturate his film with a lot of both violence and sexuality, but some squeamish and prudish souls will find it all too much. You also have to realize that the campy tone of the film is intentional. The actors were not directed to deliver their lines with sincerity, and Flesh for Frankenstein is not naturalistic in any fashion. It is not a true horror movie, and too black to be considered a comedy. It rests in the netherworld somewhere between both genres, and a twisted palate is necessary to enjoy it.
The one beef I have with the release of this film is it was intended to be in a field sequential 3-D format, but nobody has made that version available in the United States. I own the Japanese 3-D release of the film, which can still be found on Ebay with some patience. I bought Razor Technology's box, which you can hook up to the DVD player and television to make it possible to view the film with special glasses. For some reason, in America showing 3-D films in field sequential 3-D never caught on, and in this case it's a shame. Flesh for Frankenstein was meant to be seen in 3-D, and no release in the region offers that option. What a pity, because the movie itself used the gimmick quite well and to comic effect. I've read rumors that only two prints of the original 3-D version are currently in existence, so the film may be in danger of disappearing in its original format.
Flesh for Frankenstein is an almost impossible film to categorize. It's not true exploitation, since it does aim to impart a moral message by using gore and sex to the extreme. It doesn't feel like a horror movie, but it has enough gruesome sequences to turn anyone's stomach. Nothing about the movie is truly pornographic, but the sexuality is straightforward and in your face. It exists for the rare few who can enjoy the film for what it is, a brilliant satire that is perversely fascinating. It's not the sort of feature to pop in after Thanksgiving dinner, but when you're looking for something to watch after the family disappears in to the wintry night, it fills the bill perfectly. Image's release is extraordinary—fans of the film no longer have to worry about a hefty Criterion price tag to enjoy a beautiful print with plenty of extras.
Guilty of taking pleasure in the forbidden acts of necrophilia and incest, Flesh for Frankenstein is the ultimate horror tale about sexual liberation gone too far. It's kinky, gruesome, and sacrilegious. Image is free to go adding more to the Criterion releases and selling them for less. And it will make the perfect Father's Day present…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Commentary by Director Paul Morrissey, Actor Udo Kier, and Film Historian Maurice Yacowar
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