Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jess Franco's The Rites of Frankenstein (1972)

The greatest mystery in life is perhaps life itself. The answer to this mystery has constantly been sought after through the ages, and as we progress ever closer to the truth the question arises as to what to do with it once it has been found. 

Jess Franco’s film plays upon a controversial notion that synthetically creating life is unethical or more appropriately in the case of Dr. Frankenstein, played by Dennis Price, evil and maddening. This is the understanding one gets when witnessing the regretful facial expressions of Frankenstein’s lab assistant Morpho, Franco himself, reluctantly flipping the switch to give life to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, a silvery almost robotic looking monster, played by Fernando Bilbao (the brutal axe wielding giant from THE VAMPIRES’ NIGHT ORGY). The Doctor’s deeds, as he claims, are for the sake of science and progression, which is an admirable motivation. However, the immediate arrival of 2 thieves in the night, Anne Libert and Luis Barboo, sabotaging the project and stealing the corpse goes to show that not everyone will have such pure intentions. The overall message here is that Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is not inherently evil, but it becomes evil in the wrong hands, and the wrong hands in this case is Cagliostro, Howard Vernon, a mad and evil warlock with bigger plans. 
Even though the Frankenstein monster is the headline of this film, Anne Libert steals the show as a blind cannibalistic harpy named Melisa, much the same way she steals the show as lady death in Franco’s A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. Libert’s delirious performance here is amusing and way over the top, and I salute her for it. She was entirely enigmatic and silent as the lady in black in AVATLD, but she is very verbal here and even squawks like a bird of prey with grin inducing overdubs of what sounds like a falcon. Given Libert’s ability to just own every scene she’s in, I honestly think that she could be thought of as another Barbara Steele, albeit much more erotic. 


When Cagliostro and Melisa do their evil bidding together they act as if they are intoxicated from what must be the sweetest drug known to man. There appears to be a transformative resonance between the two because as Cagliostro emits magnetic waves to Melisa, she speaks of prophetic images that come to her mind, which in turn results in whatever insane idea this madman has next. An example of an insane idea from the twisted and centuries old warlock would be to steal the Frankenstein monster with the intention to mate it with his own creation built from the different parts of the most-perfect females of the village in order to bring forth an evil master race known as “Panthos”. Sounds like a reasonably achievable goal to me….
The wildest moment in the film is when Melisa is rewarded by Cagliostro and given access to a doomed man chained up in the dungeon. Although this is a very bad situation for the poor locked up guy, the scene still manages to be sexy in a kinky sort of way as she ravishes and eats her chained up prey. 


As usual, I was happy to see Franco’s most regular actor and life partner, Lina Romay, who appears in the film as Cagliostro’s bastardized daughter Esmeralda, or at least that’s what I interpreted her as. Superficially these segments with Romay feel detached from the movie and were filmed in a day for night manner with very harsh natural lighting that made it difficult to recognize Romay. From what can be made out, Esmeralda appears as a gypsy woman with thigh high boots, looking very stoned as she wanders the forested mountains or provocatively on all fours gazing into a stream while receiving profound telepathic messages from a supreme entity claiming to be her master. These segments with Esmeralda occur frequently and are drawn out to the point of almost borderline tedious, but they are still beautiful in a dreamy sort of way and believe it or not are very important to the plot. It is a bit confusing and I could be wrong, but my interpretation is that the eldest female villager had a child with Cagliostro, this child being Esmeralda, who carries inside her (hopefully through some act of wizardry) the reincarnation of Cagliostro. If this is consistently the case for every generation of rebirth then it is to be assumed that Cagliostro’s secret to immortality is to impregnate and be reborn through his own daughter. A bizarre take on procreation, but bizarre is the name of the game with Franco


So let’s go back to Frankenstein’s monster now, which is a clear cut case of a dangerous experiment out of control, and it stands to reason that someone has to do something about it. A suitable task for Frankenstein’s daughter, Vera, Beatrice Savón, whose ingenuity of the situation goes to show that mad female scientists are not to be underrepresented in the nineteenth century (a feat also done remarkably well by Rosalba Neri in LADY FRANKENSTEIN). We are introduced to Vera at her father’s funeral, but there’s more to this woman than meets the eye because she later exhumes her father’s corpse with a resolve to honor and avenge the shafted doctor. Vera seems to almost accidentally learn how to use her father’s “bad sci fi movie” lab equipment all too conveniently and is able to briefly animate him.  If only science was always this easy and serendipitous.

 
If Frankenstein’s monster, a killer harpy, and a cruel evil sorcerer aren’t enough for you, then expect the monster-madness to soar through the roof upon the arrival of the Panthos monsters, who I’m going to describe here as virulent cosmic beings cloaked in radiant white bed sheets emerging from the deepest regions of the misty forest where nightmare and the waking world become one. Cagliostro’s plan to create a vivacious female monster will mark the dawn of a new era for this sinister race, and so several types of creatures from hooded skeleton to Vulcan gather around to witness the sacrifice and beheading of the abducted Madame Orloff, Britt Nichols (a fine choice), whose head is to be the crowning spectacle of Cagliostro’s monster of beauty and perfection. It becomes obvious that Cagliostro is playing God with his own twisted version of Adam and Eve. 


Though a fun schlocky monster movie, THE RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN is not Franco’s best (that would be something like SINNER: DIARY OF A NYMPHOMANIAC), but it's definitely not his worst. Fans of A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD will find a lot to like here and should feel at home with the familiar cast and building exteriors. In addition, there’s a surprisingly good deal of action with the Frankenstein creature going pro-wrestler on some of the undead cult members. Also, Howard Vernon is terrific and full of enthusiasm and like in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF feels like he was just born to play a bad guy for Franco.




14 comments:

  1. This is part of a trilogy of films in which Franco offered up his own take on 1940s-style monster-mash films. It's easily the best of the three (one that desperately needs an upgraded DVD release).

    The movie is one of Franco's 15-cent miracles. Dirt cheap, and it shows in every frame. Look beyond the limitations this imposes, though--which one must do with Franco--and there's some real treasure, here. You picked several of the choice coins. The ending is also well-played. I thought the highlight of the film, by far, is one of the scenes you capped--all those creatures in white moving through the fog-shrouded forest on their way to the mating ceremony. An incredible sequence, and yet another great example about how Franco can turn basically nothing into something very special indeed.

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  2. I haven't seen this movie but I have heard of it, I wasn't too sure if I was going to watch it because it seemed so complicated. There are so many Frankenstein movies. :\ Not that it's a bad thing just hard to keep up.

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  3. A warning: The North American DVD release from Image uses a significantly-less-than-stellar print, and it's of the heavily censored Spanish cut of the film, as well. Tamed-down alternate scenes, and things that are missing altogether. The film suffers from this treatment--Franco is never easy on a censor--but the disc does at least include some of the censored footage as an extra.

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  4. @cinemarchaeologist: “15-cent miracle” is a great way to put it. The simplicity and cheapness of many of Franco’s scenes/sequences can be overbearing at times, but I think it takes some imagination in order to grasp the treasure that is found beyond the low production feel of this film. As you say, Franco’s talent is in crafting real treasure from practically nothing. It’s also obvious that Franco makes the most out of shooting locations. For instance, Cagliostro’s mansion (see the above screen grab) is actually the backside of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab as well as the mansion from VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD.

    The version from Image is the one I’ve reviewed and took screen grabs from. I’ve viewed the DVD extras and so was aware that the naked scenes were altered, but I did not know that other things were completely missing. As I mentioned before, the scenes with Romay don’t look very good as far as the image is concerned, but I thought that may’ve been due to the day for night shooting.

    @Real Queen of Horror: I agree that there are a lot of Frankenstein movies, but this one is in a league if its own. There’s a lot more here than a Frankenstein though, and I personally thought the other monsters in the film were a lot more entertaining and add a lot of craziness to the film which otherwise may’ve been a bit dull if it only concerned the Frankenstein monster.

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  5. To follow that last thought, it should probably be noted that THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN isn't really Franco's take on the classic Universal Frankensteins that nearly every other Franky flick references. This is, rather, his take on the b-movie Universal flicks of the '40s, when the studio downgraded the quality of their horrors considerably, drastically cutting budgets and trying to multiply box-office receipts by throwing into the movies as many creeps, critters, and creatures as they could manage. In short, Franco's inspiration, here, isn't high art, but, instead, a series of cheap, nutty monster movies.

    It's all refracted through a Franco lens, of course, and the result is unique, to say the least. At the same time, he retains some interesting elements. For example, the Universal horrors were always set in this sort of Euro-Never-Never Land, that freely mixed different places and time-periods. Franco incorporates this. At times, it seems late-mid-20th-century; at others, it's like the Dark Ages; at others still, it's vaguely 19th century.

    I'm pretty sure Franco also used that same mansion in his predecessor to this film, DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENTEIN. It's also a monster-mash flick. For the most part, it's a godawful movie, with very few memorable touches to make it worth wading through.

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  6. Hi, so I named you as a Minions of Misery candidate on my site. Check it out if you like.

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  7. @ cinemarchaeologist: I can see how the consolidation of different monster themes in the same movie can be economical for a financially distraught film company, but it really seems to work here in Franco's film. Judging by the cover of DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKEINSTEIN it looks like Vernon is in the role of Dracula. Even though you’ve deemed it unwatchable it still too tempting for me to miss. What is the third film of the trilogy, DAUGHTER OF DRACULA? Also, I know what you are saying about time periods, because I was having a hard time figuring out what date this film took place in and so I eventually thought that 19th century seemed like a safe guess.

    @ Keith: Thanks! I’m going to try to get around to sharing some dark secrets soon maybe later this week or the next, and I’m glad you consider me darkly inclined. I haven’t even started my blogger zombie walk post yet and that is due Thursday and I am actually a slow writer.

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  8. Yes, DAUGHTER OF DRACULA is the third, and though it seems made as a sort of side-effect of the other two, I remember it being quite good, as well (I watched it, quite a few years ago, on a dreadful multi-generation VHS dub).

    Howard Vernon plays Dracula in both DPOF and DAUGHTER OF DRACULA. His take on the character is one of the only noteworthy things about the first film. A vampire, of course, is supposed to be a living corpse; Vernon plays him like that, quite literally. A cadaverous thing that rarely even moves or reacts to external stimuli, unless it is hungry. It seemed like a pretty obvious idea, but I'd never seen it done before (nor, to the best of my memory/knowledge, had it been done before or since).

    I pulled out my own disc of EROTIC RITES last night and looked at a few minutes of it. Regarding the mixed time periods, I thought there were automobiles at some point in it, but I may have been thinking of DPOF. Frankenstein's lab equipment is obviously roughly contemporary with the production period of the film, while a lot of the rest looks more 19th century.

    I need to correct an error, as well. One of my big pet peeves, when it comes to people who write about movies on the internet, is reviewers who fetishize pristine prints to the point that they trash, as sub-standard, solid work, or anything that doesn't look like a Blu-ray of a new Hollywood movie that came out last Thursday. Everyone who loves movies wants them to look good, but I've found far too many who are totally unreasonable when it comes to this. Earlier, above, I inadvertently became one of those clowns. I wrote that the Image DVD featured a "significantly less-than-stellar print." This illustrates the danger of offering such evaluations when you haven't seen something for years. Looking at it now, it's actually a good print. The heavily censored/altered cut of the film is totally unacceptable, of course, but what is there looks good. The Image disc of DPOF is the one that looks terrible.

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  9. This one looks really entertaining! What sells this film to me is that darn cannibal harpy! Genius! Also, Howard Vernon looks awesome with that beard.

    So far, I've only seen A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and SUCCUBUS (which I thought were excellent with their dreamlike story and visuals). I'm about to watch DAUGHTER OF DRACULA and VENUS IN FURS (many people think that the latter is one of Franco's best).

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    1. THE RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN is a monster smorgasbord, and it is a very entertaining one at that. Libert is a great and sexy villain as the killer harpy, almost as cool as her role as The Queen of the Night in VIRGIN, and she gets some over-the-top dialogue to work with here.

      You are on the right track with your selection of Franco films. SUCCUBUS is one of my favorites and so is VENUS IN FURS; a real hip jazzy one. It’s got a cool music video at the end. DAUGHTER OF DRACULA was made around the same time as RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN and has a similar feel, and consists of an even more erotic side of Libert. Also, DRACULA: PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN rounds out Franco’s monster mash-up trilogy.

      Be sure to check out some films’ with Lina Romay, particularly FEMALE VAMPIRE (a real wild one) and a really weird one called MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is one that ends up seeming like a silly sex comedy at first, but ends up being pretty creepy and really weird (yes, I meant to say weird twice).

      For my next review on this site, I am planning on writing about my favorite with Soledad Miranda titled: SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY. Oh and be sure to see VAMPYROS LESBOS with Miranda as well. Haha, there really are so many titles to mention when it comes to Franco, I find myself wanting to recommend so many more, but I think I’ll stop there. Thanks again, Terence, for reading.

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  10. This film is just wonderful! Anne Libert was really cute as that harpy and I found it really sweet that Cagliostro still treated Melisa as his own daughter even though she's a failed experiment.

    The Lina Romay scenes were quite strange but I loved how otherworldly they were, it's as if Esmeralda only existed in a melancholy dreamworld or a realm of eternal night.

    The only problem I had with the film was during the ending where we're meant to see images of Romay but the footage used is awfully dark and hard to see. It's a minor problem but a irritating nonetheless.

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    1. Glad you liked it. Anne Libert was not only cute but really cool, too. I'm grateful that some actresses are able to let loose and really portray an entertaining and over-the-top villainess like Libert did, here. I like to think she was doing it for our entertainment and not the paycheck. Those scenes with Lina were strange but that's not a bad thing, and I think the pleasant otherworldly dreamlike feel you mention was the result of the combined talents of Romay and Franco.

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    2. It's actually one of my favorite Franco movies; he tended, in my opinion, to do a few great, atmospheric films, and an awful lot of tedious crap. But this one worked, for all the reasons mentioned above, but I also liked Price as the doctor. The scenes where he's revived are borderline ridiculous, and yet there's a very creepy element there. I think as an artist there's a thin line between achieving what you want and being ridiculous. In Franco's films, the line on the side of the ridiculous is crossed all too often, but occasionally he achieves an eerie perfection-- and I think he did it here.

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    3. You definitely echo my personal thoughts on Jess Franco. The gems are worth sifting through the tedius, although a lot of the tedious tends to have notable parts. I have explored a great deal of Franco films since this review and there really are more masterpieces than I would have thought, such as Lorna the Exorcist, The Other Side of The Mirror, Doriana Grey, Female Vampire, Night of the 1000 Sexes, and most likely many more to come. Thanks for reading and your comment. I'm glad this article still elicits interest.

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