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.