The first time I saw Flesh for Frankenstein was during its theatrical release in 1973, when it was titled, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. Warhol, of course, had little to do with the production besides lending his name to it. The real genius behind Frankenstein and its follow-up, Andy Warhol’s Dracula, was Paul Morrissey. [Antonio Margheriti a.k.a. Anthony M. Dawson’s contributions to the film are unclear.]
The original Frankenstein release was in glorious 3-D, with special visual effects by Robert V. Bernier and Carlo Ramboldi. Maybe it’s because I find it less distracting, but I prefer the (2D) DVD issue better. That’s because the film’s dark humor comes through without the 3D special effects getting in the way. [Note: Spoilers ahead]
Flesh for Frankenstein is funny because of its perversity – or perhaps in spite of it. Here are a few examples:
Incest: Baron and Baroness Frankenstein are not only husband and wife, but also brother and sister. And they just happen to have a son and daughter who are always together, as partners in crime. They even share a room and a bed.
Necrophilia: Baron Frankenstein loves his corpses intimately. Real intimately.
Murder: Severed heads, mutilated bodies, and disembowelments are all strewn about to good effect.
Sex: Plenty of it. Prostitutes, adultery, horny hired help.
The film begins by introducing the children: a girl and boy (Nicoletta Elmi and Marco Liofredi) who perform their own grotesque experiments on dolls. They are mute throughout the movie, but their mischievous body language communicates a lot of information between them. They are siblings, cousins, and co-conspirators in the ghastly goings-on.
The sexually repressed Baroness Katrin Frankenstein (Monique van Vooren) always just happens to pass by when the stable-boy (Joe Dallesandro) is in flagrante delicto with the servant girls. She acts disgusted and reprimands him, but orders him to come to her quarters for discipline. When he feigns a lack of interest, she entices him to work inside the castle as her personal manservant.
Meanwhile, her husband and brother, Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier), has carnal interests of his own. He works in his laboratory with his assistant, Otto (Arno Juerging), composing his own male and female creations using body parts of the dead. His goal is to create the perfect Serbian couple, in hope that they might conceive the perfect Serbian offspring. He already has his female (Dalila Di Lazzaro); now all he needs is a randy male who will mate with her.
The stable-boy’s friend, Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), has no sex drive at all; he wants to remain celibate and become a monk. Although he consents to visit a brothel with the stable-boy, he is not at all interested in women. The problem is that the Baron and Otto spy on the men and mistake Sacha as the stud. With their special interest in his Serbian features, they decapitate him and sew his head onto the body of their male monster.
The stable-boy is shocked to find his friend’s headless body, but that does not stop him from performing his “stud service” to the Baroness. The first evening he serves dinner to the family, the Baron introduces his new protégés: the male and female creations. Dallesandro recognizes his friend’s head – but not the body. Now, the quest to solve the headless mystery begins.
What strikes me as outrageously humorous about Flesh for Frankenstein is its characters, for Paul Morrissey’s screenplay is both witty and ripe with black humor. For instance, when the Baron puts the finishing touches on his female creation, he opens her guts and has sex with her body. After he gets his satisfaction, he turns to his assistant and explains, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gallbladder.”
Arno Juerging, for his part, plays Otto as a cross between Peter Lorre and Dwight Frye, with just the right amount of menace. He shares the Baron’s urges, lusting after all females, whether dead or alive.
Monique van Vooren, Joe Dallesandro, Flesh for Frankenstein
But Monique van Vooren’s performance as the Baroness stands out as the funniest, as throughout the film she resonates a mix of aristocratic propriety and unadulterated lust. For instance, the Baroness looks disgusted at the stable-boy’s ostentatious sexual display, all the while plotting to get the young, opportunistic slab-of-beef into bed with her. In another scene, while the stable-boy is busy telling her about his decapitated friend, the Baroness, oblivious to such boring conversation, hungrily slurps and licks her way around his armpits.
Also hilarious is Udo Kier’s Baron Frankenstein, whose big, piercing, icy-blue eyes penetrate every gaze and whose Slavic accent consistently confuses his v‘s with his w‘s. Much to his credit, Kier plays his role with the right amount of conviction; after all, his Baron is a man-of-science who takes his gruesome job quite seriously. Kier is at his best in one scene when the Baron’s hand is severed. While speaking his lines, Kier/the Baron keeps desperately pushing the hand back onto his wrist, trying to reattach it.
Also worth noting is that the Baron and the Baroness are opposite sides of the same coin. They both represent cold, detached, sexually obsessive personalities: he lusts after his female corpse; she stalks the manservants.
In the original 3-D,the blood and gore in Flesh for Frankenstein ooze out at the viewer. Impaled organs gushing, entrails trailing, and bloody guts dangling as in a butcher shop window all take center stage to the plot. Yet, it is the actual story that entertains.
When the Baron finishes work on his creations and they meet each other, he is eager for them to mate. He orders the female to kiss the male, waiting for a reaction from the male. There is none. The head of the asexual, celibate, monk-wannabe Sacha, glued onto the body of the male creation, remains impassive. The ensuing mayhem reaches a gruesome crescendo as the frustrated Baroness turns to the male creature for sex, and makes the fatal mistake of commanding him to hold her “tightly.” (Just listen to those bones crunching!)
In the manner of the best Greek tragedies, everybody soon manages to kill each other off, while the stable-boy silently witnesses it all.
Now a word about Joe Dallesandro: Wow! He was one of the rare male performers of the ’60s and ’70s who never had any reservations about exposing his nude body. And what a body that was. In one sequence, a lizard is seen scampering across Dallesandro’s bare buttocks and for one brief instant I envied that reptile. Not much is demanded of his acting abilities, except to react to what goes on around him, which he does to great effect.
Dallesandro’s beauty, in fact, is only upstaged by that of Srdjan Zelenovic, the “perfect Serbian” who loses his head early on. Luigi Kuveiller’s cinematography lovingly adores these two beautiful faces, spending lots of time admiring them.
When the camera is not feasting on the likes of Dallesandro and Zelenovic, we get to see some lush Eastern European countryside, in addition to colorful landscapes and castle interiors. Gianni Giovagnoni’s sets are full of those well-known gizmos and gadgets often used in movies to resuscitate dead bodies – all of which are designed to pop out all over the screen for the 3-D effects.
Flesh for Frankenstein‘s macabre ending is perfectly designed as well. Following the carnage in the lab, enter the children holding knives. They look at each other and smile discreetly. Then they look at Dallesandro, still hanging there. Do they save him, or do they continue with their father’s work?
You’ll just have to see it for yourself to find out.
© Danny Fortune
FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN / ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN (1973). Dir. / Scr.: Paul Morrissey. Cast: Joe Dallesandro, Udo Kier, Monique van Vooren, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Arno Juerging, Srdjan Zelenovic, Nicoletta Elmi, Marco Liofredi, Liù Bosisio.