Written by: Troy Howarth on October 8th, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Spain, 1972
Director: Jess Franco
Writer: Jess Franco
Cast: Howard Vernon, Dennis Price, Anne Libert, Britt Nichols, Alberto Dalbes, Doris Thomas
DVD Released: September 2004
Approximate Running Time: 82 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: X-Rated Kult
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL
Retail Price: $28.95
Synopsis: Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price) is killed by his rival, the evil Cagliostro (Howard Vernon), who then steals his monster and tries to create a race of loyal followers…,
In the annals of “European Cult Cinema,” let alone world cinema at large, Jess Franco is a unique figure. Few filmmakers divide film buffs more strongly. His works are revered by an adoring fan base and vehemently denounced by detractors. But even his loyal fans would be hard pressed to defend all his work. Erratic, dreamlike and obsessive, his oeuvre includes minor masterpieces like Venus in Furs and Eugenie De Sade, as well as absolute atrocities like Incubus and White Cannibal Queen. Clearly consistency sometimes even within the same film – is not what Jess Franco is all about. One of three “Universal style” horror pastiches Franco shot in Portugal in 1971-72, Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is also one of his most (in) famous films. Clearly shot on a pitifully low budget and improvised as filming proceeded, the film is a good introduction to Franco’s work – it’s spontaneous, imaginative, sometimes sloppy, but always lively and entertaining. An avowed fan of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s; Franco is also a devotee of comic books – especially the saucy “fumetti” that originated in Italy. This film sees him melding the two influences into a distinctive product. Detractors who feel Franco lacks imagination would be hard pressed to level such a claim against this film. Far less formal than the “revisionist” Hammer Frankenstein films of the same period, it is anything but an ordinary horror movie. Franco indulges in fetishistic imagery (the silver-skinned monster whipping a naked couple as they hover above a bed of spikes), throws caution and logic to the wind and creates an atmosphere of perversion that pervades virtually the entire film. Only some mildly distracting sequences of police procedural involving Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbes) and Inspector Green (Daniel J. White) slow the movie down.
As mentioned above, this is clearly not a perfect movie. Imaginative and entertaining as it is, its ultra low budget works against it. Special effects work is, to put it charitably, pathetic. The makeup for the monster is pleasingly over the top, but the silver skin tone is occasionally betrayed by patches of the actor’s actual skin color. The day for night photography is far from convincing, and a few shots look sloppily out of focus. But all those surface flaws to one side, the film somehow works – it’s told with enthusiasm and imagination, factors all too often lacking in larger budget fare, and Franco’s knack for creating bizarre, off-kilter imagery is abundantly in evidence. The cast includes a number of familiar faces from other Franco films. Top-billed Dennis Price – a marvelous English character actor and one-time matinee idol ravaged by alcohol and looking far older than his 57 years – doesn’t have much to do as Frankenstein; he’s killed off in the opening minutes, but later comes back to life in brief spurts to impart vital information. Having already appeared in Venus in Furs, Vampyros Lesbos and Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein for Franco, the droll performer isn’t really at his best here, but his bizarre pantomime fits in well with the comic book spirit of the movie. Howard Vernon, a virtual mascot for the director, gives a marvelous performance as the evil (and immortal) Caglisotro. Decked out with a goatee, his eyes bulging with sadistic glee, Vernon adds class to the proceedings and provides a properly despicable villain. Next to Vernon the real standout is Anne Libert, cast as the blind, naked “bird woman” Melissa who is under Cagliostro’s spell. By far one of the most memorable characters to appear in a Franco film, Libert succeeds in making what could have been a totally laughable concept palatable and even elicits an odd level of sympathy. The cast is rounded out with appearances by gorgeous Britt Nichols and a cameo by Franco himself, as Price’s assistant.
X Rated Cult’s DVD release of Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is the third of their Franco releases to date, following The Demons and La Fille de Dracula. Keeping with their prior track record, the film looks very good – it’s not up to the same standard of re-mastering as, say, Blue Underground or Anchor Bay, but it looks miles better than the grey market video releases we’ve been accustomed to. The image is letterboxed at 2.35 and has been enhanced for widescreen TVs. Print damage is evident throughout, and colors are a little pale, but overall the image is very satisfactory. Audio options (all in mono) include German, Spanish and English tracks; the latter drops out a couple of times, presumably due to damage, and there are scenes in German with English subtitles. The problem with the print used, however, is that it’s from the Spanish release. The original French cut, though shorter, included a lot more salacious imagery. This Spanish version omits all nude shots, either by cutting them altogether or presenting them in variant “clothed” takes. Such variations decidedly hurt the film’s “fumetti” style, but even more detrimental is the inclusion of a pointless subplot involving a gypsy (Lina Romay, in her film debut) that was imposed on the film by the Spanish distributors. Franco has said that these scenes have no place in his “definitive” cut of the film, and it’s easy to see why: they serve no narrative purpose and merely show the film down. Extras include the nude scenes cut from the film, taken from a rough VHS source, alternate opening and closing titles, trailers and an on-camera interview with Franco. The interview, which is in English, is very interesting and sees Franco commenting on everything from his love of Robert Siodmak to his dislike for actresses like Angelina Jolie, but the film itself never, comes up once. While far from perfect, this is a recommended disc for Franco enthusiasts and completists alike.
Troy Howarth is the author of THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA, an in-depth look that encompasses every phase of Mario Bava’s career as a filmmaker published by FAB Press.