Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein)
Screenplay : Paul Morrissey
MPAA Rating : X
Year of Release : 1974
Stars : Udo Kier (The Baron), Joe Dallesandro (The Field Hand), Monique Van Vooren (The Baron's Wife), Arno Juerging (The Baron's Assistant), Dalila Di Lazzaro (The Girl Zombie), Srdjan Zelenovic (The Farmer)
Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein, which was originally known as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein even though Warhol did nothing but lend his name, is deliberately and unapologetically sensationalistic and in-your-face. In it, Morrissey consciously orchestrates everything to grandiose excess, from the free-flowing gore, to the cheesy dialogue, to the bad acting.
Of course, there’s much more here than first meets the eye; Morrissey has always been a highly political artist, and the beauty of his films is that they are not as simple as they originally appear to be. Morrissey started his career working with Warhol in the mid-1960s. With movies like Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), Morrissey kept a low personal profile while staking out a radical terrain in American independent cinema. Even though he was controlling the films, Warhol got most of the credit because his name was displayed most prominently on the advertising. Nevertheless, while working behind the scenes, Morrissey developed himself and his place in cinema by adding coherence and substance to many of Warhol’s sometimes vacuous and unapproachable ideas.
Based on loosely on some of the ideas in Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Flesh for Frankenstein is about the mad Baron (Udo Kier), a sick, self-absorbed necrophiliac who is trying to make a master race by creating a perfect man and woman and having them mate. There is no pretense about the power of science to create or the desire to expand knowledge, only the Baron’s narcissistic perversity. When the film opens, he has already created the woman, and all he has to do is finish the man by finding him an overly libidinous brain (he has to mate, after all). When the Baron mistakenly finishes his creation with the head of a man who yearns to be a monk (Srdjan Zelenovic), everything begins to slide downhill.
In its own twisted way, Flesh for Frankenstein is a parody about excesses, especially material and sexual excesses. Everyone in the film is misguided and sexually dysfunctional, from the Baron (whose philosophy is “In order to know life, you have to f--k death in the gallbladder,” a purposeful mockery of a similar line in Last Tango in Paris), to his sexually ravenous, hypocritical, and ignored wife (Monique Van Vooren), who also happens to be his sister. Extremes are found at both ends of the spectrum—in the would-be monk who has sworn off sex completely on the one hand, and his friend (Joe Dallesandro) who can’t think of anything but going to the local brothel. The movie maintains a voyeuristic tone, and a great portion of the action is seen through the eyes of the Baron’s two children, who are not only the products of an incestuous and loveless relationship, but also represent the future generation to whom all this sickness will be passed on. In the infamous final scene, which features an increasingly ridiculous series of gruesome deaths, Morrissey makes it clear exactly how these children will turn out. It would send real chills down your spine if it weren’t also so darkly funny.
Of course, that’s all fodder for the academic gristmill. Flesh for Frankenstein is a fascinating piece of trash cinema because it simultaneously exists in the high and low cultural spectrums, taunting academics with its fine art and philosophical references while rewarding B-movie junkies with gory spectacle and taboo-busting glee. It is as much a film of avant-garde experimentation as it is as splatter film, and Morrissey pushes every envelope he can find. Not satisfied with just a body count, he has guts spilling through grating in the floor directly into the camera, hands chopped off with doors, heads decapitated with giant pruning sheers, and internal organs dangling from the ends of spears. The effects, which are surprisingly good for such a low-budget film, were engineered by Carlo Rambaldi, who went on to create E.T. (1982) and the effects for David Lynch’s Dune (1984). As a matter of fact, the entire movie, which was filmed in Italy with an almost entirely Italian crew, looks like it was produced on a significantly higher budget that it actually had (the sets were built at the famed Cinecittà Studio, the home studio of Federico Fellini, among others). The set design and costumes were fastidiously arranged, and the Baron's laboratory is a visual joy, with its mix of old horror movie lore and contemporary electronics.
Never willing to be satisfied with anything less than the ultimate, Morrissey even filmed Flesh for Frankenstein in Space-Vision 3-D for the sole purpose of literally throwing the gross-out effects off the screen and into the viewer’s lap, an idea he got from director Roman Polanski, who appeared in a small bit in Flesh For Frankenstein’s sister film, Blood For Dracula (1973). This was at a time when 3-D was not particularly popular, thus its use drew even more attention to itself than usual. In making the film’s outlandish visuals even more confrontational, the use of 3-D is the icing on the cake of outrageous ridiculousness—cheesy and intentionally pointless camera trickery that adds perfectly to the overall camp effect.
For those who are able to appreciate avant-garde aesthetics, low-brow body humor, or, even better, the sick intertwining of the two, Flesh For Frankenstein is wicked, subversive fun. Morrissey knew that no one pays attention to social commentary unless it’s wrapped in something entertaining, and Flesh for Frankenstein provides excesses in which we can find both amusement and disgust. It is pure camp taken to the highest extremes with a careful and purposeful hand.
Copyright 1997 James Kendrick