Sunday, January 10, 2016

THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1973)

When, in the '40s, Universal's long-running horror franchises entered their decadent period, the studio sought to boost sagging box-office returns by allowing their various creepy critters to cross over into one another's movies. The resulting monster mashes earn most of the abuse heaped on them over the years but their place in cinematic history is a bit more significant than merely signaling the creative decline that eventually sent Universal's once-mighty monsters down the path to the Abbot-and-Costello atrocities. Among other things, a childhood screening of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN eventually gave birth to the entire cinematic career of Spanish horrormeister Paul Naschy. And in 1972 and '73, Spanish fantasist Jesús Franco undertook a trilogy of monster-mashes featuring the classic creeps, one of which has, of late, occupied enough space in my head to become my present subject.

I'm not, I'll confess, particularly fond of DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, the first of these efforts. Its best idea was Howard Vernon's portrayal of Dracula as a literal living corpse. Sits around silently, unmoving and looking stiff, pasty and dead until suddenly exploding when prodded to action. It's a great image in an otherwise stiff and unmoving film. The second of this run, though, is a different story entirely. Like many Francos, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN--have to love that title, right?--is both an impoverished production and a magnificent little gem of a movie, another example of how Franco could, in his prime, make something great out of practically nothing. The evil immortal Cagliostro murders Frankenstein and steals his monster as part of a plot to use it to cross-breed an army of mutants that will con-kuh duh vorld. Can Frankenstein's daughter stop this evil plan? You know you want it.

Whereas Franco's countryman Naschy always admired the old Universals and employed an almost classical approach when adapting them, Franco's attitude is a sort of irreverent reverence, extending to them as much respect as they deserve while using them as a canvas to play out his own wild and unique fantasies. The Universal monster mashes are deeply embedded in the picture's DNA--Franco even tips his hat to their temporal ambiguities--but Franco's relentless idiosyncrasies indelibly mark this picture as his own. Among other things, his movie features a hulking brute of a Frankenstein's monster with silver skin, a screeching, naked, blind bird-woman who eats flesh and more shrouded mutants than you can shake a stick at. Bizarre camera angles, a focus on fetishistic fixations, a dreamlike narrative, a great, stifling horror-movie atmosphere--it's pure Franco gold.

THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN exists in multiple versions. Some years ago, Image offered a DVD of the Spanish version, from which all the sexy bits had to be either removed or replaced with alternate "clothed" scenes in order to comply with the censorship of the fascist era. Even the "erotic" was stripped from the title. Still a great movie, to be sure, but definitely compromised by the changes. This version's one solid addition was a subplot involving Lina Romay as a gypsy girl. This was Lina's first work with the director. She would, of course, spend the rest of her life as Franco's companion, assistant and muse. Various writers have portrayed her scenes--sometimes inaccurately reported as being only a single scene--as entirely extraneous, which is a misrepresentation. When watching the Spanish cut, it's true her moments do seem at first to come out of nowhere but when, toward the end, their point is made clear, it gives the ending a much harder punch. The French version of the film, which Redemption released in 2012, restores all the material shed by the Spanish but it omits the Romay subplot and the ending isn't as strong for it. Still, unless and until a Dr. Franco-stein turns up to stitch these versions together, the French is definitely the preferred cut of the film. And any version of THE EROTIC (or non-erotic) RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN is worth one's time.

--j.

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