Life Without Soul
BLACKENSTEIN, or to give it its full, for-morons title, BLACKENSTEIN THE BLACK FRANKENSTEIN, is commendable for one reason — Sam Z. Arkoff at AIP was planning a film on this theme to follow up BLACULA, but Frank R Saletri, an even cheapjackier producer, jumped in and made a film with that title before Arkoff (who, ironically, had a Mad Scientist Name) could get around to it. Which may have given AIP and Corman the idea of rushing out exploitation movie cash-ins before the studio’s big movies hit the screens…
Otherwise, BLACKENSTEIN is terrible, sometimes in interesting ways. It’s one of those sub-professional jobs that moves differently than normal movies, like the way THE ROOM or PLAN 9 wind up making you feel slightly stoned. One can’t judge the films as wholly unsuccessful because it’s not clear really what effect they’re aiming for. They may in fact be very successfully transporting us into the warped consciousness of their respective filmmakers.
Of course, film is a collaborative medium, and director William A Levey (beginning a flabbergasting near-20 year career, flabbergasting in that it wasn’t stillborn after this headless turkey), executing (in both the regular and judicial sense of the word) Saletri’s script of Arkoff’s title, had help. He enlisted a cast who could not only deliver his impoverished vision, but actually enhance it with ineptitudes of their own, and an editor (himself), who fails to see the difference between “dramatic tension” and “balls-achingly long shot of a guy crossing a room.”
BUT — add 1 point for audacity. Eddie Turner steps on a landmine in Viet Nam and loses all four of his major limbs. Prince Randian from FREAKS was apparently unavailable that week, no doubt busy sorting his nifty collection of body stockings, so the role goes to large man John De Sue, who brings all of his considerable bulk to bear on it. His plywood fiancee (Ivory Stone) prevails upon Dr Stein (John Hart — underplaying to the point of astral projection in a desperate attempt to appear elsewhere than on this screen, in this movie) to attach new bits using his revolutionary DNA and laser fusion treatment. Despite this modern jargon, Stein still operates in a castle (in LA!) with Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical toys from the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN (the one touch of class in the movie). Oh, and the lab also makes pinging computer noises recognizable from Star Trek.
But — and it’s a BIG but — what could have been an inspirational tale of medical miracles goes tragically crap when “Malcomb” (sic) the lab assistant/butler conceives a passion for Ivory Stone. She rebuffs him gently (“This won’t affect our friendship”) and he reacts as mildly as any of us might, contaminating Eddie’s DNA serum with concentrated madman juice. This plot turn is very funny since Rooseveldt Jackson plays Malcomb like Lurch from The Addams Family, sepulchrally monosyllabic, until he suddenly gains fluency for his confession of love — then reverts to total silence for the rest of the film.
“I don’t feel right,” says Eddie, whose whole performance has seemed sunk in a slough of despond, or a slough of something, anyway. I don’t know what you’d call it. But he wears misery around his neck like a toilet seat. True, he has just lost his arms and legs, but he never even looks cheered by the prospect of new ones. Timothy Bottoms in JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN looked cheerier, and he didn’t even have a face. But even as De Sue’s lack of expression hurts the film by turning the protagonist into a potato, it adds a sort of morbid credibility, enhancing the film’s primary characteristic: its squalid, depressant lifelessness.
Eddie’s loving partner and doctor react to his confession of “not feeling right” (and his sudden presentation of a bulging browline much like Bernie Casey’s in DR BLACK, MR HYDE or Carol Speed’s in ABBY — always a Bad Sign) by moving him to the dungeon suite (of course, every modern clinic has one). But they thoughtfully leave the door open so he can go midnight
rambling murdering. Victim one is a veteran’s home attendant who tormented him in a crazy bit early on (a mixture of sneering mockery and pitiful self-exposure: nonsensical but, like Eddie’s low-affect gloom, oddly credible: “Aw, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”) Eddie finds the guy and pulls his arm off.
He leaves with the limb, but by the miracle of bad continuity, loses it somewhere. Then he kills a cute dog (I had hoped he’d give it the arm), disturbing the mutt’s mistress, Liz Renay, real-life mistress of mob boss Mickey Cohen. With her voluminous Diana Dors hair and voluminous Diana Dors body, Liz is actually a compelling screen presence, but not for long. Wandering outside to investigate in her see-through shorty nightie, displaying what I guess we must still technically call her “charms,” Liz is swiftly disemboweled by the not right linebacker with the flat-top afro.
The same dress turns up on two different characters.
Essence of Man.
Best dialogue —
Cop: “Tell me what happened.”
Bad nightclub comedian: “I already told you.”
Cop: “Well, try to describe it.”
The music is a joy throughout — misplaced cues of terror and suspense pop up seemingly at random, and the obligatory “teens making out in a parked car” bit comes with radio source music attempting a lush rephrasing of “Good King Wenceslas.”
A third-act attempted rape explains why the filmmakers couldn’t find a stronger actress than Stone for their leading lady: even in the seventies, when an ambitious actress was expected to play degrading trash and try to make something out of it, this is a horrible role.
The Viet Nam reference is never used for anything but a plot pretext, which makes the movie kind of a trailblazer, exploiting the attendant emotions of current events for “resonance” without making the tactical error of actually saying anything about them, which has now become an official policy in Hollywood (stand up, Christopher Nolan). Likewise, Blackenstein’s death, torn apart by police dogs, may be intended to hark back to slavery, but to what purpose? The only major white character in the film as trying to help Eddie — he was undone by Malcomb, a black man.
The main message we can take away from BLACKENSTEIN THE BLACK FRANKENSTEIN is from Eddie’s gratuitously murdering his fellow patients and then dying himself — sick people make us uncomfortable and we’d prefer for them to be dead rather than cured.
Honorable mention: the credits at the end descend, rather than ascending in the conventional manner, a homage to KISS ME DEADLY showing that some of the film’s awkward, peculiar construction is the result of a deliberate attempt to defy convention. Add one Shadowplay bonus point for effort.