Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flesh For Frankenstein


'Way back in 1973, when pop artist and experimental filmmaker Andy Warhol decided to make a film that somebody might actually be willing to sit through (as opposed to his previous Empire, for example, a mind-bending 8-hour film consisting of a single static shot of the Empire State Building), he decided to do a horror film. Not just any horror film, mind you, but a black-comedy version of Frankenstein, in glorious 3D.


Looking for investors, Warhol approached the famous Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who liked the idea but wanted to know how much the film would cost. When Warhol quoted a paltry $300,000, Ponti suggested that Warhol spend $600,000 and make two films. "If you're gonna do Frankenstein," Ponti argued, "you've got to do Dracula!"


Thus was born one of the most infamous double-features in cinema history, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, two of the goriest, most twisted horror films ever made. But only the Frankenstein film was shot in 3D, the dimensional effects of which were ideally suited to the film's perverse sexuality and visceral, in-your-face carnage.


The films were both written and directed by conservative neorealist filmmaker Paul Morrissey, whose previous films, Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Women in Revolt (1971), and Heat (1972), had won critical acclaim for their frank sexuality and subversive humor--qualities that would be evident in the lunatic dialogue and transgressive sexual politics of Morrissey's horror films. 


The gothic look of Dracula and Frankenstein was a dramatic departure from Morrissey's previous films. Through the careful use of lighting and location, Morrissey was able to give the films a lush, expensive look despite their relatively modest budgets.


Morrissey had originally titled the films Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein (a nod to his 1968 film Flesh, which also featured Joe Dallesandro), and that's the way the films were exhibited at Cannes, however the films were released theatrically--and later on videotape--as Andy Warhol's Dracula and Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, presumably to capitalize on Warhol's fame as pop culture icon. Though the films were "presented by" Andy Warhol, Warhol himself had little to do with the actual productions. When a visiting reporter asked Warhol what his function was, he famously replied, "I go to the parties."


Dracula and Frankenstein were shot in Italy virtually back-to-back, using many of the same cast including German actor Udo Kier, whose previous credits included the kinky softcore classic, The Story of O. Kier originally was slated only to play Baron Frankenstein, however when the actor who had been cast as Dracula (Srdjan Zelenovic, who played the baron's male zombie) turned out to be "not very good" (Kier's words), Morrissey persuaded Kier to play the lead in the second film as well. One of those happy accidents, as it turned out, because it was Kier's over-the-top performance in both of these films that helped make them so spectacularly entertaining.

Joe Dallesandro and Udo Kier
Also appearing in both films was Joe Dallesandro, a former nude model and street hustler whose thick Brooklyn accent and lack of any detectable acting skills seemed jarringly out of place among the largely European cast, but that simply added to the surreal charm of these bizarre and oddly melancholy films.   

That Morrissey wasn't taking any of it too seriously is apparent from the crackpot dialogue, much of which he confesses to have written in a cab on the way to the set each day. 

In Frankenstein there is a moment when, after engaging in perhaps the only act of simulated necrophilia that I have ever seen successfuly played for laughs, the baron (Kier) turns to his demented assistant, Otto (Arno Juerging), and says, "To know life, Otto, you have to fuck death in the gall bladder!"  

Morrissey had just seen Bertolucci's notorious Last Tango in Paris and dismissed the film as pretentious nonsense. The gall bladder quip was a direct lampoon of Marlon Brando's infamous line about "crawling up the ass of death."

Udo Kier and Arno Juerging doing a little needlework in Flesh for Frankenstein
Audiences expecting the same old horrors were in for a shock. Gone was the usual inarticulate patchwork monster, replaced instead by the real horror of the show, the depraved, sexually insane Baron Frankenstein, who hacks, saws, and sutures his victims--and sometimes has sex with their internal organs--in a tiled operating theater that more closely resembles the bathhouse of a grand hotel rather than the dungeon-like laboratories we're used to.


From a practical standpoint, tile is much easier to keep clean. That's especially important in this Frankenstein, because here the usual cascading sparks have been replaced with gouts and geysers of gore. Bats, blood, and even innards are all flung into the faces of the audience in eye-popping stereoscopic 3D. During the film's American premiere at New York's Trans-Lux Theater, some members of the audience reportedly became physically ill, though it's unclear whether this had to to with the gore or the queasy effects of the 3D glasses.

I was fortunate enough to have seen an authentic 3D print of this film in a theater several years ago, and I can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like it. Flesh for Frankenstein was, and still is, one of the strangest and most outrageous horror films of all time.

A good cast is worth repeating: Arno Juerging as "Otto"

Andy Warhol's Frankenstein - Restored Trailer 
Blood For Dracula
Blood For Dracula - Restored Trailer

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