The maverick filmmaker’s extraordinary study of eroticism and gothic horror.
Jess Franco made several films – mostly in the early 1970s – that played with and reconstructed the gothic horror tradition and the Dracula / Frankenstein cinematic mythology, and most of them have their moments. But none is quite as deliriously fun as The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, however, which is one of his most successful collisions of horror, eroticism, comic book adventure and surrealism.
The film opens with Dr Frankenstein (Dennis Price, who had been reduced – if you care to look at it like that – to this sort of thing by his drinking) bringing his monster to life, ably assisted by Franco himself. And what a monster it is – a bodybuilder who has been, for no immediately obvious reason, painted silver. There is no logic to this visual representation of the monster, which after all has been built from body parts, but it immediately adds a cartoonish, fumetti flavour to proceedings. Things get even crazier when Frankenstein’s lab is invaded by Melissa (Anne Libert), a vampiric half bird, half woman (and all naked) assistant of immortal magician Cagliostro (Howard Vernon), who wants the monster as his own slave, in order to breed a new master race with his own female creation.
Frankenstein’s daughter Vera (Beatriz Savon) swears revenge, but hasn’t really thought out her plans, and is soon captured by Cagliostro, who hypnotises her into being his servant, as he kidnaps women to make his own, rather more nubile monster (with both the first victim and the final creature played by Britt Nicholls) and carries out weird rituals in front of a bizarre band of occultist followers that include donkey-eared men and living skeletons. Heroic Dr Seward (Albert Dalbés) races to the rescue as Cagliostro’s evil plans reach a climax.
It’s been suggested by some people that The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is one of Franco’s less coherent films – in part due to the fact that he was making so many films at the time that projects spilled over into each other – but that’s not the case at all. In fact, there’s a pretty straightforward plot at work here. But of course, Franco was rarely interested in telling a normal story in a normal way, and the things that make this film so interesting are the oddball additions that go entirely unexplained. Just who or what is Melissa, for instance? We are simply expected to accept the idea that Cagliostro created this naked, feathered blind girl who feasts on half-naked men as a part of the story, without any explanation why. Similarly, Cagliostro’s followers are such a bizarre bunch that any other filmmaker might have made a big deal of them – but here, they just show up unannounced and without further comment. Characters are used from other Franco films (like Morpho, Dr Frankenstein’s assistant who has been a regular Franco character) and other gothic works (Dr Seward is, of course, dragged in from Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and Cagliostro’s castle is a familiar location from, amongst other Franco movies, the remarkable Virgin Among the Living Dead – a film that this movie shares a weird dream state (and some key cast members) with. You could probably mix both films together to create the ultimate psychedelic Franco experience.
There are certainly astonishing moments here, the highlight being the scene with a naked man and woman tied together and whipped until one of them falls onto a spiked floor. It’s essentially the subtle sado-masochism of a Flash Gordon serial (or, indeed, the 1980 film) taken to its logical, kinky conclusion, and proves that Franco wasn’t just about putting naked female flesh on display – he was more than happy to show male genitalia too. The locations are suitably gothic in feel, and Frankenstein’s lab has a rundown feel that somehow seems appropriate. And while there are moments where the camera loses focus, on the whole, this is one of Franco’s most visually arresting works.
Vernon is on top form here as the villain of the piece, giving a performance that stays just the right side of excessive, while Price – top-billed, but with little more than five minutes of screen time – adds a certain gravitas to the opening scenes and then hams it up wildly. Perhaps he was getting drunker as the day went on. For me though, it’s Libert who steals the show, her blissed-out bird woman being a fascinating, underused creation. You find yourself rather wishing that Franco had been given the opportunity to explore this character further in other films.
Backed with a score made up of interesting, electronic library music, fast-paced and cheerfully lurid, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is Franco at his demented, extraordinary best. If you are for some reason unfamiliar with his work, this would be a great place to start.
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