In 1973, to cash in on the Blaxploitation horror success of BLACULA, writer/producer Frank Saletri decided to do the same with the Frankenstein property. Unfortunately, whereas the former had class, humour, production values, style and money, this magnificently poor effort manages to get by on…none of them. BLACKENSTEIN aka BLACK FRANKENSTEIN) is irredeemably bad, made on an all-too evident disastrously low budget and fails on almost every level. No wonder the poster tries desperately to sell it on an incidental shot of an attractive and cynically exploited victim’s reaction before she thankfully is removed from the experience!
Dr Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone, a fitting Equity name for this inflexible actor) is a former student of Dr Stein (John Hart) and goes to see him to beg him to help her husband with possible pioneering limb replacement surgery after he is rendered paraplegic in Vietnam. We find all this out immediately as the abominable script has her pouring out a bin-load of exposition to him in one unsubtle and direly expressed chunk. Actually, if you think that’s unsubtle, listen to the resoundingly ominous music cue as she waits in the hall. It signals all manner of fateful possibilities but is completely out of any context with her patient waiting for Stein’s appearance. The score does this more than once, managing to draw attention to itself in a gleefully clumsily manner later on – for no plot reason.
Hart resembles a cross between BARNEY MILLER and Dick Van Dyke in DIAGNOSIS: TEDIUM but has none of their talent. He has however developed a technique of saying all his dialogue with a precisely-measured level of non-interest as though he’s running lines off-camera. Hart was a former Western actor; his lazy delivery may have been acceptable on the prairie but coupled with Stone, the oater and the non-emoter have clearly more in common than medical training. They are a symphony of somnambulance.
To enhance the shoddiness, director William A Levey obviously wanted to include as many reference points to the old Universal FRANKENSTEIN films as possible. The first is the lab assistant Malcolm (Roosevelt Jackson) who has the monotone of an Igor (unless I’m being too charitable and he’s simply crap). He conceals a burning desire (if you can tell) for Dr Winifred under that white-coated exterior, and when rejected by the good Doctor, hell hath no fury like a lab assistant scorned. Malcolm goes and secretly transfers what looks like hair dye from one bottle to another – the brute.
Come the operation, and we witness the entertainment factor of script, actors and near-zero production budget trying to conceal a total lack of any medical research. Stein talks about “My special DNA formula” (he supposedly won the Nobel Peace Prize for Genetic DNA code work). He tells his protégé: “The fusion looks excellent, Winifred” as he rummages, hidden, under Eddie’s sheet on the table - but they’re not fooling anyone. When they can’t figure out why initially results aren’t more forthcoming, they confer: “The cell-match tests look alright”. Stein ruminates on the matter, concurring: “All the blood tests seems alright”.
Fortunately this blinding medical jargon is helped by regular wide shots of the lab equipment, an homage credited to the original Universal effects designer Kenneth Strickfadden. Sadly, the gear in this tawdry tribute looks like a museum exhibit room with the various static-electricity gizmos, tubes etc sparsely laid out, less than the sum of its parts. During the procedure, as crackling bolts of energy fill the screen, we are treated to numerous pans across the technical banks, in particular ‘Memory Data Register’ which will soon become as fondly familiar as those papier-mache rocks in STAR TREK.
Soon Eddie, played by non-actor Joe De Sue, (for those who might be impressed at how seamlessly he blends in with the rest of the talent) develops the classic hallmarks of the Frankenstein monster on the rampage: the flat head, the low groan and that outstretched arm sleepwalk - why do human monsters bother doing that by the way?. He also inexplicably has had time to put on his own natty ‘70s clothes before causing havoc – the ensemble includes a suit, roll-neck jumper and shiny Chelsea boots rather than the asphalt-spreader boots worn by Karloff in the old movies.
Now that he is suitably attired for a night on the town, Eddie goes homicidal, starting with the male hospital orderly who abused him in his recuperation there. In silhouette, he tears the man’s arm off behind a ward curtain and storms off. In the neighbourhood he runs amok, gouging out a woman’s entrails in her garden, and in a secluded spot when a young woman refuses the advances of a creep even more sinister than our revived soldier, Eddie kills her as well. Here the director attempts a Hitchcockian style gesture, filming his dragging of her body with her fallen glasses artfully placed in the foreground.
Meanwhile, back in the lab Dr Walker has tried to figure out the medical reason for their experimental catastrophe. She’s not above fiddling with bottles herself, staring meaningfully at one labelled ‘EDDIE – DNA’. Stein is taking this all very seriously (I guess) as he politely requests: “Winifred, I’d like to see you in the laboratory please”. The music builds in a sudden misplaced sweep like an epic high-point from GONE WITH THE WIND and…nothing happens.
In a nightclub, a band-leader tells an extended lame gag about a dog, presumably to help flog this poor almost dead horse to beyond eighty minutes. Outside, a smoking customer gives an eye-popping reaction on seeing Eddie that has to be seen to be disbelieved. This is when the poster-lady is dismissed by having her own entrails torn out and fondled externally. (Is this some kind of fetish with Eddie?).
Two cops appear at Stein’s place on the hunt for info about three local murders. The white one looks like a dodgy, pencil-moustached mafioso. The black Lieutenant, Jackson, seems normal until you hear his bizarre witness interview technique later in the club:
“Settle down and tell me exactly what you saw”.
“I’ve told you once”.
“Well, give me a description of what you saw then”.
Perhaps this is his idea of a Popeye Doyle confusion technique. Either way, after Eddie lamely attacks Stein back in the lab, and Stein equally lamely fights him off, Eddie oddly takes a woman hostage instead of killing her, and then kills her for trying to escape. The cops are in lukewarm pursuit but they needn’t worry. Our reactivated veteran is savaged to death by two security Dobermans. He is left with a pile of suspiciously Butcher’s sausage-like entrails carefully piled in his chest - , an ignominious death to end a similarly shameful movie.
BLACKENSTEIN is stupendously awful, its dial firmly set to PLAN 9 levels of amusement radiation.
I’ll leave it to Karloff’s infinitely superior monster to sum up this tacky rip-off’s value from the end of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN:
“We belong dead”.