These notes on Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. Flesh for Frankenstein will screen in a new 3-D restoration from Vinegar Syndrome and American Genre Film Archive on Saturday, April 30 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!
By Tim Brayton
“Butchery Binge” screams the headline of The New York Times’ May 1974 review of what was then still generally known under the title Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. “[The film] almost begs the gorge to rise” notes critic Nora Sayre, adding with deadpan irony, “Hence those with iron guts may rank as philistines–unable to respond to the call of art.” On the far side of the country, Charles Champlin wasn’t couching his hostility in self-amusement: “Even the fervent loyalist, eager for the deliciously outrageous, will I think be hard put to deny that the movie is an amateurish bore, flatly written, wretchedly acted, interminably slow-paced.”
In short, critics at the time weren’t having anything to do with what we now generally know as Flesh for Frankenstein (it was, all along, the brainchild of writer-director Paul Morrissey, and Warhol’s name was primarily just a marketing hook). By the time of the film’s third major write-up in The New York Times, two months later, Paul Gardner could with simple confidence refer to the film’s “generally disastrous reviews.” And yet, the mere fact that Flesh for Frankenstein received three major write-ups in two months – the second one was written by Vincent Canby – tells us that the film tapped into something that went deeper than the repulsed dismissal of sensible critics. And in fact, it was an enormous box-office hit relative to its cost, and relative to its scanty theatrical release. Critics might not have known what to do with the bizarre object, but its self-selecting audience surely did, and history, in this case, was on the side of the audience. Flesh for Frankenstein is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind blend of wildly disparate tones and attitudes, and viewed now on the cusp of its 50th anniversary – and in 3-D no less, restoring the tacky glory to a film that has mostly been seen in a mere two dimensions for most of its life – it’s still one of the most disorienting, disturbing, and gleefully hilarious horror-comedies you could hope to see.
Even by the standards of a book as routinely trashed by its adaptations as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, this version (which doesn’t even bother to credit Shelley) leaves behind pretty much anything you might recognize from the novel. The unhinged, sexually demented Baron von Frankenstein (Udo Kier, an actor who knows a thing or twenty about appearing unhinged onscreen) is more of a parody of a Nazi mad scientist: he’s building two creatures, one male and one female, and once he imbues them with life, he plans to breed them to create a perfect race of Serbian superhumans. The only thing that can halt him in this mad quest is Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro), a handsome, oversexed lunk of a stableboy; that and the fact that the male monster’s head, provided by Nicholas’s friend Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), has absolutely no interest in sex with women.
The viewer with a working knowledge of Morrissey and Dallesandro’s earlier collaborations, most notably the 1970 Warhol production Flesh (a pseudo-pornographic film that instantly made Dallesandro a gay icon) might have their own suspicions about why Sacha, with his deep friendship with Nicholas, might be so stubbornly resistant to the female creature’s charms. But it’s not even scratching the surface of what Flesh for Frankenstein has to offer to note that there’s some queer subtext afoot. The film is an over-the-top spectacle of lurid, trashy excess. It is, as Sayre and so many other critics noted when it was new, a remarkably disgusting film: disgusting enough that, a decade later, the British Board of Film Classification and Director of Public Prosecutions successfully banned it from distribution on home video, as one of the infamous Video Nasties. That’s a somewhat ridiculous fate for a kitschy underground art film, but there can at least be little doubt that the film is pretty nasty at that. We see a fair amount of gore, and we hear even more, thanks to a soundtrack full of squishy, squelching noises. And even the gore itself pales in comparison to the warped behavior of the Baron and his hostile wife Katrin (Monique van Vooren), mostly around their destructive and violent sexual kinks, such as… but it’s better experienced by watching the film itself, through the indescribable medium of Kier’s over-the-top performance of orgasmic delight.
But if Flesh for Frankenstein were merely disgusting, it’s hard to imagine it surviving so long, and finding such a strong reputation as outsider art (including, among other achievements, a DVD release in the early days of the Criterion Collection). Paul Morrissey’s films are an acquired taste, to say the least, but he was at the very forefront of campy outrageousness in the early 1970s, and Flesh for Frankenstein boasts a loopy sense of humor that fits securely in that tradition. Some of this comes through the acting: Kier’s garish caricature of his own outlandish German accent pushes the Baron towards an extreme, grotesque parody of upper-class Continental social mores. Dallesandro complements this by going all the way in the opposite direction; his performance is mired in his Long Island vowels and a generally laconic mood that punctures what limited seriousness accrues to this scenario. If Kier is parody-by-excess, Dallesandro is parody-by-underplaying, and together they give the film a jolt of constantly unpredictable comic energy.
Besides the two leads, the whole thing is just so silly. The over-the-top gore and sordid content quickly reach the point of absurdity, even more so thanks to the 3-D effects that find various internal organs being thrust towards the camera. So whatever unnerving, disgusting atmosphere Flesh for Frankenstein builds up is quickly turned towards delighted mockery and a general sense that the unapologetic trashiness of everything is meant to be a fun celebration of the memorably weird things cinema can put in our way. In a sense, Flesh for Frankenstein turns out to be a parody of itself, laughing at its own outrageous excess and desire to constantly shock. It’s a wild experience in every way, breaking all the conventions of ‘70s horror and underground art cinema alike, and presenting joyously gaudy surprises right down to the last scene.