Friday, 29 July 2011

Video Nasty #21 - Flesh for Frankenstein

It's not recorded what Andy Warhol thought of the DPP's decision to ban his 1973 film Flesh For Frankenstein on VHS in Britain, but he was probably pleased with the controversy - "Don't pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches", Warhol once quipped. The film (and its companion piece Blood For Dracula, shot back to back) was a milestone in the history of the Factory - Warhol's Cinema had broken free of its New York moorings and gone trans-atlantic, the film shot at Cinecittà in Rome with European money by an Italian film crew. But more significantly, the film would mark the departure from the Factory of Flesh For Frankenstein director Paul Morrissey, Warhol's most valued cinematic collaborator.

In the film, Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier) has created two zombies from various body parts, and from the spawn of this living dead Adam and Eve intends to raise a superhuman race to do his bidding. Frankenstein is short of a head for his male specimen and duly collects one from the shoulders of a local shepherd boy leaving a whorehouse. However, the shepherd's best friend (Joe Dallesandro) is not about to let this matter slide and has other plans for the Baron. Of course the whole thing ends in tears... and lots of spilled organs.

You’d be forgiven for initially mistaking Flesh for Frankenstein for a latter day Hammer picture – a few early scenes look like they might have strayed from the studio’s Karnstein Trilogy. But Morrissey’s film is a far more demented offering, a deliciously warped concoction of surgical gore, deviant sex and outrageous comedy, quite apart from the usual drive-in fare from this era. Originally the film was shot in 3D (or “Space Vision” as the credits attest) and apparently it looks rather good when projected in three dimensions.1 Thankfully Morrissey avoids much of the showboating seen in the likes of Friday the 13th Part 3D, where the cast are endlessly shoving objects into the camera lens, and the film loses nothing when seen in its flat version, bolstered up by some fine photography and excellent set design – check out the very 70’s flashing electronic console when the Baron re-animates his zombies !

In the US the film secured an X rating thanks in part to Carlo Rambaldi’s riotously gory effects – no bodily appendage is hacked off without geysers of blood erupting from the wounds. But it’s the film’s depiction of sexuality that troubled the ratings board. Morrissey’s own absurd view of sex is even more skewed here. Frankenstein’s children are the result of a union between him and his sister - the sex-crazed Baroness is even partial to some necrophilia. In the film’s most memorable scene Frankenstein fist-fucks the female zombie’s abdominal cavity (“To know death…”),2 while in another scene Otto, the Baron’s assistant is driven crazy by pent up sexual frustration and starts tonguing the female zombie’s stitching. In a sense this kind of eroticism of wounds and surgery pre-dates the obsessions of David Cronenberg, and shares a similar conceit of the narrator of JG Ballard’s novel Crash of “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology”

Unlike Morrissey’s previous films, the director had to forgo his loose improvisational style as the foreign actors had to wrestle with Morrissey’s English dialogue. Although every line reading seems mangled by thick accents (“I need his brain for my zambie!”), there’s tremendous fun from the cast - Monique van Vooren as the Baron’s snobby nymphomaniac sister/wife, Arno Juerging’s perpetually bug-eyed Otto, Joe Dallesandro playing another one of his pissed-off proto-slackers and of course Udo Kier as Baron Frankenstein, delivering a performance of such hysteria, it's worthy of Klaus Kinski at his most derailed.

Flesh for Frankenstein is available courtesy of Image in the US and Tartan in the UK, in near identical DVDs. Both editions feature a very solid 2.35 anamorphic transfer with vibrant colors and little of the grain and ghosting issues of other 3D films. Audio is also decent for what it is. For extras, both editions feature a very interesting commentary track ported over from the Criterion laserdisc, which stitches together (appropriately enough) contributions from Paul Morrissey and Udo Kier. Morrissey returns for more commentary, this time over a 24-min montage of stills and a short 4-min screen test. The Tartan edition also features an extra supplement - a nice booklet entitled The BBFC, Morrissey and the Horror Genre which gives a fascinating insight into the workings of the British Board of Film Classification in the 70’s…

1. According to Morrissey the idea for shooting the film in 3D came from Roman Polanski who had planned to make his 1973 sex-comedy What ? a 3D feature. Ultimately Polanksi scrapped the idea for his film but Morrissey felt the 3D process perfectly suited his proposed Frankenstein film.

2. The film's famous line "To know death, Otto, you must fuck life in the gall bladder" was Morrissey's parody of similarly ridiculous line from Last Tango In Paris. However, the line has assumed a spooky resonance - in 1987 Andy Warhol died from complications following routine gall bladder surgery.


  1. Paul Morrissey is one of those figures that should be more popular and more well-known as his films contain a weird mixture of camp and high art that connects to people (like a Joseph Losey or a John Waters). I guess it's a true continuation of what he did with Warhol on Chelsea Girls.

    Speaking of Polanski in your notes, wasn't he shooting What? while he was making Blood for Dracula? He has that cool mustache in that scene with creepy(and I always thought the very gay) Arno Juerging.

    Anyways, anything with Udo Kier is automatically raised to the level of being a classic.

  2. Well spotted Mark, Polanski turns up in Blood For Dracula for one brief moment, if I remember. I thought Polanksi was
    great in The Tenant, definitely one of the best turns in front of the camera by a director. I picked up the Severin DVD of
    What ? last year and could not get into the film at all, I'm not surprised it's long been considered a lost film...

    The Chelsea Girls, is one of my favourtite films - that 8-disc Andy Warhol Anthology that Raro released a few years ago is highly recommended. Flesh, Trash, Heat are great too. I gotta see Women In Revolt.

  3. Pissed-off proto-slacker! Love the 2 Warhol Dracula/Frankenstein films, stunning cinematography and wicked humour...

  4. Yeah, I think Blood for Dracula is my favourite of the two...

  5. My brother got to see this movie projected in 3-D in the 80's - he thought it was very cool. I've not seen it - I wonder if a Blu-Ray 3-D release might ever happen? And no love for the excessive prodding to the camera of Friday the 13th Part 3? I absolutely love that movie - I still call it the greatest 3-D movie I've ever seen - and it's precisely because of all that stuff stuck out into the viewer's face!

  6. Craig, I formally take back those unkind comments about Friday the 13th 3D - I love the film as well, and who doesn't love a poke in the eye...