Four Freakish Frankensteins – By Philip Smolen

The Frankenstein franchise has to be considered among the most enduring in the annals of fantastic cinema. From Thomas Edison’s 16 minute short in 1910 and the classic Universal series (1931-1948) to the colorful and gory (for its time) Hammer films (1957- 1974), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s 1816 novel (or at least parts of it) has been filmed dozens of times. Many of these endeavors have created iconic cinematic images such as Boris Karloff’s sympathetic turn as the misshapen monster and Peter Cushing’s definitive turn as the masterful and icy baron. These films also have their own physical representation of Shelly’s monster– from the blocky, flat top and pasty Karloff creation (courtesy of makeup man Jack Pierce) to Phil Leakey’s grotesque Petri-dish culture design for Christopher Lee’s face in “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957).

But while there have been many attempts to film Shelly’s novel faithfully, the monstrously good name of Frankenstein has also been dragged through the cinematic slime. Beginning in the 1950s, callous producers would tack on the Frankenstein name to their movie even if it had little or no real association to the Frankenstein franchise (after all the novel was in the public domain). This was done simply to draw in unsuspecting audience members. One of the worst attempts at this was 1971’s “Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror” released in America by Independent International. The film actually had nothing to do with Frankenstein, and instead is an installment in Paul Naschy’s Spanish werewolf franchise. However, Independent International solved this dilemma by adding a ridiculous narration to explain the connection between Dr. Frankenstein and Naschy’s werewolf character. By the time you realized that you had been taken, it was too late. Independent International had your money locked safely away.

So let’s take a look at four Frankenstein films that do not contain all the classic ingredients of a Frankenstein movie. There will be no tortured doctor, sympathetic monster, or torch-waving villagers here. Each of these takes the basic idea from Shelly’s novel and runs off in its own wild and weird direction. They are freakish Frankensteins…

*   *   *

1. I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (American International, 1958) – Director: Herbert L. Strock

The newest Baron Frankenstein (genre vet Whit Bissell) is visiting the United States and will return to his native England in a few months. But before he leaves, he’s determined to carry on the experiments of his great ancestor. He and his assistant Dr. Karlton (Robert Burton) are going to use modern electrical techniques to energize their human. When a nearby car accident gives them their youthful cadaver, Frankenstein quickly gets to work. A few days later, his creation (Gary Conway) is walking and talking. The only problem is that his face is an unmitigated mess. Against Frankenstein’s will, the creature leaves the house and accidentally strangles a beautiful woman. Upon his return, the creature assures Dr. Frankenstein that he will obey him. The doctor then asks his creation to get rid of his fiancé (Phyllis Coates) who has been causing trouble. The monster obeys, and as a reward, Frankenstein lets his monster pick out his new face. They search the local lovers’ lane until the creature finds a suitable new look. After a second operation, the now handsome youth is ready to walk among people. But the doctor has more plans for his creation. He wants to return to England with his new experiment. And if the boy doesn’t have a travel visa, Frankenstein will just disassemble him here and re-assemble him once back in the UK. However, the newly handsome youth doesn’t approve of this and plans to fiercely guard his new found looks.

Once considered shocking and daring, American International’s “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” is now just a quaint example of 1950s teenage horror. Scenes that were considered outrageous at the time (the doctor removing deformed limbs, the grotesque Frankenstein makeup) are so tame that they are endearing. Clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Hammer’s “Curse of Frankenstein”, “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” is a pleasant time waster. It’s brief and to the point. There are no overdrawn scenes of surgery or emotional wrangling by the doctor. Like Peter Cushing’s doctor, Whit Bissell is all business. He carries on the pretense of a normal life, but all he is interested in is his creation. The unusual aspect of this film is that the monster is a teenager. Bissell constantly makes him feel like an outcast, so that the audience (mostly teenagers, after all) will sympathize with him when he goes crazy at the end and kills his creator. Phyllis Coates has a thankless role as Bissell’s fiancé, but TV vet Bissell has a grand time. He gloriously hams it up and clearly relishes this opportunity for stardom. “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” may not be a classic example of a Frankenstein movie, but it is a classic example of a quick and efficient American International movie.

Quotable Movie Line: “Speak. You’ve got a civil tongue in your head. I know you have because I sewed it back myself."

2. TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN (Columbia/Hammer, 1958) – Director: Curt Sidomark

At Castle Frankenstein, the good doctor’s latest work has just tried unsuccessfully to kill him. Frankenstein (Anton Diffring) is convinced that this is because the brain he used in the monster was from a criminal (ya think?). He knows that he needs a normal healthy brain for his next attempt. His wish is granted when there is a knock at his door and he is visited by Max Halpert (Richard Bull) and his wife Christine (Helen Wescott). It seems that Halpert is suffering from a terminal illness and desperately wants Frankenstein to operate on him. But rather then cure his condition, Halpert wants Dr. F. to transfer his brain into a new body! Frankenstein refuses, and a few days later Max passes away. However, at the grave site, Frankenstein steals Max’s brain and does indeed transfer it to a new body, that of his misshapen monster. Christine finds out about the Doctor’s deception and rushes to his castle to confront him. Unfortunately, she is not prepared for the horror that awaits her.

After the successful release of “The Curse of Frankenstein”, Hammer films were in big demand. Columbia Pictures approached the British studio about developing a TV series based on the famous baron’s exploits. Hammer agreed, but both studios fought over the control of the series. It was cancelled after the pilot was filmed. The result is that “Tales of Frankenstein” is a bizarre combination of both the classic Universal Frankenstein series and the Hammer series. While the set design echoes the style of Hammer, the monster makeup is based on the classic Karloff creation.

Director Curt Sidomark (who created most of the myth of the Universal monsters) tries to make a fast paced pilot, but skims over important plot points that leave the viewer confused. For example, why is Max buried in a graveyard near Frankenstein’s castle when the Halpert’s are not from that town? Why does the Halpert monster throw himself into an open coffin? Another problem is Anton Diffring’s performance. He does his best to impersonate Peter Cushing, but this only reminds you how much better Cushing was at the role. “Tales of Frankenstein” is indeed freakish. On paper the idea sounded fabulous. But the final product is so disappointing that it should have been called “The Movie with Two Heads.”

Quotable Movie Line: “The life you had was brief, but it was decent and good. Don’t destroy it now because of a hideous face and grotesque body that aren’t yours.”

3. FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (Toho, 1965) – Director: Ishiro Honda

Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams) is a radiation specialist working in the rebuilt city of Hiroshima. One day Bowen and his co-worker/girlfriend Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) spot a wild boy running around the city’s neighborhoods. The boy has a pronounced brow and crooked teeth. What’s worse is that he is growing at an alarming rate. Bowen and Togami capture the boy and keep him at their research facility, but the youth continues to grow to Godzilla size. It seems that just before Hiroshima was nuked in 1945, German military men brought a local Japanese scientist the heart of the Frankenstein monster. The heart became irradiated by the explosion and eventually developed into the weird boy, who now looks like a giant Asian Frankenstein. He then escapes from his cell and stomps around the Japanese countryside. As the scientists and the military decide what to do with him, a giant lizard named Baragon rises from the earth and does battle with the monstrous boy. The youth/monster destroys the big lizard, but a tremendous earthquake opens a major crevice and the monster sinks into the bowels of the earth.

In the 1960s, horror films ruled the box office. I often wonder if Toho produced this weird amalgam of kaiju eiga and horror to try to cash in on the success of Britain’s Hammer studios. Why else would you attempt to tell the tale of a giant Frankenstein monster that battles a giant lizard? Could it be that they still had the rights to the old Willis O’Brien “King Kong vs. Frankenstein” story (filmed in 1962 as “King Kong vs. Godzilla”) and decided to write a script around part of that? Whatever the reason, the film is a letdown and not one of Toho’s best efforts. One of the main problems is that it’s confusing, and the connection between the Frankenstein monster and the heart is never made clear. Did the kid eat the heart (as some film buffs claim)? Or did the heart grow into the kid? And why does it take 20 years for the kid to start growing? Another problem is that there is precious little city-stomping in this film. Most of the giant monster action takes place in the countryside which minimizes its effectiveness. Also, the Frankenstein monster does not have the powerful look of the more traditional Toho rubber-suited creatures. The actor portraying Frankenstein looks too much like a human and not a monster. This makes effects guru Eji Tsuburaya’s miniatures look more like models. On the plus side, however, Nick Adams turns in an earnest, caring performance (this was the first time an American actor starred in a kaiju eiga movie), and Akira Ifukube contributes another powerful doom laden score. “Frankenstein Conquers the World” is an uneasy blend of Frankenstein horror and giant monster action. Like “Tales of Frankenstein,” the idea had more merit than its final execution.

Quotable Movie Line:

Dr. Bowen: “Well I feel he’s very important from a scientific point of view.”
Fellow Scientist: “I’d have to cut off a leg or an arm.”

4. FRANKENHOOKER (SGE, 1990) – Director: Frank Henenlotter

Ho-Ho-Kus New Jersey is the home of local “bioelectrical technician” Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), who is obsessed with building strange living things. When a lawn mower tragedy claims the life of his chubby girlfriend Elizabeth (former Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen), the guilt-ridden Jeffrey decides to rebuild Elizabeth and give her a new body. He keeps her head in a special estrogen-based liquid that he has concocted. To get his new body parts, he creates a super form of crack cocaine (that makes people explode) and has a party with a group of New York hookers. When the girls discover the crack, they begin to smoke it and explode into pieces. Jeffrey collects the assorted parts and returns to his home laboratory. He carefully chooses the best body parts, and using an arc welder (!) and some special super glue, carefully stitches his beloved back together. He then exposes the new Elizabeth to a powerful electrical storm. Jeffrey is delighted when she comes back to life, but shocked when she starts to behave like a hooker. Will Jeffrey be able to return Elizabeth to her former self, or will he have to get used to the idea of a hooker girlfriend?

In the annals of horror comedy, “Frankenhooker” is near the top of the list. Frank Henenlotter’s (“Basket Case”) twisted, bizarre off-kilter homage to the Frankenstein legend is both shocking and hysterically funny. Its primary asset is an over the top performance by James Lorinz as Jeffrey. Lorinz is both maniacal and endearing as the single-minded pseudo scientist who is determined to bring his ex back to life. As in most of his films, Henenlotter wallows in the sleaze, and “Frankenhooker” is no different. Perhaps the funniest scene in the film is when Lorinz returns to his lab with his hooker parts. He treats them like Tinker Toys, comparing legs here, grabbing a torso here, or breasts there, looking for what works best. Patty Mullen is also quite funny as the spastic monster/hooker, approaching potential Johns and asking them if they want a date. The movie also features some great Rube Goldberg lab equipment. Featuring cameos by Louise Lasser and the one and only Zacherly (the “cool ghoul”), “Frankenhooker” is a freakish and funny look at the Frankenstein legend. It’s also Henenlotter’s finest hour.

Quotable Movie Line: “Some people need drugs. Some people need booze. I just need a little surgical assistance.”

There are so many more examples of freakish Frankenstein films (see below for additional entries), including Andy Warhol’s infamous “Flesh for Frankenstein.” But if cinematic history has taught us anything, it’s that a successful film series will continue to be exploited until there’s no more money to be made.

*   *   *

Additional Freakish Frankensteins:

1. Assignment Terror (1970)
2. Beyond Re-Animator (2003)
3. Blackenstein (1973)
4. Bride of the Re-Animator (1990)
5. Dr. Hackenstein (1988)
6. Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1971)
7. Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
8. Frankenstein Island (1981)
9. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)
10. Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
12. Frankenstein Unbound (1990)
13. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1965)
14. Lady Frankenstein (1971)
15. The Monster Squad (1987)
15.The Re-Animator (1985)

Selected References:

Galbraith, Stuart IV. Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1994. Accessed November 27th, 2011.
Meikle, Denis. A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc. 2009.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2010.