‘Dead Sexy’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
The third of three full length reviews written for Montage Film and published during August 2008.
To describe Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) as one of the most comprehensible and coherent of the filmic offerings to emerge from the Factory, when some of its stable mates included Sleep (1963) (five and half hours of John Giorno asleep) and Empire (1964) (seven and a half hours of the Empire State building – a cloud passing overhead is the height of excitement in the film), does not in any way take away from how truly strange the film actually is. Directed by Paul Morrissey and made back to back with the equally bizarre Blood For Dracula (1973) it retains the ultra-low budget underground production values of the majority of the films that Andy Warhol involved himself in, despite having decidedly decadent settings.
Flesh for Frankenstein is by no means a slavish or even loving adaptation of Mary Shelley’s own strange opus. Apparently likely to cause the authoress to spin in her grave (however, from what I’ve read of her and her contemporaries I suspect she’d be more likely to be laughing up her sleeve at the appalled reactions of the purists), Morrissey has taken the essence of the Frankenstein myth (distilled from the book through a mesh of previous adaptations of varying merit) and turning it into something completely different and entirely his own. A gory, obscene and joyously decadent interpretation of a tale that had been done to death, it could be argued that it does for the story what its characters do to each other. Murders it, abuses its corpse and then drags it screaming back into unwilling life. The Frankenstein myth is after all an effective metaphor for the horror movie cycle, chopping up bits of each other and sewing them up to make something new and infinitely worse. Having created something so utterly unique in the face of both the weight of so much historical interpretation of the characters and also the dominant force of Andy Warhol is somewhat impressive in and of itself.
While not as amusing as the following year’s Young Frankenstein – the presence of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder gives them a distinct advantage – it does share a loving attention to stylistic detail in reproducing the visuals and production values of the type of horror films they’re sending up. Young Frankenstein recreating the monster movies of the 30s, while Flesh for Frankenstein concentrates on the pseudo art-house aesthetics of Italian psychological cinema. Unlike many later pastiches and parodies of genre films, Flesh For Frankenstein manages to rein its excess in just enough to prevent it becoming ridiculous. The style of the film is more akin to Airplane (1980), which works so well because it takes a genuine disaster movie script and plays up the inherently humorous and ridiculous nature of the genre’s tropes. Flesh for Frankenstein has considerable success in playing with the conventions of the genre in this way, making evident many of the themes and suggestions that have long formed an unspoken undercurrent in horror cinema. Just for starters there is the Baron’s accent, excessively eastern European, his insistence in referring to noses as ‘nasum’ ties in with the contradictory image of eastern Europe in horror cinema – between the romanticised villains of gothic novels of the previous century, and the cold emotionless fascist/communists of cold war literature and cinema. Like his accent the Baron’s character is stuck somewhere between the two stereotypes. Additionally, the characters can barely move about the castle for the sexual shenanigans and tensions lurking about the place. Taboos pop up at unexpected moments, covering everything from incest and bizarre penchants for racial purity, necrophilia and sex with surgical wounds, to repressed homosexuality and voyeurism. All the themes and perversions that normally remain implied are displayed out in the open for our repulsion and delectation. Fittingly in a film where the creatures are created purely to have sex and reproduce, neither of the creatures have the slightest interest in either of their roles, with each other or with anyone else. They make a stark contrast with the Baron and his wife/sister whose incestuous passion has grown cold and bitter, while the creatures born at the same time at the hands of their creator/father figure, act more like siblings with their forced chaste kisses and entire lack of sexual arousal in regard to each other. Though they do appear to share a certain attraction to, or at the very least a fascination with the strapping stable boy. The female creature in particular serves a variety of meta-fictional purposes, primarily as refutation of that ever-disturbing male sexual fantasy of permissiveness, she is so permissive of the abuses that she suffers that she does not have the energy or motivation to perform her creator’s primary purpose for her. She is every bit the mindless zombie responding only to her creators explicit instructions, without passion or involvement, she was created to be mindless so perhaps she rebels by being as mindless as possible. In addition her involvement in her necrolphiliac activities making knowing reference to ancient Mesoamerican myths in which sexual relations with corpse was purportedly used to both communicate with and attempt to revive the dead. She briefly awakens while the Baron is, as he so eloquently puts it ‘fucking life in the gallbladder’, but he is too involved in his own desires to notice that he has succeeded in his ultimate desire, and she passes back into oblivion. For all that Nicholas is the only adult character to be secure and open about his desires and sexuality, he may get rewarded for this by being its sole adult survivor, he only gets to live as the plaything/lab rat of the films resident mad child twins.
Strangely enough the most conventionally horror movie like scenes in the film involve the Baron’s young children. For all that the Baron storms around his laboratory raving that his ‘zombies’ will give him the children he desires, his own children are set on following in his footsteps in a manner that, by his own twisted logic, ought to make him proud. The pair of them begin the film aping their father’s experiments with an unsuccessful operation on a doll which they later behead, and end the film seemingly about to embark on a fresh set of their father’s experiments, possibly intent on harvesting their parents corpses for their own dark ends. The twins have a strange ‘Village of the Damned’ style evil twin dynamic, seeming to communicate with each other almost entirely by staring, nodding and smiling. They spend a large part of the film spying on their parents twisted games and may actually be manipulating Nicholas as part of a long game of their own.
Straight out of the mould of creepy horror movie children – a trope best known to modern audiences from The Omen (1976), and creepily overused in various recent Japanese ghost cycles, but never better than the strange plague of super-intelligent speedily growing homicidal infants in Village of the Damned (1960) – it is they that fulfil the audience identification role. Much like the children of the aforementioned Village of the Damned, the pair can be seen as representative of the popular horror movie fear of the subversion of society by a force infiltrating and working through an innocent. In this particular case, likely being representative of the debate surrounding the corrupting influence of television and cinema, in particular horror, upon young people. At each of their most creepily voyeuristic moments they are always revealed in positions that are almost directly behind the camera, equating them neatly with the audience. If the children, with their voyeuristic adventures, are embodiments of the notion of ‘the gaze’, then theirs is the position of ultimate control and judgement. Their father constantly seeks to dominate and possess everything in his life, from his sister/wife, to his debauched sexual adventures with his experiments and his pointless belittling and taunting of his devoted assistant. The combination of long shots and the ‘blink of the eye’ editing technique employed emphasises the correlation between audience and voyeur. Much of the sex in the film is without point and far from sexy, its aesthetics owing more to the type of grungy art-house sex film that attempts to pass itself off as ‘erotica’ than the soft porn silliness of the tacky end of the monster movie market. Doubtless showing Warhol’s influence there, in demonstrating the pointlessness of the filmic art-form. If the gaze, especially in a film as bordering on pornographic as this one, normally ensures the objectification and eroticisation of the female body for a male audience, then here the tables are turned with the character of Nicholas existing almost solely for his sex drive. He spends half the film in various stages of undressed, oiled, eroticised and observed. Rarely does he have sex without an audience of some sort, whether people stumbling across him having sex in a field, being spied upon by the Baron or his children when with the lady of the house, or being openly and unflinchingly observed by his apparently asexual, for which read repressed homosexual, friend in the brothel. Nicholas becomes increasingly the pawn of the audience and their avatars in the form of the children, investigating the murders, having sex (there’s even a pile of Oedipal-by-proxy subtext for the Freudians in the audience), and eventually ending up literally trussed up for our/their pleasure. After all its is they who show Nicholas where to observe their father’s experiments and prompt his interference in them, thus setting off a chain of events which ultimately ends with the destruction of their parents, their father’s experiments and leaves them free to conduct their own experiments.
This would appear to be the film’s greatest success, by being so glorious, debauchedly extreme, knowingly tipping a wink to the audience as they abuse the genre conventions we know and love (or despise). Thankfully not post-modern, just with a keen awareness of irony, it acknowledges that it won’t be playing to an audience of sickos and morons, or at least not ones without enough self-awareness to mock themselves a little. We’re guided through the mad house by two not entirely innocents till we’re just as eager for the carnage as them. They are the audience and we are them, so must share the blame for the debauchery and destruction we’ve just observed.