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Rites of Frankenstein, The

Image // Unrated // August 9, 2005
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 25, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Watchable but overall quite atrocious, The Rites of Frankenstein (La Maldicion de Frankenstein, 1972) is regarded as one of director Jess Franco's lesser films, so you know you're in trouble. Shoddy and cheap, this Spanish-French co-production is a pastiche of Hammer-style Gothicism, '40s Universal monster tag-team action, and clunky Euro-horror eroticism. It's surprisingly coherent by Franco standards, but its appeal is distinctly limited to fans of the outlaw auteur.

The movie is actually a follow-up to Dracula vs. Frankenstein (Dracula contra Frankenstein, 1972), made at the same time with most of the same cast and locales. In The Rites of Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price) and his assistant, Morpho (Jess Franco) are in the laboratory working on the Monster (Fernando Bilbao). Frankenstein uses what looks like an egg beater to drill into the skull of the conscious creature, who cries out, "It hurts my head!" The Doctor considers this some sort of triumph; the monster speaks!

Frankenstein's success is short-lived, however. A strange vampiric bird woman, Melissa (or, per the subtitles, Melisa; played in any case by Anne Libert) suddenly appears, stabbing Morpho and fatally biting Frankenstein on the neck. With the help of Caronte (Luis Barboo), the blind Melissa (her body half-covered in blue feathers) whisks the Monster to the seaside castle of Cagliostro (Howard Vernon). Cagliostro plans to use the Monster to kidnap to beautiful virgins so he can create a mate for the creature and bring about a new super-race.

Meanwhile, Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbes) and Inspector Tanner (Daniel White/Daniel Whitte, also the composer of the eccentric score), investigating Frankenstein's death, encounter the doctor's scientist daughter, Vera (Beatriz Savon), who wants to avenge her father's murder.

Jess/Jesus Franco is one of the true oddities of popular cinema. As a director, he actually seems to get worse with age. Some of his early work, The Awful Dr. Orloff (Gritos en la noche, 1962) and The Diabolical Dr. Z (Miss Muerte, 1966) for instance, is actually pretty atmospheric, but by the end of the 1960s, beginning when Franco allied himself with producer Harry Alan Towers, Franco's films suddenly became appallingly amateurish. Then as here Franco uses his zoom lenses incessantly and never well. He madly zooms away from action to nothing in particular, nor does he let such trivial matters as focus stand in the way of his art.

He seems to think rack-focus and out-of-focus is the same thing, or maybe he doesn't understand that to keep everything in focus you have to zoom all the way in and adjust the lens there. Instead, very often Franco will establish action in wide angle, then zoom into a face that becomes completely blurry. In one scene between Vera Frankenstein and the Monster, Franco cuts between two shots which are both out of focus. Franco must have been the bane of theater projectionists all over the world.

The film is inept in other areas, too. Although vaguely set a hundred or so years in the past, Frankenstein uses what looks like a modern electronic heart monitor and other anachronistic equipment. (According to Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, in Dracula vs. Frankenstein Frankenstein drove around 19th century Europe in a limo, making the complaint about the lab equipment seem pretty minor.) In one scene (at 22:00) a member of Franco's crew can clearly be seen lurking in the shadows, watching the actors at work.

What wisps of imagination stumbled upon by Franco are limited to Libert's oddly effective bird woman and the mildly evocative image of Cagliostro's army of the dead (extras wrapping their bodies with white sheets, some wearing skull masks) wandering an ancient forest.

Despite the title, neither Frankenstein nor his creation is given much to do. The Monster, his body painted silver but otherwise imitative of Dave Prowse's body builder creature in Horror of Frankenstein (1970), has no personality, and functions as little more than a killing machine.

Dennis Price, once a major talent in Britain, is a sorry sight indeed. Cadaverous with singularly rotting teeth, the actor was in the last stages of acute alcoholism but like Bela Lugosi 15 years before he was broke and took virtually any work that came his way. In this film his character is killed just five minutes into the picture, but his ashen corpse is brought back to life again and again, as if constantly disturbed from a sound sleep.

Howard Vernon, another regular in Franco's films and costumed like Iago, maintains a certain dignity, despite sporting a goatee that at times resembles a tuft of armpit hair. Lina Romay appears in this Spanish cut as doomed Gypsy Esmeralda, a tangential part wisely edited out of most versions of this film.

Video & Audio

The Rites of Frankenstein is presented in Spanish only (running 85 minutes), with non-removable white English subtitles. The DVD is 16:9 widescreen, preserving the 'scope aspect ratio. (Reportedly this was shot in Techniscope, but there's no process credited.) The presentation is otherwise blah, with much speckling and age-related wear, but it's not distracting. The mono sound has the usual harshness associated with international European productions from this era.

Extra Features

The only extra is what amounts to about 12 minutes of Alternate Footage featuring English titles (which brazenly call the film The Curse of Frankenstein, the same name as Hammer's 1957 classic) and a lot more nudity, so much so that this version (released in France as Les Experiences erotiques de Frankenstein) perilously approaches soft-core porn. This footage is also 16;9, but appears lifted from a VHS or maybe 3/4-inch tape source. The nudity adds nothing to the film - it's anything but erotic - so the decision to release the tamer version was probably a good one.

Parting Thoughts

Thanks to the DVD format, even obscure, long-forgotten oddities like this are becoming available, and that's a good thing, even when the movies themselves are as rotten as The Rites of Frankenstein. Franco fans and those with a fondness for Euro-horror will want to rent this, but others beware.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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