When Mary Shelley awoke from a fever dream, eager to record her personal terror at the hands of a modern Prometheus, little did she know that she would be creating one of the seminal horror stories of all time. Frankenstein is a strangely evocative creature feature for a lot of reasons: it relies on the craven image of corpse manipulation to sell its shocks; it asks earth shattering questions about who can and has the right to play God; and it manages to sneak in a sentence or two about responsibility as well – basically, when you create life, you have a duty to it that is infinite. So it is no wonder that this Victorian Gothic has become the foundation for so many motion picture variations, both good and bad. From Universal's original telling of the classic tale to the many sequels it would squeeze out, making a near-faithful version of this vault of horror has always seemed to be the proper way to go. Even British revisionists Hammer held hard and fast to the basic tenants of the reanimation saga. But others have played with the tale, turning it on its head for a joke (Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein), an exploitation throwback (Frank Henenlotter's Frankenhooker) or a deadly serious exploration of the science behind the sinister (Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, the sorry Sting slug known as The Bride). Now Troma, that titan of totally twisted cinema, has a further deviation on the dear doctor and his desire to dig up the dead. Only problem is, their Hippocratic charlatan is a pretender to Ms. Shelley's legacy. Dr. Hackenstein is his name and lulling you into a state of cinematic stasis is his game. This version of the monster reborn is short on significance and long of foolishness, with so little respect for its grandiose source material that it renders the redolent story routine.
In a lonely house, high on a hill, Dr. Hackenstein conducts amoral experiments in vivisection and the raising of the dead. He wants to perfect his patents before trying to bring his beloved betrothed back from the dead (what is it with scientists and the reanimation of past lovers? Is it the recognition that this is the only nookie they will ever know?). When the Dean of the college Hacky teaches at gives his God playing the thumbs down, the Doc is on the verge of ruin. Thankfully, a timely heart attack sidelines the irritated educator. When a quartet of travelers ends up on his doorstep, the sinister physician sees his opportunity to strike. He needs a trio of ladies to finish off his Franken...sorry, Hackenstein's monster and it just so happens that three of the four freeloaders are female (the fourth one, the irritating brother with a penchant for cousin kissing, we're still unsure about. DNA testing was inconclusive). So as houseguests start to disappear and body parts start showing up on his human template, Dr. Hackenstein has his former spouse in his surgical theater lights. But the final victim, a bug eyed beauty named Melanie, may have stolen the 'Steinman's heart away. This may not make his about to be brought back from the dead sweetie very happy. After all, she is sightless, and could sure use Melanie's ocular attributes for her own. So the mad MD must decide. Re-invigorate the Misses? Or simple savor a new Mrs. Hackenstein. The answer will be deadly...or just dull.
You've got to be careful when you name your movie Dr. HACK-enstein. The more callous critics out in the world of film appreciation will watch this almost botched attempt at a hokey horror comedy and instantly celebrate, saying that the title character gives them all the analytical ammunition they need. Why waste several hundred words on this desecration of celluloid when you can merely allude to the title? Huzzah! And indeed, if one looks at this low-budget bunk from a completely professional position, this deadly doc and his vivisecting story is a tad underwhelming. Obviously, director Richard Clark (not to be confused with Dick Clark, not to be confused with a real human being – the dude just doesn't age!) was trying to fashion a fright flick combination platter, a tepid take on the then current cult phenom Re-Animator with a smattering of Mel Brook's bravura Young Frankenstein. Indeed, there are moments untimely ripped from each of these superior surreal, silly scare tactics; elements like a deaf and dumb maid or a Jan-in-the-Pan severed head filled with saucy sass-back that suggest that Clark at least convincingly carbon copies his cinematic betters. But playing duplicate kitty with the canon of classic horror films doesn't guarantee you'll make a magical, or even a mediocre movie. Languishing somewhere in the middle between complete piece of crap and pretty cool comedy lies this limp load.
From the moment we hear our main characters caw at each other in over-enunciated bad British accents, we hope we're in for a terror treat. Then the frizzy haired maid with sensory deprivation shows up, flashing cards and crazy facial gestures in an attempt to understand and be understood and our spirits rise further. Just then the good doctor laments that he needs "three young ladies" to complete his regeneration experiments and we cut to a car carrying...you guessed it, three tantalizing tarts. For the time being, Dr. Hackenstein is banging on all six cylinders, mixing a small amount of menace (the good doc is actually cutting up bodies in his attic lab) with over-the-top humor histrionics to sell its semblance of a story. Even when the middle act resorts to overlong scenes of slapstick stupidity, we hold out hope. But as the offending foolishness continues in one drawn out gag that has the frisky physician trying to tranquilize one of his houseguests as she bangs and bounces around the house, optimism starts to fade. And, of course our erroneous servant has to show up in the room as well. She is apparently not only deaf and dumb, but without peripheral vision, a clear sense of direction and the ability to sense motion around her. Eventually we grow very tired of all these so-called humorous histrionics and we simply want Dr. Hackenstein to get on with its point. Sadly, the film really has nowhere else to go.
It's clear, from a purely scripted standpoint that Clark eventually lost his way with Dr. Hackenstein. He obviously hoped to mix Stuart Gordon's irreverence with a "modernized" attention to detail to make a period piece in pseudo suggestive costuming and set design only. But he fails to grasp the Lovecraft-loving cult director's penchant for the bloodbath, the torrents of claret streaming from wounds and the walking dead. Instead, Dr. Hackenstein is far tamer in the vein juice department. We do see some clever conceits to the body-swapping scenario (a couple of his victims have arms and legs from beefy, burly behemoths and the juxtaposition between petite and pile driver is devilishly goofy) and on a couple of occasions, the off screen surgery performed by our quacked physician has a nice arterial spray to it. But this is no Doctor Gore, where a heart dies every minute and then is usually sliced into several servable portions. Instead, Dr. Hackenstein paints itself into a corner of convolution that it can't escape from. Call it the "Gotta See the Creature" syndrome; an acknowledgment that once you've started in on a monster or Hellbeast, the audience won't rest until they witness its wickedness. Unfortunately, the way Clark fashions his film, he is stuck with a terrible dilemma. His fable's foundation says he needs three bodies to complete his creation, to bring his much-bereaved wife back from the dead. Wouldn't you know it, a trio of traffic taunters show up at his doorstep. The puzzle has its pieces, the parameters have been met.
But once we know the fate of these fatal femmes, where's the fun? How are we to enjoy the next 45 minutes if all we are to witness is a gauche game of cat and mouse where the rodent never wins? Physical humor seems to be the answer, and as stated before, it doesn't work. So maybe a love story would function to focus the fun? Again, it is not successful. We never believe in the Doctor's transformation from cruel, callous killer to heartsick sucker. When he falls for Melanie, it's not because of anything other than plot machinations. If he kills this young lady as well, plucking out her eyes so that his reanimated wife can see, then the movie is over. Zombie bride is alive and well, the doc and his amoral desecration can live happily ever after. But if he lets the newfound ladylove live, then the beast will be without peepers, rendering their effectiveness as an entity of terror rather moot. After all, it was Frankenstein (Hack's 3rd cousin, twice removed) who sought out the solace of a blind beggar, not the other way around. There are so many mangled ends in Dr. Hackenstein that the final result is a film that occasionally works despite its shortcomings, but more times than not, tumbles over its own fictional footing and ends up smashed flat, hindquarters in the air, showing the world the obvious ass it has become. If Clark had concentrated on exploiting the grave-robbing and sickening surgery, giving us the gross out gravy we all seem to crave, then Hackenstein would at least have some icky eye candy to contend with. As it is, the joke junk doesn't completely engage.
From a pure cast standpoint, Dr. Hackenstein has a lot of lively acting elements. In the role of the twisted tomb raiders, real life couple Ann and Logan Ramsey has a few very witty rejoinders. Phyllis Diller's microscopic cameo as a society matron with a skewed view of how police officers operate gets to avoid her fright wig wackiness and actually attempt true character based comedy. She is almost successful. Elsewhere, the three young ladies, with genre star Stacey Travis (Hardware, Dracula Rising) as the ephemeral Melanie are all very good, if hardly plucked from the turn of the century. But their brother, the wheezy, pre-pubescent sounding stooge who vocalizes like he swallowed a cocktail of helium mixed with mineral acid, is so obnoxious and anti-entertaining that you just wish he'd join Brenda Vaccaro for breathy speech therapy lessons and be done with it. Still, David Muir almost makes up for any other acting atrocities, bringing a nice balance between the prosaic and scenery snacking insanity to his role of Hackenstein. If he had more to work with, instead of a stagnant storyline without a lot of prickly possibilities, this could have been a cruel comedy of terrors mixed with a nod and a wink to all the craven clichés clouding up the arcane atmosphere. But Dr. Hackenstein is stuck in a Charles Band meets Charlie Callas idea of what makes funny and frightening. And neither concept ends up being correct.
The previous reference to the classic exploitation exercise known as Doctor Gore is no minor one. Both movies deal with a medico whose mate has passed away, and a desire to redesign her as an amalgamation of body parts seems to be the only answer. Several susceptible lasses are utilized and bloody, brash sequences of skin carving and torso tormenting are included. Finally, for the men of medicine, the resulting stitch case is a troubled, tormented handful, unhappy with their reanimated lot in life. But this is where the similarities end. Doctor Gore paints the set pieces blood red with brains as the clots of gore grace every inch of the screen. And the manner in which the living dead Miss deals with her dilemma (by plucking every trucker she comes in contact with) is a far cry from the nude broad jump Hackenstein's honey takes. Indeed, Dr. H's horror is a minor missive in his otherwise busy calendar of concerns. In between making new notecards for his less than sensible servant, to dealing with the dimmest grave robbers ever to overturn the interred, it's amazing he had any time for terror at all. And that's probably why Dr. Hackenstein is only an occasionally funny, but mostly meandering motion picture about sutures and stupidity. And there is not a single sign of Bill Hicks and the soul-tearing tune "A Heart Dies Every Minute" to be found.
Visually, Dr. Hackenstein is as bland as its storyline. The movie, made in the mid-80s, resembles every ounce of said decades desire to soft focus everything into a visual vapor of fuzziness. The full screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio divulges the movie's made for VHS origins and the colors are flat and lifeless. There is also a great deal of "ghosting" in the opening action scenes. When the three girls and the guy travel in their car, we see multiple images the totally blur what is going on. While the overall picture is passable, Dr. Hackenstein is about as successful a DVD remaster as the good doctor is a corpse grinder.
Utilizing a mixed-up, overly mannered soundtrack to suggest a camp or kitschy nature to the proceedings, the Dolby Digital Stereo here sounds like a trip to the Stupid Symphony Orchestra. Dialogue is crisp and clean however, and the use of sound effects for "comic' relief is also represented well. Still, this is not some reference quality cacophony. It's typical of the Greed decade's decidedly dense decisions.
Troma's offerings on DVD are either a fun feast or a far too familiar fissure of famine. Lloyd Kaufman's transformation into Penis Man during the introduction to the film is kinda fun and the rest of the marketing madness from the company represents a harmless way to spend a few minutes. But there is nothing novel to Hackenstein's creation and that means that all we have of this supposed horror's history is the film itself. And there is not much that can be learned from it.
Like the five stages of death and dying by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (with a dash...), horror fans watching Dr. Hackenstein will experience a similar number and order of disappointments. At first, there will be anger – anger that you've wasted 90 minutes meandering through this tepid tripe. Then there will be denial – denial that you even witnessed this witless mess. Depression comes next, and after watching Logan and Ann Ramsey desecrate their reputation by playing the only crypt crackers that make Abbott and Costello seem like Olivier and Gielgud, you'll want to hide you head in a saddened shame for untold eons. Then will come bargaining – a desire to weasel your way out of responsibility for viewing this retardation and make everything right with karma. You offer up your soul to Satan. You take a chance with God and the rest of the planet by offering your services as an assassin for Richard Clark, hoping to spare the cinema another Dr. Hackenstein, or worse yet, an equally inept sequel. But unfortunately, at the end of the road, comes acceptance. You simply give in and acknowledge the fact that you sat through this uneven, uninteresting movie. You decry your dumbness and celebrate your stamina. At least Dr. Hackenstein didn't kill you with its occasionally patchy wit, wild-ass convolutions and ersatz-excuses for entertainment. You survived, just like the majority of the cast members in this moldy Frankenstein homage. And when was the last time you thought to celebrate a horror film without an ounce of killing? Thought so.