I’ve always been a sucker for classic horror movies. But even more than the appeal of the Wolfman howling at the moon or Claude Rains getting shot down in the snow, I liked seeing them meeting Abbot and Costello. Horror is a genre that always teeters on the edge of parody; even more so than science fiction or romance, it requires a level of suspension of disbelief that borders on the ridiculous. The best horror movies transcend our doubt that maybe Christopher Lee just has some plastic fangs in his mouth, while the very worst become inadvertent parodies of themselves (hence the existence of Mystery Science Theater 3000).
But just because something’s a parody doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. A film like Flesh for Frankenstein is both undoubtedly a parody of horror movies and an homage to them. The original release title of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein is misleading, as Paul Morrissey’s movie has as little to do with his mentor’s work as it does with the source material. Not unlike The Velvet Underground’s debut album (which credited him as “producer”), Warhol lent his marketable name to his one-time film protégé. If there was any influence at all, it was only in the fearless iconoclasm. But where Warhol unleashed prints of Campbell’s soup cans and film portraits, Flesh for Frankenstein gives us an incestuous Baron and Baroness Frankenstein, more disembowelment than you can shake a stick at, necrophilia and a comedy of errors involving decapitation. And did I mention it was originally in 3D? Spacevision 3D, to be precise, so we have a strange number of shots in which a character holds an item directly towards the camera (or in one notable instance, thrusts a massive bolt cutter forward).
The plot is practically incidental to the grotesqueness. Baron Frankenstein, played by a fantastically unhinged Udo Kier, is in search of the perfect Serbian head to complete his male monster (the female already being a source of his lusts, as played by the improbably beautiful Dalila di Lazzaro). The Baroness (Monique Van Vooren), on the other hand, finds herself chronically sexually dissatisfied with her brother, while two peasants (Joe Dallesandro and Srdjan Zelenovic) visit a whorehouse with spectacularly bad timing. In addition, there’s a creepy pair of children that wander silently in and out of the movie, Arno Jeurging as a sniveling Igor-equivalent and full frontal male nudity. If any of it sounds over the top, it’s because it’s so over the top that it was likely never under it. The Baron rants and screams in his search for the perfect nasum, Dallesandro’s Nicholas grows more and more suspicious of the weird family in the castle, and it all comes down to a stack of corpses in the finale.
The ridiculousness of Flesh for Frankenstein is, fortunately, also its saving grace. Unlike so many camp films that trample over the tropes that gave them life, Flesh is clearly the loving child of I Vampiri and Dario Argento. Morrissey handles his characters with care, displaying not only their insanity and inanity but also shooting them like true movie stars. Everyone is beautiful and everything is gothic. From the shadowy castle of Frankenstein to the cavernously bright lab, every scene is constructed for utmost dramatic impact, even if the cumulative effect of all the drama is a giggle.
If there’s a moral lesson under all the gore and guts, it’s a stern word on the nature of love and desire; not exactly what you’d expect from a horror parody. Whole treatises could be written, only somewhat facetiously, on the racial, sexual, and political aspects of Flesh for Frankenstein, but why bother? It’s all there on the surface, and that’s the movie’s true greatness. It never tries to be more than it is: good, gory fun.
by Nathan Kamal