Flesh for Frankenstein
Written and directed by Paul Morrissey with Andy Warhol’s usual protean aesthetics, warping from Gothic decay to pop-art satire in the span of seconds, Flesh for Frankenstein is an altogether bedeviling concoction. With a screenplay that unearths the corpse of Mary Shelley only to desecrate (and defecate) all over it (the film received uncredited help from Tonino Guerra, on sabbatical from writing films for Antonioni and Fellini of all people), the film makes Hammer Horror, cascading into blissful nothingness around this time, look positively jejune by comparison. It’s all sorts of lunacy as a script and even more slithering and content to make mincemeat out of social mores as a visual product. It’s no surprise that it turned Warhol into a pariah of sorts – it has no interest in conforming to social propriety – but it remains a relative highlight of his short but intoxicatingly warped career as a producer of verboten feature films.
Retaining the novel’s interest on madness and dominance, Flesh’s Baron von Frankenstein (Udo Kier) brings a withheld sexual lust for his corpses and an arrant aristocratic sensibility to the table. Married to his sister Baroness Katrin Frankenstein (Monique van Vooren), arguably even more bilious in her disregard for anyone of lower class, the good Baron’s experiments extend well beyond the feckless regions of merely reanimating dead flesh. Instead, he wants to create nothing less than the perfect Serbian national out of revamped body parts from different corpses to feed not only his ego but his sensibilities as a nationalist, Aryan martinet.
Replete with necrophilia and sexual deviance, the film absolutely refuses to hedge any of its schadenfreude. Filmed on the cheap, the stockiness of the sets only buttresses the film on its path to cultish outsider art, although the slurry of devious sexual energy it brings to the Frankenstein story no doubt plays its part on that front as well. Criticize it for moral turpitude if you so wish, but only at the cost of admitting the film works as a sort of palimpsest of the original Frankenstein upon which an almost anti-comedic dose of lurid satire of bourgeois values has been appended. In this sense, Warhol and Morrissey’s film deepens through debasement, honing in on, perverting, and retexturing Mary Shelley’s original critique of masculine liberalism’s hubristic presumptions about controlling and mastering life itself.
Opening with a couple of children whose silence is matched only by their capacity for malfeasance (rivaling the gang of ghouls that opens Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch), the saturnine, wordless youths become automatons through which the film’s interest in the relativity of life and death can be divined. The children, perpetually submissive and devoid of a voice of their own, are Frankensteinian in their cold, calculating and zombielike demeanor. Exhibiting less life than the recently decapitated head of a man or his flailing, blood-expunging corpse, the children hint at a film perpetually fixated on the ways that the dead can display more vivacity than the ostensibly living. In contrast, Udo Kier’s Germanic doctor is a twisty, supercilious behemoth of coiled intensity let loose to overact until his humanity no longer relates to us as “human” at all. Like his children, his uncanny qualities are somehow sub-human, but the former figures tacitly expose the linkages between normal biological reproduction and the need to “control” the future under the guise of “creation”. They, like machines, seem to exist in a state of electronic, mandatory submission or preconsciousness, as marionettes which expose uncomfortable anxieties about the limits of agency/consciousness and the proverbial puppetmasters which indoctrinate us and thereby defeat the myth of free-will.
Funny, anti-funny, take your pick, but Flesh boasts a whimsical identity all its own. It’s an imperious ruse on paper, and on celluloid, the results have inspired more than their fair share of churlish invective over the years; would that this reputation were a complete canard. It is a pity, however, that the film lets itself get lost in some of its noxious fumes, giving way to a tired fervor of rampant anti-social proclivities that eventually come to exist simply against social propriety, rather than for any identity of its own. The initial impression the film makes wanes as it eventually stumbles into a rhythm of upending social expectation only to lose track of why, and maybe what, it was upending in the first place. A pointed, purposeful glutton of gruesomeness in the opening portions eventually ossifies into a less challenging, more surface-level pastiche of viscous but comparatively pointless blood and putrescence. But, for the most part, Flesh receives so many points for playing in the dark, that it doesn’t always have to find the light.
Blood for Dracula
If Flesh was a display of the errant Andy Warhol’s energetic personal interests and writer-director Paul Morrissey’s outre sensibilities in multiple positions, the follow-up Blood for Dracula absolutely absconds with Flesh in every way. While Flesh is eventually enervated by its own sense of unending foul play, the more cogent Blood never loses sight of its initial energy. An enhanced Marxian bent defrays some of the eventually torpor-inducing violence of Flesh, not so much reducing the tenacity of the violence as focusing it into a more politically-charged, socially-affronted burst of toxic polemical.
Arguably, the relative scrappiness of Blood compared to Flesh ends up a more venial complaint than one might presume, if not an outright positive. Lacking a set-in-stone script and left with fewer days to shoot, extraneous material is expunged in favor of a tighter work as sharp as Dracula’s incisors. With the filming limited to the leftover time from the production of Flesh (the crew decided to stage an impromptu film when production on Flesh wrapped early), there was less room to overabundantly fill in scene after scene of repetitive material. Themes were developed on the fly and advantageously expressed with a reticence not applicable to Flesh. Whatever the reason, Blood is an altogether more compact work without any of the coagulation of its predecessor; the sanguine flows freely, and we can all be more sanguine as a result.
Blood’s value is that it realizes just letting the blood flow is a sinecure – anyone can do it, and it pays dividends. The blood flowing toward, I don’t know, a crypto-comic exercise in truculent Marxian social dynamics? Now that’s much more exciting indeed, even if part of the appeal for a work like Blood is its artlessness. Even the introduction displays a clarifying of duplicitous craft. A languid shot of Udo Kier vaingloriously watching himself as he applies black tar to his hair to de-age his immortal corpse, the introduction already predisposes the film to external questions of artifice and image-obsession in horror, quantifying the genre’s nerve endings in concerns about the human body and the human image. With all horror in some form relying on the disruption, or the perceived disruption, of conceptions of the self, Blood cuts to the chase far more readily than the sometimes maundering Flesh ever did. The few moments of commentary on the diligence with which vampires look at themselves in mirrors in hopes of producing an image of themselves – despite, of course, being unable to see anything in the mirror at all – are worth the price of admission alone.
Following the trend set by the opening, the rest of the film remains vastly more attuned to questions of the choleric aristocracy clinging to fetal notions of status quo and external image. The antic angst of the script is clearly more hinged to verifiable questions of prosaic and proletarian politics, providing legitimately contradictory, vocal points of view for characters (especially women). The haughty character acting, as supercilious as the actors’ finest Germanic expressions could afford, is calibrated to mocking the ascetic class dynamics inherent to falsely erudite norms of speech and delivery (the dock-working Italian Bwrooklyn-ite line delivery of the chief servant is a delicious slice of absurdist Americana inserted into a film whose sharpest humor derives from how hyperbolic its Europeanization is). Certainly, it says something about Blood’s success that its fetishization of rabid, full-bodied, self-reflexive rape imagery, often latent in vampire films but never more blunt than here, is not first or second on the list of the film’s vicious, pointed habits, but tied with many more worthwhile gestures.
It’s possible that fulfilling the shock-the-squares regimen of Flesh paved way for the more politically-radical interests of the crew, but whatever the reason, the vestigial social concerns of Flesh are pushed right to the forefront of this follow-up. Both Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula utilize screw-loose filmmaking to insert themselves into the august tradition of screwing with the man. But if Flesh’s screws are sanded off into blunt neck-bolts, Blood’s screws are laser-focused fangs. Plus, you know, Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanski obviously found something of value in it, so how bad can it be?