Thinking it would be as entertaining as Blacula (1972), I’ve wanted to watch Blackenstein aka The Black Frankenstein (1973) for some time now. It seems odd to say I was disappointed after finally seeing it; what could I really have expected? Well, maybe some clever writing, effective direction, and sly acting? If Blacula could do it, why couldn’t Blackenstein? Examining the credits for both, I can only assume that it’s because American International Pictures (AIP) made and released the former, while having nothing to do with the latter. Neither film had writers or directors that were particularly famous for making anything else, but Blacula had Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson as producers.
Blackenstein has a more interesting off screen story than it does on screen… scarier, too. Writer-producer Frank R. Saletri was a criminal lawyer who cast two of the roles with clients of his. Joe De Sue plays the lead, Eddie Turner, a quadriplegic Viet Nam vet turned monster, and Liz Renay has a cameo as one half of “Couple in Bed.” In 1982, Saletri was the victim of a gangland-style murder in his home, which happened to be a mansion formerly owned by Bela Lugosi. The Universal Monsters connection doesn’t stop there. In his lab, Dr. Stein (John Hart) uses electrical equipment used in Frankenstein (1931).
The equipment is nice, but it’s used on either a set or warehouse space with a flat back curtain or wall. Shadows of the devices are cast behind, which only emphasizes that there’s no substance or texture to the surroundings, but adds no atmosphere. Director William A. Levey has fun with the camera, as if testing what all he can do with it by keeping it moving. At first I liked this; it caused me to think I was about to experience a decent movie. However, it grew old because he didn’t have the restraint to use camera trickery sparingly or to judiciously choose the moments in which he could maximize the effect.
Blackenstein is based only loosely on the Frankenstein legend we know and love. Stein doesn’t rob from graves or assemble bodies from spare parts. He’s a Nobel Peace Prize-winning for “solving the DNA genetic code” that works with limb replacement and anti-aging therapies. (And he looks like Dick Van Dyke from his Diagnosis Murder days.) Former student, Dr. Winifred Walker, PhD (Ivory Stone), visits Stein and asks him to help restore her fiancée, Eddie Turner, to his former self. Stein’s jealous assistant, Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson), sabotages Turner’s treatment because he’s in love with Winifred.
All right, there have been similarly trite set-ups in horror movies over the years. Surely with that out of the way, Eddie can turn into a monster and start wreaking some havoc. First he says, “I don’t feel right,” as his brow thickens and hair grows on the back of his hand. We never get a really good look at the monster Eddie becomes, and that’s a good thing. What we do see looks like a lumbering giant with an Afro that’s been cut into a perfect square. I couldn’t help but think of Edward Scissorhands with its wonderfully carved topiaries. The Eddie-monster’s first item of business is to pay back the orderly that was cruel to him at the hospital.
Oh, and at some point, Eddie suddenly sports a black suit and shiny black boots. We see many shots of these boots as they shuffle around the area. Eddie’s kills aren’t particularly gory or thrilling; however, he ends almost all of them by squeezing his victim’s intestines. (It looks like he’s massaging sausages.) If suspense had been building, it would have stopped cold during a third-act scene in which Eddie lurks outside a nightclub. We take a break inside with a little stand-up comedy and a song. This is the “blackest” part of a Blaxploitation movie that has very little to do with race or bigotry.
In the end, it’s just another low budget 1970s horror movie. Perhaps if had fared better, we’d have the good fortune to see production of two of Frank R. Saletri’s un-filmed scripts, “Sherlock Holmes in the Adventures of the Werewolf of the Baskervilles” and “Sherlock Holmes in the Adventures of the Golden Vampire.” (The latter was supposedly going to star Alice Cooper.) With those titles alone, Saletri had some creativity in him. It’s just not displayed in Blackenstein. And we’ll never see a monster rally with Abby, Blacula, Dr. Black/Mr. Hyde, and J.D., which we’d call, of course, “House of Blackenstein.”
Written by Frank R. Saletri
Directed by William A. Levey
Starring John Hart, Ivory Stone, Joe De Sue, Roosevelt Jackson, Andrea King, Nick Bolin
RT 87 min.
Home Video Severin Films (Blu-ray)