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A brief history of faux-Frankensteins

Tim here. All this talk of the great-looking movies we can’t wait to see, and the Sundance crop of interesting (or semi-interesting, or bad) indie films is pulling focus from the reality of filmgoing as most of us live it. Which is that it’s January, and unless you’re still cleaning off the last end-of-year films as they trickle out into medium-wide release, the options for seeing a movie in theaters right now are dire.

Case in point, tomorrow finds the release of I, Frankenstein, which, if I’m being honest, is very much I movie I’ve been looking forward to as much as anything on my official We Can’t Wait ballot, though for entirely different reasons: the combination of Frankenstein, demons, and chiseled abs promises bad movie awesomeness of a sort that I don’t expect to be replicated anytime soon.

It’s not the first nominal Frankenstein adaptation to go so far afield from the source material, either; not even the first outrageously bad one. There is a grand tradition of Frankenstein-derived films so utterly bizarre and off-the-wall and divorced from Shelley that they make I, Frankenstein look dull, sedate, and conventional. After the jump, let's take a quick look at some of the strangest.

The most artistically successful of all these off-kilter Frankenstein "adaptations" is, to my mind, 1973's Flesh for Frankenstein, a Paul Morrissey film that spent much of its life being marketed to make you think that Andy Warhol made it. It’s a campy 3-D satire of European upper class mores and sexual behavior with so much outlandish gore that it made it onto the notorious Video Nasties list in Britain in the 1980s, all of which means that it has an extremely small natural audience. Fortunately, it’s also pretty hilarious, intentionally so, especially with Udo Kier playing Baron Frankenstein in an all-out register of hammy theatricality that blows away anything else in the spectactularly over-the-top actor’s career. Nowhere else, anyway, do you get to hear him forcefully exclaim that to know deat, you have to f*** death, in the gall bladder.

Just as hilarious, and certainly not intentionally, is the microscopically-budgeted 1971 indie Dracula vs. Frankenstein – it’s amazing that it took that long for that title to get used up – in which director Al Adamson tried to salvage footage from an aborted mad scientist-slash-biker movie by throwing Dracula and the last descendant of Dr. Frankenstein at it. It’s so bad in every regard that it’s almost beautiful: that anything resembling narrative coherence could be assembled from the obviously limited resources available to Adamson and his team is honestly a bit impressive. Mind you, the mere fact that a biker gang is involved should go some way to explaining how this “resembles” narrative coherence, and nothing more than that. The acting and the production are frequently at a low enough level that it tends to resemble outsider art more than a real movie, even with horror mainstays J. Carrol Naish and Lon Chaney, Jr. making their final appearances.

I have saved the absolutely most out-there Frankenstein adaptation of all for last: Toho, the Japanese company responsible for the Godzilla films, created a pair of giant monster movies in 1965 and ’66 titled, in English, Frankenstein Conquers the World and War of the Gargantuas, that are easily the most peculiar versions of Shelley’s creature. The idea is that the monster created by Frankenstein in the 19th Century had an immortal heart that formed the basis for many Nazi experiments during the war, and as the Axis was in the process of loosing, they hid the organ in Japan. Specifically, in Hiroshima. Following the bomb, for reasons not clarified, the heart ends up creating a new Frankenstein monster that grows into a giant, and fights the subterranean monster Baraga, because if you gone that far, it would be a shame not to put in a giant lizard.

Impressively, the sequel ends up making even less sense (particularly in the English dub, which erases the Frankenstein backstory without replacing it with something else), involving a pair of Frankenestein monster clones, one of which maybe grew out of the hand of the one from the first movie. It’s all dizzying and random and colorful in the very particular way of Japanese popcorn movies in the mid-‘60s, and the latter film especially is like being plunged into someone else’s insanity and forced to figure out it from inside.

That’s only scratching the surface; I didn’t even have room for Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, Blackenestein (which in addition to being an off-book adaptation, is probably the most boring of all Frankenstein movies), or Lady Frankenstein. But it’s hopefully enough to put young I, Frankenstein in its proper historical context: the latest terrible and bizarre Frankenstein movie of many, and not even so bizarre as all that; once you’ve put the monster in the Wild West or witnessed Udo Kier giving a monologue with a pole through his intenstines, Aaron Eckhart’s scowling, prettified FrankenAbs seems a lot less exceptional.

As I said, though, there’s a lot left to talk about. What are your favorite non-traditional Frankenstein movies?

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Reader Comments (5)

It's so sad that the movie gods wasted Aaron Eckhart being THAT RIPPED on something this obviously bad.

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

I feel bad for Aaron Eckhart the moment it was clear he would not be in the third Batman movie. Considering all the 'noble lies' at the end of The Dark Knight, it was not completely out of the question that Two-Face was still alive. Heck, I broke down 'clues' as to why it could be that Two-Face could easily be alive. Whoa, all of 2008 came back to me in that moment!

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Eckhart gave his best performance in "The Dark Knight". He should've been nominated for the Oscar instead of Downey Jr. or Michael Shannon (who should've been nominated for "Bug" or "Take shelter").

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

Predicting a major flop on this one. You never know, though. Stranger things have happened. Just find it odd that Eckhart says that he read the script and was really drawn to the project. If this flops, he may want to rethink his management.

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAriesMatt

Every time that picture pops up, I can't help but staring at it for a long time.
I fully agree with TB.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

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