Movie: Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Rasalba Neri plays the title character in 1971’s Lady Frankenstein, a role that is mad scientist-y enough for a man but made for a woman.

She is obviously solidly of Italian descent, but is inexplicably the daughter of that deeply American staple of cinema Joseph Cotten.  He will be out of this picture before too long, and I like to think he literally laughed all the way to bank to cash that check for his brief performance as Dr. Frankenstein. This is only after he had created a monster that has escaped and is causing mayhem, and I will get to that more in a bit.

So now Neri can continue her father’s deranged reanimation experiments at her leisure.  The main thing I liked about this picture is how head-strong she is and that she is a licensed surgeon.  As she told dad at some point before his demise, “Will you stop treating me like a child?  I’m a doctor—a surgeon.”

But her motives are bit different from her father’s, and from that of most men in such roles in the past.  She doesn’t just want to create a man, she wants to create one to sufficiently get her freak on with, foretelling The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

One element of her plan that stretched credibility for me was Paul Muller’s unhesitant acceptance of her plan to put his brain into the body of a young stud, played by Marino Masé.  You see, she’s in love with the mind of Muller, who was her father’s assistant, but would he mind if that grey matter was in a hotter bod?  Just imagine how this plot development would go over today, and if it was a male scientist asking this of a woman.

Even skeezier is, by using Masé, she is destroying a mentally challenged man.  In what is, by far, the most questionable scene in the movie, she is straddling the man in coital bliss while Muller suffocates the poor man with a pillow.  That she really gets off on this was disturbing enough to take me out of the film for a moment.  It’s a shame it doesn’t show her reaction to the doubtless evacuation of the dead man’s bowels.

As one has likely assumed by now, this is a very gruesome movie, though largely conceptually and not in the actual gore displayed.  There’s a lot of blood, but it is as bright and unrealistic as tempura paint. Then there’s the mask on the face of the monster Cotten created, and it is hilariously unrealistic.  A dead give-away that the disfigured face of the dead man isn’t real is a bulging eye forever locked into one position and always open.

Cotten’s creature is allegedly the real reason Neri wants to create her own.  Nobody in the village can stop its rampage, so it is up to her to instigate what I can only assume was the concept the producers used to get funding: Frankenstein vs Frankenstein. 

There is an odd scene where Cotten’s creature makes his first kill.  The monster stumbles upon a couple about to do the horizontal mambo in a field in broad daylight.  Some aspect of the film is telegraphed by the woman being fully naked while the guy is fully clothed.  Apparently, the monster is all judge-y and Puritanical, as he kills the woman and drops her corpse in a nearby pond.  I suspect the latter was meant to reference/parody the scene in the original Frankenstein where the creature unintentionally drowned a little girl.

Anywho, there’s a lot more female nudity where that came from.  I always find it astonishing in films like this that the only women who are shown sans clothing are in remarkable shape and appearance. They are of such startling contrast to all the other females in the village as to make one think the nude ones must be visitors just passing through.  That, and the men they are getting sexy time with are almost always butt ugly, so I hope these actresses got hazard pay.  As a police inspector says of a deeply gross guy whom he interrupts in flagrante delicto with an improbably buxom blond: “I’ll leave you to your…whatever a man like you calls it.”

That police officer is played by Mickey Hargitay, an actor really best known for being married to Jayne Mansfield and siring Mariska Hargitay with her.  The guy’s acting has always been little more than functional, but he is actually pretty solid here.  It may be the best performance I have seen of his where he is fully committed instead of undercutting it with a knowing wink.

I liked Lady Frankenstein more than what I suspect most would assume from this essay.  It is cheap and trashy, but the performances of Neri, Muller and Hargitay raise it a bit above the camp.  That said, there are the camp elements, and those are enjoyable to varying extents.  I just wonder if Flesh for Frankenstein director Paul Morrissey was taking notes and wondering how it make something less tasteful.

Dir: Mel Welles

Starring: Roberta Neri, Joseph Cotten, Paul Muller

Watched as part of Severin’s blu-ray box set Danza Macabra: Italian Gothic Collection Volume 1