Trying to introduce the everyday filmgoer or even a moderate horror buff to the bizarre cinema of Jess Franco is not always an easy thing to do. It might be easier to push a Franco film on someone if it deals with the legend of Frankenstein, one of the most beloved and popular subjects of fantastic lore. And yes, Franco’s second take on Frankenstein is an unusual one to say the least, like a wink and a nod to Universal and Hammer mixed with a few cocktails and a hit of acid. The title in question, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (aka THE RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) now arrives on Blu-ray in its full strength, director-preferred French version.
A red-cheeked, bloated Baron Frankenstein (Dennis Price, THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR) has just electrically shocked his shiny, silvery-skinned monster (Fernando Bilbao, THE VAMPIRES’ NIGHT ORGY) into the power of speech (“It hurts, It hurts,” he cries!). Shortly after, Frankenstein’s lab is raided by the hulking henchman Caronte (Luis Barboo, THE LORELEY’S GRASP) and Melissa (Anne Libert, THE DEMONS), a cannibalistic “bird woman” who is blind, makes odd chirping noises, has a few green feathers glued to her under-cape naked self, and has a set of claws that look like they were taken from an oversized “Sesame Street” Muppet. Caronte and Melissa leave Frankenstein for dead, as they bring the monster to the castle of their master Cagliostro (Howard Vernon, THE BLOODY JUDGE), an evil, undead sorcerer who can control minds, and whose home is filled with freaky, gawking guests decked in gaudy Halloween costumes (one looks suspiciously like a “Star Trek” Vulcan!).
Frankenstein is presumed dead, and his daughter Vera (Beatriz Savón, THE LONELY WOMAN) arrives in town to dig up and reanimate her father just enough to find out that his monster is on the loose and under the control of Cagliostro. The concerned Dr. Seward (Albert Dalbés, THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE) spoke to Frankenstein before his death, and knows about his monster, so he’s investigating the situation as well, periodically paying visits on Vera. Vera tracks down the monster and stops him from abducting an artist’s model (Doris Thomas, SINNER: THE SECRET DIARY OF A NYMPHOMANIAC), but soon after, Frankenstein’s creation is back in control of Cagliostro and then has the daughter under his spell. Cagliostro’s ultimate goal is to create a female for the monster to mate with, using an abducted woman from the town named Madame Orloff (the gorgeous Britt Nichols star of Franco’s DAUGHTER OF DRACULA and A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD). More orgy-type torture and shenanigans follow in the depraved castle, and it’s up to the good Dr. Seward to put a stop to it!
A French production, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN is an oddball addition to the extensive list of films based on Mary Shelley’s handiwork, and although it’s cheap, crude, and just plain weird, there’s hardly a dull moment on the screen and it’s chock full of nudity and kinkiness. Franco shot this one in Portugal and gets around the poor budget by filming in and around gothic castles, old houses and scenic landscapes, making for a picturesque period piece, albeit a far-out one. The monster’s make-up is in the Karloff square-head mold, but his face and shirtless torso are painted in a shiny metallic, and it’s amusing to see it rubbing off of the beefy Bilbao in some scenes. Dennis Price was towards the end of his life and looks terrible – but you can’t help but giggle at him in pasty face make-up as he spasms on the operating table, most likely waiting for Franco to shout “cut” so he could take a swig at his flask. You have to wonder if the lines of dialogue he spurts out were even from the actual shooting script, as his voice was dubbed by another actor in all known versions of the film.
The film is loaded with other Franco regulars, who are well cast in the cinematic delirium, with Franco himself playing Frankenstein’s sinister longhaired assistant Morpho and composer Daniel White (who provides a rather strange, experimental score here) appearing as a police inspector aiding Dr. Seward. Over the top circumstances, such as someone instantly losing extremities after a splashing of sulfuric acid, as well as the amusing dismemberment of Madame Orloff’s living head, makes this colorful exercise in absurdity resembling a 1970s European sexy horror comic. Shortly before this, Franco had lensed DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (aka DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN, THE SCREAMING DEAD) which is sort of an unrelated prequel that uses much of the same cast, including Price, Bilbao (with much different monster make-up) and Dalbés in the same roles, and Vernon as Dracula. As mentioned, this is the French version of the film with all the nudity missing from the “alternate clothed” Spanish version reinstated. The Spanish version was padded out with scenes featuring a very young Lina Romay in a subplot about a gypsy girl who hears voices from beyond and converses with an ancient woman – these scenes go nowhere but certainly upped the running time, making it about ten minutes longer.
Some years ago, the German company X-Rated Kult released the less desirable Spanish cut, and the same version of the film reached these shores via a 2005 DVD release from Image Entertainment (the unclothed bits were provided as an extra, culled from a bootleg video source). For this Redemption/Kino Lorber Blu-ray release, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (the actual title on-screen is “La Malediction de Frankenstein”) has been mastered in HD from the original 35mm negative, presenting the film in 1080p in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. For the most part, the transfer looks very good, full of detail especially noticeable during some of the night scenes which were way too dark in previous transfers. The Eastman colors never really pop out, looking quite dull in a handful of interior scenes, but they are stable for the most part and especially distinct during the wild, key scenes that take place in Cagliostro's castle. Close-ups have an adequate amount of facial character, with occasional softness which likely stems from the original cinematography, and black levels also look good. There is some fleeting dirt and debris on the negative source, but it’s nothing too distracting. As Tim Lucas points out in his commentary, this restored, corrected transfer has the day-for-night scenes looking as they should, unlike in previous VHS and DVD presentations. The film comes with two audio options, a LPCM 2.0 mix in English (featuring Vernon’s actual voice) and a LPCM 2.0 French track with optional English subtitles. Both tracks appear to be balanced well with dialog always coming through clearly. At a swift 74 minutes, this full strength French version (without those added gypsy scenes only in the Spanish cut) has a number of “unclothed” bits not in the previous Image DVD including a nude glimpse at an artist’s model, the totally in-the-buff Savón and Barboo being flogged by the monster over a bed of spikes, Libert’s mostly nude bird woman running amok, Nichols showing off their luscious body (mostly when strapped down to the operating table in the raw, waiting to be mated with the monster), a sequence where two naked sorcerer groupies are kicked out of Cagliostro’s bedroom chamber, and more.
Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas (who also wrote the out-of-print hardcover Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco) provides another solid commentary, starting off by stating that the film was one of nine Franco-directed film released in 1972. He talks about the film’s shoot in Portugal (using many of the same locations used in A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD) gives background information on the film (and its relation to the Frankenstein legend in popular culture), points out scenes where Franco was actually did the camera work, shares trivia about the cast and crew and points the differences between the French and Spanish versions (the latter which wasn’t released until 1974). Lucas fills the 74-minute running time most engagingly, almost always keeping on the subject of the “Franco universe”, remarking that Franco’s intent here was to make the film “surreal and silly”. The original French trailer (3:23) is included, and if you switch to the secondary audio track, Lucas gives a commentary on it, pointing out that the trailer is made up almost entirely of alternate footage not in the final film (including an effects shot which didn’t work) and he makes some quick comments in the short time allotted. (George R. Reis)
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