Flesh of Frankenstein (1973)
Directed by Paul Morrissey
Screening in 35mm at Midnite: Friday, September 5 & Saturday, September 6
“There is no such thing as a Frankenstein, there are only Frankensteins, as the text is ceaselessly rewritten, reproduced, refilmed, and redesigned” – Paul O’Flinn in his essay ‘The Case of Frankenstein'”
Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation (often miscalled “Frankenstein”) have seen many iterations of themselves since Mary Shelley first wrote her gothic novel Frankenstein in 1818. Morphing through mediums of literature, theater, film and then television series, commercials, cereals, etc., the “monster” has become the very essence of re-generation – from his “birth” to his cultural evolvement. Flesh for Frankenstein (or Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein) is one of the more unique adaptations of the story, seemingly culling from elements of the book, James Whale’s Frankenstein and more particularly Bride of Frankenstein, and socio-political/cultural constructs of the early 1970s. Like its predecessors, Flesh for Frankenstein deals with a shift in society, mimicking how the creation of the “new” (mainly gender and sexual orientation here) is portrayed as destructive.
To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gallbladder – Frankenstein
Let it not be mistaken, Flesh for Frankenstein (directed by Paul Morrissey and produced by Andy Warhol) is a camp affair full of over acting, over-the-top gore, and beautiful, beautiful people (the monster is no hideous and unnamable creature here). Udo Kier is beyond fabulous in his dogmatic and outlandish portrayal of a man obsessed with creating the perfect person. This film certainly doesn’t tackled Frankenstein and his monsters, called more appropriately post-George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) “zombies”, in a conventional way but that, in itself, is quite inventive. This Frankenstein is about sex: beauty, the male/female gaze, suggestion, power, and agency. It’s also a little bit crazy but, let’s face it, that’s what makes it so damn good.
“…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded; it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself.” – Mary Shelley, 1931 Introduction to Frankenstein
Flesh for Frankenstein re-iterates Dr. Pretorius’ toast to “a new world of gods and monsters” in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in that the motivation for the Baron to construct new life is not, as in the novel, to see if it can be done but to rather build a “super race” of beautiful people under control of one man…himself, the creator. Smell the underpinnings of Nazism and megalomania? In her essay “Here Comes the Bride”, Elizabeth Young says that Bride of Frankenstein “refracts a series of social anxieties involving gender, sexuality, and race.” The same could be said for Flesh of Frankenstein’s representation of unconventional relationships: the Baron and his wife are actually brother and sister (a playful riff off the novel in which Frankenstein plans to marry his adopted sister), the aging wife takes on “lower class” lovers, the monster was a man who preferred celibacy and who certainly doesn’t like woman in that way, and the Baron…well, he gets off, quite literally, on body parts. These characters are all sexually free in their choices of mates – to have one or to not – and each character’s body is the site of exploitation. Also, the men in this film are ridiculously good looking, objects of desire, reverting the male gaze towards the male, implicitly homoerotic. (Historical note: it is widely considered that Dr. Pretorius was one of the first gay characters in cinema).
To continue to draw from Bride of Frankenstein, the narrative here centers around a mate for the monster. Unrealized in the novel due to Frankenstein’s crash of conscience but the impetus for Bride of Frankenstein but both born from the monster’s desire to be loved, here the mates are simultaneously created for each other. Unfortunately, in another role reversal here, the female is rejected by the male. In an interesting theory that the actual head of a person contains sexual prowess (one would think of the other “head”), Frankenstein mistakingly chooses a man uninterested in women or sex. So while others, including his filmic bride, reject the monster, here it is the monster who not only rejects his female counterpart but the system as a whole. He has, surprisingly, retained his sense of morality and individuality and is the one who, ultimately, brings it all crashing down.
“…by transforming the competitive force of male rivalry into a subversive mode of male homoeroticism and by undermining its apparent demonization of women with a final, fleeting moment of female power” – Elizabeth Young
Flesh of Frankenstein ends on a similarly empowering note. First power is assumed by the monster, killing his creators/exploiters and destroying himself, but then it passes to the two remaining Frankensteins…the children. In an ambiguous closing scene, the unspoken daughter (played by Nicoletta Elmi, prolific for playing the daughter in 1970s Italian horror movies like Profondo Rosso, Twitch of the Death Nerve, Who Saw Her Die) and son pull out scalpels while heading towards their mother’s former lover, still alive, hanging from the ceiling. We’re left to wonder – will the cycle of destruction and reconstruction live on in the children? Incestuously building their own monsters, housed and isolated within the castle walls?