Lady Frankenstein directed by Mel WellesLady Frankenstein directed by Mel Welles

Lady Frankenstein directed by Mel WellesOf all the great quotes ever uttered by Hollywood royalty, one of my favorites has long been a line that was uttered by the great Virginia-born actor Joseph Cotten, who once said, “Orson Welles lists

Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt, and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man … and I’m in all of them!” And it’s so true … Cotten, at the height of his career, got to work with the cream of Hollywood, and appeared in some of the very finest pictures of the age. But as the actor got older, he found, as had so many before him, that the availability of choice roles was limited (you might recall that the great Basil Rathbone’s final film was, uh, 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House!), and during his final decade, he perforce appeared in any number of questionable/outre projects. Case in point: the 1971 Italian film Lady Frankenstein, in which Cotten not only played the infamous baron, but appeared in a role that was snuffed out before the film was even halfway done. But to be honest, Cotten’s participation in this film was not my primary reason for seeking it out. Rather, it was a picture that I had long wanted to see because it happens to star one of my very favorite “Eurobabe actresses” from that great decade, Rosalba Neri, who, along with Edwige Fenech and Barbara Bouchet, might be said to comprise three of the most alluring “psychotronic” female performers that the Continent has ever produced. I had previously enjoyed watching the gorgeous Rosalba in such pictures as 99 Women (a women’s prison film from 1969); two giallo outings, Slaughter Hotel (’71) and The French Sex Murders (’72); and the truly bizarre horror excursion The Devil’s Wedding Night (’73). The prospect of seeing the beautiful Italian actress in a film in which she was the indubitable leading lady was too much for this viewer to resist.

In the film, the good baron and his UNhunchbacked assistant, Dr. Charles Marshall (Swiss actor Paul Muller, whose work I had previously enjoyed in ‘57’s I Vampiri, ‘65’s Nightmare Castle, and ‘69’s Venus in Furs and Vampyros Lesbos), are very close to achieving their goal: breathing life into a synthetic man. When Marshall questions the morality of the work that they are engaged in, the baron replies, with some asperity, “Here on Earth, man is God!” On the night of a tremendous thunderstorm, they attach their synthetic construct to a lightning conductor, and allow the heavenly bolts to animate the brain that they had just placed into the noggin of their creation … the brain of a recently hanged murderer, which Marshall had cautioned evinced signs of having a damaged hypothalamus. The lightning not only brings their creation to life — “Man’s will be done!” the baron amusingly declares in triumph — but manages to burn the creature’s face pretty badly, causing the giant, bald hulk (played by the absolutely enormous Riccardo Pizzuti) to have a hideously scarred appearance, with one eye bulging out of its socket. The creature wastes little time in killing the baron with a murderous bear hug, escaping from the lab, and going on a killing rampage throughout the countryside, leaving Marshall at a loss as to how to proceed.

Lady Frankenstein directed by Mel WellesFortunately for him, the baron’s daughter, Tania, played by Rosalba, has just returned to the ancestral Frankenstein castle from her studies abroad, and is now a fully qualified lady surgeon … something of a rarity in the Europe of the 1800s! Tania’s plan is to blame her father’s death on a robber, an explanation that the local magistrate, Captain Harris (Budapest-born actor, former Mr. Universe and one-time husband of Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay, whose work in 1965’s Bloody Pit of Horror had been so enjoyable), does not believe for a minute. Tania also tells Marshall that she wishes to build another creature, for two reasons: (1) to prove to the world that her father was a genius, and (2) so that this second creature will be able to go out and destroy the first. But there is an even more important consideration here. Since Marshall, a very intelligent man in a body that is decidedly on the wrong side of middle age, is in love with her, and since she desires the hunky body of handsome but intellectually challenged (I believe that is the PC term for the condition these days) stableboy Thomas (Marino Mase, who had also appeared in Nightmare Castle and would go on to appear in the truly superb giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times the following year), what better solution than to place Marshall’s brilliant brain in Thomas’ dreamy body, and thus create for herself the perfect man? And, in a flabbergasting climax, Lady F. does indeed carry through with this program, and with jaw-dropping results…

Ever since its release in Italy in October ’71 (it would be first shown in the U.S. five months later), Lady Frankenstein has not seemed to enjoy a very good reputation, and indeed, I see that the esteemed Maltin Movie Guide (which has historically shown little tolerance for this sort of genre fare) has chosen to award it with its lowest BOMB rating. And this, to me, seems inexplicable. As far as I am concerned, having just watched the director’s cut of the movie for the first time, this film sports some very fine production values — the sets are often quite stunning to behold — beautiful color, decent acting, and a fine script. The film was directed by NYC-born Mel Welles, of all people, who had played flower shop owner Gravis Mushnik in the 1960 classic Little Shop of Horrors, and he does a surprisingly effective job here in his third go behind the camera (‘65’s Our Man in Jamaica and ‘67’s Maneater of Hydra had been his two earlier films), although one would never dare to compare Mel Welles’ skills as a director to Orson Welles’! The film’s screenplay, by Edward di Lorenzo, who would go on to do mainly TV work, is both fascinating and oftentimes amusing, and the background music by the great Alessandro Alessandroni (who had so impressed me in such films as ‘71’s The Devil’s Nightmare and ‘78’s Killer Nun) goes far in creating an unsettling mood. The camerawork of cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini (who had also worked on such Italian wonders as ‘64’s Castle of Blood, ‘65’s The Long Hair of Death and ‘67’s The Snow Devils) is often beautiful to look at, and as I said, the sets are handsome and convincingly Victorian. The supporting players are all uniformly fine, especially Austrian actor Herbert Fux (from 1970’s Mark of the Devil) as the sleazy grave robber Tom Lynch. (And not for nothing, I wish my name were Herbert Fux!)

Lady Frankenstein, at least in the director’s cut that is now available, sports any number of yucky gross-out moments to please the avid gorehounds out there. Thus, we get to witness an oozing surgical incision as the baron begins his procedure; a bloody heart being removed from a body, and a brain that is floating in vitro; the mangled corpses of Lynch and his fellow grave robbers, after the first Monster gets through with them; the Monster’s arm getting lopped off; and the Monster getting skewered through the chest and then cleaved with a tool of some kind through the head. And, in the uncut version, the viewer is also treated to three instances of nudity: the first, a lady victim of the Monster; the second, a blonde floozy who pops out of Lynch’s bed; and the third, an incredibly erotic striptease performed by Rosalba to entice the dim-witted Thomas, in a scene that almost rivals Sophia Loren’s famous undressing for Marcello Mastroianni in the 1963 Italian classic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. In truth, Rosalba, who was 32 here, is just wonderful in the part of Tania Frankenstein, sinking her teeth into the role of the lusty mad surgeon who will do just about anything to preserve her father’s good name … and build the perfect mantoy for herself!

Indeed, Lady Frankenstein the film is quite far from being a “bomb,” although Tania Frankenstein herself most definitely is “the bomb,” if you get my drift! From its opening scene, depicting the grave robbing of the baron’s latest subject, to its very last, an ambiguous finale in a flaming castle, the film manages to entertain and stun the viewer throughout. It is only campy/laughable in one brief segment, when the baron and Marshall take the brain of that hanged murderer and just stuff it into the cranium of their Monster; even the operation in the infamous Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” had entailed more sweatwork, and more recognition of how very difficult it is to reattach a living brain! But overall, this is a fairly serious and quite well-done exercise in horror, and a not inconsiderable retelling of the Frankenstein legend, with a distaff twist. You won’t be bored, that’s for sure!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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