25 July 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE FINE ART OF EXPLOITATION

I hold it a truth that bad movies are good for the soul; but a whole lot of bad movies can kind of get to you after a little while. And while I never expected this all-Video Nasties edition of the summer of blood to reveal much in the way of hidden gems of horror cinema, my run the last few weeks was enough of a strain on my will to live that I decided it was high time to shake things up with one of the most bizarre entries on the infamous list: bizarre both in terms of how it ended up there, and in terms of how goddamn weird it is as a movie qua movies.

Now, the great bulk of the 72 films featured on some iteration of the Director of Public Prosecutions hit list are dreadful - a little dreadful, a lot dreadful, dreadful enough to make you hit yourself in the face with a frying pan to escape the pain of it - and most of them would deservedly be lost in the dust of history if not for that very same hit list making them eternally iconic martyrs for the cause of freedom of expression (a very corroded, unlovely kind of expression), and magnets for lovers of sleaze and movie violence. Some of them, though, had actual merit, whether just as a good horror movie or as a legitimately good bit of cinema. Famously, Sam Raimi's wonderful The Evil Dead was a target, though despite an heroic number of attempts, the DPP never managed to get it banned; the top-notch zombie films Zombi 2 and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie were both on the list (the former banned, the latter not); the much-better-than-average slasher flick The Burning was zapped by the censors; the visual poet Dario Argento had two entries on the list, Inferno and Tenebre - neither of which could plausibly be called his most violent, disturbing film to that point (that would be Deep Red). These and a few others were all redeemed by history as genre classics, and most of them are anyway not hardly violent enough for the DPP's attention, but that kind of goes without saying.

For my money, though, the two most inexplicable entries on the list were the two films that, even more than the Argento movies, more or less qualify as art house fare - hamstrung by their horror trappings, it is true, but art films nevertheless. One of these is Andrzej Żuławski's surrealist nightmare of a disintegrating marriage, Possession; the other is our current subject, Paul Morrissey's extraordinarily gaudy camp object produced by no less important an art cinema icon than Andy Warhol, Flesh for Frankenstein.

Morrissey and Warhol had been collaborating for quite a while prior to the 1973 release of their first horror movie, on such important pieces of avant garde pop as Chelsea Girls, Trash, and Lonesome Cowboys. Flesh for Frankenstein is certainly a different thing than those; to start with, the Warhol connection has been largely over-emphasised over the years, largely for marketing reasons, as this one was mostly Morrissey's baby from start to finish (the rumours that Antonio Margheriti directed some or most of the movie have been largely discredited). Even so, there's a definite flavoring of outsider art that connects this effort to the more explicitly "artsy" films from earlier in the director's career. It's trashy and exploitative, but in an intellectually dense, "let's explore the representational effects of trash" way, not a D'Amato-esque, "I sure do love looking at Laura Gemser's tits" way.

Like most cinematic Frankensteins, Morrissey's picture hasn't much of a damn thing to do with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel (she's not even credited); unless I missed something, the word "Frankenstein" is never even spoken out loud. Here we have a mad Baron (Udo Kier), living in a rambling old Serbian castle in what we can assume, for want of other evidence, to be the 19th Century; he shares his home with his wife Katrin (Monique van Vooren), who we can also figure out pretty quickly is his sister, though Morrissey refrains from harping on this point until the very end. Their relationship has devolved to the point where they apparently only see each other at mealtimes, and this is fine for both of them: it leaves Katrin plenty of time to rule the children (Marco Liofredi and Nicoletta Elmi) with an iron, puritanical fist, and the Baron plenty of time to create his perfect woman (Dalila Di Lazzaro), an embodiment of the Serbian ideal.

But this monster needs a mate, and the Baron and his wild-eyed assistant Otto (Arno Juerging) have had a problem finding the perfect head (with a perfect Serbian "nasum", as the Baron keeps saying) to go on the exquisite male body they've made. Meanwhile, the Baroness spends most of her time screaming about the sexual perfidy of the local peasants, primarily a stableboy named Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro, a regular at Warhol's Factory and pioneering nude model). Nicholas has a friend, Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), who has quite the opposite view of sex as his licentious mate: indeed, his disinterest in the carnal arts is so profound that he's preparing to enter a monastery (from the numerous close-ups of Zelenovic gazing intently at Dallesandro, I instantly assumed a more basic explanation for Sacha's anti-lust for the female body, in the form of good old-fashioned sublimated homoeroticism; but as nothing whatsoever is done with this possibility, I must chalk it up to a misreading based on Morrissey's other works). Nicholas convinces Sacha to visit a brothel, just to make sure; a mix-up there results in the Baron and Otto mistaking Sacha for an insatiable sexual dynamo, whose perfect Serbian nose is the proof that he's exactly the missing ingredient their creation needs. Off comes his head, with a pair of ludicrously oversized iron shears, and Nicholas passes out - only to be picked up by Katrin, who demonstrates that her hatred of his womanising ways is less a moral position than sheer jealousy: before the day is out, she's taken him back to the castle as her newest fuckbuddy.

Having completed his pair of perfect monsters, the Baron is ready to at last embark on his grand scheme: they must mate and give him a race of perfect Serbian superchildren, with whom he will build his empire. Naturally, Sacha's utter lack of interest in the female creature's charms scuttles that idea, as does the fact that the one person most likely to recognise the dead man's head is running around the castle at that very minute. And just to sweeten the deal, the Baron's two darling children have been skulking around spying on just about every obscene act their parents are up to, and as we saw in the opening film (a solemn and detailed execution of a doll), they're every bit as screwed-up as their sires.

I shouldn't, maybe, have gone on at such length: but there's really no other way to express how gleefully tasteless Flesh for Frankenstein is than to just put it out there. It really says something about Morrissey's preoccupations that the incestuous marriage at the heart of the drama isn't remotely the most offensive thing we see here: why, I haven't even mentioned the Baron's preoccupation for humping the female creature's body, wiggling his hand (and God knows what else) inside her abdomen while cooing orgasmically. Nor the climactic scene, in which viscera is thrown around like tickertape at a 1930s parade.

Disgusting? Yes. Obscene? Oh, certainly. Likely to deprave and corrupt? Paul Morrissey absolutely hopes so. And above all else, wildly fucking funny. The genius of the film lies not in the director's willingness to "go there" with every depraved idea that crops into his head, but to go there with a song in his heart and a big smile on his face. If I had to come up with one adjective to describe Flesh for Frankenstein, it would probably be "silly". Or maybe, "goofy". But surely not sick, violent, over-the-top, any of those other things - for if it is indeed a wicked, wicked film, it is all in the service of its gloriously self-indulgent camp attitude. This is the film whose most iconic line - spoken just after the Baron is done humping his creation - is "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life. In the gall bladder." Now imagine that spoken by Udo Kier, with his cartoon German accent turned up as far as it will go, and tell me it doesn't give you the giggles. (They tell me it's a Last Tango in Paris parody - I have not seen that film - which just makes it that much more brilliant).

Not to say that Morrissey is just trying for a demented cheap laugh, in the manner of Russ Meyer or John Waters (not, mind you, that there is a single thing wrong with the particular flavors of camp exploitation practiced by Meyer or Waters): the film is much too artistically refined for that. Flesh for Frankenstein is actually a pretty great movie: filmed by Luigi Kuveiller with a solid eye for atmospheric lighting and framing that make even the obvious cheapness of the film's sets look good. It's also more intelligent than it looks: there's a nasty-minded satire of European aristocracy buried in there, with the Baron and Baroness both evincing the crudest sort of elitist hypocrisy, in all their operatically indulgent perversity; and the Baron's obsession with genetic purity couldn't be a more obvious joke on Nazism (especially thanks to Kier's grand Germanic self). Even the exploitation has a certain breed of intelligence: at times, such as in the overtly presentational shots of objects being presented to the camera (a relic of the film's original 3-D presentation, which I would desperately love to see some day), or in the stylised emphasis on some of the most stupid moments in the narrative, Flesh for Frankenstein plays very much like a parody of itself, with Morrissey ironically commenting on the desperate tawdriness of most gore- and nudity-based trash cinema even as he joyfully indulges in it.

Let us set all this aside though, so that I may close by praising Flesh for Frankenstein on the simplest level: it's just a damn huge pile of fun. From the casting of Kier (in what I daresay is his best performance, so self-delighted in its goofiness that you can't help but love him), van Vooren (whose - I am being charitable - skeletal features and thundering imperiousness make her the very embodiment of degraded aristocracy) and Dallesandro (his stuffy Brooklyn accent is a wonderfully weird counterpoint to the arch-Europeanness of everything else in the whole movie), to every risible plot turn, the movie is simple the best kind of garish delight. I don't know if it's avant garde, but it's way too aggressively self-aware not to be art, the kind that thumbs its nasum at convention and "nice people", and give the rest of us an entertaining ride that's worth every second.

NB: Morrissey immediately followed this film's production by making a follow-up, with much of the same cast and most of the same crew: Blood for Dracula. I have not seen it, but have been told that it is slightly less gory, slightly less campy, and considerably more on-the-nose with its satire, though still a delight, all-in-all. It did not make the Nasties list.

Body Count: Wow, how do you tally up a body count for a film in which a man gets decapitated with a huge amount of blood, and then has his head attached to a new body, played by the same actor? I am cautiously going to go with 10 dead bodies, plus a doll.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. It's mostly a taste issue: I can't find it in me to say that a film that has such a broad-minded sense of humor is "nasty", though by all means I can understand how the blood, nudity, and sex - and the foleyed-in slurping noises during a particular sex scene - managed to raise the ire of the DPP. I could easily see my way to a 4/5 for this one.

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