Saturday, April 4, 2015

#204: Flesh for Frankenstein aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey, 1973)

In addition to having one of my favorite lines of dialogue in the history of motion pictures ("to know life, you must fuck death in the gallbladder"), Flesh for Frankenstein is a highly amusing horror-comedy, exploitation b-movie, celebration/condemnation of decadence, and a New Yorker's take on the European art film. A companion piece to the following year's Blood for Dracula, also directed by Morrissey with much of the same cast, Flesh for Frankenstein works just fine on its own.
Udo Kier stars as Baron Frankenstein, a mad scientist and aristocrat who has turned part of his castle in the Italian countryside into a laboratory where he Frankensteins together body parts from peasants he and his assistant Otto (Arno Juerging) murder, creating his ideal male and female zombies who will ideally reproduce and create a master race of beautiful people with Serbian features. The Baron loves the Serbian physique.
The Baron is in a loveless, sexless marriage with a woman he refers to as his sister. The Baroness (Monique Van Vooren) refers to him as her husband, but she says the marriage is strictly a way for her children to have the Frankenstein name and aristocratic wealth. (We get the sense the strange children are either the product of an incestuous union or the offspring of the Baroness and a previous lover.) After the Baroness catches a farmhand named Nicolas (Joe Dallesandro) in the act twice with peasant women on the Frankenstein estate, she hires him as her personal boy toy and household servant. Things get complicated when Nicolas notices that one of Baron Frankenstein's zombies has the head of his decapitated friend Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), and he begins a crusade to rescue his friend and end the Baron's horrible experiments.
This all sounds ridiculous on paper, and it is, delightfully so. Morrissey, here and in the Dracula film, is working in a much more self-consciously campy vein than in most of his other work (Chelsea Girls, Trash, Flesh, Heat, Mixed Blood), and the sex and violence are heightened to exaggeratedly cartoonish levels. It's not just pure camp, though. Morrissey achieves a strange blend of seemingly contradictory tones throughout. In addition to the over-the-top gore, sex, and nutty dialogue, Morrissey creates some stunning, painterly shot compositions of his figures in both their indoor and outdoor landscapes, particularly during the scenes set at the dining room table.
The actors' performances, as well, are an intriguing blend of intensity, apathy, awkwardness, and confidence . Morrissey is less concerned with stereotypical Hollywood professionalism and more interested in the presence, facial features, and physique of his actors. He deliberately incorporates what we have been trained/brainwashed into thinking of as "bad" acting into his work in expressive, revealing ways. I often find myself in situations where friends describe certain unpolished, non-Hollywood performances as bad acting, and I never quite know how to verbalize my strong disagreement without breaking into an inarticulate manifesto, so I usually just say nothing. I find awkward, unconventional, rough around the edges, eccentric, and/or flawed acting performances moving, exciting, cinematic, and wonderfully human in ways the clockwork professionalism of actors like Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe, Don Cheadle, etc. can never be. Some people have a presence on screen that no awkward line reading can destroy, and those awkward line readings can be endearing and alive. That's the atmosphere Morrissey allows here.
You probably already know whether you're the audience for this movie or not from that snatch of dialogue in my opening sentence. If you haven't checked it out yet, do yourself a favor. Your gallbladder will thank you.

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