Lady Frankenstein (La figlia di Frankenstein) – 1971 – Italy – Tales of Terror Box Set from Brentwood Entertainment
It is about damn time Joseph Cotten got his just desserts. Snubbed repeatedly by the Academy for his body of work in his lifetime, he had to go to the Venice Film Festival to receive a best actor award for his role as forlorn artist Eben Adams in the haunting romance, “Portrait of Jennie” in 1948. The gifted actor bounced around the country working a myriad of professions until he landed in Miami and became a drama critic for the Miami Herald which, in time, led to a job as assistant stage manager at a theater in New York City. Along the way he “strode the boards” of the proscenium arch appearing in more than 40 different plays and making his Broadway debut in 1930. During this time, Mr. Cotten was able to make the most of his velveteen voice and to supplement his meager stage earnings with frequent radio work. In 1937 he joined the Mercury Theater Players, led by Orson Welles, and after the War of the Worlds debacle netted Welles a film contract at RKO Pictures, Cotten was summoned to join him in Hollywood and to appear in his first film of note, “Citizen Kane” in 1941. That film was not a commercial success, but Cotten’s acting intelligence and resonant voice kept him busy in the following years and gained the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who cast him as the smooth murderer Uncle Charlie in his 1943 film “Shadow of a Doubt.”
From then on, Cotten remained busy in his chosen profession for another 40 years until his retirement, playing more than 100 different roles and even starring in a titular television show “The Joseph Cotten Show” for 14 episodes. His career was marked by perspicacious decisions which kept him in the limelight at that time and still serve to do so today, 15 years after his death. He starred in the American Film Institute’s highest regarded film of all time, “Citizen Kane”; the British Film Institute’s vote for best film (and perhaps the greatest noir ever filmed), “The Third Man” (1949); Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his own body of work, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943); one of the greatest suspense films ever made with “Gaslight” (1943); opposite Marilyn Monroe’s finest performance in “Niagara” (1953); in the top-drawer sci-fi classic, “From the Earth to the Moon” (1958); in perhaps the best of the southern-gothics, “Hush Hush… Sweet Charlotte” (1965); in the classic spaghetti-western, “The Hellbenders” (1966); in Vincent Price’s wonderful horror-spoof, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971); in one of the great terror telefilms of all-time in “The Screaming Woman” (1972); working for Mario Bava in the delightful “Baron Blood” (1972), in one of the great conspiracy movies ever made, “Soylent Green” (1973); in the star-studded and influential “Airport ’77” (1977); alongside Bond-girl Barbara Bach in the tons of fun “Island of the Fishmen” (1979); finishing up his career in the horror films “The Hearse” (1980) and “The House Where Evil Dwells” (1982), and, of course, he starred in tonight’s film, “Lady Frankenstein” as the good-doctor, Baron Frankenstein.
This film presented an atypically liberated a-moralist script, somewhat of a departure from the Frankenstein film model, which gave Cotten a chance to orate some of his most memorable lines in any film, words that we know were somewhat close to his own iconoclastic heart. One of the highlights of the viewing experience for me was the exchange between the Baron and his assistant Charles (played by Paul Muller) where, pre-reanimation, Charles asks whether Man has any right to interfere in the province of God and Baron Frankenstein retorts with a knowing twinkle in his eye, “On this Earth, Man is God!” A brilliant line delivered by a master craftsmen, it will leave your face warm with a smile while sending a chilling shudder down your spine. On with the show…
Appropriately enough, our film begins in a mist enshrouded cemetery where two grave robbers are slaving away under the direction of Lynch (Herbert Fux), who supplies local scientist, Baron Frankenstein, with fresh cadavers for his secretive experiments (which should need no exposition here). Lynch delivers the putrescent goods to the Baron and his worthwhile, if morally shackled, lackey/assistant Charles (Paul Muller) and is immediately requested to furnish the probing pair with another, still “fresher,” corpse. With the experiment nearing its conclusion, the Baron welcomes home his beautiful scientific prodigy of a daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri), much to the delight of the smitten Charles, with Tania impatiently telling the Baron her lifelong ambition of working alongside him on his radical experiments. Tania, whose notions are dismissed by her apprehensive father, heads off to bed like a good little girl as the Baron and Charles descend to the laboratory to re-animate their creation in a dazzling sequence equal parts Hammer and Universal. The monster awakens and, as Charles rushes to deliver the anticipated news to Tania, the Baron is crushed to death bear-hug style by the now ferocious monster who duly objects to the inconsiderate resurrection.
The monster begins terrorizing the countryside, killing all and sundry, but seemingly bent on the destruction of all those who had a hand in his profanation, and Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay) follows the trail of shattered bodies looking for an explanation. Back at the castle, Tania coolly manipulates the adoring Charles into helping her perform a second re-animation of a creature capable of destroying the rampaging monster in order to salvage the Baron’s reputation, this time using her hunky stable boy’s body and Charles’s own brain! What a guy won’t go through for some tail, eh? The Captain connects the dots and surrounds the castle with armed men awaiting the arrival of the monster as, inside, Tania transplants Charles’s brain into the virile young body of the murdered stable boy. Hell comes a callin’ as the monster cuts a swath through the villagers and the Captain on its way to a final grisly showdown with Lady Frankenstein and her own stitched creation inside the castle walls.
This movie was not as grand as it could have been, its main failings being rather pedestrian cinematography and an underwhelming monster that looks like a cross between the Toxic Avenger and David Prowse, but still offers enough to keep the viewer entertained throughout its running time. An exemplary cast was gathered for this pic with prolific Swiss character actor and horror vet Paul Muller (of “I Vampiri,” 1956; “Nightmare Castle,” 1965; and a bazillion Jess Franco films, horror and other) as the tremulous romantic, Charles Marshall. The Italian bombshell Rosalba Neri, credited as Sara Bay, (of Bava’s “Hercules in the Haunted World,” 1961; opposite the world’s greatest Bogie impersonator, Robert Sacchi, in the fun Giallo-spoof “The French Sex Murders,” 1972; and the vampiric contessa in “The Devil’s Wedding Night,” 1973) assays the titular role and gives a marvelously multi-faceted performance rife with sensuality and touching self-doubt.
Herbert (he don’t give a) Fux (the executioner from “Mark of the Devil,” 1970) plays the lecherous yet intelligent Lynch remarkably well and with guided restraint considering it is essentially a Burke and Hare part which has encouraged so many top-flight actors (Donald Pleasance and Karloff come to mind) to chew the scenery to bits. Mickey Hargitay, who I like to give a hard time (see my review for The Reincarnation of Isabel), is commendable in the role of the jaded Captain Harris and shows a real gift for understated humor, delivering some truly indelible lines in one of his better performances. Cotten is wonderful, per usual, and is on camera long enough to electrify us with some witty lines and emotional depth of character, but it is sad to see him killed off at the half way point in the film and even sadder that he is not used in the role of the second Monster, which would have been a film fanatic’s wet dream. Sigh. The laboratory set is like a well-realized cross between Universal’s vaulted castle labs and Cushing’s functional workplace in Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein,” and the Baron’s castle is a real splendor, but the maverick script and well-rendered performances are what sets this film apart from its lesser kith and kin. During the course of the story, each character is given the opportunity to create a believable and nefarious psychological depth in their roles, and the capable cast incriminate their characters deftly and with relish. If the great Joseph Cotten amidst bouncing tits, moonlit grave-robbing, murders and monsters is your bag (and I truly hope it is) you can do a lot worse than the pensive and stunningly-titted “Lady Frankenstein.”
Jason’s Grade: C+