Jeez, I have no luck with Frankenstein monster movies.
First off, a nitpick: The version of this movie I’d watched gave the title as Blackenstein, The Black Frankenstein. Except Frankenstein wasn’t the monster, and the doctor in this flick isn’t black, though his name is Doctor Stein. I get that the producer was trying to capitalize on the success of Blacula, which was released the year before, but the title is still wrong.
The movie opens on a shot of what supposed to be a laboratory. I say “supposed to be” because it looks more like a soundstage with tables and lots of various types of Jacob’s ladders all sparking and arcing off as Doctor Stein, played by John Hart, also known as the guy who replaced Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger on TV for one season, pulls switches and pushes buttons while breakers of colored liquid bubble and steam with dry ice.
Suddenly in another movie, a plane lands at the airport in Los Angeles as Cardella Di Milo, who appears later in the film as herself, a blues singer, at a nightclub, belts out a song about being unable to find love. Off the plane comes Doctor Winifred Walker, played by Ivory Stone. She rents a car and heads off to Doctor Stein’s house, where she’s greeted by Stein’s sinister deep-voiced assistant Malcomb, played by Roosevelt Jackson. When she’s taken to Doctor Stein, we get the most awkward expository dialogue ever.
So Walker wants Stein’s help with her fiance, who’s just returned from Vietnam after stepping on a landmine and getting wounded. By wounded, I mean getting his arms and legs blown off. Think about that a second. He was walking, stepped on a landmine which goes off, and only loses his arms and legs. No other damage to his body. Right. That’s possible, I suppose.
Which brings us to Eddie, the fiance, played by Joe DeSue.
He’s in the VA hospital spending his days being a human burrito while being tormented by an orderly, played with gusto by Bob Brophy, who’s jealous that Eddie got to go to Vietnam to get his limbs blown off while he got 4F’ed while enlisting.
When Eddie asks this guy for ice cream, he goes off on him about his jealousy and starts to torture him. Eddie’s reaction to all this?
Bob Brophy as the orderly only gets this one scene to shine, and he runs with it. He shows more skill and emotion here than any of the principal actors. You see sorrow, regret, rage, disappointment. Sure, his dialogue (really monologue, since Eddie doesn’t say much here) is awkward and too full of exposition, but he gave it his all.
Joe DeSue, however, has two expressions.
Luckily the orderly’s bedside manner is interrupted by Winifred and Doctor Stein (who doesn’t have a first name, but wouldn’t it have been great if his name was Frank N.?), who tell him the good news: he’s to be taken to Stein’s castle to receive DNA treatments to help his condition. The good doctor has been treating others at his house, like a 90-year-old woman who now looks like she’s 50, and a man whose lower legs have been reattached using “laser beam fusion” and a DNA solution created by Doctor Stein. He did, after all, win the Nobel Prize for “solving the DNA genetic code.”
Of course, there are complications. One of the aforementioned reattached legs is striped, caused by, according to Doctor No-First-Name Stein, an “unsolved RNA injection.” Honestly, his explanation made little sense and made the good doctor look like his didn’t know what RNA and DNA were. But this “unsolved RNA injection” becomes the impetus of the film, as Malcomb, having had his romantic gestures rejected by Winifred, taints Eddie’s DNA injections with the problematic RNA, causing Eddie to regress into….
I have to stop here to ask a few questions. First, Winifred Walker is a physicist, and Stein is presumably some sort of geneticist. She studied under him how? In what field? How does a physicist know how and where to give an injection? Also, the man with the striped leg had them both reattached by a combination of “DNA” and “laser beam fusion.” Eddie had no limbs to reattach. They were blown off in Vietnam. So whose limbs are being attached to him? And how is Malcomb able to taint the DNA solution with the RNA? Stein called it an “unsolved RNA injection” and babbles about “sort of part of the primeval theory,” which lays the foundation, albeit nonsensically, for what happens to Eddie later, but implies that he doesn’t know what’s causing it besides something with the RNA. How is Malcomb able to isolate what the “unsolved RNA” problem is and use it to taint Eddie’s DNA solution? Why does Stein have an RNA solution to begin with, if he’s having such success with the DNA solution? Also, why does this movie have so many audio flashbacks with Stein repeating phrases over and over? They’re supposed to sound like echoes, but more sound like John Hart has echolalia.
“Primeval theory….Primeval theory….Primeval theory….”
Also, you would figure from the RNA “explanation” that Eddie would turn into some kind of cave man, like William Hurt did in Altered States. Instead he turns into this:
Now I have to commend Doctor Stein’s DNA formula. Even though tainted by an “unsolved RNA injection,” it not only changed the shape of Eddie’s head, it grew him more hair and a black turtleneck sweater and suit coat to match!
During the day, Eddie lies near catatonic as Stein and Walker try to figure out what’s happening to him. At night, the sweater and suit ensemble comes on and Eddie sneaks out on the town, killing and cannibalizing his former orderly first, then going after has-been strip tease artist and future John Waters actress Liz Renay and her boyfriend. While doing this, you occasionally hear Eddie grunt monstrously, like a Frankenstein monster would, except his mouth isn’t moving, and neither is Joe DeSue’s facial expressions.
Of course it all descends into chaos, murder and madness, in the dullest way possible, leading to what has to be the longest and least exciting chase scene I’ve ever witnessed, as Eddie stalks a woman through an empty industrial warehouse. Believe me when I say you feel every inch of that warehouse during this scene, and will rejoice when it ends anticlimactically, if only because it’s also the end of the movie.
Much like Doctor Stein isn’t black and “Blackenstein,” neither is this film “blacksploitation” like its predecessor Blacula. That film and its sequel had plots that were grounded in black culture. Blackenstein never references black culture at all, except in the occasional blues song by Cardella Di Milo in the soundtrack and a scene in a blues club, also featuring Di Milo singing. The main characters have no racial identities whatsoever, even Doctor Stein and Eddie, outside of physical appearance. Even the orderly in the VA hospital abuses Eddie not because he’s black, but out of jealousy.
The direction by William A. Levey is on the low side of competent, with many scenes shot in very low light. Eddie’s cannibalistic nocturnal excursions are sometimes difficult to discern, but at least everything is in focus, unlike Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare. The acting is subpar, with John Hart, Roosevelt Jackson, and Ivory Stone slightly elevating into mediocrity, while Joe De Sue scrapes the bottom of the acting barrel. Blackenstein never goes beyond bad into exquisitely bad, which could’ve made it more fun to watch.
½ cheese curd out of 5. For the curious only.