Monday, February 11, 2013

Blackenstein (1973) dir. William A. Levey

a.k.a. The Black Frankenstein

Logline: Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone), a young black research scientist, reconnects with her mentor, the kindly Dr. Stein (John Hart), to ask his help in healing the physical ailments of her limbless Vietnam veteran fiancee, Eddie (Joe De Sue). Dr. Stein's DNA and RNA research allows the two to grant Eddie the gift of new limbs, but the chemical meddling of Dr. Stein's covetous assistant results in Eddie transforming into a lumbering monster eager to play around in various ladies' entrails.

When watching Blackenstein, it's not difficult to imagine how it could have turned out better. A cinematic tale about an injured and disgraced African American Vietnam vet being turned into a monster by a patriarchal white scientist trying to "cure" his malady is primed for the inclusion of both the light racial critique of a film like Blacula (1972) (the success of which was clearly responsible for this film's existence) as well as some commentary on the hostile treatment of scarred Vietnam soldiers by the public in the aftermath of that unpopular conflict.* Regrettably, William A. Levey's virtual non-adaptation of the Frankenstein story does neither, instead bluntly reenforcing racist assumptions through its cliched and uncritical narrative, with the seeming complicity of its black cast.

The film's racial offenses are many. For one, there's the issue of Eddie, our titular monster, who becomes a horrific, bestial creature (he grows hair on the backs of his hands) after Dr. Stein's attempt to give him new limbs. This primal beast proceeds to then ravage innocent (mostly) white women, often abducting them in the streets and carrying them off to do who-knows-what. Eddie is hardly what one would characterize as a progressive depiction of the black male in 1970s America. It's also worth noting that Dr. Stein, our obvious Frankenstein proxy and benevolent white patriarch, is not this Creature's creator: rather, the person responsible is Dr. Stein's black assistant, Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson), who sabotages the experiments to regrow Eddie's limbs because he wishes to win the mind and body of Eddie's fiancee, Winifred, for himself.  Unlike most depictions of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Stein hasn't a selfish or malevolent bone in him (in fact, he's been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ambiguously "solving the DNA genetic code"), while Malcomb is lecherous and greedy (in once scene sinking so low as to smile to himself while scarfing down Dr. Stein's unattended dinner). The general anxiety the film expresses about black males and their "uncontrollable animal urges" is upsetting, and its response to this anxiety is grim, ending as it does in the (white) police sicking a pack of police dogs on Eddie to rip him limb from limb and then devour him.  

Blackenstein's backwards approach to racial issues is best encapsulated by a moment that occurs late in the film, when a black emcee tells a joke about segregation to an audience at a night club (A black man walks into a cafe: "Sir, we do not serve colored folks here" "I'm glad to know that, young lady, 'cause I don't eat colored folks nowhere"). The camera cuts to reaction shots of both white and black patrons in the crowd laughing uproariously. One way of interpreting the joke and its effect would be to say that it deflates the casual racism of the cafe's segregationist policies. But the other way of interpreting it is as a joke far more insidious in intent, trivializing and so upholding the status quo by making its audience laugh at the issue, instead of treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. Who is the joke making fun of anyway, the cafe and its absurd policy or the black customer who fails (either intentionally or unintentionally) to grasp the meaning of the policy's phrasing? Similarly, Blackenstein lets us laugh at the sight of a raging African id terrorizing White America, causing us to neglect to notice that maybe the film wasn't telling a joke to begin with.

Blackenstein's merits are few, and it's a tough recommendation for any but the most ardent fans of cheapo exploitation features. Though the cinemaphotography is sporadically inspired (of note is a nice 360° revolution around Dr. Stein's elongated Gothic dinner table), the editing is haphazard, with sloppy and abrupt cuts between scenes causing narrative confusion and signalling both its scrappy origins and its makers' lack of skill or care. Actor Joe De Sue-- incredibly-- shows more life when transformed into the Creature than he does when portraying a disfigured veteran, and his Human-Being-as-Log-of-Wood performance is of some limited amusement. And of course there is just enough entrails-spilling and arm-ripping to keep the interest of gore hounds mildly piqued, even if these moments are somewhat obscured in literal (poorly-lit) and figurative senses (why exactly is Eddie pulling out and then smelling women's intestines?). But mostly Blackenstein appeals to no one, leaving itself (to a much greater degree than Blacula does to itself) as little more than a novelty title.

*There is one moment that limply addresses the Vietnam issue: early on, we see Eddie being verbally abused by an orderly at the VA hospital who tells him that he deserves no special treatment simply because he's a veteran (though the orderly appears envious that he himself wasn't allowed to serve). Later on, post-transformation, this orderly is the first person whom Eddie attacks and kills. Justice, one supposes.

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