Few things are as easy to trace as the ancestry of a movie. Applying the advice of Donald Sutherland's character in JFK, if we "follow the money", we will eventually find a movie that struck it rich and therefore inspired a slew of rip-offs. Shaft was an enormous hit, begatting such diverse children as Superfly and Detroit 9000; eventually, a better way to tap into the blaxploitation money tree was sought, and Blacula was born. This, too, was a hit, and others arrived to drink at the trough - if Blacula could succeed, why not Blackenstein?
Ah, why not ..... a question that has led to lofty heights, miraculous achievements, tremendous advancements. And which has also led to complete, utter garbage like Blackenstein, subtitled "The Black Frankenstein", just in case you were too stupid to get that. Trust me, that's not the worst thing the filmmakers are going to pull on you in the next 87 minutes.
Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) moves to California to be near her boyfriend, Eddie (John De Sue), who's being shipped back to the USA after losing his arms and legs to a land mine in Viet Nam (it's 1973). She gets back in touch with an old teacher, Dr. Stein (John Hart), who looks eerily like Dick Van Dyke's character in Diagnosis: Murder, except I doubt that Van Dyke had a basement full of Kenneth Strickfaden's electrical equipment.
You see, Dr. Stein (and what a clever name!) won the Nobel Prize for unraveling the mysteries of human DNA and has been doing amazing things with his research; one patient, Eleanor (Andrea King) is over 90, but looks 40; Bruno (Nick Bolin) has had two legs grafted on... but one has tiger stripes on it. Stein explains that this is due to "unsolved RNA" which has given the leg a turn toward "the primeval". Bruno occasionally gets violent after his DNA injections. Soon after the tiger stripe sequence, my Willing Suspension of Disbelief loudly announced it was going home to mother and slammed the door behind it; it is only through its absence that I made it through the rest of the movie.
In any case, Eddie seems to be a perfect subject for Stein; the unfortunate quadriplegic is moved to Stein's mansion, and Winnie, Stein, and Stein's assistant Malcolm (Rooselvelt Jackson) go to work, injecting him with Stein's DNA formula and somehow using the Van de Graaf generators in the basement to weld new arms and legs onto the patient.
Which would all be well and good had Malcolm not fallen in love (or something like) with Winnie; had Winnie not rebuffed his advances; and had Malcolm not - in a move to eliminate his competition - tampered with the DNA stuff being injected into Eddie. This has the effect of making Eddie's head go all square and his hands all hairy. He also goes out at night and kills people.
And there's your plot.
All right, in the interest of making sure that no one ever has to watch this movie again: Eddie first travels to the VA hospital, where he rips the arm off a surly attendant who was unsympathetic to his plight earlier in the movie. This attendant is also apparently the only person in the entire building at that particular moment (and his shift really sucks, as the first time we saw him was in the afternoon). Then Eddie kills a dog. Then he kills the dog's owners, one of whom is Liz Renay, a minor celebrity in the world of crap movies. Renay is the only one of these whom we get to see killed... well, she's the only one we see with orange stage blood spread all over her while Eddie holds some sheep entrails in his hand. Then Eddie goes home to the mansion.
The next day in the Stein household, things are getting a little tense. Why, we will never know, because no one bothers to tell us. If anyone notices that Eddie was gone the night before, or that he smells of sheep entrails, they don't tell each other, much less the audience. Eddie does attack Winnie through the bars of his cell (why does a mansion in California have a prison cell in the basement?), but Dr. Stein picks up a far-too-handy length of chain from the floor and beats him with it. (Why is there a piece of chain on the - oh, never mind.)
In addition to this perplexity, the door is left unlocked so Eddie may once again go on a murderous rampage. This time he kills a woman who walked out on a masher, and, after waving those sheep entrails around, staggers to The Parisian Room nightclub, where we are treated to the comedy stylings of Andy C. I mean "treated to" in the sense of 'held down by treacherous Bogarts while having epileptic porcupines dipped in jalapeno sauce rubbed across your face". Andy C. would, I think, like to be compared to any number of black comedians, but that would only lead to me saying ugly things about Mr. C. Suffice to say that the audience members at the Parisian Room are the finest actors in this flick; they all look like they're about to pee their pants at C's "jokes", which could be on loan from the antiquities wing of the Smithsonian.
Meantime, Eddie's having a fight with some guy in the back alley, who I THINK was trying to force his attentions on a woman, but who can tell? Eddie whomps the guy, kills the girl, and looks at those sheep entrails some more. His evening's work done, Eddie retires to the mansion, only to find that Malcolm is trying to force his attentions on Winnie (maybe it's some obscure holiday that I know nothing about). At least I think this is the case - Malcolm is shirtless, Winnie is in her nightgown, and keeps going, "No, no!" while Malcolm pulls at her arms. You be the judge.
So Eddie attacks. Malcolm runs to another door in Winnie's bedroom, behind which is a gun. Perhaps there is a small box on the closet containing a pistol, with a glass cover that reads: IN CASE OF MONSTER ATTACK, BREAK GLASS. Too bad Malcolm did not read the fine print, "WARNING: Gun may be useless against some monsters". He would have had better luck had there been a convenient length of chain lying on the floor. Good-bye Malcolm.
Stein and Winnie run down to the lab, leaving their patients, Eleanor and Bruno, to be killed by the monster. Hippocratic Oath, my ass! There's a monster up there!!! Eddie corners Winnie in the lab, but recognizes her and stops himself before he waves any sheep entrails. This tender moment is interrupted by Stein jumping him, which possibly means that Eddie kills Stein. Who can tell?
Eddie wanders into the night and surprises a girl climbing into her dune buggy (Dale Bach - the girl, not the dune buggy) and carries her off. Note that he does not kill her - he simply carries her off. Why? Who can tell? My personal theory: we still have movie left. At a mere 80 minutes, we are too short to be considered a feature. So Eddie takes the chick to an abandoned factory next door, she recovers consciousness, and there is a segment of cat-and-mouse that skirts dangerously close to actual suspense before the geriatric-paced monster finds her and kills her (without fanfare or sheep guts). Then the cops arrive with a bunch of specially-trained Dobermans who find the monster and tear him to pieces*. The end. Really.
I fear that no mere plot summary could do justice to the festering pile of dog vomit that is Blackenstein; there are many nuances to ineptitude, and the only way to truly appreciate such badness is to experience it. This, however, is something I would not wish on anyone, not even Adolph Hitler or Idi Amin, on whatever circle of Hell they currently reside. Even past the stunning badness portrayed in the opening scenes, the very first moment when we actually see the monster, with his square afro and his arms outstretched like an Aurora model kit of Boris Karloff, the actual amount of non-creativity and anti-talent involved in this endeavor become perfectly clear.
Why is Eddie killing women and pulling out their guts? Well, the Media Video box assures us this is because he has become "a monster with a passion for blood". Then there is the fact, known among grade-school children for cripes sake, that 'Frankenstein' refers to the scientist, not the monster, and John Hart is stunningly white. I admit that it could be construed that, as it is Malcolm that tampers with the DNA formula, that he could be referred to as "The Black Frankenstein". Of course, all this means is that whoever wrote the copy on the video box and myself have put more thought into this movie than the filmmakers themselves.
Were I able to once again assert my mastery of time and space (something I have not been able to do since that last dose of blotter back in '82), to go back in time and actually interview the makers of Blackenstein, I have no doubt it would go something like this:
So exactly why is your monster, despite his different origin, walking around in imitation of the Universal Frankenstein monsters?
And are you aware that 'Frankenstein' refers to the creator, and not the monster?
So your mad scientist character is black?
Can you shed some light on why the monster goes around killing people - in particular, women, who are the only people we see die onscreen?
But following that same logic, why does he simply carry off that last woman, when he's instantly murdered every other woman he's run across?
(Sound of two people being beaten to death by a heavy cane)
But first I'd like to ask them why they elevated the mansion to the status of a character; Dr. Stein's digs (admittedly a great location) is accorded almost as much screen time as Winnie, and she's our heroine (albeit by default)! Every time a transition of some sort is needed, there we are, outside the mansion, complete with superimposed fog and lightning - it always seems to be thunderstorm weather. This is of a piece with the scenes of the monster wandering around outside, which are always accompanied by the sounds of a windstorm, no matter how clear the sky. Add to that the wildly inappropriate and overwrought musical cues - who knew a woman sitting on a couch was so ominous? - and you have far more nails being hammered into this movie's coffin than were ever truly needed to keep it stuck within. I haven't even gotten to the butchershop editing.
Is Blackenstein the worst movie ever made? Well, it's certainly in the running. Is it the worst of the blaxploitation/horror movies? I certainly hope so. Otherwise there's one that's worse out there waiting for me, and there are simply some things Man Was Not Meant To Know.
Worst of all: Boringstein.
- March 19, 2000