Yes, it's the B-Masters Cabal's new roundtable, examining
the all too-rare phenomenon of the female mad scientist.
Links to other reviews appear at the end of my humble
offering, or you can simply click on the banner above
to be whisked to Female Mad Scientist Central, appropriately
And You Call Yourself A Scientist! Enjoy!
mad scientists. We love 'em, don't we? The monomaniacal worldview,
the handicapped assistants, the bubbling retorts, the tampering
in God's domain.... sigh. The Mad is a staple of the genre,
and sadly, he doesn't come 'round much any more, except in anemic,
fairly pointless exercises like
Bats and Deep
Blue Sea. The former reduced the Mad to a typical po-mo,
post-Scream ironicism - when asked why he TIGD'ed, he simply
replies, "Because I'm a scientist - that's what we do."
- and the latter featured that rara avis, the Female Mad
so rare? This is a question the B-Masters posed to themselves
again and again as we attempted to hash out this Roundtable; against
all expectations, there simply aren't a whole lot of movies featuring
Female Mads, at least not Mads in the classically accepted, rubbing
hands together "I'll show them... I'll show them all!"
sense. Some flexibility was called for in our definition of Female
Mad Movies; I simply clutched my copy of Lady Frankenstein
and shouted "Mine! Mine mine mine!" (a strategy I learned
from my two-year-old son, and a surprisingly effective one).
it is the more or less traditional concept of women as a creative
force rather than a destructive force. Women figured out
how to cultivate and grow crops while the menfolk were out spearing
megafauna for protein (a gross oversimplification, to be sure,
but so are most gender-based arguments). Despite whatever idealistic
rationalizations the Mad Scientist offers for his work, the results
are always destructive - they have to be, or there wouldn't be
a movie - and good old out-and-out destruction remains primarily
a male occupation.
you can't blame the ladies for wanting to join the party - even
if you follow the above creative/destructive belief system (and
if you do, e-mail me privately for a swell deal on a magical monkey's
paw), one must create a monstrosity before it can destroy
anything, blah blah blah. Truth of the matter is, the dearth of
Female Mads is more due to pathetic laziness on the part of filmmakers
than some patriarchal conspiracy. It's easier to play the familiar
Mad Scientist card, like the first place in a Tarot card spread,
the basis of all that follows: in a bit of cinematic shorthand,
even the most inexperienced of movie goers can say upon sight,
"Aha! Mad Scientist! Nothing good will come of this!"
It is harder to leap to that conclusion when the character is
female; a couple thousand years of cultural pressure informs us
on a near-DNA level that women are to be protected (even, or perhaps
especially, from themselves), and that they are more sensitive
and in tune to life and nature's patterns and vibrations. Overcoming
that stereotype would require some actual effort on the
part of the filmmakers.
and large, the Mad Scientist story as we know it is an offshoot
of gothic horror, thanks to its creation at the hands of Mary
Wollstonecraft Shelley. Like any tradition, literary or otherwise,
gothic horror has a rigid set of standards by which its course
is set and piloted. Women have a definite role in this tradition,
and it's rarely to juggle the retorts - more often, it is to run
from a spooky old house with a single lit window, while clad in
her nightgown. At least to judge from the
paperback novels of the 60s and 70s. So it's the uncommon
filmmaker - or the canny one, searching for a marketable hook
- who will breach the staid walls of tradition and give us a tale
of a woman messing about with the natural order of things.
in the early 70s, the Women's Lib movement gathering momentum,
it was inevitable that a distaff version of the original Mad Scientist
tale - Frankenstein - should surface; and not only that,
but a version that promised us, "Only The Monster She Made
Could Satisfy Her Strange Desires!" And not only that,
but the tagline turns out to be true!
Frankenstein begins with your typical quaint grave-robbing
scene because, after all, nothing says "Frankenstein"
like grave robbing. The leader of this trio of resurrectionists,
a local thug named Lynch, drinks while his lackeys do all the
digging and lifting, another tradition which has been handed down
to us today in the form of City Works and highway crews. The unearthed
coffin is then brought to the local castle and received by Baron
Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten, or as he is usually referred to in
connection with this movie, poor Joseph Cotten) and his
assistant, Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Müller, looking distressingly
like Joe Flaherty). Frankenstein pays off Lynch and tells him
he'll be needing "something special" soon - a body dead
for less than six hours. We all know what that means.
luck (snicker) would have it, the Baron's daughter Tania (Rosalba
Neri, here rechristened Sara Bay) returns from her studies, and
is now a licensed surgeon. Allusions are made to the Baron's disgrace
in the medical profession, due to his work with "animal transplants"
twenty years before (sometimes thirty - the time frame gets rather
elastic in this movie), and reflects that Tania probably had a
tough time in medical school due to the fact that she was a Frankenstein.
Tania replies that yes, she did, but she got much more flack for
simply being a woman, probably the most truthful moment in the
entire picture. She also states that she is determined to carry
on and assist her father in his work, and reveals -to the Baron's
astonishment and bemusement - that even as a little girl, she
would use the secret passage from her bedroom to her father's
lab to study his experiments.
for the continuation of that work, a local criminal named Jack
Morgan is slated to be executed (perversely, the continued bandying
about of his name instilled in me a desire for spiced rum). Lynch
arrives to jack up the price for this particular corpse, claiming
that more palms will need to be greased to obtain the Baron his
fresh parts. It is during this meeting that Tania enters the room
and has some saucy banter with the thug, an event that will prove
to have.... well, not much impact on our story at all, come to
think of it.
next day, Tania, in her carriage, comes upon Frankenstein and
Marshall preparing to witness Morgan's execution. The Baron attempts
to shoo her away, but Tania insists on staying, playing the "I
am a doctor" card. Marshall prevails upon him to let
Tania stay. There are two things of interest in this scene: first,
that the Baron is anti-capital punishment, referring to the hanging
as "legalized murder". While in keeping with the political
thought of the time of the film's production, it seems to lend
an odd, muddled tone to the Baron's moral outlook - capital punishment
is wrong, but desecrating graves is okay. And, oh yeah, tampering
in God's domain - that's cool, too. But, as we will see as the
picture progresses, the term muddled is a coin which we
will spend, over and over again.
other interesting thing in this segment - at least to those of
us with diseased minds - is the hanging itself. The modern miracle
of executorial hanging concerns itself with the breaking of the
condemned's neck, not his strangulation. This makes the placement
of the noose important, as well as other factors like the distance
of the body's drop. The comparatively sloppy hanging that goes
on in Westerns, where the condemned is on horseback, and there
is little or no drop, is pretty damned sadistic, and I've always
been disturbed that even quality productions like Lonesome
Dove make it seem like a quick, painless death, rather than
the ugly, brutal thing that it is. Dispel all such doubts with
the hanging in Lady Frankenstein, however: they drop Morgan
down a well. I note that, judging from the length of rope that
plays out until the rock tied at the end hits a pulley, they didn't
just break Morgan's neck - they probably popped his damn head
scene also serves to introduce the local constable, Captain Harris
(Mickey Hargitay, aka Mr. Jayne Mansfield, aka The Crimson Executioner),
who likes to pop in to harass Lynch every now and then with homespun
pleasantries like "You're such an ugly man."
And in this case, vow that Lynch will soon be taking his rightful
place at the end of a rope. A pronouncement that will prove to
be.... um, un-prophetic in the extreme.
and crew deliver the executed bandit to Castle Frankenstein, and
the Baron and Marshall scoop out and revivify the parts they need:
the heart and the brain. With both merrily pulsing away in jars,
the Baron prepares his final experiment - placing the new organs
into his sitched-together mannequin, zapping the whole shebang
with lightning, and capering about his lab, crowing "It's
alive! It's alive!" What they probably refer to in the household
as "Friday Night".
employs the secret passage in her bedroom once more (the Baron
was apparently so focussed on his creation that he forgot to board
the dang thing up after Tania told him about it) and finds her
daddy and Marshall prepping their monster for the big event. Tania,
naturally, wants to help, but Frankenstein makes her return to
her room and actually comes up with a fairly plausible reason:
if things go wrong, he wants her to have that magical quality
that we today refer to as "deniability". We also find
out a couple of important medical facts:
Hearts and brains can survive on their
own for several hours in the comparatively harsh environment
of a dead body, and
- It requires lightning to "activate" said heart and brain.
Now, if they had implied that they were using the heat of lightning
to fuse all the myriad nerve endings and the electricity to set
the heart to pumping, well... oh, never mind. I'm thinking about
this far more than the filmmakers ever did.
the heart is transplanted into the monster, Marshall discovers
a flaw in the brain - the hypothalamus is damaged. Frankenstein
forgoes the obvious reaction of whining "Now you tell
me!" and bitchslapping his assistant, and instead decides
to proceed with the experiment before the heart dies. Marshall
warns against this as not only does the hypothalamus control the
autonomous nervous system, but also a couple of emotions - exactly
which ones are drowned out by the dramatic library music - and
that could be disastrous (not to mention that it is the
brain of a convicted murderer, but hey...).
however, wants to play with his new toy and the body is ratcheted
up to the skylight, where the monster is hit by lightning - small
wonder, since he's wearing a lightning rod on his head - and the
table is lowered to discover that the lightning has also set the
monster's face on fire! Dousing the fire with a rag, the Baron
finds that there is no heartbeat, and waxes dejectedly philosophical
for a few minutes, until the twitching monstrosity sits up.
runs to fetch Tania to witness her father's moment of triumph.
Frankenstein examines his monster, and for whatever reason - bad
hypothalamus, rotten brain, being rendered oogly via lightning
strike, or maybe just good old Tradition - the Monster kills Frankenstein.
Or maybe it just hugs him to death ("Rrarr! Male bonding
bad!") and wanders off.
decides that in order to preserve her father's reputation, they'll
keep this whole tampering in God's domain thing quiet and claim
that the Baron was killed by a robber. This, unfortunately, ignores
the fact that the Monster is now roaming the countryside, killing
whoever he comes across. Yes, we are now in the midst of our old
friend, the Wandering Monster Movie. Like Octaman
and From Hell It
Came, The Monster will mosey about the countryside, kill
a little, walk a little, kill a little, walk a little, pick
pick pick take a walk take a little walk...
I have no idea why I just underwent a Music Man flashback.
at least, does decide to address the Moseying Monster issue: the
best way to continue her father's work, prove his theories correct,
and take care of the Wandering Monster problem is to make
another monster... specifically to kill the first monster. She
confronts Marshall about his long-unrequited love for her, and
weaves a plan whereby she will place Marshall's brain in the body
of their young, strong, handsome (but mentally retarded) manservant,
Thomas, creating for her (incidentally) the perfect lover, with
brains and brawn.
much for seeing the inner beauty in a person.
and as for why nobody else could possibly kill the existing monster...
well, that is due to that other little-known medical fact:
being struck by lightning
gives you super strength.
just like that, Tania is married (or so they say) to Joe Flaherty,
and soon Thomas is seen entering her bedroom, carrying a stack
of dress boxes - because nothing says wimmen! like a stack
of boxes fresh from shopping... wait a minute. Where the
hell did Tania go? It's not like the creepy little village has
a mall or a Saks Fifth Avenue - hell, there's not even a Walmart.
So where did she.... ah, nuts. Never mind. Tania has Thomas put
her load of boxes (on loan from Eva Gabor) on the bed and proceeds
to seduce him. So that, in the moment of utmost passion, he won't
notice Marshall suffocating him with a pillow (being a doctor,
Marshall knows how to speed up this process so Thomas' death takes
only a few seconds).
Tania now has the raw materials for the monster that will "Satisfy
Her Strange Desires". Meanwhile, the Wandering Minstrel...
Monster. I meant Monster. The Wandering Monster has managed,
on his rounds, to come upon Lynch and kill him, and later the
two other members of Lynch's posse, who were (predictably) digging
up a coffin in hopes that Marshall would still be in the market
for the odd cadaver. Finding their bodies in a half-unearthed
grave, Harris orders his men to disinter every grave in the joint
fresher than two months, because he has suspicions...
means he comes calling once again on Tania, at a most unfortunate
time, as she has just shaved Marshall's head and anaesthetized
him in preparation for his brain-ectomy. After getting rid of
the lawman, Tania continues with the transplant, and we find that
newfangled book-learning she got at university is pretty useful
- rather than employing lightning, she rigs up an enormous chemical
battery, and uses that to "activate" Marshall's
brain, thus bypassing the whole setting-the-face-on-fire thing.
Using his super strength, the Marshall Monster snaps the bands
binding him to the table, and he and Tania embrace. Apparently
nobody read Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex",
about the practical problems of mating a super-strong Kryptonian
with a less-than-invulnerable human woman, or the movie might
have ended right here.
it is, the townspeople have apparently read the source novel (or
at least checked out the 1931
original movie) and figured out that Frankenstein created
the monster, it killed him, and now roams the land killing, destroying,
and recounting the details of televised professional basketball
games without the express written permission of the NBA. Naturally,
they want Harris to do something about it or they will,
as they currently consider the inhabitants of the castle "about
six leagues below the devil", whatever that means.
what that means is that once again, Harris will bust in on the
castle (honestly, at this point I lost count of the number of
his visits), demanding to speak to Marshall. The new patchwork
Marshall fools him by sitting in the dark and claiming to be suffering
from something highly contagious. Harris warns him that the Monster
is seeking out and killing the people responsible for it's creation
(and any extra that happens to cross its meandering path), and
Marshall is the only one left.
be sure, the Monster has been trashing the village, shrugging
off bullets and snapping backs, and is now on its way to the castle
with a mob brandishing torches (but none of those weird rake things).
Marshall and the Original Monsta face off in the lab. The Monster
seems shocked to see Thomas, and Tania exclaims, "You don't
need to kill him! He thinks he killed you! Now he can be controlled!" Now this is a leap of deduction so huge that it would give Evel
Knievel pause, not least because it leads off with my puzzled
exclamation of um no, girlfriend, as I recall you two
killed Thomas. What movie are you watching? But Marshall, wishing to join in on the fun, makes a similar leap
into the Twilight Zone when he deduces that Tania hopes that the
two kill each other because "No matter who survives, you
moviegoing public continues to go, "Huh? Wha? Eh?" as
the two hurl huge slabs of balsa wood at each other. After losing
an arm, The Monster grabs Marshall in one of those Poor-Joseph-Cotten-killin'
bear hugs, but Tania breaks that up by driving an extremely long
knife completely through the Monster. And, unfortunately, into
Marshall. The skewered Monster advances on her, but Marshall is
still kicking, and buries an axe in the Monster's Metaluna Mutant
head. Tania immediately falls into Marshall's arms, panting, "I
belong to you! I love you, Thomas!"
the villagers have broken into the castle and torched the place.
Harris gets down to the laboratory and sees Tania and the Marshall
Monster making passionate love on the operating table while the
building burns around them. At the moment of highest passion,
Marshall strangles Tania. A circular dramatic device, echoing
the earlier murder of Thomas? The culmination of the left-field
fly-ball conspiracy theory introduced during the fight? Because
she called him Thomas? Most likely, none of the above... it was
just time to finish the movie. The end.
conceived and executed as a valentine to Ms. Neri by a smitten
producer, Lady Frankenstein hangs together remarkably well,
especially considering it likely never had a finished script.
Too much occurs by happenstance in the final act, like the villagers
suddenly growing a collective brain and Marshall's sudden (and
totally unsubstantiated) intuitive leap about Tania's motives
during the final scene. Whenever the filmmakers seem to be at
a loss as to how the story should proceed, the Monster either
trips over somebody else to kill or Harris makes another appearance
at Chez Frankenstein.
character of Harris is one of the more distracting things about
the movie. Not only does he seem to spend all his time either
annoying Lynch or the Frankensteins, his mode of investigation
seems suspiciously similar to the TV detective Columbo,
right down to the "There's one thing I don't understand..."
and "Just one more thing..." utterances. He has no bearing
on the events of the movie, and advances the plot not one whit.
He is Filler That Walks Like A Man.
movie does fairly well by Ms. Neri, giving her ample opportunity
to hold her own against the male forces arrayed against her; for
instance, matching Lynch bluntness for bluntness, her icy intellectualism
a strong counterpoint to his earthy vulgarity. After Harris' first
investigation, a fearful Marshall whispers, "He suspects!"
"No," says Tania confidently. "He was just trying
to impress me." While both suppositions are true, this brief
exchange helps to lend an air of ambiguity to the following events,
causing us to wonder not only what new perspectives Tania will
offer on forthcoming events, but the extent to which she will
use her femininity to manipulate the men around her. Sadly, while
the latter becomes a major drive in the film, the former never
she seems to care for Marshall, she also seems to merely endure
the very passions she has awakened in the man with a stoic detachment,
never truly surrendering herself until Marshall's mind is cloaked
in Thomas' flesh. Of course, as the movie was created by men,
any supposition that it might serve as a truly Feminist tract
or even a fair representation of how women think and act is rather
suspect, if not foolhardy.
how does it succeed as a horror movie, at least? Fairly well,
truth be told. The plot is paced quickly enough that we rarely
notice its jagged edges don't quite fit together. Tania's notion
of creating a monster to not only vindicate her father's theories
but also to clean up his mess makes for a nice twist on an old
story. If the monster is rather too obviously composed of mortician's
wax, a glass eye and rubber gloves (why?), it is at least a novel
concept of the Frankenstein Monster. Nice touches abound in the
production design, such as a nifty armoire in the laboratory containing
all the body parts, and (my personal favorite) lacking one of
those nice ultra-bright surgical lights with a dazzling reflector,
the Baron makes do with a large mirror fronted by a row of kerosene
lamps. Although this does beg the question that, if Frankenstein
is relying upon lanterns and torches for illumination, where is
the electricity that is powering the Jacob's Ladders and other
sparking equipment coming from?
not even delved into such matters as the preponderance of amazingly
fake sideburns (nothing says nineteenth century like strange
facial hair and spirit gum) or the suspiciously modern-looking
hats the men wear. Lady Frankenstein is a fairly entertaining
piece of cinema in the sub-classification that is (rather callously,
it seems to me) referred to as Eurotrash. There are worse ways
to spend 83 minutes, and you will doubtless find yourself cracking
wise up until that ending - an ending shockingly sudden by any
standard save that of kung fu movies.
fu Female Frankenstein? Hmmmmmmm........ get my agent on
Better-than-average Frankenpic spoiled by a weak ending
November 11, 2000