The Bad Movie Report

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 located at And You Call Yourself A Scientist! Enjoy!

Lady Frankenstein

Ah, 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 Scientist.

Why 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).

Perhaps 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.

Lady Frankenstein - the box
Lady Frankenstein - the official mascot of Pretty Mad Scientists
Lady Frankenstein - the official mascot of Pretty Mad Scientists
Lady Frankenstein - the official mascot of Pretty Mad Scientists
Lady Frankenstein - the official mascot of Pretty Mad Scientists
Lady Frankenstein - the official mascot of Pretty Mad Scientists

Still, 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.

By 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.

So 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!

Joe Flaherty and poor Joseph Cotten attempt to give the scriptwriter a brainLady 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.

As 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.

Fortunately 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.

That Frankenstein crowd, they don't look suspicious at all, no.The 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.

The 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 off.

"You are SUCH an ugly man."The 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.

Lynch 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".

Tania 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.

Tania, about to get thrown out of the kitchenAfter 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...).

Frankenstein, 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.

Marshall 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.

" hand!!!"Tania 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...

Sorry. I have no idea why I just underwent a Music Man flashback.

Tania, 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.

So much for seeing the inner beauty in a person.

Oh, 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.

Ha ha!  Wimmen sure do love shoppin'!So 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).

So 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...

It's a lot of work,  but Bobbi's killer cocktails are worth itWhich 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.

As 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.

Actually, 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.

"ARRRRRGH!  Why must my make up SUCK??!!"To 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 win!"

The 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!"

Scary chick.

Then again, practically every Frankpic ends like thisUpstairs, 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.

Allegedly 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.

The 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.

Yeah, okay.  She can have my brain.The 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 resurfaces.

Though 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.

Another graphic illustration of the dangers of smoking in bed.Then 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?


And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
Cold Fusion Video Reviews
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
Opposable Thumbs Films
Stomp Tokyo
Teleport City

I've 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.

Kung fu Female Frankenstein? Hmmmmmmm........ get my agent on the phone!



Better-than-average Frankenpic spoiled by a weak ending

- November 11, 2000