‘To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy, but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body.’ – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
‘Dr Stein just won the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the DNA genetic code.’ – Dr Winnifred Walker, Blackenstein.
Okay, this is going to be a bad one. You’ve probably already guessed why it’s going to be bad. Spoiler: you’re probably right.
So: Blackenstein, aka Black Frankenstein.
African-American soldier Eddie Turner has been crippled by a landmine in Vietnam, and is lying in a VA hospital being teased by an orderly. His fiance, Dr Winifred Walker, convinces her old teacher Dr Stein to use an experimental treatment to cure him. Dr Stein’s assistant Malcolm has designs on Dr Walker, and so sabotages the treatment. Turner’s limbs regrow, but he is transformed into a Karloff-like monster, who goes on a killing spree before being attacked and killed by dogs.
Well, there’s some stuff there. Potentially. Like the whole Vietnam veteran angle. Turner has been made into a twisted social outcast by his own country. Just as the Monster turns on Frankenstein, Turner turns on the society that created him and… Oh, no; wait a second. That’s Rambo: First Blood I was thinking of. My bad.
There’s the race angle, then. The film is called Blackenstein, isn’t it? So does the film adapt the metaphor of Frankenstein to the issue of race? Well, it tries really, really hard not to. Blackenstein was an attempt to follow onto the success of the 1972 film Blacula. In Blacula, the African prince* Mamuwalde (William Marshall) travels to Transylvania to convince Count Dracula to help him suppress the slave trade, and gets turned into a vampire. In the sequel, Scream, Blacula Scream, the van Helsing role goes to Pam Grier, playing a voodoo priestess.
Now, Blacula doesn’t say anything particularly clever (or historically accurate) about the concept of ‘Black+Dracula’, but at least some thought has been put into how ‘Black+Dracula’ would work. Blackenstein, on the other hand, lacks the courage to follow up on the premise. The white orderly who torments Eddie in the VA hospital? Explicitly shown not to be motivated by racism. The white scientist who turns Eddie into a monster? Totally not his fault; it was his black assistant. The police detectives chasing down the monster? One’s black, one’s white.
In short, the film desperately tries to avoid engaging with issues of race. Turner is not really a ‘black Frankenstein’ then, right? He’s just a Frankenstein, who happens to be black.
Or that, I suspect, I suspect, is what the filmmakers intended. They don’t quite make it. You see, the reason Turner turns into a monster is that ‘unsolved RNA injections’ can cause a ‘throwback to the jungle’. Hm. Oh, and when he becomes a monster, his skin gets blacker.
We have three data points about Eddie Turner: he’s a veteran, and we don’t want to follow that up. He’s black, and we don’t want to follow that up, but oops we did. And he’s so severely disabled that he goes along with the experimental procedure after his fiance gently insists.
What else do we know about him? Was he a conscript or a volunteer? Officer or enlisted soldier? What’s the nature of his relationship with Dr Walker? Were they childhood sweethearts? Did they meet in college, where Dr Walker was learning physics from an expert in DNA? Did she approve of him going to Vietnam? We know nothing about Turner, and yet we’re supposed to give a damn whether he gets turned into a monster.
This lack of character is important, because it also means that Turner has no motivation. The better Frankenstein movies work precisely because we are both scared of the monster, and yet we entirely understand his motivations. Eddie’s first victim is the VA hospital orderly who tormented him. We can understand that. But the remainder of Turner’s (very slow and largely offscreen) killing spree happens because…?
This problem with motivation goes all the way through the movie. Dr Stein is researching DNA because… well why the hell not? He’s a doctor, or possibly a physicist. That’s what doctor/physicists do, isn’t it? That’s why he won the Nobel Peace Prize, after all. Dr Walker? She’s taking part in this crazy experiment because… she loves Eddie? Perhaps? She doesn’t really show it, though. She tells Dr Stein about her fiance’s terrible injury with all the emotion that she might say “recycling pickup is Thursday; make sure you cut up all boxes”.
There are only two characters have anything like motivation. The first is the hospital orderly who torments Eddie. He tells us that he tried to join the army, but was knocked back for health reasons. He then ends up working in a veteran’s hospital, where he expresses his bitterness against the army by tormenting disabled veterans. It’s a stupid motivation, but hey, it’s a motivation. It’s a character with a motivation, folks!
The orderly is in two scenes. He’s killed in the second one. But the death of the orderly, again, is motivated. The Monster even rips off the orderly’s arm, after the orderly mocked Eddie’s lack of limbs. But having set this up, the film undermines its own premise by going off on a completely unmotivated rampage. This is the trouble with the movie. It looks like it wants to say something, but then doesn’t. In the few places it does say something, it screws things up completely.
The second motivated character is Malcolm, who sabotages Turner’s experimental treatment because he’s attracted to Dr Walker. Because chicks totally dig it when you mutate their boyfriends. Sure, they say they don’t, but they’re just playing hard to get.
After the motivated killing of the orderly, the Monster/Turner just lurches around until he sees someone to kill. There’s a sort of theme to the victims – a dog; a couple who are about to have sex, but are killed when investigating a noise, a woman who is walking away from her gropey date and runs into the Monster; and a would be rapist and his victim outside the worst comedy club of all time**. Horror movie scriptwriters, it seems, have issues.
The first victims and the rapist, sort of makes sense. After all, they were trying to have sex in a horror movie, which is pretty much a death sentence. The two women victims, however, were quite deliberately avoiding having sex, so what’s up with that?
Then off the Monster goes, back to Dr Stein’s mansion, arriving just in time to kill Malcolm, who is trying to rape Dr Walker***. The Monster kills Malcolm, which you might think was a second motivated act on its part, except that he doesn’t yet recognise his wife, who has to remind him who she is to prevent him from killing her. The Monster then kills Dr Stein–but then the monster is always supposed to kill the Mad Scientist kindly and benevolent doctor who genuinely only wanted to help.
One of the reasons I love Frankenstein movies, is that even the bad ones usually have something to say. Blackenstein seems terrified of saying anything at all, and yet, in the end, it does end up saying a lot of highly objectionable things.
On the plus side, the cinematography has some surprisingly good moments, for a low budget movie; and the producers have hired what looks like the original electrical effects equipment from the 1931 Frankenstein, which is a surprisingly classy touch. Too bad that they didn’t spend the money they paid for it seems to have eaten up their budget for professional actors and screenwriters.
* Of the non-email scammer variety.
** Yes, the movie made sure that the rapist character was black. Did you even have to ask?
*** Just a reminder: the other rapist character was also black. Good work, movie. Good work.