This one is a little tough to write about because a) it’s genuinely bad and b) I quite like it. It’s cheaply made, amateurishly acted and goofy looking. Each twist you can see coming from a mile off. The sets and effects might have worked on shadowy monochrome film, but just look cheap in high resolution digital. The dialogue is not great, and the hammy delivery doesn’t help. And the representation of women is… let’s be charitable and say ‘dated’.
And yet, I enjoyed it. It’s a bit like an Ed Wood movie – bad, but powered by a genuine enthusiasm that elevates crappy filmmaking into something watchable, if not particularly brilliant. I happened upon this film on Amazon Prime, never having heard of it before. the reason behind it’s infectious enthusiasm becomes obvious when the credits roll – Executive Producer, Written and Directed by Donald F Glut.
It’s hard to be a Frankenstein fan without coming across Don Glut now and then. He is an early example of a now common phenomenon – the fan turned pro. He got his start in filmmaking making amateur fan-films – some unauthorised versions of copywrited IP, some of public domain material like Frankenstein. From here, he moved into professional writing, including work on a host of comic books, cartoons and kids’ TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s. But wherever else he works, he seems to keep coming back to Frankenstein, as a source for non-fiction works, novels, and short stories. Tales of Frankenstein is a portmanteau movie made up of filmed versions of four of the short stories in his collection, also called ‘Tales of Frankenstein’.
As I said, I’ve come across Glut’s work before. I’ve read one of his Frankenstein non-fiction books, and his Frankenstein-influenced short story Origin of a Superhero, and I’ve seen his work referenced by other writers on Frankenstein. I didn’t know much about the man himself until I researched this article, and it was only then that I realised the depth of his love of the subject of Frankenstein. If nothing else, I now feel less like an obsessive for writing a few dozen reviews. Glut made his first Frankenstein movie as a teenager in 1957, and in 2018 he was still making films about the Monster and his Maker.
And here we have the source of my mixed feelings about the film. As I said, it’s this enthusiasm that drives the film. It’s clearly a labour of love for Glut, and more than a few of the actors. But it looks so bad. It’s terribly, terribly dated. I’ll accept ‘dated’ in a film made in 1960, but one made three years ago?
The film consists of four stories, thematically connected by the Frankenstein legacy, which in turn is physically depicted through a picture of Victor that keeps cropping up. The first story, set in the early nineteenth century, concerns an elderly mad scientist trying to balance Frankensteinian research and a long distance relationship. The second story is set around the turn of the 20th Century, and is about a Franenstein descendent whose attempt at immortality is only partially successful, but allows him to be a complete dick from beyond the grave. The third is a detective parody set in the 1940s in which a stereotypical Hollywood PI falls afoul of a mad scientist. And finally, in the 1950s a Frankenstein descendent attempts to build a monster, only to find he’s not the worst villain in Transylvania.
Straight off the bat, none of these work really well as period pieces. None of them give an impression of time or place. Probably the worst is the one set in 1950s Transylvania, where the tavern looks a lot more like a generic Bavarian-themed bar than some place in Communist Romania. Period films are notoriously hard to do on a budget, and holy crap does this film have a budget. Worse than that, there’s not a lot of atmosphere. Cheap horror movies can work, but you really need to get the atmospherics right, to create that sense of unease and uncertainty. There’s not a lot of that here either. Everything is very obvious, it’s too well lit, and the stories march straight from premise to conclusion. There’s a lot of waiting for things to happen and yet not a lot of suspense. It’s that terrible fannish tendency to need everything explained, and that explaining everything automatically makes a story better.
And yet… And yet this very goofiness makes it enjoyable. There’s nothing really scary here, so we’re just playing with concepts. ‘What if Frankenstein did this thing, how would that go?’ And Hell, I actually think that’s fun. I suspect I would enjoy these stories in their original, written format better than I enjoy them as films, but ‘What if Frankenstein plundered a vampire tomb?’ is a question that’s interesting to ask and enjoyable to see answered.
Then again, there’s the women. How women fit into the Frankenstein story is a fascinating question, going back to Mary Shelley’s original work. In the novel and in so many of the films I’ve reviewed, women characters get quite badly sidelined. After all, one way of looking at the story is that it’s about a man who is trying to reporoduce without female involvement, and perhaps for that reason female characters are often tacked onto these stories. In Tales of Frankenstein, this tendency is not absolute (there’s a female mad scientist and a female monster) but most of the women characters seem very out of place in a film from 2018. There are several sex workers and showgirls in the first segment, a group of buxom beermaids in the fourth, and the third segment has a trio of Asian women who seem to have little function at all beyond being decorative and Asian.
This sexism and racism are probably the hardest aspects of the film to forgive. But on the other hand, it’s all so doofy. A lot of horror films have a sleazy element. Sometimes this is effective, creating an unpleasant atmosphere that adds to the horror; sometimes it’s merely gratuitous. But the bad actors playing sex workers with bad German accents and the flat camerawork don’t really produce a sleazy effect. I can see that they’re trying for something unpleasant, but they fail so badly to reach it. I want to censure the filmmakers for misogyny, but instead I find myself thinking ‘well, you tried.’ Likewise, when one of the Asian women claims the tea she is serving is ‘from our homeland,’ it should be racial stereotyping but her clearly audible American accent just makes the line laugh out loud funny.
In short it’s a bad movie based on some interesting ideas. Some of the bad aspects of the film were unavoidable, coming from budgetary constraints, while others come from some genuinely questionable filmmaking choices. At this time, the film is rated 4.9 on IMDB, which is probably a little generous if anything. If I peer past the flaws, I can see something goofily enjoyable. But if you can’t see past those flaws, well, I can’t really find it in myself to blame you.
Oh, almost forgot. There’s a framing sequence of a guy in full late-era Universal Monster makeup roaring and waving his arms around for no clearly established reason. It’s a rare mix of awesome and completely embarrassing. Watch the film just for that.