My love for Jess Franco definitely clouds any objective opinion I have about his work, but I truly believe that The Rites of Frankenstein (aka Les Experiences erotiques de Frankenstein, 1972) is one of the director’s most surreal and interesting efforts. Unfortunately this erotic horror film doesn’t really live up to what it could have been if Franco had access to a bigger budget and a more enthusiastic cast, but it’s still an imaginative movie filled with some memorable sequences and a strange sensuality that manages to transcend its many flaws.
The cast is very good, but some of them don’t appear to be very invested in the film which can be distracting at times. Horror film veteran Dennis Price delivers an uninspired performance here as Doctor Frankenstein and a seemingly perplexed Jess Franco also appears in his own film playing Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant Morpho. Frankenstein’s daughter is played by Euro horror queen Britt Nichols who I usually enjoy watching, but sadly she’s rather forgettable here as is Franco regular Lina Romay, who is almost completely obscured in shadows and barely recognizable at times. Thankfully the films does contain some inspired performances that really help bring this project to life.
Franco favorite Howard Vernon appears in one of his most interesting and unforgettable roles in The Rites of Frankenstein playing a hypnotist called Cagliostro, undoubtedly named after the infamous Italian occultist. Cagliostro kidnaps Frankenstein’s monster (Fernando Bilbao) for his own diabolical plans and keeps the creature imprisoned in his castle. The erotic film actress Anne Libert also stars as a blind and sadistic flesh eating “bird woman” known as Melissa who is also being controlled by the malevolent Cagliostro. Howard Vernon and Anne Libert keep the film entertaining even during its most sluggish moments and they both seem to be truly enjoying their star turns as the ruthless Cagliostro and Melissa. The film offers both of the actors the chance to shine and they really make the most of their roles.
In an unusual twist Frankenstein’s monster has metallic looking skin that makes the creature seem more like a robot than a walking corpse stitched together from discarded body parts. The modern makeup used in the movie adds a nice psychedelic touch to The Rites of Frankenstein. The creature’s metallic appearance also seems to allude to the ancient tales about Golems with alchemical properties, which were inspiration for Mary Shelley’s original novel.
The film’s score was composed by Daniel White (aka Daniel Whitte) who is responsible for creating soundtracks for some of Franco’s most memorable films including The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962), The Secret of Dr. Orloff (1964), The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966) and The Girl from Rio (1969). When I first watched the film I didn’t really appreciate it, but while watching it a second time I was struck by how different it was from the composers previous work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s easily one of White’s most experimental scores and he manages to evoke an uneasy mood throughout the film even if it lacks the energy of his previous work. I was occasionally reminded of Jack Nitzsche’s unforgettable soundtrack for Performance (1970) while listening to White’s score for The Rites of Frankenstein and I’m not sure how I managed to overlook the similarities between the two earlier. The Rites of Frankenstein also features some interesting and unusual sound effects that I found very effective. I was especially impressed with the haunting bird-like sounds used by the character of Melissa to communicate.
Jess Franco has expressed a deep affection for Universal horror films made in the ’30s and ’40s, and The Rites of Frankenstein contains some story elements from those classic films, in particular James Whale’s unforgettable Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But Franco seems much more interested in exploring the alchemical elements of the Frankenstein myth as well as using the story as a backdrop to express his own endless fascination with sadism and surreal dream worlds. In this regard the film owes much more to the work of the Marquis de Sade than Mary Shelley.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is not without its obvious flaws such as the unconvincing day for night photography, occasional blurry camera work and erratic editing, but it also contains some beautifully crafted scenes and truly stunning location shots. Franco has a wonderful eye and few directors know how to use space as well as he does. The director is also fond of using fisheye lenses and extreme closeups to evoke a heightened sense of unreality in his films and these techniques are used abundantly in The Rites of Frankenstein to infuse the production with an eerie other-worldly quality. Even though the film’s artistic ambitions fall short, this unusual and erotic take on the Frankenstein story is just plain fun to watch. As someone who considers herself somewhat of “connoisseur” of Frankenstein cinema, I personally regard this film as one of the better and more original efforts produced during the ’70s, but I’m in the minority. The Rites of Frankenstein only seems to appeal to a select group of Franco fanatics who appreciate the Spanish filmmakers more esoteric efforts.
I was really disappointed with the 2005 Image Entertainment DVD release of The Rites of Frankenstein currently available at Amazon. The Image Entertainment disc only includes the edited Spanish version of the film instead of the complete uncut English Language version known as The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein. The uncut scenes are included as part of the DVD extras, but I wish the company would have released a complete uncut version of the English Language film on DVD instead of this censored version that suffers from poor editing. I don’t know how many prints of the film exist, but the one featured on the DVD is often extremely dark and the film might be more enjoyable if some effort was made to restore and lighten up the print so the film was easier to watch. Hopefully a complete and restored version of the film will become available on DVD in the future. The Image Entertainment disc does feature a widescreen print of the movie with English subtitles, but it claims to also contain a “Stills Gallery” which is missing from my DVD. I can’t really recommend purchasing the DVD unless you’re a Franco completest or some strange person like myself who happens to enjoy collecting Frankenstein films.
If you’d like to see more images from the film you can find them in my Rites of Frankenstein Flickr Galler
– An edited version of this review originally appeared in Cinedelica 05.27.2007