Blu-ray Review: BLACKENSTEIN

2017/05/28 19:11:04 +00:00 | Scott Drebit

Blaxploitation made its move on the horror market with AIP’s Blacula (1972); so successful was the foray that the money wheels started turning towards a follow up. And while AIP was busy cooking up a sequel to their surprise hit, an outsider saw an opening in the window of the American Dream and leapt right through. Frank Saletri may have been a lawyer by trade, but his heart belonged to horror and he gave his all to write and produce Blackenstein (1973) – a movie somewhat better than its godawful reputation, restored for posterity on Blu-ray by the fine folks at Severin Films. Come for the monster; stay to hear Saletri’s story.

Eddie (Joe De Rue) is a Vietnam vet who while in service, danced with a landmine and lost all his limbs as a result. As he arrives back home, his fiancée, Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) meets with her former boss Dr. Stein (John Hart), to see if he can help out poor Eddie. You see, Dr. Stein has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for cracking the Genetics Code and is enjoying success reattaching limbs and de-aging elderly actresses. (This is pre Botox, baby.) Off to Dr. Stein’s clinic/mansion in the Hollywood Hills we go and the transplants are a success – except Dr. Stein’s assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) grows weary of his advances towards Winnie being spurned, and spikes Eddie’s serum with, um, some yellow liquid. Before long Eddie’s forehead starts to protrude, he bulks up, stiffens, and hits the town in search of…human entrails? (Yes, Eddie is a strict carnivore, apparently.) Will anyone be able to stop the terror that is Blackenstein?!?

The bad news? The first half of Blackenstein is a bit of a slog; lots of chatter, mixing potions, and a thorough tour of the mansion, checking in on the whopping three patients under Dr. Stein’s care. Back and forth this goes until you’re practically begging for Eddie to do some damage. The good news? Once he does, things perk up considerably; Eddie’s rampage involves the murder of a disrespectful orderly, an amorous couple, a buxom nightclub guest, and one or two back at the clinic. Director William A. Levey (Skatetown, U.S.A.) even manages on a meager budget to instill some style into the killings through use of silhouette and interesting angles; this is of course, when the editor puts down the cleaver for a few minutes for the sake of continuity.

Saletri, it appears, was a bit of an idea man. He couldn’t convey it through dialogue; every line lands with a ludicrous thud in the hands of a mostly inexperienced (read: clients of his) cast, with the exception of Hart, who played The Lone Ranger on TV for a season. But for once in this mythology, the creator is not the bad guy, but rather a good man looking to help the unfortunate without any God-like pretensions. (It’s really a shame that he didn’t coin the word “Brometheus” when the opportunity arose.) It’s a great conceit that would play well in a bigger budgeted film with a more experienced cast and crew. As it stands, from its left over Frankenstein lab equipment, colorful lighting schemes, to some surprisingly stylish deaths, Blackenstein is fun enough – it won’t make you forget Blacula, but it certainly earns a place in the pantheon of Blaxploitation horror. Oh, and other than a few bared breasts, the film doesn’t delve into any of the normal tropes of this particular sub-genre; if you’re looking for social commentary, you’ve wandered into the wrong lab.

Severin Films has picked the perfect angle to tackle this long forgotten film – telling the story of Frank Saletri, who, for better or worse, gave Blackenstein life through his enthusiasm for the genre alone. If only it were a happy ending; Saletri was found murdered in his home in 1982, gangland style, with a single bullet to the head.

First up for special features on the stellar Severin Films disc is “Monster Kid”, a loving remembrance of Saletri by his sister June Kirk. It’s a touching segment, as she reminisces about his lifelong love of horror and his prolific writing, including a look at unfilmed scripts such as the incredibly named Black the Ripper. (Okay Frank, that makes up for not coining “Brometheus”.) Ms. Kirk is a little less forthcoming with theories as to her brother’s ties to his seedy clientele. I can’t say I blame her. Next is an archived news broadcast detailing his murder; ominous in nature, it plays coy with the allegations, as if any developments would arise a year after his murder. This is followed by interviews with a couple of filmmaker friends, who have no problem going into detail as to who murdered Frank, as well as offering fond remembrances. The disc is rounded out with a piece on FX artist Bill Munns (The Return of the Living Dead) and his early work, plus a new trailer. This is a 44 year old film, and the new theatrical widescreen transfer is as beautiful as a film this old could look; the colors really pop yet the film retains that wonderful ‘70s grittiness. If you’re so inclined, the longer video version is here too; but for me, 78 minutes is just enough Eddie.

Is Blackenstein an essential Blaxploitation film? Personally, I think they’re all part of a larger fabric that needs to be preserved. It’s not the greatest film (or even all that good), but it’s cheesy fun, and a testament to the love of the genre, brokered by a man who lived for horror. And died for it too.

Movie Score: 2.5/5,  Disc Score: 4/5

  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.