In terms of horror adaptations, few stories are as well worn as Dracula and Frankenstein. From the early days of cinema until now, it feels a bit like every third genre director out there has taken a stab at adapting at least one of the classic gothics in their own voice, and the fact of the matter is that a whole lot of them don’t work. With notable exceptions here and there, a good majority of Dracula and Frankenstein spins are incredibly dull and, in an arguably worse sin, incredibly similar to each other.
Paul Morrissey’s films don’t have this problem. Working with the help of producer Andy Warhol, he managed to put out some of the most bizarre, inventive takes on the tales to ever hit the silver screen: a pair of Udo Kier-starring, gloriously campy X-rated horror films. They’re strange, they’re silly and they’re very, very gross. So enter, if you dare, the weird world of the wonderfully alliterate Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula.
Released in the US in 1974, Flesh for Frankenstein is a very loose, very crude adaptation of the classic Mary Shelley novel. In this twisted version of the novel, we follow Baron Frankenstein (the always wonderful Udo Kier), an incestuous, necrophiliac doctor on the ultimate mission to become the god of his own people via the forbidden science of reanimation. You see, he believes that with the help of his faithful assistant Otto (Arno Jürging), he can create the perfect zombified man and woman, who can then reproduce until they create the perfect race of zombie slaves.
Of course, the process isn’t easy. To create the ideal male zombie, Baron Frankenstein needs the head of a particularly libidous man – and luckily for him, there’s a perfect candidate right in his front yard. The seemingly perpetually horny Nicholas (queer sex symbol and Flesh star Joe Dallesandro) tends to the fields of Manor Frankenstein with the help of his deeply repressed, ambiguously gay best friend Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic). Unfortunately, a misunderstanding at a brothel leads to Frankenstein decapitating Sacha and missing Nicholas entirely. Now, faced with a zombie who seems entirely uninterested in reproducing, Baron Frankenstein must find a way to keep his family occupied and his sanity together as he tries to make the creatures mate.
If you couldn’t tell already, Flesh for Frankenstein is very, very silly. Every character in the cast is some sort of wild-eyed cartoon, with their actors hamming it up to the nth degree. Udo Kier in particular absolutely knocks it out of the park with a career highlight performance that wouldn’t feel out of place in a John Waters movie, shifting between trading soap opera theatrics with his wife and genuinely unsettling, utterly depraved deliveries at the drop of a hat.
Just like its actors, there isn’t a single visual in Flesh for Frankenstein that’s even approaching "subtle." Manor Frankenstein is a sprawling, baroque nightmare that would fit right in a Peter Greenway film, full of nude statues and impossibly long dining tables that take a good panning wide shot to fully cover. On the plus side, more extravagant set design means more things for the film’s truly ridiculous amount of blood to cover in one of the many, many moments of gratuitous bloodletting. In fact, the level of violence wouldn’t be too out of place in an early Peter Jackson work, with bodies ripping apart like wet tissue paper and mind-boggling amounts of viscera blasting from open wounds. If you were somehow taking Flesh for Frankenstein seriously before someone gets decapitated by garden shears, sending an eruption of red fluid flying through the air, I don’t think you will after.
But Flesh for Frankenstein isn’t content to leaving its transgressive excess to just bloodshed. If you know anything about prior Morrissey or Warhol films, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Flesh for Frankenstein is basically packed with excessive, potentially over-indulgent displays of sex front to back. Of course, none of it is presented with a slightest hint of hesitation, instead opting to lovingly depict lengthy scenes of, say, Baron Frankenstein defiling a corpse’s gallbladder.
Unlike the gore or shock plot beats, the discomfort during the infamous gallbladder scene comes as much from the craftsmanship behind the camera as it does the transgressive concept. In spite, or perhaps because of, the scene’s transgressive content, DP Luigi Kuveiller (who would masterfully photograph Argento’s Deep Red the very next year) shoots it like a romantic, avant-garde sex scene, creating one hell of an unsettling juxtaposition between framing and subject matter.
It’s worth noting that despite the (incredibly sleazy) artfulness of Flesh for Frankenstein’s many debauched sex scenes, the film isn’t above just going all out for vomit-inducing visuals. Originally filmed to be shown in 3D, Flesh for Frankenstein includes a great many shots designed to have pierced organs and spilling guts fly right at the camera, and by extension the audience, in ridiculously gory fashion. Basically, that’s Flesh for Frankenstein’s idea of slapstick, meshing with perverse humor and off-kilter running gags (like Baron Frankenstein’s obsession with getting a perfect "Serbian nose" for his zombie) to make a sense of humor that’s equal parts goofy and beyond bad taste.
It’s a bizarre, almost juvenile attitude towards shock in all of its forms that helps make Flesh for Frankenstein just a constantly unpredictable, uncomfortable watch. If you’re looking for accuracy in your adaptations, Flesh for Frankenstein isn’t the place to look, but as far as wholly original and utterly twisted takes on Shelley's story go, Flesh for Frankenstein might be the finest around.
1974 proved to be a busy year for Morrissey and Warhol. The day after filming wrapped on Flesh for Frankenstein, the cast and crew began work on a twisted take on another gothic story: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Like Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula is something of a perverse parody of its literary origins. This time around, Count Dracula (again, Udo Kier) has grown deathly ill from lack of virgin blood in Romania, so his assistant Anton (Arno Jürging) takes him to Italy, where he and the count begin a quest to find a virgin to heal the count.
In Italy, the count encounters Il Marchese di Fiore (Bicycle Thieves director and Italian neorealist pioneer Vittorio De Sica), a failing landowner willing to marry off one of his four daughters to the count in hopes of getting some of Dracula’s wealth. Thus, Dracula begins his quest, manipulating di Fiore in hopes of finding (and consuming) the blood of whichever of his daughters happens to be a virgin. As you can imagine, it’s easier said than done, and soon all hell is breaking loose in the di Fiore estate.
In many ways, Blood for Dracula is more of the same from Morrissey and Warhol. More goofy caricatures for characters, more perverse humor, more beautiful gothic sets that get absolutely drenched in blood and gore. It’s certainly comfortable territory for the team, but there’s no denying that they’re absolutely killer in this zone, and there are still enough twists on their previously established formula to keep things interesting.
Take, for example, Udo Kier. Unlike his dignified, comically self-serious performance in Flesh for Frankenstein, Udo is in full high camp mode in Blood for Dracula, playing the count like the biggest dork around, whining and pouting as Anton helps him orchestrate his dark bidding. Still, his performance is nowhere near the transformation undergone by Dallesandro, who goes from quiet man/stiff corpse in Flesh to the perpetually horny, incredibly talkative Marxist groundskeeper Mario in Blood. He’s the perfect counter to Dracula, and in solo scenes steals the show every time.
Of course, beyond colorful characters, the usual humor’s here, too. While there’s nothing quite like the gallbladder from Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula takes Frankenstein’s comic gore to unbelievable levels, with chopped limbs sending geysers of gore spurting every which way and vampire bites that are basically invitations to paint the walls red. It’s very much the gross-out, Black-Knight-in-Monty Python and the Holy Grail-gore comedy, and the slapstick edge is enough to make it ridiculously entertaining in its own right.
Now, that’s not to say that Blood for Dracula doesn’t know when to push its audience's buttons. Beyond just the incredibly disturbing concept and plot line of the film (which gets pushed to some disturbing and disheartening extremes), Blood for Dracula really leans into the sexual angle of vampires drinking blood, drawing both visual and auditory allusions to sex much like how Flesh painted Frankenstein’s autopsies and assemblies as an extension of intercourse.
Doubling down on shocks, Blood for Dracula isn’t afraid to twist gags into something a hell of a lot less entertaining, It’s actually something like the opposite effect of the gallbladder scene. While Flesh started disgusting and ended hilarious, bits like Dracula drinking non-virginal blood and projectile vomiting crimson into the bathtub may seem like a bad taste joke at first, but as it goes on, it becomes increasingly less amusing and more disconcerting.
Really, besides changes in plot and humor, Blood for Dracula is nearly identical to Flesh for Frankenstein. There’s no real new aesthetic to play with, the new players don’t add a ton to the game, and with the exception of a phenomenal wheelchair tracking shot, there’s very little that hadn’t been done (to arguably greater effect) visually in Flesh. But that’s not a bad thing—with Flesh for Frankenstein, the cast and crew found a winning formula, and with Blood for Dracula, they made a damn good B-side, and one of the most shocking one-two punches of transgression in all of gothic horror.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: The Sequels from the Black Lagoon