Monday, June 26, 2017

BLACKENSTEIN BLU-RAY REVIEW

“There’s so very much to be done!” exclaims an exuberant Dr. Stein.

In the early ’70s, criminal lawyer and horror fan extraordinaire Frank R. Saletri (1928 – 1982) was looking to venture into film production when, along with first-time director William A. Levey, he pieced-together BLACKENSTEIN (1972), an impoverished and enjoyably awful fusion of Blaxploitation and horror.  As if anybody in their right mind would ever be deceived into thinking that a film like BLACKENSTEIN could be taken even half-seriously, viewers will be absolutely gobsmacked by Severin’s impressive, extras-filled Blu-ray, which not only enriches this lovably thrifty if strangely compelling slice of memorable exploitation, but also delves into producer Saletri’s murder under unusual circumstances, too.

Tucked away in his imposing castle-like home in Los Angeles, Dr. Stein (John Hart) is on the brink of refining his revolutionary new DNA formula, which not only allows him to stall the aging process, but with the help of his (quote) “laser beam fusion” technique, enables him to re-attach severed body parts.  A former pupil of his, Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) arrives from New York in the hopes that Dr. Stein can help her fiancé Eddie (Joe DeSue), a Vietnam veteran who lost both his arms and legs when a (quote) “land mine went-off under him.”  Of course, Dr. Stein agrees to help – exactly where they acquire these ‘extra’ limbs is anybody’s guess! – but when Dr. Stein’s butler Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) becomes infatuated with Doctress Walker, he mixes-up Eddie’s dose of regenerative DNA formula with an alternate, far-more-volatile concoction that unleashes the patient’s (quote) “prime evil” alter-ego, resulting in a sort of primeval throwback—yep, you guessed it… Blackenstein!

Resembling legendary makeup man Jack P. Pierce’s now-iconic Boris Karloff ‘square-top’ design, Blackenstein (or “The Black Frankenstein”, as per the film’s subtitle), also sports—what else, considering the era in which it was made!—an afro and designer clodhoppers; but, unlike Karloff’s memorably-nuanced performances as the ‘honky’ version, one-time-only performer Joe De Sue’s portrayal as the ill-fated ’Nam vet is as stiff and wooden as his soon-to-be lumbering gait is.  Old hand John Hart (former star of TV’s THE LONE RANGER [1950-1953]) is the only actor in the entire film who actually exhibits any modicum of talent.  Unfortunately, pretty leading lady Ivory Stone is just that—pretty—but other than for that mandatory attribute, she really doesn’t add much to the film, either.  Prolific character actor John Dennis (who also appeared in John Hayes’ zombie convict schlocker GARDEN OF THE DEAD [1972] the same year, and also later in Mel Brooks’ other Frankenstein spoof, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN [1974]) also makes an appearance under a pseudonym (“Bob Brophy”) as one of the absolute angriest and most-resentful hospital orderlies ever; who, naturally enough, receives his comeuppance in the end.  Showing-off her curves in a see-through negligee, former ‘mob moll / stripper’ Liz Renay also puts in an all-too-brief appearance as one of the monster’s victims.

Not unlike AIP’s far-more-slick-and-polished Blaxploitation horrors—such as William Crain’s BLACULA (1972), or even Paul Maslansky’s SUGAR HILL (1974)—BLACKENSTEIN also goes to great lengths to highlight the ‘horror’ aspects of its decidedly meagre, heavily-clichéd scenario, which even takes some unexpected liberties with the Frankenstein mythos, also borrowing elements from H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.  The gothic, castle-like location complete with candlelit corridors, darkened rooms and colourfully kitschy laboratory – which, as was trumpeted loudly and proudly in the fan publications of the time (Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland included, natch!) even reuses the bulk of Kenneth Strickfaden’s original ‘zapping’ laboratory equipment from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – appear daffily and delightfully out-of-place in modern-day Los Angeles, but it’s these anachronistic touches that help make BLACKENSTEIN the special treat it is.  When the uncontrollable Eddie – er, “Blackenstein”, I should say – ventures out into the darkened streets of L.A., the flick unexpectedly begins to resemble a Doris Wishman sleaze epic, showcasing loads of inexplicable shots of ambling feet, along with garish lighting, gratuitous nudity and even some sudden outbursts of gore. 

Rated PG?. Courtesy of The Fentonian Institute.  
Originally issued domestically on Beta/VHS tape in 1978 by MEDA, BLACKENSTEIN was reissued in those formats in 1984 by the newly-formed home videocassette distribution giant Media Home Entertainment (the company which MEDA morphed into).  The film finally appeared on DVD in 2003 from Xenon Pictures, but this was the same 87-minute, full-screen version that was contained in Media’s long out-of-print tape edition.  Officially licensed from Xenon, Severin – in conjunction with Vinegar Syndrome – have definitely come to the rescue of this ‘distinctive’ endeavor with a most impressive transfer of the original theatrical version (77m46s), a version which plays far better from a dramatic standpoint despite the shorter running time.  Shown in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer brings out a great deal of the film’s exuberant colour schemes and nighttime details, which were severely muddled/muddied in all previous versions; the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio also sounds clean and free of any hiss or distortion, which only accentuates the various instances of post-production looping.  Although, the leaner theatrical version is the way to go, Severin have also included the longer 87-minute ‘Video Release Version’ that incorporates their remastered theatrical version along with footage from a weathered ‘1-inch tape master’ for the additional and/or extended scenes. 

The plentiful extras begin with Monster Kid (19m02s), directed by Severin’s David Gregory, which is an informative, and ultimately quite touching, interview with Frank R. Saletri’s sister, June Kirk.  In it, she fondly remembers seeing (quote) “scary movies” at the local theatre with her brother, and goes on to discuss his early years in the U.S. Marine Corps and his eventual relocation to the Hollywood Hills, where he took up residence in Bela Lugosi’s former home, no less.  They also rummage through a number of his mothballed screenplays that never made it before the cameras, including “The Return of Frankenstein”, “Black the Ripper” and “The Skid Row Slasher”, to name only a few; and of course, she even delves into his mysterious – and still-unsolved – 1982 murder.  In addition, both director Ken Osborne and actor Robert Dix – who are being interviewed for an upcoming documentary on director Al Adamson, another exploitation filmmaker who died as a result of homicide – are also interviewed (6m36s) about their memories of Saletri.  In Bill Munns Created Frankenstein (9m13s), a nicely-illustrated audio interview with the titular makeup artist, Munns goes over his humble beginnings learning (quote) “prosthetics work”, and he even talks about Liz Renay, who was, according to him, “astonishingly uninhibited”.  The disc also includes an “Archive News Broadcast” (6m17s) which details the murder of Saletri, and finally, the featured movie’s theatrical trailer.


Scuzzy yet at the same time charmingly naïve, BLACKENSTEIN is an irresistibly lowbrow assimilation of classic monster movie tropes, which has finally been lovingly preserved for posterity by Severin’s outstanding Blu-ray.  Mr. Saletri would have been proud!  Order it directly from Severin (including an option which includes a T-shirt) or DiabolikDVD.

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