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“Flesh For Frankenstein” pushes the boundaries of science, 3D, and good taste

Paul Morrissey’s disgusting and hilarious take on the classic tale screens (in 3D!) in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on April 30.
Header Image: Baron Von Frankenstein (Udo Kier) and his assistant Otto (Arno Jürging) exchange suspicious looks while Otto guides the female monster (Dalila di Lazzaro) to her seat at the dinner table while the male monster (Srdjan Zelenovic) waits in the corner. Nicolas (Joe Dallesandro) serves a dish that is obscured by two glass candelabras and a floral centerpiece on the table, while Erik (Marco Liofredi) turns his head away to look at his father. Both monsters wear linen clothing covered by metal harnesses lined with flesh-colored fabric, while the others are dressed in 19th century evening formal wear. A oxidized copper statue of a nude figure holding grapes sits at the far left of the frame.

Paul Morrissey’s disgusting and hilarious take on the classic tale screens (in 3D!) in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on April 30.

Frankenstein… you know the name from author Mary Shelley, associated with the birth of science fiction as a genre. The tale has been retold by many generations of filmmakers, from J. Searle Dawley in 1910, to the most well-known, James Whale’s 1931 version, with other interpretations from filmmakers as diverse as Roger Corman, Kenneth Branagh, and Ishiro Honda. But one version pops out among the list of adaptations, and that is Frankenstein 3D, also known as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Flesh For Frankenstein. Paul Morrissey’s 1973 version is the only X-rated version in 3D, which allows audiences to experience the nude human body and spilling of guts from the screen in all their eye-popping, grotesque splendor as never before. UW Cinematheque is providing a local opportunity to view this cinematic oddity in all its 3D glory on Saturday, April 30, at 7 p.m.

Here, in Morrissey’s version, Doctor Frankenstein is played by German actor Udo Kier (in his first leading role, before going on to rack up hundreds more screen credits). His Baron Von Frankenstein is an aristocrat who is married to his own sister (Monique Van Vooren) and wants to breed monsters to create a race of slaves. (What else do the upper classes want?) The couple has two children who rarely speak, Erik (Marco Liofredi) and Monica (Nicoletta Elmi). With this introduction, Morrissey takes every opportunity to take some swipes at European royalty—the Frankenstein family, clearly, is hopelessly perverse and prone to Habsburg-level inbreeding.

Our heroic counterpoint to the corrupt upper classes is Joe Dallesandro’s Nicolas, a farmhand with a healthy sex drive who sticks around to try to find out who took the head of his friend (Srdjan Zelenovic), which actually later appears on a bigger body after being subject to the Baron’s experiments. Liu Bosisio rounds out the eclectic cast as the mute maid (she requested to have no dialogue as she doesn’t speak English) as well as Dalila di Lazzaro as the female monster, and Arno Jürging as Otto, the Baron’s lab assistant.

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The circumstances of the production mirror the story of a deranged loner assembling something he didn’t realize the full implications of until it was too late. Famed Italian producer Carlo Ponti wanted to produce a movie using newly available 3D cameras. Through the intermediary of British producer Andrew Braunsberg, Ponti approached Roman Polanski with the possibility of developing a feature. Polanski and Braunsberg came to the conclusion that, due to the nature of the 3D camera equipment, doing long takes would be the most cost-effective. Polanski put forward the name of Paul Morrissey, who had become known for long takes in his direction of Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972), under the banner of Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, which had been making the rounds on the underground film circuit in the US and beyond. Ponti likely didn’t see the films themselves, but noticed how cheaply they were made and the return on investment, and so he set up a meeting with Morrissey.

The anecdote goes like this: Ponti suggested they make a 3D version of Frankenstein, and asked Morrissey how much money he would need to do it. Morrissey pulled the figure of $300,000 out of thin air, which was significantly more of a budget than he had ever had. Ponti replied that he should make two films at that rate, so why not do a Dracula picture as well (thus the follow-up, 1974’s Blood For Dracula, also starring Kier in the title role). But there were some stipulations: they needed to film in Italy at Cinecitta studios, and the production would only allow one American actor (Dallesandro) with the rest of the cast being European, and the 3D camera would have to be operated by someone contractually obligated and approved by the company that held the patent.

Originally planning to work with no formal script, only an outline, Morrissey quickly realized he had to do more planning, and wrote the day’s dialogue while being driven to set each morning. In later interviews, Morrissey speaks bitterly of his relationship with Warhol, who did little more than party it up in Italy and slap his famous name on the production while Morrissey did all the work (according to him). He also claims to be the only person in the history of cinema to have this unique working method, but it, in all honesty, shares some similarities to the methods of Tsai Ming-Liang or even David Lynch during the production of Inland Empire (2006). Morrissey also had the help of in-house Cinecitta technicians and production designers (famed monster-maker Carlo Rambaldi among them).

In any case, the result is both disgusting and hilarious. Kier has a particularly funny exclamation after feeling up the female monster’s internal organs while breathing heavily. Morrissey makes sure to show things that wouldn’t have been socially permissible in the previous heyday of 3D projection in the ’50s, like sexual acts, nude feet that jut out at you, and organs without a body. This particularly innovative and perverse use of 3D stands in a class with Gaspar Noe’s Love (2015) and Jackass 3D (2010). This new restoration, provided by the 3D Film Archive and Vinegar Syndrome, promises a good time on a Saturday night, oohing and aahing with your fellow UW Cinematheque patrons.

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