When it comes to connecting with a cult movie enthusiast, the mere mention of the blaxploitation genre can effectively inspire one’s ticker to start pumpin’ blood ‒ usually to the strains of a funky theme song we have come to adopt as our own over the years. For instance, if you so much as even say “Shaft” to me, you had best be prepared for my best Isaac Hayes impersonation. This also applies to the rarer horror subgenre of urban exploitation features, the best example of which would more than likely be AIP’s lovably ridiculous (but still right on track) take on a certain classic bloodsucker tale from 1972, Blacula ‒ which found a centuries-old black vampire (a victim of the original Count) loose in modern-day Los Angeles.
And then there’s the independently produced 1973 schlocker, Blackenstein. Released nearly a full year after AIP’s hip horror hybrid hit screens, the low-budget wonder from director William A. Levey ‒ the same man who would later helm the sleazy sci-fi sexploitation softie Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! as well as other late night cult classic favorites such as Hellgate, Slumber Party ’57, and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington ‒ Blackenstein contains very little (or none at all, depending of your point of view) of the charm, wit, or even heart you would find in other blaxploitation flicks. Not to infer that Blackenstein is inferior to Blacula, mind you. Even if it technically is.
I mean, sure, it’s an extremely bad movie, yes, but what makes this bizarre attempt at cashing-in on the urban movie craze of the early ’70s so intriguing is its particular method of (self) execution.
Rather than updating the story enough to bring it into modern times, Blackenstein prefers to pay its respect to the famous Boris Karloff film that inspired it. This is evident right from the start, as the opening scene proudly presents us with a look at the very same electrical equipment used in James Whale’s 1931 classic from that production, which would be seen again the following year in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (thank you, Ken Strickfaden, wherever you are). As it turns out, Blackenstein‘s writer/producer Frank R. Saletri, a former criminal lawyer who was trying to make a scene in Hollywood, had quite the fondness for vintage horror classics.
In fact, he even owned one of Bela Lugosi’s former homes; a residence which, much like Saletri’s film career (as well as Saletri himself), was doomed. But more on that later.
Saletri’s love for the old Hollywood becomes all the more apparent as soon as we realize the aged actor walking around the classic mad scientist laboratory is no other than veteran TV cowboy actor John Hart ‒ whose very casting as a Nobel Peace Prize scientist makes for a good deal of (subtly) unintentional humor in itself. Of course, when you’re in a movie called Blackenstein, there’s a fairly good chance you’re already miscast. Gradually, any and all expectations even a half-sane moviegoer may hold for seeing a truly great performance in this picture comes crashing down as soon as we meet the tale’s very interesting excuse for a monster: a paraplegic ‘Nam vet named Eddie.
Played less-than-convincingly played Joe De Sue, our titular creation was one of Saletri’s former clients, which makes one wonder what sort of offense he had previously committed in order to wind up in this mess. Here, in what would prove to be his only stint at that acting thing, Joe portrays a Vietnam soldier who somehow managed to blow off his arms and legs in a landmine explosion. One can only presume he was bending over to disarm it at the time, otherwise the logistics of the accident seem highly improbable. And while our poor limbless hero seems quite content with being taunted and verbally abused by racist abusive hospital orderlies, Fate has something entirely different lined up.
Fortunately, Hart’s good Dr. Stein (also see: Frankenstein’s Daughter) has solved the DNA genetic code (hence his Nobel, kids), so it’s entirely feasible he can graft new limbs onto Torso Joe. And thanks to the invaluable assistance of the wounded warrior’s fiancée, Dr. Winifred Walker (as played by one gorgeous lass credited as Ivory Stone, who also never appeared in another movie ‒ at least, not under that name), who used to be one of Dr. Stein’s pupils, they set out to do just that. Alas, Stein’s creepy butler (Roosevelt Jackson, whose low-pitched tone is so low, it barely picks up on the microphone half of the time) wants Winny all for himself, to wit he sabotages the operation.
Now, while it may sound like things actually “happen” before the Blackenstein monster ‒ complete with an afro that seems to grow in-between scenes ‒ goes on his cannibalistic killing spree, it is only then that the movie starts to show any signs that, in the words of the great Colin Clive, “It’s alive”. First, there’s the hilarious silhouetted disarming of the abusive hospital orderly, whom I am required by law to point out is classic character bit player John Dennis, who routinely played orderlies ‒ so much so, he would appear as one in two Mel Brooks features, including Young Frankenstein the following year! For some unimaginable reason here, however, ol’ John felt the need to use an alias.
Though this early on-screen death in a movie that is still shrouded in death today (again, more on that later) was obviously constructed with its low budget in mind, it’s rather surprisingly to see how much gore Blackenstein‘s makers originally inserted. And I use the word “originally” for a reason, kids, because somewhere along the way, most of the blood, guts, and goo got removed from the finished (?) product ‒ the logistics of which make about as much sense as Eddie Turner’s losing only his arms and legs in a landmine explosion, considering the very market and audience Blackenstein was created for.
But at least they left most (or all) of the nudity in, which not only includes bare offerings from the MIA Ivory Stone, but also the titillating talents of burlesque stripper (and former Saletri client) Liz Renay, who later popped up in John Waters’ 1977 cult favorite, Desperate Living.
For anyone who ever had the displeasure of seeing Blackenstein on VHS (or Betamax, if you were really lucky), there was a good chance you saw the film in a more complete form. Providing you could see anything to begin with, that is, as the analog master used to create the videocassette versions of the cult classic were about as murky as the film’s nonexistent message of hope. Fortunately, time tends to heal all wounds, even to the point of soothing the blow the average horror lover may have initially experienced at the hands of Blackenstein. I refer to, of course, this amazing new Blu-ray release from the titanic pairing of cult labels Severin Films and Vinegar Syndrome.
Blackenstein is presented in two cuts: the 78-minute theatrical version and the 87-minute home video cut. The prior presentation will be the preferred choice of many, since it’s the best the title will probably ever look. The second source, on the other transplanted hand, was culled from a 1-inch video master. While it may be the most complete cut (pun possibly intended) available of the gleefully dumb film, it is nevertheless of lesser quality. Frankly, it shouldn’t shock very many of you (much like the actual movie itself), as it still looks better than the old VHS copy I struggled in vain to make it all of the way through back in the analog era. Either way, the inclusion of both edits is most welcomed.
Accompanying both versions of the main feature are two audio selections: one in DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono, and another (unadvertised) in Dolby Digital 2.0. English (SDH) subtitles are only included for the theatrical edition of the film (and which could have stood with a little more proofreading). Amusingly enough, it is only when one reaches the special features for Blackenstein that it finally starts to get interesting. For you see, several years after launching his failed bid at being a filmmaker, reported karate black belt Frank R. Saletri was found murdered ‒ gangland execution style ‒ in his Hollywood Hills home. To this day, his death remains unsolved, although everyone seen in the extras has their own opinion.
The first bonus is an interview with Saletri’s younger sister, June Kirk. Replete with many photographs and memories, Ms. Kirk gives us a memorable impression of her late sibling, who can even be seen peering through a secret passageway in his old Bela Lugosi mansion (because of course Bela Lugosi had a secret passageway in his home!) in one image contained in this wonderful featurette. Next up is an archival news broadcast a year (or so) after Saletri’s unsolved demise, wherein the sensationalism is taken up a notch. Actors Ken Osborne and Robert Dix also discuss Saletri, in a short series of outtakes from Severin Films’ documentary on another murdered exploitation filmmaker, Al Adamson.
The only “title-specific” contribution to the selection of bonus materials here is an interview with special effects artist Bill Munns who later worked on Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead, Dan Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster, and Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing ‒ thus establishing the very strong possibility Bill was the only person in history Blackenstein actually opened a door for. As it is an audio-only interview, a series of classic stills has been stitched together. Lastly, we get the original theatrical trailer for the film, which is just as delightfully cheesy as one could ever hope for. Sadly, Saletri’s rumored other blaxploitation feature, Black the Ripper (!) has never been proven to actually exist, so it is not included here.
At least you can take some sort of solace in the notion that Blackenstein has somehow managed to withstand the test of taste and time alike. Naturally, I recommended it. Break open a bottle of something very strong and enjoy.