Blackenstein (Blu-ray)

BlackensteinStarring Ivory Stone, John Hart, Joe De Sue

Directed by William A. Levey

Distributed by Severin Films

After the deserving success of Blacula (1972), the only surprise to filmgoers should have been that more Universal classic monsters weren’t “blackified” to ride those cash coattails. Where was “The Invisible Black Man”? That’s a premise just begging for institutional racism jokes. Aside from one other notable title, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1975), no more minority monster features were produced save for one, Blackenstein (1973) – which, as the opening credits point out in Captain Obvious fashion, is short for “The Black Frankenstein”… which is also a bit incorrect since the scientist here is white, and named Dr. Stein, so “The Black Dr. Stein’s Monster” would have been more accurate. But forgive my pedantic digression. Combining elements of the still-fresh wounds of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and madcap science, Blackenstein is actually halfway (OK, quarterway) decent in spite of the amateurish production, across the board bad acting, and wildly inconsistent stock score.

Physicist Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) pays a visit to her former mentor, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for “solving the DNA genetic code”, Dr. Stein (John Hart), on behalf of her boyfriend, Eddie (Joe De Sue). Back in Vietnam, Eddie stepped on a landmine and lost his arms and legs (despite the framing of some shots showing viewers otherwise…) and Winifred is hoping Dr. Stein’s radical new treatments may be able to help her doormat-with-a-brain boyfriend live out a normal life. A tour of Dr. Stein’s lavish castle home is where he shows off his success stories, like Eleanor (Andrea King), a ninety-year-old woman who doesn’t look a day over fifty, and Bruno (Nick Bolan), a man who had his lower legs re-attached thanks to “laser beam fusion”… although a problem with corrupted RNA caused one of his limbs to turn tiger-striped. Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson), Dr. Stein’s assistant, takes a liking to Winifred but he turns sinister very quickly when she rebuffs his advances.

Dr. Stein receives Eddie’s permission to begin the procedure and within no time he has new limbs attached where his old ones once hung. But there’s a fly in the ointment: Malcomb, who sabotages the DNA solution with contaminated RNA, causing Eddie to devolve into a hulking brute with a diminished mental capacity. Eddie stumbles out of Dr. Stein’s castle and into town, where he first kills his old orderly, a nasty old white dude who got his rocks off tormenting Eddie during his stay in the hospital. Makes sense he’d want to ice the guy. Each night Eddie sets out to claim fresh victims, but he returns to the castle in time for his morning injections of DNA solution. Dr. Stein is none the wiser, assuming Eddie is just another patient recovering in gallery of success stories. Eventually the cops deduce the killer must be linked to Dr. Stein – because of logistics – and before long Eddie’s secret is revealed and his anger sends him on a frenzy of dismemberment and death.

The first time I saw Blackenstein was at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn around 2004. As bad as the film looked on the shelves, the sole reason it was rented is because my friend’s mother, Dale E. Bach, plays the blonde in a dune buggy that gets her throat torn out. Getting to that point, which is near the end of the film, was an endurance test I failed. Pretty sure I was woken up when the scene finally occurred because my recollection of everything preceding it is foggy. Although that just as easily could have been all the weed we were smoking, which is an enjoyment factor I’m going to suggest because Blackenstein works best when viewers can lose themselves in the haze of sheer absurdity. The film never embraces one genre, jumping between horror, blaxploitation, comedy, and drama; taking viewers on a slow, strange trip that will leave brains as melted as Eddie’s.

As easy as it might be to rag on the film there are some appreciable touches throughout that prevent director William A. Levey’s film from being complete trash. Racism is present and dealt with in gruesome fashion, providing some potential catharsis for viewers. Dr. Stein is presented as altruistic and not quite the mad doctor of James Whale’s 1931 feature. Seeing some of Dr. Stein’s experiments harkened back to Dr. Pretorius’ work in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), albeit far less weird than tiny people on jars. In fact, some of the laboratory equipment seen here was used in the original Frankenstein. Cinematographer Robert Caramico pulls off a handful of inventive shots that add some production value to the picture, too. All of these positives may still not outweigh the campiness, bad acting, questionable FX, and poor editing but I can honestly say even if Blackenstein isn’t a great time at the movies it is, at the very least, a fun one.

There are two cuts of the film included here: the 78-minute theatrical release and an 87-minute home video version. Additions made to the home video release have survived via 1” tape and, as a helpful text card from Severin that precedes the film explains, the scenes added in are of rough quality and do not match the look of the theatrical cut. They also slow the film to a Frankenstein-like crawl, padding out scenes and causing the feature to drag on with needless chatter and useless exposition. Mostly. A few of the extra beats add some value to the film but overall, for this movie, you’re better off sticking with the tighter cut.

The 1.78:1 1080p image does, as explained above, vary wildly depending on which version is chosen. The theatrical cut is the most consistent, with stable colors, moderate fine detail in close-ups, and a heavy but fitting grain structure. Black levels are very dark – almost too much so because detail is easily obscured under the cloak of night. You can barely make out Blackenstein as he stalks the L.A. streets. There are no notes as to the restoration that took place for this release though it is clear Severin has put forth some effort into polishing this turd. The home video release inserts are very rough and look akin to VHS more than anything. This is not a massive effort to restore a longer cut, a la Scream Factory’s Nightbreed (1990); think of it more like Scream Factory’s The Exorcist III (1990) director’s cut. Its inclusion is a very nice addition by Severin, though unless you are a hardcore fan the better-looking theatrical cut should suffice.

Audio fares a bit better with an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track on both versions. Dialogue often comes through clear and with few audible issues, although the clear ADR work does stand out a bit, too. The soulful soundtrack, or at least the few moments of soul, ground the picture firmly in its intended genre, while the library source cues sound cobbled together with little regard for their flow within the feature. Dialogue and score take a quality dip on the home video version, being sourced from a rough tape and all. There is no set-up menu but some toggling of the audio button will reveal an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track with English subtitles.

“Monster Kid – Interview with Writer/Producer Frank R. Saletri’s Sister, June Kirk” – The life of Saletri was an interesting one, but not so much as his death, a murder that is still unsolved to this day. Here, his sister fondly remembers her brother and speaks at length about his life.

“Archive News Broadcast on the Murder of Frank R. Saletri” is a fascinating 1982 piece that looks at the murder of Saletri and subsequent investigation. And man, compared to today’s “journalism” this piece is award winning. Very informative.

“Producers/Directors/Actors Ken Osbourne & Robert Dix Remember Frank R. Saletri” features a couple of the late producers colleagues, in two separate interviews, talking about their friend and his work.

“Bill Created Blackenstein – Interview with Creature Designer Bill Munns” is a phoned-in discussion with the film’s FX artist, featuring behind-the-scenes photos as he talks at length about his work.

A theatrical trailer is also included.

Special Features:

  • Theatrical Release Version (78 Mins.) and Video Release Version (87 Mins.)
  • Monster Kid: Interview with Writer / Producer Frank R. Saletri’s Sister, June Kirk
  • Archive News Broadcast On The Murder Of Writer / Producer Frank R. Saletri
  • Producers / Directors / Actors Ken Osborne And Robert Dix Remember Writer / Producer Frank R. Saletri
  • Bill Created Blackenstein: Interview With Creature Designer Bill Munns
  • Original Theatrical Trailer


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Anthony Arrigo

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