Skip to content

Plot: brillant scientist is thrown in time and meets Dr. Victor Frankenstein…

Frankenstein Unbound was part of a brief gothic horror revival with the likes of big budget features as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) as well as The Haunting (1999) and House on Haunted Hill (1999). That none have really stood the test of time speaks volumes in and of itself. No matter how you spin it, Hollywood’s attempt to resuscitate the old school gothic horror was met by audience distinterest. The most notorious of said revival was probably Frankenstein Unbound. Frankenstein Unbound, true to its nature as a down-market kitschy 1960s gothic throwback, is far closer to something as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963) than to the more serious (and pretentious, if we’re being the least bit honest) Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh gothics of the day. Twenty years after his failed World War I epic Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), at the ripe age of 64, Corman was lured back to directing and paid a handsome $1 million for his trouble. History would record Frankenstein Unbound as Corman’s final directorial effort. The Haunting Of Morella (1990) and Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (1995) had the decency to plaster everything with acres of skin whenever the plot stalled. Frankenstein Unbound has no such exploitative inclinations – and is much the worse for it.

There’s no real historical precedent to explain the sudden and brief resurgence of the gothic in the nineties other than that amidst the slasher, cannibal and zombie craze of the 80s an old school ghost flick seemed more than a bit redundant. By the dawning of the new decade the slasher, cannibal and zombie subgenres themselves were on the verge of extinction – and, within context of no other subgenre having risen to the occassion of replacing them, it’s almost logical that directors would look to the past for inspiration. Considering that science fiction was having something of a revival Brian Wilson Aldiss’ Monster trilogy was a gift from the gods. Frankenstein Unbound was the first of the trilogy that also included Moreau’s Other Island (1980) and Dracula Unbound (1991). The title of Aldiss’ novel being a portmanteau of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Producer Thom Mount from The Mount Company had set his sights on adapting Frankenstein Unbound. Who better than the man who produced all those Edgar Allan Poe gothics? Thus he approached Roger Corman with a budget of $11.5 million ($1 million entirely for Corman), some of the hottest stars of the day and a leisurely seven weeks which to shoot it in. Frankenstein Unbound was produced in alliance with Trimark Pictures and to be distributed domestically and abroad by 20th Century Fox. Part science-fiction, part gothic horror, and all camp Frankenstein Unbound fared poor at the box office making a meager $335,000. 20th Century Fox, in their infinite wisdom, canned all sequels.

The year is 2031. In New Los Angeles brilliant scientist Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) is demonstrating the prototype of a state-of-the-art particle beam weapon at the Hawkings Institute in California that he’s currently developing for the military. He assures observer General Reade (Mickey Knox) that his laser weapon will make enemy troops disappear. Buchanan’s own motives are more humanitarian in nature as he seeks to devise a weapon that will rid the world of all wars. The only side-effect is that the weapon causes massive atmospheric disturbances and time-slips. Driving home one day Buchanan becomes engulfed in one such disturbance and is whisked back to 19th century Geneva, Switzerland shortly after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In the village tavern he barters with the innkeeper (Geoffrey Copleston) for a meal and gleans from a newspaper that he’s in the year 1817. The man reading said newspaper is local nobleman Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raúl Juliá) and shortly thereafter Buchanan makes his acquaintance with budding novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon-to-be Shelley) (Bridget Fonda). Godwin is attending a trial where Frankenstein’s maidservant Justine Moritz (Catherine Corman) is found guilty of murdering the Baron’s younger brother. Orbiting around Godwin at their estate on Lake Geneva are fellow writers Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Michael Hutchence), the latter with whom Mary is romantically involved.

Unable to save Justine from the gallows Buchanan wows Mary with his computer-equipped sentient 1988 ItalDesign Aztec Roadster and shows her a copy of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus – the very manuscript she has just begun writing. Mary is backs away frightened by Joe’s vast knowledge of the future. One night Joe makes his acquaintance with Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth Lavenza (Catherine Rabett) and that same night happens upon Victor in the middle of a heated argument with his monster (Nick Brimble). The creature threatens to kill the entire village if its demands for a mate aren’t met. In retaliation the creature kills Catherine to force Victor into making her into a potential mate. Instead Frankenstein claims the reanimated Catherine as his own, sending the creature into a fit of rage. During its rampage Buchanan is able to blast it into the far future. After an arduous journey through a frozen wasteland Joe happens upon his abandoned laboratory where it dawns upon him that he is a Frankenstein of his own and that the very monster that he warned Victor against is one of his own making. His monster has become unbound and has turned the world he knew, or remembered, into a desolate frozen hellscape.

How Corman was able to rope in this many respectable A-list performers is anybody’s guess. The biggest names in the cast are John Hurt, Raúl Juliá, and Bridget Fonda. Hurt was in Alien (1979), The Elephant Man (1980), Night Crossing (1982), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Scandal (1989) and at the turn of the century he could be seen in, among many others, Lost Souls (2000), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), V for Vendetta (2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Juliá would break into the mainstream with The Addams Family (1991), Addams Family Values (1993) and the lamentable Street Fighter (1994). Fonda on her part was on the verge of making it big with Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather Part III (1990), the hit comedy Doc Hollywood (1991) (with Michael J. Fox), the thriller Single White Female (1992) (opposite of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Sam Raimi horror comedy Army of Darkness (1992), It Could Happen to You (1994) (with Nicholas Cage) and the Quentin Tarantino blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown (1997).

In supporting roles there are Jason Patric from The Lost Boys (1987), Sleepers (1996) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997); Catherine Rabett from The Living Daylights (1987), Michael Hutchence from Australian new wave/pop rock band INXS (he would be found dead from an apparent suicide in a Sydney Ritz-Carlton hotel room some seven years later), Geoffrey Copleston from Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969), Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976), the poliziottesco A Man Called Magnum (1977), Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III (1990); as well as John Karlsen from Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961), Terror in the Crypt (1964), the Barbara Steele gothic The She Beast (1966), The Insatiables (1969), The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).

No matter how much Frankenstein Unbound might pretend to be a throwback to the Edgar Allan Poe gothics of old that Corman made a name in, it’s very much a product of its time. What that means in practice is that it for long stretches at a time focuses more on the science fiction than the gothic horror that arguably was its strong suit. Instead of a bodice-ripping, blood-drenched gothic full of ancient family curses and decaying castles for some inexplicable reason it’s more interested in fancy cars, computers and green lasers. For all bad things that can be said about Kenneth Branagh’s pretentious Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) at least it had the guts to actually spill some actual guts (even if it were Helena Bonham Carter’s) when and where it mattered. It’s a sad day indeed when Jim Wynorski made the better gothic horror that year with his Corman produced The Haunting Of Morella (1990). Corman’s offering had the respectable A-listers but, more importantly, Wynorski had Lana Clarkson and Nicole Eggert and neither were shy about baring their boobs at every possible turn. Special effects man Nick Dudman and his crew were wise in keeping the grotesque monster design faithful to the book no matter how ridiculous it looked. The dialogue is campy, the visual effects have dated badly and the monster is defeated by handclap activated laser beams. You can’t get any cheesier than that. Frankenstein Unbound might have been pulp of the highest order but clearly everybody was having fun.

Frankenstein Unbound is both an anomaly and a curio for and in the decade it was produced in. It wasn’t as over-the-top, comedic nor gory as any of the slashers, zombie and cannibal flicks of the preceding decade; neither was it for that matter self-aware and meta enough to deconstruct the old Frankenstein story or how blatantly ridiculous Brian Wilson Aldiss’ upon which it based was. In a post-Hardware (1990) world Frankenstein Unbound is just a wee bit silly and for a modest budget Hollywood feature this could have been a whole lot worse. Corman’s direction is purely functional and doesn’t possess a whole lot of flair or individual style, but Corman as always more of a “behind the scenes” kind of guy. And who wouldn’t jump on the chance of getting a decent paycheck for something that he had perfected decades earlier? If Frankenstein Unbound is remembered for anything, it’s for Roger Corman directing for the last time. And maybe for the better too. Corman excelled at producing and recognizing young talent early on. As a director he isn’t bad, he just isn’t very special either. For once you’re better off checking out Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting Of Morella (1990). It might be equally as silly as a free-for-all gothic horror pastiche, but at least it’s not burdened by a completely unnecessary science fiction wrap-around story. Sometimes less is more.

Plot: martial arts instructor investigates the disappearance of her brother.

That Cirio H. Santiago would try his hand at blaxploitation should surprise no one. He after all was the man behind Terror Is A Man (1959), as well as the first partially colored Filipino gothic horror with The Blood Drinkers (1964) and its sequel Blood Of the Vampires (1966) (both with Amalia Fuentes). By the mid-seventies two things were big in drive-ins across America and grindhouses on New York’s 42nd street: blaxploitation and martial arts imports from the Far East. Santiago commenced establishing a footing in North America by co-producing The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and The Hot Box (1972) with and for Roger Corman. That in turn would give him the leverage to launch his own features through Corman’s distribution network. Before Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) there was Jean Bell and TNT Jackson, or the first of Santiago’s loose trilogy of topless kickboxing movies. Everything has a beginning, and Cirio H. Santiago kicked open all the doors with mad energy.

Never one not to be with the times TNT Jackson (released back home as Dynamite Wong and TNT Jackson and, understandably, abbreviated for the international market) is the perfect response to Hong Kong martial arts capers as The Tournament (1974) (with Angela Mao Ying) and Sister Street Fighter (1974) (with Etsuko Shihomi). Santiago would often play up his stars with (fabricated and very much non-existent) martial arts championship titles, and with the granddaddy of them all it’s no different. That Santiago teamed up with Roger Corman for North American distribution was a deal made in exploitation heaven. No wonder then that TNT Jackson has stood the test of time. By comparison Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) are more obscure. Santiago always had a talent for female-centric action and while Jean Bell hardly was a full-blooded action star she’s given plenty of opportunity to show off her chops.

Martial arts instructor Diana Jackson (Jean Bell, as Jeanne Bell) has traveled to Hong Kong to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her brother Stag. Landing in one of the seedier districts Jackson is almost immediately accosted by a bunch of street thugs. Jackson is able to hold her own but is picked up by Elaine (Pat Anderson) who just happens to be passing with her limo. Back in the city Diana seeks out the Joe’s Haven pub. There she quickly befriends retired martial arts instructor Joe (Augusto Valdes Pangan Sr., as Chiquito) and learns that her brother had fallen foul with the local drug cartel run by the American Sid (Ken Metcalfe, as Ken Metcalf). Diana crosses paths with Charlie (Stan Shaw) and sparks fly between the two. Ming (Joe Mari Avellana) warns Sid of the obvious danger Diana poses to their operation, especially now that Charlie’s enchanted with her. Elaine expresses her reservations about the way recent shipments have been handled. As Diana continues her investigation and deliveries are intercepted a senior cartel partner (Joonee Gamboa, as John Gamble) decides Jackson’s too much of a threat, and has his goons intercept her. Meanwhile Elaine reveals that she’s a deep undercover narcotics operative and that Sid ordered Charlie to kill Stag. Upon learning that the man she has been sleeping with is responsible for her brother’s senseless slaying TNT is forced to live up to her nickname and explodes in a blind rage…

At a brisk 72 minutes TNT Jackson does not have the luxury of fucking around, and it doesn’t. The plot, minimal as it is, is feeble even by lowly Santiago standards. The action choreography is laughable and bad and laughably bad at that. Nobody was expecting TNT Jackson to measure itself with Hong Kong or the average Robert Clouse epic, but even Death Promise (1977) had better action choreography. The routines are slow and brawlish with constant dancing around and no sense of pace, rhythm, or gravitas. No amount of rapid-fire editing can hide that Jean Bell had no background in martial arts. There were no less than 4 (!!) martial arts instructors on hand during production, but not one among them could apparently decently choreograph a single fight. Stan Shaw acquits himself with well enough but he was no Jim Kelly or Jim Brown, to say the least. The screenplay was a co-written by Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe and Richard Miller. Who’s Miller, you wonder? He was the gunshop owner in The Terminator (1984). Where Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) took their time to tie up loose ends, TNT Jackson doesn’t bother with such trivialities, or with much else for that matter.

The star (inasmuch as such a thing is possible with Santiago) was Playboy Playmate of the Month (October, 1969) Jean Bell. Bell worked with everybody from Martin Scorcese to Terence Young and Lee Frost and shared the screen with blaxploitation superstars as Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and D’Urville Martin. She can be seen in Mean Streets (1973) and The Klansman (1974) as well as blaxploitation crime/martial arts drive-in romps as Cleopatra Jones (1973), Policewomen (1974), Three the Hard Way (1974), The Muthers (1976), and Disco 9000 (1977). Bell was no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson but she was able to hold her own well enough regardless. Pat Anderson was in Bonnie's Kids (1972). Ken Metcalfe and Joe Mari Avellana were Santiago regulars. Metcalfe frequently worked with Eddie Romero and Bobby A. Suarez. He can be seen in Naked Fist (1981), Enter the Ninja (1981), Stryker (1983), Savage Justice (1988), and Angelfist (1993). Avellana was, among many others, in Wheels of Fire (1985), Silk (1986), and Silk II (1989). In short, there’s a lot of familiar faces here and for a Filipino production this looks decidedly American. Blaxploitation was the ticket and Santiago managed to capture the decade’s grindhouse drive-in zeitgeist. TNT Jackson is as lean, mean, and grimy as they come – and it never makes any excuses for what it is.

While Europe was mesmerized by the Italian gothic horror revival, the giallo explosion, Spanish fantaterrors, and Scandinavian sexploitation America experienced sweeping societal changes in the economic recession and collapse following the postwar boom. Social progressive values that sprung up in the previous decade grew stronger. Civil rights, women’s liberation, environmentalism, and anti-war protests erupted everywhere. No wonder then that urban revenge tales and underdog vigilante heroes became fixtures in cinema, mainstream and otherwise. On the one hand there were the biker counterculture flicks following Easy Rider (1969), LSD cinema in the wake of The Trip (1967), and gritty actioners on the model of either Dirty Harry (1971) or Death Wish (1974). The black community had their own cinematic heroes in the form of Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Richard Roundtree as Shaft (1971), and Pam Grier as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Bruce Lee had brought kung fu to North America with Enter the Dragon (1973) and following his untimely death Hong Kong imports were everywhere. Downtrodden and impoverished commoners fighting back against feudal oppressors was something that resonated across cultures. Martial arts was the language of the oppressed and disenfranchised demographics/communities (typically either African-American or Latino) embraced it wholeheartedly. In other words, TNT Jackson benefitted tremendously from the decade’s social upheaval and, retroactively, is very much a product of its time.

Seeing as how TNT Jackson almost immediately followed Foxy Brown (1974) there’s a degree of overlap between the two, intentional or otherwise. As said earlier, Bell was no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson yet thankfully TNT Jackson is a cut above, say, the average Serafim Karalexis chop sockey joint or poverty row revenge action as Road Of Death (1973). It speaks to the viability of a concept that Cirio H. Santiago would return to the same well over the ensuing decades and twice with Caucasian women in the starring roles. Were Jillian Kesner and Catya Sassoon better actresses? That’s debatable. Like Bell, Kesner was an exploitation veteran and Sassoon was famous mostly thanks due to her hair stylist/business tycoon father. Of the three Kesner was the better fighter and Bell could genuinely act. The talents (while considerable) of the late Sassoon lay elsewhere, fighting and acting generally not being among them. Quentin Tarantino kinda-sorta paid tribute to it with his Kill Bill (2003-2004) (in truth more of a Hong Kong valentine) and it certainly was ripe for the exploiting. Which raises the only real question left: when is Rene Perez going to remake this with Stormi Maya, Alanna Forte, or Elonda Seawood?