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Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Plot: the sins of the father shall be visited upon the daughter

Lady Frankenstein is another of the many Italian gothic horror potboilers with the always enchanting Rosalba Neri in the titular role. Based upon a story by Dick Randall, and written by, among others, Edward Di Lorenzo and directed by Mel Welles (and an uncredited Aureliano Luppi), Lady Frankenstein boasts an international cast including faded Hollywood star Joseph Cotten, exploitation regulars Paul Müller, Herbert Fux, and Mickey Hargitay. Lady Frankenstein stays true to the basic tenets of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel and oozes with enough rustic gothic horror charm, and a surprising amount of Neri nudity, to compensate for the somewhat lackluster script and a distinct lack of striking visuals.

Director Mel Welles had worked for exploitation mogul Roger Corman for over a decade by the time Lady Frankenstein was put into production. According to an interview with Welles in the 2007 Louis Paul tome Tales from the Cult Film Trenches one of the producers – Harry Cushing, a well-to-do American living in Italy - had a thing for Neri and built Lady Frankenstein, originally from a script called Lady Dracula, as a project specifically with her in mind. Neri did not reciprocate Cushing’s advances. When some of the financing fell through at the last minute Roger Corman stepped in. Despite not having a solid script when principal photography began, and the involvement of no less than six writers (Umberto Borsato, Edward Di Lorenzo, Egidio Gelso, Aureliano Luppi, Dick Randall, and Mel Welles), Lady Frankenstein never devolves into incoherence despite a minimum of plot.

In Lady Frankenstein Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) and his assistant Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Müller) have at long last mastered the ability to revive an exanimate subject. In a revolutionary transplant, lifted wholesale from The Giant Of Metropolis (1961) and later repurposed in Marino Girolami’s cynical cross-genre exercise Zombi Holocaust (1981) a decade after this pompous gothic horror romp, the two scientists will place the brain of the soon-to-be-hung Jack Morgan (Petar Martinov) in a recombined body they prepared earlier. Lecherous vulture, part-time grave robber and full-time creep, Tom Lynch (Herbert Fux) is overjoyed at the idea of his old enemy finally becoming of use to him. Lynch assists both scientists in bringing their experiments to fruition as long as there is a monetary compensation. Throwing caution to the wind, and against Marshall’s protests, Frankenstein senior is adamant in commencing the experiment regardless of the circumstances.

At that point the Baron’s college graduate daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri, as Sara Bay), now bearing a degree in medicine from the same faculty that ousted her father many years prior, arrives at the old homestead. Despite a quarter century age gap the middle-aged Marshall has been pining for Tania for several years. Tania immediately puts her comely charms to use, winding Marshall around her finger, while getting wind of her father’s dabbling in illicit necro-biologic experiments. As the Creature (Peter Whiteman) becomes animate Marshall leaves to summon Tania to witness the resurrection. This leaves the geriatric Frankenstein to the mercy of the Creature’s super-human strength. As Tania and Marshall return to the laboratory they find the lifeless body of Frankenstein the elder, and the Creature having fled into the nearby woods. Soon the Creature’s rampage prompts an investigation by Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay). In a three-way power struggle for survival Tania, Lynch, and Harris attempt to outwit each other.

As it turns out Tania does admire Marshall, but not on the way he probably imagined, or desires. Tania has taken a liking to feebleminded but able-bodied stableboy Thomas (Marino Masé) and by her reasoning Thomas’ frame with Marshall’s brain as a guide would form the ultimate countermeasure against the elder Frankenstein’s homicidal Creature. Tania’s seduction (and corruption) of Thomas foreshadows Neri’s work in The Devil’s Wedding Night two years later. In a plot scribbled from James Whale’s The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) Tania builds a second creature not for her late father’s Creature, but for herself. “Who is this irresistible creature who has an insatiable love for the dead?asked the poster and Tania, in the form of seductress Rosalba Neri, fits that descriptor like no other. To nobody’s surprise Frankenstein the younger is forced to betray her creation, and Lady Frankenstein ends in a sizzling climax, both literal and figurative, that leaves Harris, thwarted at every turn, picking up the pieces.

Joseph Cotten, an American actor in his twilight years, had appeared in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and The Third Man (1949), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), the Richard Fleischer science fiction classic Soylent Green (1973) with Charlton Heston, Airport ’77 (1977) alongside George Kennedy and Gone With the Wind (1939) star Olivia de Havilland, and Michael Cimino’s big-budget western fiasco Heaven’s Gate (1980). From 1971 onward Cotten frequently appeared in low-budget Italian exploitation shlock. In 1969 Rosalba Neri had figured into a trio of Jesús Franco productions with the likes of Luciana Paluzzi, Maria Rohm, and Christopher Lee but also starred in the offshore giallo Top Sensation with Edwige Fenech. Neri appeared in the Fernando di Leo giallo The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971). A year after Lady Frankenstein Neri starred another gothic horror piece with L'Amante del Demonio (1972), and The French Sex Murders (1972) with Anita Ekberg and Evelyne Kraft, later of The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and Lady Dracula (1977). In 1973 Neri graced the screen, alongside Mark Damon, in the gothic horror throwback The Devil’s Wedding Night.

Swiss actor Paul Müller made uncredited appearances in respectable productions as El Cid (1961), and Barabbas (1961) before becoming a pillar in continental European exploitation cinema, primarily in Italy and Spain, through turns in Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1956), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965) with Helga Liné, Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) with Rosanna Yanni, and in the Jesús Franco productions Eugénie (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with Soledad Miranda, and Diana Lorys. Hungarian actor Mickey Hargitay, father of Emmy and Golden Globe winner Mariska from long-running police procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999), ended up in the Italian exploitation industry and had appeared in Revenge Of the Gladiators (1964), Bloody Pit Of Horror (1965), and The Reincarnation Of Isabel (1973). Marino Masé debuted in the peplum comedy The Rape Of the Sabines (1961) with Roger Moore, and appeared in Nightmare Castle (1965), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990).

Herbert Fux was a veteran of German TV and cinema, having appeared in popular series as Tatort (1972), Der Alte (1980), der Bergdoktor (1992), and mainstream cinema hits such as The Three Musketeers (1993) and Astérix & Obélix contre César (1999). In exploitation circles he appeared in some of the Kommissar X action/adventure movies through out the 1960s, and a few Tiroler sex comedies from Franz Josef Gottlieb and Alois Brummer in the 1970s, and uncredited in the budget-deprived Lady Dracula (1977) opposite of Evelyne Kraft. Fux portrayed the Devil that copulated with nubile starlet Susan Hemingway in the Jesús Franco production Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (1977). Fux was dubbed in the English language version by director Mel Welles, himself an experienced actor.

One of the more interesting aspects of Lady Frankenstein is its pronounced feminist angle, which isn’t strange considering its release that coincided with the Women’s Liberation movement that was gaining momentum in 1971. Tania Frankenstein is, for good or ill, an emancipated, highly intelligent, determined, coldly calculating woman that will stop at absolutely nothing - including murder - to finish her late father’s experiments on reanimating the dead, or acquire the man she craves. From the moment she is introduced, and especially after her father’s passing near the half hour mark, all men, in one way or the other, become subservient to her whims. Tania’s ambition and desire to vindicate her father’s theories eventually pushes her into the same god-like madness that can only lead to death and destruction. As the only character worthy of an arc it is Tania that becomes the crux in the travails in each of her male co-players. The men that circle around Tania are either bottomfeeders (Lynch), boytoys (Thomas), useless idiots (Harris) or willing accomplices (Marshall). In a Freudian slip that results in her killing Tania exclaims “Thomas!” in a particular passionate lovemaking session with the Marshall-Thomas creature, unleashing jealous rage in its the latent Marshall part.

While not among the worst of Frankenstein adaptations Lady Frankenstein is emblematic of gothic horror of the day. It's portentous and heavy on that rustic Hammer Horror atmosphere but on a fraction of the budget. The distinguished presence of Joseph Cotten and the always alluring Rosalba Neri can only carry the rudimentary script so far. Like Spanish production Necrophagus (1971) it is thick in atmosphere, but seldom yields any heart-stopping visuals or arresting imagery. It's functional and competently directed, but rarely inspired as such. There's enough Neri nudity but Lady Frankenstein never aspires to the pompous erotic heights of The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). Rosalba Neri had appeared in better movies, both before and after, Lady Frankenstein. The score by Alessandro Alessandroni is majestic and gloomy in equal measure. Neri's presence might make it of interest to Italian gothic horror fans, or completists - but Lady Frankenstein probably wouldn't be remembered today if it weren't for her portraying the titular character.

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