Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Frankenstein's Castle Of Freaks (1974)

Why in the hell would anyone ever put their faith in an assistant?  They are a uniformly untrustworthy breed of employee, as just about every version of the archetype has proven in both prose and visual media.  Fortunately, they are typically also deformed physically so as to show us their unfaithfulness without dint of anything approaching proof of any variety.  Unfortunately for the mad scientists and so on who hire them, the assistant is also craftier than his/her master.  And while the boss may wield the full powers of the supernatural from his very fingertips or be able to breathe the spark of life into a corpse (or collection of corpses), the assistant knows how to procure the raw materials needed to achieve the master’s goal.  Ever tried making veal piccata without the piccata?  Assistants are usually so sycophantic, because they want what their employer has, and as the old saying goes, if you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.  Besides, who knows better how to topple a giant than someone who knows the weakest spots on its body?  

Naturally, the other side of this coin is the assistant who actually values his/her master’s well-being above all else (think Waylon Smithers), though this makes them no less dangerous to other people (who have the major disadvantage of not being the boss).  The relationship between master and assistant is singular (just pray you’re on the master’s good side, though that doesn’t guarantee your safety, either).  Imagine my surprise, then, when Count Frankenstein (Rossano Brazzi) in Dick Randall’s Frankenstein’s Castle Of Freaks (aka Il Castello Della Paura aka Terror Castle aka The House Of Freaks, etcetera, etcetera) has not one, not two, not three, but four assistants, all of them creepy, duplicitous, and ugsome(except for Gordon Mitchell’s Igor, who is the very exemplar of a Mitchell-ian granitic performance).

The film opens in media res with a bunch of villagers (including one in a pair of designer blue jeans and a plain white dress shirt) surrounding and being attacked by a caveman (Loren Ewing) who is later named Goliath.  Once the creature has been felled, Frankenstein and his cronies make off with his corpse and perform some enigmatic procedure on it.  They next dig up a woman’s corpse for some nebulous reason, though dwarf Genz (Dr. Loveless himself, the Oscar-nominated Michael Dunn) just can’t stop himself from groping one of her breasts.  The Count’s daughter Maria (Simonetta Vitelli) soon shows up with beau Eric (Eric Mann) and friend Krista (Christiane Rücker), and things turn even odder.

It’s interesting to me; for as much as the very concept of sleaze is important to this film (I would even argue it was the chief reason it was produced in the first place), the filmmakers didn’t go for the brass ring like they could have.  The women get naked throughout the film, and there’s some groping and mud bathing, but it’s also some pretty chaste stuff.  Considering the movie came from Italy (though admittedly [and curiously] directed by an American), home to some of the great cinematic sleaze-meisters, one would think the kinkier aspects would have been played up more.  Nonetheless, the film feels as though they wanted to go for it, but they held back for some undisclosed reason.  Genz watches Frankenstein’s daughter and guests from behind the walls of their rooms.  He’s called a necrophiliac outright, though the only nod we get to this particular quirk is the aforementioned feel-copping.  The majority of the film’s skeeziness comes from the voyeurism of its characters, not their overt participation in specific acts, and the majority of this voyeurism is partaken by the uglier male characters.  Because they are unattractive, the implication is that they are impotent.  Ergo, their only source of sexual gratification is the act of gazing at better-looking (I won’t say “beautiful,” per se) people having successful sexual encounters or reveling in the sensuality of their own bodies (like in, say, a milk bath).  Naturally, the act of looking will eventually give way to action, but even with their ardor up, these males prove as incompetent as they are flaccid.

The film goes to great lengths to emphasize the doings and intrigues of what we would normally consider to be the background characters over bestowing any sort of depth to the main characters.  Bug-eyed Hans (Luciano Pigozzi) hates Genz and wants him gone.  Hunchbacked Kreegin (Xiro Papas) is secretly tagging Hans’s homely wife Valda (Laura De Benedittis), who, incidentally, likes her loving a bit on the rough side.  It’s almost like a gothic soap opera, just with Frankenstein and live cavemen in the mix.  In this sense, it truly is a castle of freaks, since it’s the bizarre assistants who are the focus.  They’re the only characters who seem to display any type of emotion.  Despite the cooing and lovemaking in which the “normal” people partake, it is they who are cold and fairly soulless, on the whole.  The Frankenstein’s Monster facet of the film, which one would think is the whole reason to make a film with the Baron’s/Count’s name in the title in the first place, is not only secondary to the film entirely, but it comes within a hair’s breadth of being superfluous in total, except for the required finale carnage quotient (try saying that three times fast) he fulfills.

Frankenstein’s Castle Of Freaks is an outré mashup of clichés, and there is much in it that is simply unexplained.  Where did this Goliath come from?  Where did the other caveman, Ook (played by Salvatore Baccaro under the outstanding pseudonym of Boris Lugosi; the only thing that could make this cooler would be if Fleming played Goliath under the name Bela Karloff), come from, and do the two cavemen know each other?  What happened to the woman’s corpse from the film’s opening scenes?  Why is there a mineral bath in the middle of Ook’s cave, and why is it okay to bathe in for only short periods of time, and how did Ook never discover this before if Maria likes going there so much?  The filmmakers bring up these oddities, drop them onscreen, and then just leave them dangling in the wind without explanation.  The audience begins to connect dots in their minds which may or may not actually be present in the work (more than likely not), and damn it all if these ludicrous elements don’t make what is essentially a slipshod piece of schlock filmmaking into a bona fide curiosity.  It may never make any sense whatsoever in the grand scheme of things, but it still compels as a filmic anomaly, a Fiji mermaid to be marveled at from one side of the glass, studying the obvious stitching while willing it to be the genuine article.

Make Or Break:  The very first shot of the film thrusts the viewer into an outlandish tableau, and it is our choice to either accept it and go along or to laugh and dismiss everything that follows.  Oddly, either reaction would be valid with this particular piece, and it could even be argued that these reactions may co-exist in the same moments throughout.  This is trash, but it’s oddly engaging trash.

MVT:  The best bits of this film are those which are the most abstruse, specifically because they resist being defined or even acknowledged.  I mean, who would ever think to put Neanderthals in the same movie with Doctor (sorry, Count) Frankenstein and a pervy, pint-sized necrophile?  The makers of this little gem, apparently.

Score:  6.25/10

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