Lady Frankenstein

Director: Mel Welles
Joseph Cotten, Rosalba Neri, Paul Muller

If you have been around the motion picture block plenty of times as I have, no doubt you have noticed that there are plenty of certain kinds of characters filmmakers love to resurrect over and over. For example, the western genre loves to use "the lone and mysterious gunman who comes out of nowhere to enact his own particular kind of justice". But there are other movie characters even older that than. There is the "lovable loser who eventually makes good" character that had its roots in the silent era with comic performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton repeatedly playing this character type. But the old character type that I really want to talk about is the "mad scientist" character. This has its roots back in the silent era too, and was equally popular in the early talkies era and long beyond, even to this present day and age of ours. No doubt you have come across this particular kind of character in many movies before, so I don't think I have to name sample films with this character, or how the character often does and acts. Why has this particular character been so popular since the beginning of film? Well, I think one reason is that the character often portrays simultaneously two kinds of extremes - intelligence and madness. Certainly, each of those extremes can make an outside person wary of the mad scientist. When someone is mad, they can be very unpredictable, and they could possibly make an action to harm someone. When a person is intelligent, they have a great power over their fellow man, and they might decide to use their power to be in a position of power over other people. In short, a mad scientist can be a double threat, and the more threatening someone in a movie can be, the more interesting they can be for an audience.

But I think the biggest reason why mad scientists have been so popular in movies since the dawn of film is that they are so gosh-darn fun. With just a little thought, one will realize that the mad scientists usually are out to start and complete a scheme that is so outlandish and beyond what we usually associate with science, we can't help but be entertained by that scheme. Also, what is entertaining are the scientists themselves. Some certainly go over the top with their performances, but others play it straight in a way that you are amazed that the actors didn't burst out laughing while trying to stay stern and serious. Anyway, what I really want to discuss is that all cinematic mad scientists owe a big debut to a particular fictional mad scientist, and that is Victor Frankenstein from the 1818 Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus. Even if you haven't read the novel, you no doubt know what mad scientist Victor Frankenstein whipped up in his laboratory, and the consequences of doing so. Even more than two hundred years later, the novel still manages to influence modern mad scientist movies. Why is that? I think that one reason is that Frankenstein decides to do something that seems almost God-like and beyond the typical reach of a normal person. In a way, Frankenstein is beyond human, so we look on upon him with both fascination and dread. Another reason is that of the monster he creates. It's a fascinating creature, one that tries many times to be good, but is simply rejected by most humans despite its good intentions. And because of this, the monster eventually builds a dark side that makes it dangerous. We look on with a wary but fascinating eye on Frankenstein's creation as well.

Knowing all this, it's no wonder that Shelley's novel has long had influence on mad scientist films. There is still some influence even with the mad scientist movies that announce a more direct link to Shelley's novel but ultimately use little of the plot that was in the original novel. For example, the Lady FrankensteinPeter Cushing Frankenstein movies made by the Hammer studio basically just use the basic theme over and over with a lot of new material mixed in. Though don't get me wrong - those Frankenstein Hammer movies were a lot of fun all the same. My good memories of those particular Hammer Frankenstein movies made me recently look for something similar, though made by another production firm. When I learned about Lady Frankenstein, its plot promised a novel twist on the mad scientist formula. Let me explain by telling you the plot. Deep in Europe in the 19th century, Dr. Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane) and his aging assistant Charles (Paul Muller) are expectedly hard at work with their desire to reanimate corpses. Not long afterwards, Frankenstein's adult daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri, The Arena) returns home to her father after schooling in medicine, and she hopes to join her father in his secret reanimating experiments. But not long afterwards, a corpse that the senior Frankenstein and Charles have constructed is successfully brought back to life, but almost immediately afterwards kills Frankenstein and escapes. Things look pretty bleak now for the Frankenstein name, but Tania eventually comes up with an idea. She convinces Charles that they should murder her father's feeble-minded but handsome servant Thomas, and then she will transplant Charles' brain into Thomas' corpse, with the promise of a lot of sex afterwards. But while all of this is going on, the local law official Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay, Bloody Pit Of Horror) suspects something is going on at the Frankenstein estate, and is determined to find out just what exactly it is.

I've got to make a confession: I have never read the original Frankenstein novel. But I did read a pseudo Classic Comics type of version as a child, and in subsequent years I learned many additional details of the novel. So I think that I do have a good grasp of the spirit of Shelley's novel. Now that you know that, you may wonder if I thought that Lady Frankenstein captured that spirit. Well, as you might have guessed, it doesn't for the most part. To be fair, the movie could have been made in a much more exploitive manner than what we actually get here. When it comes to blood and gore, the movie displays this red stuff very infrequently as well as showing it in a not terribly explicit display. Purists of Shelley's novel may be relieved, but I imagine other audience members will be very disappointed. On the other hand, the purists may be upset about a few scenes of sex and nudity, while just about everyone else will find this a pretty welcome addition. But whether you welcome or not the R-rated material, by the end of the movie you'll probably agree with me that the movie was drained by its makers of any of Shelley's spirit. There are a number of ways that the movie does this, but I think that main way the movie stumbles is that it fails to generate the same feeling of obsession that was in the novel. In the novel, Frankenstein was obsessed with making the monster, and after he was successful, Frankenstein spent the rest of the story obsessed with controlling the monster. And the monster was first obsessed with being accepted by humanity, then later was obsessed with wanting a mate as well as with getting revenge against his maker.

But there is none of that feeling of obsession in Lady Frankenstein. The Victor Frankenstein in this movie seems to regard his quest to generate life almost as a side activity not deserving of his full attention. Other parts of the movie that should have some of that feeling of obsession, or some other kind of feeling that should have bite, fall flat. A public hanging is treated casually, the murder of the servant Thomas feels very soft, and the essential scene where Tania makes her very own creation is woefully lacking any kind of suspense or chills. A lot of this failure of any strong motion appearing falls on the shoulders of director Mel Welles (Joy Ride To Nowhere). Welles does get some help generating a good feeling of a specific environment when a scene is shot on a fairly impressive set (the laboratory looks very nice) or outdoor location. But scenes where you would think it would be easy to generate more of a spark (such as when Frankenstein's creation stalks and kills people) seem out of reach for him. Also, while the movie starts promisingly with a zippy pace, things soon start to slow down considerably, so much so that at times it's clear that the story and the characters are not progressing for long periods of time. To be fair to Welles, it seems that the script is just as much to blame for how the movie does not work. The story, when not slow, progresses in a choppy manner, with sudden leaps in time as well as clearly missing some key moments. We are told at one point that villagers shot Frankenstein's monster, but it's not shown. In fact, you eventually see that the villagers have been terrorized by Frankenstein's monster for a long time, but we see very little concerning what steps they have done to try and safeguard themselves or destroy the creature.

Making matters worse concerning the Frankenstein monster is the fact that in every scene he's in, he shows pretty much no personality. All he seems interested in doing is to lumber around and kill anybody who gets in his way. That gets tiresome very quickly. It's not just the character of the monster that's so lacklustre in Lady Frankenstein. At the end of the movie, you will realize that the Captain Harris character, while ostensibly had been investigating both the rampaging monster and the Frankenstein family, has absolutely no impact to the story; he could be easily written out without affecting the rest of the script at all. (Even worse is that actor Hargitay gives a sneering performance that greatly irritates.) The character of Charles is persuaded much too quickly to get his brain implanted into another person's body, which comes across as unbelievably moronic behavior. Probably the most disappointing character, however, is that of Tania Frankenstein. When she first arrives at her father's castle fresh from graduating from medical school, she is upbeat and is ready to do great things for mankind. But eventually out of the blue she becomes obsessed with continuing her father's work and making her own creation. I guess this character transformation could happen, but as I alluded to before, it comes much too quickly. We don't see step by step what changed her ambitions and obsessions. One big reason for this is that aforementioned choppy script; she is not given enough focus during the first half of the movie, with the movie concentrating more on her father and his activities. It's kind of odd then that the movie is called Lady Frankenstein when she's not more up front and center. After all is said and done, it's clear that something very wrong happened when all the pieces of this movie were assembled into a whole.

(Posted February 23, 2024)

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See also: Mansion Of The Doomed, The Resurrected, Son Of Frankenstein