1973 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, AND SISTERS

Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein was the fourth film directed by Paul Morrisey under Andy Warhol‘s banner; although it seems that apart from co-producing, the American pop art icon had no creative input, which may be why, in Europe, it was released under the title Flesh For Frankenstein. Morrisey made this film back-to-back with Andy Warhol’s Dracula, which we will cover when 1974 rolls around. Both films star Udo Kier and  Joe Dallesandro (who also starred in the Morrissey/Warhol “hustler” trilogy FleshTrash, and Heat). Frankenstein is the more outrageous of the two horror films. It stars Kier as a fascistic, narcissistic, necrophiliac Baron Frankenstein who, in his most infamous scene, cuts open the ribcage of a woman (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and has sex with her gall bladder.  Naturally, this scene made Kier a cult celebrity, a position he would cement with Dracula.

Still from Andy Warhol's Frankenstein/Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)

 

Shot in 3-D, Frankenstein aims directly to satirize the sexploitation/horror demographic with a high quota of gore and sex—the latter supplied by Monique Van Vooren as the unloved nymphomaniac Baroness, wife and sister to the Baron, and Dallesandro as the stable boy who services her. Aptly, the film opens with the Baron and Baroness as children dissecting and  beheading a doll, but “Addams Family” this isn’t: the good doctor’s supply of cadavers comes from bordellos rather than the traditional cemetery. Kier and Van Vooren are ideally cast, with her armpit sucking competing with his gallbladder screwing. Although undeniably dated, it’s every bit as outrageous as it sounds.

When writer William Peter Blatty  and director William Friedkin unleashed The Exorcist on the world, few had any idea the impact it would make. Shining across our small 1973 TV sets, the original trailer was subdued. Although the book upon which it was based had been a best seller, only its readers knew what it was about. I don’t remember a lot of publicity beforehand, but all that changed on the weekend it was released. Newspapers were issuing warnings of something unimaginably terrifying, theaters were equipped with barf bags, and in our neck of the woods, churches were condemning it as propaganda coming from Satan himself. Indeed, the fallen angel had been rising quite high since 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but, at least as far as box office, even that seminal (and superior) film did not have the impact of The Exorcist. Initially, its critical standing was mixed, although now it seems to top all those “best of” horror lists. Word of mouth made a trend of fear, and it was years before anyone from our tribe saw it.

The tidal wave of Satanic themed films to follow was unprecedented, and, needless to say, preachers and Sunday school teachers found job security for another decade. The original was followed by John Boorman’s visually dazzling camp disaster, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and Blatty’s belated Exorcist III (1990), which some feel is actually superior to the original.

With his newfound popularity, Old Nick signed up for Satan’s School for Girls to mess with that “forgotten” Charlie’s angel, Kate Jackson, and Farrah’s replacement, Cheryl Ladd. He has a pretty good time of it too, and his fun is contagious.

Among the infamous DVD double features hosted by the buxom camp horror diva, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), is Werewolf of Washington and Satanic Rites Of Dracula. The former, directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg and starring Dean Stockwell is as dreadful as it sounds. Worse, it’s humorless.

Alan Gibson’s Satanic Rites of Dracula is a direct sequel to his previous Dracula A.D. 1972, with the vampire in 1970s London. Gibson later directed “Silent Scream” (with Peter Cushing) and “Two Faces Of Evil,” which are two superior (and stylishly surreal) episodes from the cult TV series “Hammer’s House Of Horrors.”

Although superior to its 1972 AD predecessor for sheer abnormality alone, Rites is still one hell of a mess. In his brief screen time, the Price of Darkness ( Christopher Lee) has become an eccentric recluse in a mansion, plotting to destroy the world by unleashing a bacterial virus! Oh, and he is connected to a Satanic cult, which of course brings in Scotland Yard and Van Helsing (Cushing again), who easily dispatches the vampire with a thorn bush (vapidly symbolic of Jesus’ crown of thorns). The preposterousness of this Dr. Who and the Avengers vs. a vampire Howard Hughes (or is that Fu Manchu?) scenario is exacerbated by an evil Asian agent, assassins on bikes, biological warfare, female vampires, and nudity, making for an idiosyncratic hodgepodge. Lee was rightly fed up with writers who had no clue what do with the character, and chose to remain permanently staked after this. After making his belated appearance, Dracula suffers what has to be the most absurd of his screen deaths. Amazingly, his fellow bloodsuckers have an even more embarrassing exit, snuffed out by a sprinkler.Both Lee and Cushing muster little enthusiasm. Gibson steers through a maze of nonsense with a degree of competence, although the script clearly needed something exceptional. Sill, with all its flaws, this is an unexpected exit for the series, and is bizarre enough to be held with affection by some fans of Hammer studios.

Rather than being influenced by The Exorcist as the title suggests, Messiah of Evil (directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katzis) takes its cue from George Romero and is a rare, surprisingly imaginative low budget arthouse take on zombies. It seemed to be forgotten for years, and only recently has been rediscovered.

Romero himself abandoned zombies with The Crazies. This gutsy, apocalyptic political horror did poorly at the box office, but it’s an authentic reaction from the director toward the cultural chaos of the period. It lacks the traumatic drive of Night Of The Living Dead , which it still has much in common with, but it’s prime Romero and deserves a broader audience (it was remade, poorly, by others in 2010).

Also fine is John Hough’s kinetic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s Legend of Hell House, starring Roddy McDowell in a haunted setting. It justifiably became a cult favorite, as has Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, starring Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, and some creepy critters in the basement. It’s directed by “One Step Beyond” creator John Newland, who obviously had a feel for this kind of thing.

Blaxploitation went all out rogue horror with Blackenstein and Scream Blacula Scream. The latter is a sequel to the previous hit Blacula (1972). Directed by Bob Kelljan and again starring William Marshall, it surpasses its predecessor. Although hardly a masterpiece, Marshall excels and is helped considerably by blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. The same can’t be said for William Levey’s Blackenstein, which has a solid reputation as the among the worst of all blaxploitation films, too dull to be consigned to the “so bad it’s good” category. Grier fared better as a lethal weapon kicking drug dealer ass in Jack Hill’s bona fide cult classic Coffy.

The Amicus anthology Vault of Horror was its rushed-through followup to the previous year’s Tales From The Crypt, neither of which could quite capture the grisly camp appeal and dark humor of the original EC Comics source material, although the earlier one came closer.

Near the end of his life, Vincent Price listed 1973’s Theater of Blood  (directed by Douglas Hickox) as his favorite film. While it’s hardly the equal of The Abominable Dr. Phibes  (1971), which clearly inspired it, it’s a tailor-made role for a ham actor about about a ham actor out to avenge himself on critics who gave him bad reviews. It proved a considerable influence on a young Tim Burton.

Horror Hospital (directed by Anthony Balch) is shoddy exploitation, which Michael Gough unsuccessfully attempts to salvage.

In classier 1973 horror, both Don’t Look Now (directed by Nicolas Roeg) and The Wicker Man (directed by Robin Hardy) are Certified Weird and models of their kind. In addition to Wicker Man, Christopher Lee also starred in a haunted asylum opus, Don Sharp’s Dark Places, opposite Joan Collins and Herbert Lom. Its obscurity is justified.

Jess Franco cranked out A Virgin Among The Living Dead, with Jean Rollin shooting additional footageIt’s unfortunate that Rollin didn’t assist Franco again, because this is one of the prolific director’s better efforts (which isn’t saying much).

Rollin wisely went it alone with the atmospheric The Iron Rose. Shot on a microbudget in a cemetery and almost dialogue free, the director’s virtues and flaws are equally intact.

Sergio Martino’s Torso may not be the first example we think of in the giallo genre, but the sex and violence quota, along with Martino’s stylized direction, cements its reputation as arty Eurotrash. It stars Suzy Kendall, who is something of giallo icon.

Cannibal Girls is what you expect it to be. Naturally, there is plenty of nudity and violence, but the most surprising  thing about is that it was directed by Ivan Reitman (yes, that Ivan Reitman).

Paul Naschy has a small but memorable role losing his head in The Hanging Woman (directed by José Luis Merino). Apart from the enthusiastic Naschy, who reportedly wrote his character’s dialogue, the film has a solid cast and atmosphere aplenty, but otherwise it’s lethargically paced exploitation.

All the creative thinking was reserved for the title of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (directed by Bob Clark, who later directed Porky’s and A Christmas Story), which is, frankly, godawful, and possible proof that zombies should be left to Romero alone. With very few exceptions, no one else can manage to animate them.

Sssssss (directed by Bernard Kowalski) stars mad scientist Strother Martin, transforming Dirk Benedict into a cobra. I doubt anyone really remembers Martin’s motive for doing so (or cares). What matters is seeing the future “Battlestar Galactica” beefcake grow scales and hiss. It was quite the hit, and it’s still a delightfully silly product of its time.

It goes without saying that Brian De Palma is one of the most polarizing filmmakers in history. The lazy over simplify and dismiss him as a Hitchcock clone. For those wiling to scratch deeper, he is something akin to a free jazz artist, filtering, reworking, improvising, and expanding on a body of filmmakers, which includes Hitchcock (among many others) to craft postmodern compositions that often are warmer and (as blasphemous as it may be to some) more startlingly original than the master.

Sisters, one of the best films of the decade, introduced De Palma to a broad audience. He was already something of a well-kept secret with film school cliques and cult audiences due to his experimental guerrilla efforts Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Hi, Mom (1970 ), and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972). In these, we find the authentic core of De Palma’s helter-skelter aesthetic through audacious satire, which continues in Sisters. In this meager budgeted horror, De Palma  gets delirious with Hitchcock to a degree previous unseen. It’s like De Palma’s is putting on a concert, and his choices of instruments include Hitchcock’s composer Bernard Hermann and Margot Kidder as a former Siamese twin. The result of that collaborative spirit approaches definitive De Palma. Everyone who has seen it remembers the score. It’s unfortunate that Kidder became both typecast and underused after she become Lois Lane in Superman (1978), especially because she was miscast (although she was more at ease in the sequel).  Her performance here is one of frighteningly erotic (and comic) exactitude.

Still from Sisters (1973)

In addition to Hitchcock, De Palma, ever the eclectic, also channels filmmakers as disparate as Roman Polanski, Michael Powell, Federico Fellini, and Abel Gance. It’s here we are introduced to De Palma’s split-screen trademark. Like the set design of Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the technique has a thematic purpose, paralleling the theme of dual identities. De Palma’s set design, writing, and direction is as incisive as a sharp knife cutting through a birthday cake. You’ll never think of the Roselyn Bakery in the same way again.

De Palma loyalist William Finley (who first worked with the director in the 1962 short “Woton’s Waker”) is chillingly seedy as Kidder’s former psychiatrist and husband. Finley would go on to star in the director’s cult hit Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) and ended his career in the (equally creepy) Black Dahlia in 2006 before dying in 2012. Charles Durning delivers a typically commendable character performance. However, Jennifer Salt grates.

Although De Palma’s early films are essential, particularly Hi, Mom(his first masterpiece), Sisters is a perversely primitive and inventive opus in the oeuvre we have come to know him for.

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About Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is fine arts painter, filmmaker, and has a masters degree in theology. He currently lives in Portland, oregon with his wife: Aja Rossman-Gray.
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