Wednesday 23 June 2010

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966)

Director: William Beaudine
Star: John Lupton
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Back in the silent era William Beaudine was a name to be reckoned with. His acting career took off in 1909 but he soon became far better known behind the camera, beginning as an assistant director in 1911 at a mere nineteen years of age and progressing quickly up to full director four years and 55 films later. He made it as high as Mary Pickford movies like Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows before making four films in England and somehow alienating Hollywood. So he became 'One Shot' William Beaudine, churning out movies at a rapid pace for Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC, often without retakes. He racked up hundreds of these, some shot in less than a week, and while they were often capable, even astounding if you consider the budgets and the shooting schedules, they still weren't very good. This eight day shoot was his last film, shot back to back with another weird western, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which is even worse than this.

Strangely he hadn't made too many crossover movies before, with the stunning exception of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla in 1952, but he seems to have taken the genre clash as a ideal setup for dry comedy and so played it straight but outrageous. This approach leaves it akin to a TV sitcom with the laugh track removed, unashamedly camp and ripe to be converted into yet another stage musical like Reefer Madness and The Evil Dead. You can imagine what's going to come from the title alone but the standard western town being emptied of inhabitants while the credits roll underlines the atmosphere of fear. Just in case you've been living under a rock for the rest of your life, there's a frickin' huge painted mission sitting atop the frickin' huge painted hill that looms behind the town like the frickin' huge painted backdrop it is. One Shot hadn't had a budget since the advent of sound. Anyway, take a wild stab as to where the Frankensteins live.

Guess why everyone's getting the hell out of Dodge. Yes, they're Frankensteins. C'mon, work with me here. They're Dr Maria Frankenstein, who is the granddaughter of the Count, because even the title of this film is wrong, and her rather elderly brother, Dr Rudolph Frankenstein. She's actually not too bad, because she's played by Narda Onyx, with bright eyes, rosy cheeks and a perfect accent for a Frankenstein. Onyx was Estonian but was born in 1931 so soon became a refugee bouncing around during the war looking for a home. Her accent is exotic because it's a potent combination of Estonian, German, English, Swedish and Canadian, with an emphasis on rolling Rs. The influences are obvious: she's the Bela Lugosi to Stephen Geray's Peter Lorre. Geray was born in Austria-Hungary in a town that is now in the Ukraine, but as Rudolph he's 27 years older than his screen sister, almost double her age but still dominated by her character.

The inevitable question is, 'What are they doing in some western town?' The inevitable answer is more of the usual. 'Another wonderful storm!' cries Dr Maria Frankenstein as we first meet her, for that's what the deserts of the American southwest have in common with the old gothic tales of old Europe: electrical storms. Other than the location, the Frankensteins look the part. They have white lab coats and an anatomic chart on the wall. They have a laboratory full of scientific gadgets that spark and light up. They have a young man strapped to a table with a steel helmet on his head painted in the colours of the Jamaican flag. For this, there is no explanation. I was waiting for the film to become Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter and Her Sidekick, Bob Marley, but it never manifested, mon. Maria is following in the footsteps of her grandfather (we discover that her father was just a weakling) in trying to resuscitate brains and animate corpses.

Unfortunately she's not too good at it. Francisco Lopez promptly proves to be yet another failure by rudely dying on her table, though we see what Maria doesn't and realise that he dies because Rudolph deliberately substitutes poison from a bottle with a huge skull and crossbones on it for the digitalis that his sister needed to save his life. He obviously wasn't kidding when he said he really wants to go back to Vienna. Maybe a little child murder will help make his dreams come true. Maria is too busy to notice though, so she thrusts her fist into her palm and goes back to the encyclopaedia, I mean to grandfather's notes. 'What a fool I've been!' she cries. She's made fundamental errors with the duothermic impulsator, the fool, by only attaching it to the corpse at hand, rather than the brain of a living body too. Bizarrely she can turn to her well bookmarked 'Precisely What You're Doing Wrong' chapter to find out precisely what she's doing wrong.
Rudolph may have known all along because he points out that it might kill the living brain, but that's just a cue for Maria to glow insanely. She's magnanimous about it: 'That's a chance I am willing to take,' she cries. She needs a powerful giant not a child, then she's bound to succeed. 'But what good will it be to succeed?' cues Rudolph. 'Imagine!' she replies. 'We'd have someone to do our bidding who can't be put to death. Just as we have given it life, only we can take its life away.' In other words, she's an even crazier loon than the rest of her family and we can't help but wonder how these Frankensteins keep surviving long enough to breed and who they keep finding to help. Maybe Rudolph is really the same age as his sister but inbreeding took its toll. Maybe he doesn't have teeth and that explains why he has so much trouble saying simple things like 'three children'. That's how many have died thus far from the next door village.

Francisco Lopez makes four, but he's special because he has an annoying sister who can happily remain annoying throughout the film as its other leading lady. It's because of her that the Lopez family is the last one left in the village, getting drunk on orange juice while they wait for Juanita to return from the house. She's played by Estelita Rodriguez, credited as usual simply as Estelita and who may just be the biggest star of the film, given that she came to it from the classic John Ford western Rio Bravo. Star or not, she's still annoying. She's the stereotypical spitfire senorita with her bright red shirt and bright blue dress, full of piss and vinegar and lathered with far too much make up. She's at the house to ask questions about Francisco, who is apparently suffering from a contagious disease, the very one that apparently caused the death of the previous three children and which apparently required them to be buried at night with nobody around.

Perhaps she was happy to play stereotypical Mexicans because she wasn't one: she was born in Cuba, at least a decade before the year of birth listed on her tombstone. If she was only 35 when she made this film, she'd been doing a lot of hard living, though that may also explain why she died before it could be released, officially of influenza but more probably of something a little more suspicious. She was far from the only person to end her career here, this film being something of a jinx for the cast and crew. Beyond being the last film for William Beaudine and Estelita, Narda Onyx never acted again, going on to write a biography of Johnny Weissmuller instead. Stephen Geray had only a single further credit, a minor one in 1966 as Man with Fish in The Swinger. Cal Bolder switched to TV and retired a couple of years later. Of the main stars, only John Lupton and Jim Davis went on to long careers.

Lupton, Bolder and Davis belong to the other half of this film, and the two halves haven't met thus far. Lupton is the suitably black clad and moustachioed Jesse James, who has mysteriously survived the Northridge raid but has found himself on the run ever since. Bolder plays his one remaining sidekick, a musclebound but apparently mildly retarded character called Hank Tracy. The pair have fallen as low as to have Hank boxing in impromptu prizefights in each town they find themselves in just to put food on the table, girlie ones too if this one is anything to go by, with a Tracy on one side, a Stacy on the other, and a Jesse collecting the bet money after the fact. At least One Shot Beaudine manages to sneak some interesting shots in, such as the one where Stacy punches Tracy into a horse so that its rider falls off. Are we clutching at straws so much that such a setup is a highlight? You betcha.

Jesse James is in town to meet up with the Wild Bunch, which has been similarly depleted down from a dozen to three because Circle Productions couldn't afford a large cast. Butch Curry is their leader and all he has left to lead is his brother Lonny and Pete Ketchum, yet they're still at each other's throats. Butch wants to pull a daring heist, to capture $100,000 of bank money from a stagecoach in a pass outside of Bisbee, but he doesn't think three members of the Wild Bunch is enough to take this much money from the one man who will apparently be on the stage with it, so calls in a notorious outlaw with a price on his head. That's a phrase that's continually used throughout the movie, by the way, like it's his actual name. Jesse James, Notorious Outlaw With a Price on His Head. Maybe he went native and the local tribe were feeling verbose. Lonny turns traitor when he can't get a third of the take and runs to Marshal MacPhee, played by J R Ewing's father, the reliable Jim Davis.
Bizarrely, Rayford Barnes, who plays Lonny and inadvertently causes the entire Wild Bunch to be shot dead by the law, would follow this role up with one in The Wild Bunch, the renowned one directed by Sam Peckinpah, albeit not in a major role. I wonder if Peckinpah was exhibiting a subtle sense of humour in the casting choice. Six years earlier Barnes had also appeared in a movie called Young Jesse James, but then everyone working in Hollywood seemed to make at least one Jesse James picture during their career. The stagecoach heist doesn't go well, but Jesse and Hank get away, with a bullet in Hank's shoulder. The sheer acting inability of this man is amazing to behold. I'm certainly no actor but every now and again I see a performance that I could outdo and Cal Bolder's here is one. I have more charisma in my sleep. Then again Bolder wasn't hired for his acting chops, he was hired because even his muscles have muscles.

He was discovered while working as a California Highway Patrolman under his real name of Earl G Craver, the agent impressed by his physique. He was 6' 4" tall, 260 pounds, with a 52" chest and a 32" waist. He isn't as dumb as he appears in this film, as he wrote a couple of novels after retiring from acting. Here he's as dumb as a post and he's destined to be Maria Frankenstein's new Igor, the giant she's been craving. Yes the two sides of this story do connect in the end, as Juanita bizarrely recommends the Frankensteins as the best hope of saving Hank's life. Quite why she would do this, I really don't know. 'Since they came here there has been nothing but death and sorrow,' she spits. They've murdered her brother and emptied her town. Yet a day or two on the road, one meeting with Jesse James, who saves her from being kidnapped by a wild Injun, and she takes them both to the painted backdrop. 'There they are', she says.

Fortunately from now on we get to see more Maria than we do Juanita. The senorita is the sort of girl who torments her beau into carrying her home on his shoulder and ravish her into shutting up, bitching all the way. Maria is a challenge. Sure, she'll kill you while you're sleeping and hook you up to a Jamaican mind transferrence device but at least she's gloriously old school in her antics. 'Wonderful,' she repeats as she salivates over her new Igor in his sickbed. We're entirely with her when she gets all uppity about being denied by Jesse James, Notorious Outlaw With a Price on His Head. 'To think that this outlaw with a price on his head refuse me for that girl,' she spits, forgetting her command of the English language and sounding more and more like Bela Lugosi as the film runs on. By the time Hank's head is shaved and the Frankensteins plot above his sleeping body, he obviously has his jaws clamped together in an attempt not to laugh.

It's here that the pulp horror antics reach their peak and we almost forget entirely about the western component. John Lupton is entirely too subdued for us to pay attention and he doesn't warrant any of the magnetism he seems to command over every lady in the film. Juanita and Maria have the choice of boring old Jesse James and young dumb hunk Hank Tracy, hardly a difficult choice for any red blooded young lady, yet both pick the notorious outlaw. Perhaps even in the nineteenth century, the ladies can't resist the draw of a bad boy celebrity. It's the only explanation I can come up with. I'm sure you can choreograph the rest of the film yourselves given that it hardly breaks new ground, except through the bizarre introduction of a brain that pulses like a heart. The dialogue descends to the level of 'Our village is free once more, thanks to you,' but should have been, 'I've just lost the last eighty some minutes of my life, thanks to you.'

I remember enjoying this movie years ago, though despising its partner in crime, Billy the Kid Meets Dracula. Revisiting it again now I can't imagine why. It's utterly unworthy of the memories I have of it, being capably shot but otherwise utterly ludicrous. Maybe it plays better on a tiny screen. Maybe it plays better if you're half asleep. Maybe it plays better if you've just watched something even worse right before it. Really it only has one thing going for it and that's the very concept of setting a gothic horror movie in the old west, not really a new idea but one that had never been used with such blatancy before. The weird western has grown in popularity over the last half century, mostly due to the work of Joe R Lansdale, and it's surely only a matter of time before he or another writer brings a great weird western script to life on the big screen in the same sort of crossover style that Bubba Ho-Tep represented. All we know is that it isn't this.

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