To stop this mutha takes one bad brutha.
Better known as a punchline than it is an actual film, the 1973 film Blackenstein is proof that not all blaxploitation horror is created equal. Clearly designed to cash in on the success of Blacula just one year prior, Blackenstein borrows the gimmicky title and the idea of remaking a classic horror film with an all-black cast but forgets the most important element of Blacula: it’s a really good movie. The same cannot be said of Blackenstein, unfortunately, as it works better as a curiosity than as a film.
And what a curiosity it is, especially on the new Blu-ray from Severin Films, which offers not only two different cuts of the film (the 78-minute theatrical release and the 87-minute cut that made its way to home video) but also some fascinating and chilling backstory of the producer responsible for bringing it to the screen. This is the kind of disc that I’m happy to own as a piece of pop culture history and for the bonus features even though I’ll probably revisit the movie only rarely, if that often.
Blackenstein (aka Black Frankenstein, for those who want all the cleverness removed from their blaxploitation titles) stars Ivory Stone as a doctor who desperately wants to help her fiance, a soldier who returns from Vietnam missing his arms and legs (played by Nick Nolan). She enlists the assistance of her colleague Dr. Stein (John Hart), who gets to work on an experimental limb transplant surgery. Unfortunately, because Stone does not return the affections of Stein’s assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson), he sabotages the DNA injections that Nolan is receiving daily and turns him into a kind of Neanderthal monster who shambles out of the lab every night to kill and dismember victims. Can he be stopped before it’s too late? And can he be saved, or is he already a total Blackenstein?
Yes, I know that technically Nick Nolan is playing “Blackenstein’s Monster,” but that’s not even totally accurate because it implies that John Hart’s Dr. Stein is the actual Blackenstein — this despite the fact that Hart is the only prominently-featured white actor in the cast. This is only the first of Blackenstein’s many mistakes, and certainly not one of the most damaging. No, what really undoes the movie is an overall air of incompetence both in front of and behind the camera: amateurish performances, sloppy staging and editing, a screenplay so laughably inept it’s reminiscent of vintage Ed Wood. Example: Stone wants Stein’s help because he’s just won a Nobel Prize for solving the DNA genetic code. This is the kind of writing that comes from someone who knows very little about science or Nobel Prizes but isn’t going to be stopped by small obstacles like that. The makeup applied to Nolan tries to give a blaxploitation spin to the traditional Frankenstein’s monster makeup designed by Jack Pierce, but comes off a lot like a first draft. This is a movie so poorly put together that it almost becomes entertaining. Almost.
What holds it back is the fact that it is dangerously dull, even at a trim 78 minutes; the longer “video” cut, which I only sampled to look for differences, must feel positively endless. There is no sense of urgency to any of the scenes, and not even the horror moments manage to come alive. Director William Levey adopts an approach to filmmaking that seems to be “point the camera and shoot,” seemingly unconcerned with imbuing any of the scenes with the momentum to propel the story forward. It’s such a strange thing to see, because I’m a huge fan of horror and black cinema and ‘70s exploitation and Blackenstein combines all three of those things in a way that’s almost totally unsatisfying. The enjoyment I got out of the movie comes from my own affection for this kind of thing — and say what you want about Blackenstein, but it is at least very sincere — and all of the signifiers of elements I dig in other, better movies.
It only makes sense that we now live in a world in which Blackenstein is available on Blu-ray, and in a fancy special edition with a bunch of supplements, no less. The 1.78:1 1080p image looks quite good for a movie of this sort; the colors are somewhat muted and soft, but there’s no way I could have ever predicted Blackenstein looking as good as it does here. The longer video cut is much more inconsistent in its appearance because the extra material is in rough shape, but because that version is included primarily as an extra I’ve not nothing to complain about. The lossless stereo audio track (available on both cuts) does ok with the dialogue, clunky as it may be, gets away unscathed, while the rest of the audio sounds a bit on the tinny side. The extras are quite good, including several interviews given over to writer/producer Frank Saletri, a successful lawyer who dabbled in film and was mysteriously murdered in the early 1980s. That story is actually more compelling than the making of Blackenstein. His sister is interviewed and offers fond reminiscences of her brother; Ken Osborne and Robert Dix are also featured discussing their relationship with Saletri. An archival newscast about the murder is included in the supplemental section, as is a brief featurette containing an audio interview with makeup designer Bill Munns, played over production stills. The film’s original trailer, presented in high def, rounds out the extras.
I so want to love Blackenstein, as it’s the exact kind of film that so often pushes all of my happiness buttons. The movie makes that a challenge, though, because the clumsiness of the production and the sluggish pace do their best to drain the fun out. Severin’s disc is good because their discs almost always are, but the film can’t overcome its limitations. If you’re a fan of exploitation, I’d still recommend picking it up. Just know what you’re in for.