Elvira’s Movie Macabre: Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (DVD)

I only have a condo of freaks.

“Hey, Frankie baby, while you’re giving that guy a shave and a haircut, why don’t you just take out about an inch from the middle of that eyebrow of his and make it look like he has two?”

It’s mid-19th century Europe, and for some reason, Neanderthals are roaming around the woods, causing trouble for the locals. A Neanderthal is killed, and its body is taken to Count Frankenstein, (Rossano Brazzi), who begins to experiment on it. One of the count’s assistants is a necrophiliac dwarf, who is quickly thrown out of the castle for messing with the corpses. Soon afterward, Frankenstein’s daughter, her fiancé, and her best friend arrive for a weekend of kinky sex and skinny-dipping. But that dwarf is plotting revenge, thanks to his friendship with another Neanderthal, named “Ook,” who will eventually battle to the death with Frankenstein’s revived caveman, named “Goliath.” During act breaks, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson, Elvira’s Haunted Hills) offers some sarcastic remarks about the action on screen, and then embarks on a Frankenstein-like experiment of her own, to create the perfect male.

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks was made in Italy in 1974, but what we’re really looking at here is an episode of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Elvira’s nationally-syndicated series that ran throughout the ’80s, which originally started at Los Angeles’s KHJ-TV. It’s more or less where the Mistress of the Dark became famous, riffing on old horror films during before and after commercial breaks. This episode aired on Sept. 15 (hey, that’s this reviewer’s birthday!), 1984. The folks at Shout! Factory—primo connoisseurs of all things pop culture—are now releasing several Movie Macabre episodes on DVD, including this one, so today’s viewers can experience Elvira’s humble beginnings.

This version of the classic Frankenstein story raises many questions. The first among these is, why in the heck are there club-wielding Neanderthals running around the lush European countryside? I’m having some real trouble getting around that one. And yet, that’s what makes this one different from all the other version of Mary Shelley’s timeless tale—it must be the only Frankenstein story that doesn’t feature Frankenstein’s monster. The conversation must have gone something like this:

Producer 1: “I know! Let’s replace Frankenstein’s monster with two prehistoric cavemen for absolutely no reason.”
Producer 2: “Great idea! Pass the LSD.”

The middle part of the movie ignores the whole “scientist experiments on random Neanderthals” plot and suddenly becomes a stale bedroom farce, as the visitors to the castle get it on with each other, along with some skinny-dipping and voyeurism thrown in for some extra giggle-worthy titillation. Now, I realize all this talk about cavemen, sex, and dwarves might have you thinking this is hilariously campy. Sadly, the movie takes itself dreadfully seriously, and, as such, adopts a slow, ponderous pace. This slowness is what really kills the movie, rather than the nonsensical script and ridiculous production values. Or, as Elvira puts it: “I’ve seen slugs in heat move faster than this movie.”

That’s the real reason you clicked on this review, isn’t it? You want to know about Elvira. This is Elvira back when she was still starting out. She was a genuine novelty act at the time, whereas today she gets reactions like, “How old is she?” and “Is she still around?” Sure, all of her jokes are corny in a summer stock theater kind of way, but she’s enthusiastic and sort of likable nonetheless. See, even though her appearance is that of a glammed-up mistress, her attitude is more of a down to Earth, tough-talking biker chick. Instead of introducing herself with a grim, “Good evening, Dah-lings,” she’s more apt to blurt out something like, “How’s it hangin’?” Perhaps Elvira’s low-key attitude being at odds with her classical vampiric looks is what has made her so well-liked by fans over the years. Or, perhaps it’s because of her gigantic cleavage.

Let’s talk about editing for a moment. There are some nude scenes in the movie, including a brief yet pause button-ready cameo by the almighty female nipple. But if this originally aired on television, then certainly these scenes would have been cut, right? A far more crucial edit, however, is that one of Elvira’s host segments has been removed. At one point, she answers the phone, and suddenly we’re dumped back into the movie. But the credits offer a glimpse of an actor in a phone booth, credited as “The Breather.” From this, we can surmise that a sketch about Elvira and an obscene phone caller has been cut from this release (and the mind boggles at the comedic possibilities). Those looking for a few cheap laughs from this disc probably won’t care, but purists will be disappointed that Movie Macabre isn’t here in its complete, original form.

The video quality here is just terrible. There are scratches all over the image, colors are flat and washed out, and dark scenes look grey and muddy. The Elvira footage looks slightly better, but all the digital restoration tricks in the world can’t hide the look of low budget ’80s video. Although, you could argue that it’s part of Movie Macabre’s nostalgic charm. All we’ve got for extras are a few trailers for other Shout! Factory releases and the option to watch the movie straight through without Elvira’s host segments (dear God, why would you do that to yourself?!?).

Elvira is the best thing about this disc. Is that a compliment or a criticism? I’m going to go with…compliment. As I said above, this DVD is worth seeing if you want a few cheap laughs, but I can’t imagine it finding it in anyone’s “most often watched” pile anytime soon.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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