• Blackenstein



    Released by: Severin Films
    Released on: May 30th, 2017.
    Director: William A. Levey
    Cast: John Hart, Ivory Stone, Joe De Sue, Roosevelt Jackson
    Year: 1973
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    The Movie:

    When Blacula hit box office gold, it made sense that more blaxploitaiton/horror hyrbids would follow in its wake – and as such, Blackenstein was born, the brain child of writer/producer Frank R. Saletri and director William A. Levey (his directorial debut, two years before he’d helm Wham! Bam! Thank You Spaceman or The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington!).

    When the film begins, foxy lady scientist Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) meets with her associate Dr. Stein (John Hart) in his weird old mansion to discuss what can be done for her boyfriend, Eddie (Joe De Sue). See, Eddie went overseas to serve his country in the Vietnam War but sadly was the victim of a land mine – now his limbs are all buggered up and Eddie is a bit of a mess. Given that Stein is a Noble Prize winning expert in the field of genetics, Winifred hopes he’ll be able to do something to turn Eddie back into the man he once was. Meanwhile, Eddie lies around in a hospital bed being taunted by a crotchety white orderly.

    Stein agrees to help Winifred out. The plan is to graft new limbs onto the poor sap, a procedure that Stein is quite confident will do the trick. What neither of them know, however, is that Stein’s right hand man, a creepy guy named Malcolm (Roosevelt Jackson), is so madly in love with Winifred that he’s switched around the ingredients in the DNA cocktail Eddie is to be served. When the operation is finished, Eddie once again has the use of some arms and legs – but so too does he have a giant Cro-Magnon caveman forehead and an uncontrollable urge to kill!

    A pretty inept take on Mary Shelley’s classic tale of man playing God, Blackenstein is, in a word, goofy. There aren’t any scares here nor is there any tension while the dialogue is hockey and poorly written. The effects are clearly done on a very low budget and the movie suffers from some wonky pacing, bad camerawork and cheap sets. Having said all of that, if you’re in the right frame of mind for it the movie is also a lot of fun. The scenes in which Eddie has become a monster and is lumbering about very, very slowly wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting populace either too terrorized by fear to move or just too stupid to try and walk away at a leisurely pace are kind of great in their own dopey way. One hit wonder Joe De Sue mumbles and grunts and groans his way through these scenes with his hair in a square shaped afro and his face covered in greenish face paint, his brow prostheticly enhanced to make him look like more of a caveman than anything else. Where he got his clothes from is a bit of a mystery – once he’s ‘Blackesntein’ he’s just decked out in a dark suit, he wears that for the rest of the movie. It’s not very good but it’s fun to watch. He seems to have a preference for killing topless women and ripping out their guts for whatever reason (nothing is properly explained in this movie, things just sort of happen).

    As to the rest of cast? Well, first and foremost look for lovely Liz Renay in a small role here – she plays a woman in bed, it’s a small part, but that’s her a few years before being immortalized by John Waters in Desperate Living. She and De Sue were both clients of Salteri, which explains how they wound up in the movie. Former Lone Ranger John Hart is alright as the doctor, he has about him a sense of aged wisdom and delivers a performance that’s about as classy as a performance in a movie like Blackenstein can be. Ivory Stone, who seems to have never made another picture after this one, is actually alright as the female lead. Not only is she very pretty but her work in front of the camera is as good as the script will allow for (which is to say, not very good, but better than you’d probably expect). Roosevelt Jackson steals a few scenes as the sneaky Malcolm. Cardella Di Milo, who showed up in Dolemite, has a small scene in the movie as a nightclub singer. She’s introduced by an M.C. of sorts named Andy C. who tells an absolutely horrible joke.

    Note that this Blu-ray release from Severin Films includes the original theatrical release version of the movie (78 Minutes) as well as the longer video version (87 Minutes). Interestingly enough, these are two different cuts of the film, it isn’t simply a matter of the longer cut having additional footage because the theatrical version has bits and pieces not included in that longer cut such as an amusing scene where a kid sees the monster wandering about and then talks to the cops about it. Most of what pads out the longer video versions are extensions to scenes included in the theatrical cut, so the story is essentially the same but we get a bit more time at the weird nightclub. The movie also starts differently in the longer cut, with Winifred working at the lab. It’s interesting to see both versions here and including both cuts was definitely the right move. The theatrical cut is quicker in its pacing and maybe the more rewarding watch but the longer cut is definitely an interesting variant (and likely the version viewers will be more familiar with as it’s the version that Xenon previously released on DVD).

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Both cuts of Blackenstein are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Note that the theatrical cut is transferred entirely from a film source while the longer video cut uses the film source where it can and where it can’t, takes footage from a video master (the only existing elements for the material). As such, the theatrical cut looks more consistent as it isn’t cutting back and forth to an inferior source. The film sourced theatrical cut looks surprisingly good when compared to the old DVD, which was very dark and very muddy looking. Colors are considerably improved and you can actually see what’s going on in some of those previously impenetrable darker scenes. Skin tones look nice, black levels are decent too. There’s some print damage here, most of the time it’s minor, and the image is fairly grainy, but ultimately this is a pretty solid presentation of some iffy elements.

    The English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track sounds decent enough. Levels are well balanced, dialogue stays easy enough to follow and if any hiss or distortion works its way into the mix it’s minor. The score sounds decent here too and again, compared to the old DVD release, we get a pretty nice upgrade on the audio front.

    The story behind Blackenstein is, in many ways, more interesting than the movie itself. Severin, to their credit, has done a great job documenting this with the supplements on this release. The extras start off with a segment called Monster Kid which is an interview with writer/producer Frank R. Saletri's sister, June Kirk. Over the course of nineteen minutes Kirk talks about growing up with her old brother, his love of monsters and horror films, and his career as a lawyer. Things get fairly emotional once she details what happened to him – he was murdered in his own home in Los Angeles in 1982 and the case remains unsolved to this day – which is completely understandable. She also talks about his celebrity friends, how the house he lived in was once owned by Bela Lugosi, how he came to get Blackenstein made, how he wrote quite a few movies that were never produced, and his involvement in the Count Dracula Society. It’s very interesting, nicely put together piece that serves as a tribute to the man as well as a look back at his life and career.

    In a second featurette, filmmaker Ken Osborne and actor Robert Dix share their memories of the late Saletri, with each man remembering him quite fondly as both a business associate and as a friend. In Bill Created Blackenstein we get an audio interview with creature designer Bill Munns that runs nine minutes. Here Munns talks about how he wound up working on the picture, what makeup techniques and prosthetic techniques he used, having to apply the makeup to Joe De Sue and what it was like working on the picture. The audio plays out over a nice selection of still photographs that show off his work.

    Rounding out the extras is an archival news broadcast that covers the unsolved murder of Saletri that runs six minutes, a (newly created) theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter selection.

    The Final Word:

    Blackenstein was an unlikely candidate for a special edition Blu-ray release but here we are – this exists. And the world is a far better place for it. The movie might be dumb as a bag of hammers but it’s definitely entertaining and Severin Films are to be commended for rolling this turkey out the way that they have here, presenting it in as nice a shape as was likely possible and with a solid array of supplements too.
    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!