Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Shit Just Got REAL Up In Here!

Ah, the 70s. How I miss them! 

Beautiful girls in bell-bottom jeans and gauzy tops with no bra underneath. Television trying to tell what it was really like out on the streets, but always caving in to 50s era mentality by the final act. Everyone still freaked out by the political and racial marches and riots of the late 60s. And most everyone turning a blind eye to the deeply wounded, in both body and mind, veterans returning from Vietnam.

Okay, so I only miss the beautiful bra-less hippie chicks. The 70s had a lot of sucky stuff.

With that in mind, let's get to know Blackenstein.  

Lovely Dr. Winifred Walker goes to her former mentor and teacher, Dr. Stein, seeking help. It seems her fiance was wounded in Vietnam. and he no longer has arms or legs. Good ol' Dr. Stein just happens to be the Nobel Prize-winning, leading researcher into limb transplants who works without control or supervision in a basement lab that couldn't legally pass for anything other than an electrical hazard zone.

In next to no time, Eddie Turner, the wounded veteran, has two new arms and legs. Before Eddie can do his first waltz with Winifred, the good doctor's butler mixes up Ed's medication with the intent of getting Eddie out of the way so he can woo Winifred. Throw in an illegitimate child and a natural disaster, and you could have a soap opera.

Eddie changes into a rather comical variation of the Boris Karloff version of the Frankenstein monster with a high forehead and a flat-top afro. Since no one sees the need to lock his cage door (yes, cage door), he wanders off to kill people at random. Given his short and shuffling gait, I can't help but wonder how he can get further than the end of the block before sunrise, yet he always catches up to the perkiest of the mostly female victims. Why slaughter people? Who knows? The movie doesn't really explain much other than one understandable killing of a hospital attendant who insulted Eddie before the limbs had been attached.

Still, it is the 70s, and white people don't take kindly to black monsters killing mostly white people. You can imagine the end of the movie without my spoiling it for you.

Blackenstein is not a good movie. It's cheap looking with sub-par Al Adamson-looking style and a story that moves like a square tire with a vague connection to reality. The dialogue is good for a laugh or two when it doesn't make you consider sticking your hand in the running fan blades of your car's engine. While Ivory Stone and John Hart, who play the two doctors, do a passable job, Joe De Sue plays Eddie as flat as a soda left unsealed for a week.

If you stop and consider the year this film came out, you can make a fairly compelling case for the redemption of Blackenstein. It came out in 1973. America had just come through a series of events that had left the country trying to reclaim the perceived calm of the 50s after the upheavals of the 60s. We had radical political movements, race riots, marches on Washington for civil rights and to protest America's involvement in Vietnam, wounded veterans returning to an indifferent public (at best), feminism (which picked up more strength and speed in the 70s), etc., and we had television there to bring all of this into our homes without warning or even being asked.

I will never accuse the writer of Blackenstein to have purposefully addressed these issues in the film, yet you can see all of it there. Winifred is not only black but a woman, and she has a doctorate (signs of feminism and a shift in race acceptance). 

Her fiance is a Vietnam veteran who returns disabled and is harassed by a Veteran's Administration male nurse who complains about everyone celebrating the return of soldiers from Vietnam. We know that a large number of blacks were drafted and sent to Vietnam, leading some to believe it was intended to reduce black populations. We also know that most Vietnam veterans were not celebrated upon return to the States; a large number were either ignored or treated with contempt based on various political movements and tempers at the time. Also, during that time, the Veteran's Administration was not known for working in a timely fashion to assist these returning veterans.

Once Eddie becomes the killing machine wrought by science, we open more touches of the 60's legacy. White America still feared racial anger and further rioting. Mixed-race relationships were becoming another coal of fear for those who wished to hold the status quo. When Eddie goes on a rampage AND kills mostly whites, especially white women, you can get a sense of serious white insecurity underlying some of the on-screen antics. Ultimately, we have a black character attacked by police dogs who tear the person apart. We have seen numerous images, both photos and film, of black people being literally hounded by police dogs during civil rights marches and during riots.

All of these images were brought into your homes and minds due to television. Even if there was no purposeful intent to address these issues, the images related to these issues build the basis of the film, of what you see. An audience in the 70s were most likely put off by the cheap-looking film, but all the images were ones they had seen unless they had been living under a rock for years.

Take Blackenstein any way you wish: social allegory, crap cinema, or a reasonable cure for insomnia. You really can't go wrong with any approach, but don't expect anything profound. Just don't.   

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