Blackenstein Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
A black soldier named Eddie Turner (Joe De Sue), who was mortally wounded in Vietnam, is accidentally transformed into a rampaging monster by his physicist fiancé (Ivory Stone) and a mad scientist (John Hart) working out of his L.A. home. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Frank R. Saletri’s Blackenstein has been overlooked for generations for the trifling, utterly inconsequential fact that it’s a terrible movie. Sure, it might have been an opportunistic attempt to scoop up some of the boffo grindhouse box-office scrounged by William Crain’s Blacula (1972) and its superior sequel, Bob Kelljan’s Scream Blacula Scream (1973), and, yeah, it might not be as clever or well-made as Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) and Paul Maslansky’s Sugar Hill (1974), but what it lacks in good filmmaking, smart storytelling, and strong allegories, it makes up for with its stranger than fiction behind-the-scenes tale. Now that the wacky pre & post-release story can be told in its entirely and firmly attached to the mythology of the film, I assume that the decades of cruelly negative reviews will be overturned. I’ll save the specifics of the story for those who are interested enough to buy this disc, but here’s the short version: writer/producer Frank R. Saletri was a criminal lawyer, who dreamed of horror movie stardom. After his struggle to release Blackenstein, he planned two ambitious sounding sequels, titled The Fall of the House of Blackenstein and Black Frankenstein Meets the White Werewolf, as well as unlicensed Sherlock Holmes adventures – Sherlock Holmes in the Adventures of the Werewolf of the Baskervilles and Sherlock Holmes in the Adventures of the Golden Vampire (supposedly an acting vehicle for Alice Cooper) – and an otherwise undescribed project called Black the Ripper. Unfortunately, none of these grand plans came to full, theatrical fruition, as he was murdered with a single gunshot to his head. His body was found in his mansion, which once belonged to none other than Bela Lugosi. The crime remains unsolved.
Obviously, it makes sense to compare Blackenstein (full title: Blackenstein: The Black Frankenstein) to its blaxploitation horror counterparts, but it has very little in common with them or any of the other various blaxploitation horror movies. Chiefly, race isn’t really an issue throughout the movie. With only minor caveats (the title monster, obviously among them), almost any character could be race-swapped without any impact on their personality or the greater storyline. In the end, it has more in common with the DIY early gore movies of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. It would fit nicely on a double or triple-feature with Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), T.L.P. Swicegood’s The Undertaker and His Pals (1966), Marc B. Ray’s Scream Bloody Murder (1973), or David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970). And it’s not just the cheap appearance or the presence of dollar store violence that drives the comparison – it’s also the complete lack of pacing, the doe-eyed amateur performances, and the completely uncanny tone that countless nostalgic filmmakers have tried and failed to reproduce. Apparently, such off-kilter style can only be achieved by accident. One’s enjoyment of will likely hinge on that person’s appreciation of/affection for similar films (I, for instance, enjoyed myself). Blackenstein is at least trying harder than some of the other movies I mentioned, for what that’s worth. Levey (who is also credited as editor) actually went on to make movies well into the 1990s, including the bland, but decently made US/South African co-production Hellgate (1989). Obviously his general skill level improved in the interim.
Blackenstein was actually very hard to find on VHS. In fact, my local store carried a bootleg tape, seemingly dubbed from the Media Entertainment Beta Tape. As far as I know, the only DVD release was a non-anamorphic, 1.33:1 R1 disc from Xenon in 2003. That lack of availability makes Severin’s new Blu-ray (and its same-day DVD edition) a pretty big deal for collectors. On top of that, they’ve included two versions of the film: the original theatrical release cut, which has been unavailable for quite some time and runs 78 minutes, and the video release cut, which runs 87 minutes. Unfortunately, only the theatrical release was sourced from original film elements, meaning that the extra video footage was taken from a 1” master tape. Both versions are presented in 1080p, 1.78:1 video and the overall quality is relatively consistent, outside the obvious quality drop for the tape-based shots (these images are darker, grainier, and have analogue tape artifacts). Putting those shots aside, the transfer is most impressive in terms of its color and general vibrancy, which is important, because vivid colour is one definitive plus in this film’s corner. Details are pretty soft, especially during the darker, wide-angle shots, but the fine grain and mostly clean gradations tell me that this is mostly an issue with the original photography. That said, there are some noisy bits and low-level blocking that could signify compression on the part of the Blu-ray.
The film is presented in its original mono and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound. There’s a bit of fuzz and some huge volume/tone discrepancies, but this is more likely a case of ADR and foley work being manhandled into a particularly cheap movie. The musical score is a mix of stock music and original songs written and performed by Cardella Di Milo and Lou Frohman. The bluesy, soulful songs actually sound fantastic for a single-channel track, as if they were lifted directly from a record, rather than a ratty 35mm strip (with the exception of the live-recorded sequence, which is overpowered by bass). The catalogue score is comparatively flatter and similar to what you’d hear from any other mono-mixed library mix (in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, 1968, for instance).
Monster Kid (19:02, HD) – Saletri’s sister, June Kirk, talks about her brother, their childhood, his education and military service, his ‘Bela Lugosi house,’ his horror fandom/collection, his writing (including those unfinished screenplays), and his death.
Archive news broadcast on Saletri’s murder (6:17) – This is presented in its entirety after appearing in parts during the previous featurette.
Ken Osborne And Robert Dix Remember Frank R. Saletri (6:36, Hd) – During the shooting of a documentary on filmmaker Al Adamson (who I didn’t realize had a real-world connection to Saletri!), Osborne (an actor/director whose credits include trash western Cain’s Cut-throats, 1970) and Dix (an actor who appeared in B-movie bit parts and as a lead in Adamson’s films) discuss their friendship and professional relationships with Saletri.
Bill Created Blackenstein (9:15, HD) – The final interview is with creature designer Bill Munns, who describes his prosthetic/make-up work. The interview was conducted via telephone and is set to behind-the-scenes stills and production artwork.
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.