A Neanderthal man is discovered living in the wilderness near the castle of Count Frankenstein and killed by a mob of angry, frightened villagers. The infamous scientist and his gaggle of misfit assistants recover the caveman’s body and restore it to life – just in time for a visit from Frankenstein’s lovely daughter, Maria, her fiancé, Eric, and her beautiful university classmate, Krista. Meanwhile, one of Frankenstein’s servants accidentally leaves evidence of his presence at the site of their latest grave robbery, catching the attention of the local law.
Even as late as 1974, when British gothic horror was on its last legs, foreign studios were still copying the Hammer/Amicus formula for success. Take one part classic scary story, add a healthy sprinkling of ludicrous and often perverse plot twists, marinate liberally with gore, season with a couple of buxom naked starlets, throw it all together in a lavish old European setting and, voila, you have a surefire box-office treat. Many such films came from Italy in the early 70s, but few came as close to replicating the Hammer recipe (without the class, polish or credibility) as TERROR! IL CASTELLO DELLE DONNE MALEDETTE, or, as drive-in and late night TV audiences in the west know it, FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS.
Rossano Brazzi plays Frankenstein as a basically benevolent figure, a charitable man who employs a hunchback, a lecherous dwarf, and a handful of other malformed miscreants primarily out of pity. Though he challenges the accepted societal standards of appropriate scientific conduct, he does not see himself as a god (even stating at one point that he believes God intended man to continue to seek knowledge and push the envelope of discovery) and is neither the ruthless maniac played by Peter Cushing or the womanizing cad essayed by Ralph Bates. Despite his questionable medical ethics, this variation on the iconic character is a rather agreeable fellow. He loves his daughter, mourns the loss of his wife and still-born son, has genuine romantic feelings for Krista, and shows great empathy for the poor prehistoric man. Brazzi pulls the characterization off quite nicely.
The rest of the cast is not bad, though some of the performances suffer from the usual dubbing pitfalls and the outlandish script. Edmund Purdom is good as the sensitive but intrepid Prefect Ewing, while genre veteran Michael Dunn (WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON, THE MUTATIONS) steals many scenes as the vengeful dwarf, Genz, somehow managing to be simultaneously repugnant and vaguely sympathetic throughout. Luciano Pigozzi (WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY, YOR HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE) brings his trademark Peter Lorre sneer and creepiness to his portrayal of the hateful butler, Hans. Laura De Benedettis plays his plump wife, who is inexplicably more attracted to the hunchback cook, played by Xiro Papas, than her celebrity look-alike husband. The most thankless roles go to Loren Ewing and Salvatore Bracco (billed in the English prints as “Boris Lugosi”!), who play a pair of Neanderthal monsters. Ewing is Goliath, the primitive chap rebuilt in the lab, while Bracco/Lugosi is Ook, a Cro-Magnon still residing in the nearby caves who befriends the ostracized Genz. Both actors get to do little more than grunt and growl before their rather silly climactic battle.
As noted, post-Hammer gothic horror calls for plenty of nubile starlets in varying states of undress, and this film doesn’t disappoint in that area. Simonetta Vitelli is the Count’s curvaceous daughter, who is observed in a bit of pre-marital coitus with her lover by the dwarf and the butler. Gorgeous Christiane Rucker plays Krista, the comely object of the mad doctor’s affection. Krista is apparently a stickler for hygiene, stripping down to her well-tailored birthday suit twice in the film to take a bath, and falling into the brutish hands of the lustful Ook as she prepares to drop her knickers for a third dip in the drink. Such devotion to cleanliness is admirable in a student of medical science, but it’s even more valuable for a pretty young horror actress. Lost in all of this gratuitous exhibitionism (including a playful mud and mineral bath in a steamy pool within the caves, featuring both ladies in the raw) is the fact that Vitelli and Rucker turn in solid performances.
Of course, any devotee of 70s drive-in fare knows that a film entitled FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS is unlikely to stop at a couple of curvy ingénues in the buff when it comes to exploitative debauchery. In the opening moments, we see Frankenstein’s minions robbing the freshly-filled grave of a young woman, during which the wide-eyed midget takes time to pull her blouse open and cop a feel. While the movie never really makes clear why the good doctor needs a petite female corpse to revive his giant dead caveman, it’s obvious that the filmmakers included it to show just how depraved and randy both the film and its characters are. If this weren’t enough to convince us, we are soon introduced to the infidelity subplot involving the hunchback and the manservant’s wife (who likes to be slapped across the face before getting down to business), and not one scene involving nudity goes by without at least one of the resident oddballs peeking in on the proceedings from behind some nearby cover or through a hole in the wall. In the most unpleasant moment, Genz disrobes and rapes a virginal peasant girl, on the pretense of teaching Ook about the pleasures of nature. Freaks, indeed.
What makes all of this blatant sleaze watchable is the fact that everyone involved seems to be taking the whole thing very seriously. In spite of the absolutely ludicrous premise of Neanderthal men running around in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, the film is played deadly straight, and even attempts to offer a message in the finale. When the crazed villagers (who apparently do nothing but stand around with torches, waiting for an excuse to storm the castle) corner Goliath in the caves and mete out some fiery, vigilante justice, the frustrated lawman muses wistfully, “There’s a bit of a monster in all of us. Especially where there’s fear.” Pretty profound stuff for a movie about a voyeuristic dwarf and two cavemen fighting over a hot girl with a penchant for getting naked and wet. One has to wonder if this philosophical epithet is aimed directly at those of us who enjoy watching this kind of picture.
FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS is one of six titles coming to DVD this September by Shout! Factory, as part of the ELVIRA’S MOVIE MACABRE line. Unlike previous Elvira home video releases, these are actual episodes of Cassandra Peterson’s long-running syndicated television program, giving them a special nostalgic appeal for those of us who remember the era of the TV horror host. The films in this line will be available as single titles or two-disc double features, and follow the lead of Rhino’s MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 DVD releases by offering the movies in their episode format, with Elvira’s commercial bumper segments, and as stand-alone features, without interruption. The Mistress of the Dark herself is viewed by die-hard horror fans alternately as a welcome bit of eye candy or an annoying distraction, with little middle ground. While I personally find Miss Peterson’s “Valley Goth” shtick tired and not particularly funny, I’ve always admired her innate understanding of her own sex appeal and the kind of power that it has over a good portion of the audience for films like FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS (and I can say that, because I am part of that portion!). If you’ve got it, flaunt it, as they say. The MOVIE MACABRE line wisely caters to shlock horror lovers on both sides of the Elvira divide.
FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS is an agreeable “bad” film, professional enough to reveal its Hammer aspirations but sleazy and silly enough to keep it relegated to late night TV and inexpensive DVD limbo. If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel or a worthy update of the 1931 Universal version, look elsewhere. But if you’re in the market for a trashy, popcorn gothic horror programmer with delusions of grandeur, this might be just the film you need to satisfy your craving for cinematic cheese.