2008 was an interesting year for fans of the comedy classic Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only did Mike Nelson and his creative collective - Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - keep their take on the type - Rifftrax - alive and thriving, but original series creator Joel Hodgson jumped back into the in-theater commentary biz with his latest enterprise, Cinematic Titanic. Bringing along former cast mates Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, he set up a vague, very familiar premise utilizing silhouetted figures making fun of really bad films. Unlike his previous cable TV hit, there were no robots or outer space set-ups to be found.
Over the last 12 months, this new enterprise has self-released five hilarious installments - The Oozing Skull, The Doomsday Machine, The Wasp Woman, Legacy of Blood, and a revamp of the MST masterwork Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. They’ve also toured around the country offering a “live” version of their experiments. Now 2009 starts off right where the group began. Its latest offering, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, is yet another rotten attempt at entertainment exposed and upended by our loveable band of comics. The narrative centers around the current Count Frankenstein (a thoroughly embarrassed Rossano Brazzi), his staff of bumbling bit players (including Wild Wild West‘s Michael Dunn as the requisite dwarf) and a countryside inhabited by not one, but two ancient cavemen (Loren Ewing, and the oddly named “Boris Lugosi”).
When the Count’s fetching daughter Maria and her best buddy Valda show up at the castle, they are just in time to indulge in the madman’s latest act of playing God. When the villagers discovered the primitive people, they did what every rational backwater burg would do - they bludgeoned one of them to death with a rock. Using his lightning collection device, the Count has transplanted a girl’s brain into his ‘Goliath’s’ head, and has brought ‘it’ back to life. When Valda learns of the evil experiments she immediately throws herself at the aging scientist. In the meantime, the servants play hide the superstition behind each others back, our little person is banished to a nearby cave, and remaining Neanderthal Ook gets his revenge on all who sought to make his species extinct.
As an example of mid ‘70s ersatz exploitation, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is rather anemic. While there is some minor nudity (Maria and Valda swim topless in one scene) and a tiny bit of grue thanks to implied brain surgery, this is clearly a last gasp attempt at getting wayward teens to take a trip to the local drive-in. The sensationalized title, along with the promise of something even more promiscuous (the trailer apparently emphasized the bare bodkins on display) must have been pretty potent back in the day. Even with its lackluster thrills and total lack of chills, there are still those who think kindly on this poorly dubbed import from Italy. The presence of Dick Randall (Pieces) behind the scenes as producer and director probably helps.
Yet this is clearly a hunk of hackneyed horse apple, a laborious attempt at creating macabre out of a moldy, middling molehill. Period authenticity goes immediately out the window when the villagers are shown. Some are dressed like extras from any number of Hammer horror efforts. Others apparently walked onset in jeans and t-shirts. There are lapses in logic, incomplete subplots, a total lack of suspense, and a weird sort of halting homoeroticism between Dunn’s dwarf and Lugosi’s incomprehensible Ook - which means, of course, it’s the perfect fodder for Hodgson and his co-workers in wit. Like the best episodes of MST (and now CT), we are treated to laugh out loud moments of sublime cinematic slamming.
Before things get going, we are warned about a new piece of technology about to be employed. Alternatively known as the “Boob” or “Breast Blimp”, this zeppelin shaped shadow is used whenever our lead actresses decide to get randy and drop blou. Immediately upon being utilized, several male members of the cast dismiss its necessity outright. While it only appears twice, it is a refreshing and funny device. Elsewhere, the by now familiar ‘frame stop’ skit sequence is attempted, this time giving Trace an opportunity to complain about the treatment of the Frankenstein name in the film. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to think he’s picking on Frank Conniff, and a big misunderstanding begins.
All throughout the running time of this spastic spooky vision, the collective tears into the film, finding fault with just about everything. They especially hate the rather short loin clothes worn by Ook, the completely ineffectual work of the village police, the very creepy May/December dalliance between the Count and Valda, and anything to do with Dunn, Lugosi, and Ewing’s Goliath. Oddly enough, a couple of four letter words litter some of the later comments. While nothing as pronounced as the F-bomb, it’s unusual for a self-marketed series to censor one type of material - female nudity - and yet allow the cast to use a more blue style of satire. As with many installments in the Cinematic Titanic series, there is definitely a more adult tone toward the funny business. But apparently, the mammary is verboten.
Still, as a starter for the year to come, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks proves that 2008 was no fluke. As Nelson, Murphy and Corbett continue to make fun of every current blockbuster that hits the Cineplex (Rifftrax are audio only, remember), Hodgson and the rest of the ex-Mystery Science staff keep plugging away at a true performance paradigm. Sure, both efforts are exceptional, providing the kind of well-placed ridicule that gives film purists palpitations. But even the most die hard lover of cinema can’t truly defend this erratic Euro-trash. Pondering, plodding, and preposterous, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is truly terrible. But when placed in the talented hands of the geniuses at Cinematic Titanic, it turns into a cracking comedy gem.