Richard E. Cunha: Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)
Harry Wilson in Frankenstein's Daughter (1958) | trailer screengrab

When a Body Meets a Body: Frankenstein’s Daughter Acts Out Her 1950s Issues

Frankenstein’s daughter, in modern parlance, is some kind of proto-“trans” creation of a woman’s mind within a patched-together male body. This is heady stuff.

Frankenstein's Daughter
Richard E. Cunha
Film Detective
19 October 2021

The latest in the line of Frankensteins is congratulated on the breakthrough of using a female brain for his newest cobbled-together creation. Taking the praise in stride, the mad scientist opines, “The female brain is conditioned to a man’s world. Therefore, it takes orders where the other ones didn’t.”

Ah ha! He utters this theory despite the fact that he’s only improvising from a date that went badly and not from a determined plan, and despite the other fact that the female in question was the opposite of compliant to his orders. Such is the world of Frankenstein’s Daughter, one of four drive-in epics directed by Richard E. Cunha in the miraculous year of 1958 and the one restored on this remarkable Blu-ray from The Film Detective.

Cunha, the son of a famous composer of popular Hawaiian music, is among my favorite disrespected directors of low-budget drive-in schlock because his films are good. Of his 1958 quartet released as double features by Astor Pictures, three of them concentrate on sexual politics and uppity women who refuse to be controlled. These are She Demons with strident Irish McCalla, the clammy and delirious Missile to the Moon with giant spiders and gumby-like rock creatures and moon queens, and the film under discussion today, Frankenstein’s Daughter.

The story opens with an earlier date going badly. Don (Harold Lloyd Jr.) drops off Suzie (Sallie Todd), a highly pneumatic peroxide blonde, at her house and puts a few moves on her against a tree. She gives him a snooty perfunctory brush-off and he drives away in a huff, or rather a convertible.

Then she turns around on the sidewalk and spots a woman in a negligee running toward her with grotesque buck teeth and poppy eyes. Is this sexy yet horrible creature a vision or projection of her monstrous self? An expression of her hidden rage? A sign of things to come? Suzie screams and the credits begin.

The next morning, Trudy (Sandra Knight) wakes up feeling strange and tired. She goes to her tennis doubles date with Suzie and Don (now over his huff, relaxing with his head in Suzie’s lap) and the pompadoured Johnny Bruder (John Ashley), who describes himself as Trudy’s “boy-type boyfriend”. Suzie’s still talking about the monster woman she saw last night, and the boys laugh her off.

When Trudy reports a strange dream that she was the monster, Johnny does what he does best and will do for the rest of Frankenstein’s Daughter: patronize her, shut down whatever she’s telling him, and offer alternate hypotheses that are always wrong. Literally every statement he makes will be wrong. As these types of films go, he’s in the running for the most worthless hero.

Writer H.E. Barrie, who also scripted Cunha’s other two “feminist” films, knows what he’s about. Johnny is the good boyfriend in opposition to leering, smirking, creepy, older, bad would-be boyfriend Dr. Oliver Frank, played by Donald Murphy in continual flux between snide ego and petulant bitchery. (Best line: “From here on, decide what’s evil!”) He’s the secret Frankenstein with designs on both Trudy and, when she’s too intractable, the even more uppity Suzie.

Barrie keeps writing scenes in which Johnny and Oliver are allied in patronizing and manipulating Trudy until there seems little to choose between them beyond their surface veneers. Whether men are young, old, or middle-aged, they’re all macking on her and wishing she’d keep quiet. She has a good reason – more than once – to moan that nobody believes her. Once we understand this, we begin to grasp Suzie’s contempt for the men around her. No wonder Suzie goes on a rampage.

The Suzie-monster is even more fascinating, and it may be partly for accidental reasons of poor communication with the makeup artist. The story explains that her brain will animate a male body, or rather a conglomeration of ex-living male bodies. The resultant mute monster is played by tall, blocklike Harry Wilson, whose hideous face in no way resembles Suzie anymore than any other part of his lumbering frame looks conventionally feminine.

Oliver and his putative Igor, the gardener Elsu (Wolfe Barzell), call the monster “she” and “her” in spite of appearance, but they know about the brain. Trudy somehow recognizes it as female. Johnny calls it “him”. We’ll never know what the monster calls itself. So this monster, in modern parlance, is some kind of proto-“trans” creation, presented without comment and played by a male actor. Does the post-death Suzie understand herself to be inside a masculine frame? Is her rampage an expression of anger or of joy, or a mixture? This is heady stuff.

Too bad we don’t see more rampage, but that’s where the budget comes in. Astor Pictures paid $80K per picture, so Cunha tried to bring them each in for around $65K. It’s surprising that they look as good as they do and are so enjoyable and thoughtful amid the absurdities.

Meredith Nicholson’s black and white photography doesn’t call attention to itself but it’s good, mostly in strong deep focus with nice background textures that pop out on this restoration, and a few shots are nicely evocative. Several eye-opening moments offer briefly glimpsed gore; I’m most surprised by an awful leg dangling from its knee.

We also get Felix Locher as Trudy’s uncle, a partly-mad scientist who doesn’t know there’s a secret passage with hidden rooms in his own house; John Zaremba and Robert Dix as the only two cops in town, quick on the trigger except where it matters; victims who stand there while a monster lumbers toward them; and two jaunty poolside songs performed by the Page Cavanaugh Trio. It’s all over in 85 rambunctious minutes.

In terms of ’50s sci-fi horror, this film combines the burgeoning “teenage” craze with the flourishing “monster woman” craze that yielded such quasi-masterpieces as The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1957), Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Hertz, 1958), The Astounding She Monster (Ronnie Ashcroft, 1958) and The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959), all of which explore the terror of women with power. A fully female Frankenstein would arrive in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (William Beaudine, 1966).

In The American Cinema (Dutton, 1968), Andrew Sarris famously declared “Anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes 40 minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll.”

Well, lots of people love Frankenstein’s Daughter, including ace historian and interviewer Tom Weaver, whose unabashed love for the film doesn’t prevent him from noting absurdities because he loves those too. His highly informative and entertaining commentary includes several guests who make it a party. Despite confusing information on the package and the disc menu, this is the only commentary track. We also get a brief profile of Ashley and an archival video of Cunha discussing his career.

RATING 7 / 10
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