Blackenstein, or Black Frankenstein, is one of several 1970’s “Blaxploitation” films produced in response to the large scale success of American International Pictures’ Blackula (1972). Blackenstein, directed by William A. Levey, was released in 1973. The film was written and produced by Frank Saletari.
Blackenstein opens to a young, Black woman arriving in Los Angeles to solicit the help of a Nobel Prize-winning physician on behalf of her fiance, Eddie Turner. Eddie is a Black veteran who lost all four of his limps to a landmine in Vietnam. The Audience soon discovers that he, also, is in L.A. receiving attention at a veteran’s hospital. Eddie reluctantly agrees to undergo Dr. Stein’s procedure to amalgamate new limbs with his burly torso. The expectation is that, when the procedure is successfully completed, Eddie and Winifred will be married. Dr. Stein has several patients involved in his experimental procedures, some of which experience complicated side effects that work to foreshadow his failure with Eddie.
Naturally, as with any film within the “Blaxploitation” genre, racial themes are present in Blackenstein. However, it is worth noting that many scholars have found racial themes within Mary Shelley’s original work. While many of these arguments come from a contextual understanding of the political atmosphere surrounding Mary Shelley, as well as biographical claims based on her position as the daughter of two passionate abolitionists, some scholars have found textual evidence to support this. For example, H. L. Malchow claims:
“[Mary Shelley], reaching into a childhood fantasy and imagination, dredged up a bogyman which had been constructed out of a cultural tradition of the threatening ‘Other’--whether troll or giant, gypsy or Negro--from the dark inner recesses of xenophobic fear and loathing” (Malchow, 103).
If Shelley’s treatment of the issue of race is subtle and implicit, Blackenstein’s is the opposite.
Perhaps, the most intentionally didactic scene within the film is the encounter between Eddie and his orderly at the veteran’s hospital. As audience members, we have no reason to believe the orderly’s aggression towards Eddie has been provoked by anything other than race. After Eddie innocently (albeit dumbly) requests for ice cream, the orderly flies into a violent monologue in which he verbally attacks his patient, saying: “You know, it’s my taxes and my friends’ taxes are gonna keep you there. We gotta take care of you. Big deal. What the hell’d you go for? You didnt have to go.” This scene is telling because it shows that the white orderly is uncomfortable with Eddie’s gaze and, perhaps, already sees him as a kind of monster.
While this scene sets up the film for impending, racially-charged violence, Blackenstein lacks continuity with respect to this political component. As a monstrosity, Blackenstein is ultimately created by a black character and his killings are not exclusive to white folk. Indeed, It seems that the killing of the orderly is the only one that has any compelling significance, racial or otherwise.
As a film featuring a maimed Vietnam veteran as its protagonist, Blackenstein, necessarily raises questions about war and the experience of individual soldiers. Much like Dr. Stein’s operation on Eddie Turner, America’s involvement in Vietnam was more or less seen as a failure, creating not just monsters of men but also monsters of larger, international entities. Again, the Eddie’s orderly makes this clear in his explosive monologue, saying “You know, they called me--the service--too.” He tells of a night of celebration before his induction and the embarrassment he experienced upon being rejected for health issues. He “had to go back to all these people [he] had said goodby to…” This experience is utterly humiliating and possibly contributes to his aggression. According to Elizabeth Young, “symbolic accounts of impotence pervade white mens novels, memoirs, films, and other narratives about Vietnam” (192). In this way, the scene also functions as a metaphor for America’s failure to win a war despite it’s size and seeming military prowess. Additionally, themes of race and American impotence overlap, which Young observes, claiming “As the scene concludes, the orderly turns back to turner, connecting his own sense of impotence to his rage against a Black veteran” (192).
As a production, Blackenstein’s reception has been overwhelmingly poor. Saletari had hoped to capitalize on the emerging “Blaxploitation” market pioneered by AIP’s Blackula. However, critics and movie-goers seemed to see Blackenstein for the poorly executed, bandwagon enterprise that it was. It is possible that Saletari anticipated that AIP had a version of a Black Frankenstein in the works and rushed to produce Blackenstein during the small window in which they were still tied up with producing a sequel to Blackula. This single year window simply did not afford enough time to put together the sophisticated story and rich acting talent that viewers came to expect from other films within the genre.
Significance of Adaptation
Although Blackenstein had the potential to explore and amplify one of the more politically pervasive themes within Mary Shelley’s novel, many scholars and critics consider it to be a missed opportunity. By employing black-power fashion and soul music, the film’s over-the-top exploitative tactics made it little more than absurd. In fact, many contemporary viewers mistakenly perceive its absurd science, unbelievable dialogue, and anti-climactic camera work to be intentional elements of comedy. However, it is its seriousness that renders Blackenstein little more than an accidental self-parody of the individual film as well as the entire “Blaxploitation" genre.
Although critics find very few redeeming moments within the film itself, Blackenstein contributes to the cultural tradition of Gothic adaptation in a more inadvertent way: By simply presenting the spectacle of a towering black monster, recognizably nodding to the iconic Karloff incarnation, the film gives an explicit image to an implicit theme that runs through many iterations of Frankenstein. In this way, even though one could argue that Blackenstein takes a voice away from its protagonist, the metaphor that comes from the meta-narrative is so obviously apparent that a simple understanding of the film’s existence is enough to continue the conversation about the role that issues of race necessarily play within this monster culture.
Blackenstein. Prod. Frank R. Salitari. Perf. John Hart and Ivory Stone. Exclusive International, 1973. Web.
Young, Elizabeth. Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.
Malchow, H. L. “Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Past & Present No. 139 (1993): 90-130. JSTOR. Web. 08 Dec. 2014
By: Samuel Evens