****/**** Image B- Sound C+
starring Marilyn Hanold, Jim Karen, Lou Cutell, Nancy Marshall
screenplay by R.H.W. Dillard, George Garrett and John Rodenbeck
directed by Robert Gaffney
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Now, I think we're allowed to define these terms for ourselves (fans of exploitation movies being a friendly and decidedly unpretentious bunch), but the way I see it, there's a sharp difference in style between B-movies and Z-movies. B-movies are your creature features. Their narratives are actually quite strongly defined and they tend to produce a rather primitive but potent and genuine emotional reaction from the audience. You can picture yourself seeing these films at a drive-in double feature or maybe a Saturday matinee. In contrast, Z-movies are all jumbled noise. The audience does not exactly have an emotional reaction to Z-movies, they just watch them in a sort of dissociated daze. You could never imagine seeing Z-movies at an actual movie theatre or drive-in. The only place where they could possibly play is on a local unaffiliated television station at three in the morning.
Ed Wood is widely considered a Z-movie director, but I think he's about 25% Z and 75% good old-fashioned B. He clearly identifies with the monsters in Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster, emotionally involving the audience in a way that a true Z-movie auteur never would. Granted, Glen or Glenda and Night of the Ghouls are patched together in a way that suggests Z aspirations, yet somehow they still fail to produce the daze of an authentic Z-movie. Maybe the problem is that he cared too much: To be truly Z, you must be like a cork floating along the river of life.
There is poetry to be found in the Z-movie format, though, and a few filmmakers have purposefully tried to capture it. Guy Maddin sought it out with The Saddest Music in the World but didn't quite get there; and Leonard Castle came pretty darn close with the very notable The Honeymoon Killers. But Robert Gaffney's Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster is the first time I've really seen it nailed. The film has a certain purity to it: There's not much narrative to speak of and the characters behave in a way that makes little sense. This is Z-cinema, to be sure; you don't interact with it like you would virtually any other film. But it's alive. All that jumbled noise is electrifying and rejuvenating, and it stimulates you in areas that haven't been stimulated before. I feel as if I've waited for this movie my whole life.
The story, such as it is: Princess Marcuzan (Marilyn Hanold) and Doctor Nadir (Lou Cutell) are space invaders on a mission from Mars to repopulate their war-torn planet by mating with captive, fertile Earth women. Around the same time, NASA is dispatching a rocket to Mars manned by their top-secret android Frank Sanders (Robert Reilly). Mistaking the rocket for an attack by the Earthlings, Marcuzan and Nadir shoot it down. They then send out a platoon to finish off the rocket's crew of astronauts. One of them spots Frank and fires at him, disfiguring the left side of his face. He survives the attack, but his wiring is damaged and he becomes an indiscriminate killing machine. (A...Frankenstein?) Meanwhile, Frank's creator Adam Steele (James Karen) and his assistant Karen (Nancy Marshall) are searching for Frank and stumble upon the alien invasion. Can they redirect Frank's rage towards thwarting the villains?
Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster is an exploitation quickie made by smart people who care about movies. Easily the coolest thing about it is how it marries Poverty Row artifice with the anarchy of the French New Wave, creating what must be the ultimate in hipster alienation. In the film's brilliant opening sequence, the orbit of the celestial bodies is rendered through choppy time-lapse photography using stills from NASA's public-domain library. This is as primitive and cheap-looking as filmmaking can get, but note how the special effects help to eliminate the presence of a human creator, effectively accentuating the alienness of the artifice. Unlike Ed Wood's painted pie plates, there is no love to be found in this creation.
The make-up is a conversation unto itself. Cutell is given a very unconvincing bald cap and Vulcan ears--he could be Bat Boy's seedy uncle. On the other hand, a great deal of the character's look comes from Cutell's natural appearance, lending Nadir a creepy charge of authenticity. Doctor Nadir half-works, and that's disorienting. If he were completely cornball, then maybe we would be able to condescend to him. If we were able to condescend to him, then maybe we would be able to bond with him--and maybe then there would be something warm and human about our reaction. And, of course, we might be able to contextualize him in a similar manner and he would thus be easier to digest. By straddling the Uncanny Valley, the character gains a unique brand of otherworldliness--he's like an eight-year-old's crayon copy of the Incubus from Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare".
The Spacemonster is more or less a Martian pit bull the invaders use to coax information out of their prisoners, and there's no getting around the fact that it's actually a guy in a rubber suit. We barely get a good view of the beast, and when he is on screen, Gaffney uses every trick in the book. The Spacemonster is profiled in silhouette during the title sequence; and he's introduced proper through shaky handheld camerawork as he rattles his cage. And when the Spacemonster gets loose, he's shot from a number of menacing low angles. It could be said, however, that Gaffney isn't compensating for the lousy costume so much as he's joining it with hyperkinetic filmmaking to produce a truly gonzo aesthetic.
The use of dramatic freeze frames (particularly when Frank is wounded and transformed into the "Frankenstein") is similarly a lot of fun: The device is self-consciously filmic yet intrinsically earthy and basic--an affection of somebody in love with manipulating the celluloid itself. Gaffney appears to love the cinema every bit as much as Wood, but it's a love localized within the medium. I'm arrogant and crazy enough to claim that charges of Wood being "the worst director of all time" are not only unfounded but also completely inaccurate. Who's to say whether Wood's films qualify as camp or not, but few moments in film history are as iconic as Tor Johnson rising from the grave in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Wood, mind you, loved the studio system and movie stars more than he loved cinematography, editing, sound mixing, and all the other tools of the trade. Goofiness aside, the mock studio-style filmmaking evinced a preference for content over style, which lent his films something akin to a human centre. Gaffney, on the surface, is considerably hipper. Knowing full well that there is barely any content to speak of, he delivers almost nothing but style, implying I guess that appropriating the Brechtian alienation devices and unbridled energy of Godard is just about the only way you can legitimize a film titled Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster.
I know that I'm on record calling Plan 9 From Outer Space a "satire," but consider that retracted. All satire, or at least all good satire, is essentially misanthropic. The idea behind it is to accentuate and exaggerate a social ill so that it's impossible to ignore anymore, not to offer solutions. Solutions they leave to somebody else. Watching a film as if it were completely self-contained is perfectly natural, but with satire you need to put everything you're seeing and feeling into context. Try watching something like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as self-contained and you're likely to end up slitting your wrists in despair. Satirists are essentially sociopaths, and we need them to be: You can't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.
Ed Wood is not a sociopath. On the basis of his movies, he's a real mensch and a sensitive soul. Like I said, where Plan 9's Earth vs. Aliens conflict is concerned, he's clearly on the side of the aliens. The invaders, Eros (named after the Greek god of love?) and Tanna, are trying to destroy Earth in order to save the universe. Based on what they've seen of Earth's past, they've concluded that we are a barbaric, stiff-necked bunch and it's only a matter of time before we come upon the "Solanite bomb" that will explode the "actual particles of sunlight itself" and eventually result in the destruction of the actual sun. He tries to explain this to the humans, but out of hardwired Cold War-era stupidity, the handsome hero of the piece, Jeff Trent, protests, "So what if we do develop this Solanite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now." Disgusted, Eros screams, "Stronger. You see? You see? You're stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" Which prompts Trent to pistol-whip him.
The mission to destroy the human race by resurrecting their dead reflects the intentions of Eros's home planet, but it's a cockamamie idea that doesn't have a chance in Hell of working, and just as it's getting started his supervisor cuts his funding. Eros is a wide-eyed idealist and his failure is bittersweet. He's as violent as the humans, I suppose. When Tanna stands up for him, he pushes her, explaining, "Women are for forwarding the race, not for fighting man's battles." I think this is indicative of a complexity on behalf of the character more than it is of hypocrisy on Wood's part. Eros holds onto these sexist attitudes as a means of salving his wounded ego: He believes in saving the universe, but he is tripped up at every turn and ultimately doomed to failure. As a peacenik, he's a tragic figure who succumbs to the very thing he hates. In conclusion, Wood is not a satirist because there is the kernel of something very sincere in his film. Plan 9 from Outer Space has a heart and a soul.
Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster is a satire made by satirists. The film's iciness neutralizes the acrid kick-in-the-nuts attitude that distinguishes a satirical film like Borat: Although you're always aware that you're watching a movie (and so it never threatens to become a self-contained experience), it's the work of a sociopath all the same. The tone is so hip and detached that it suggests a filmmaker who has lost all capacity for normal human feelings of empathy. Like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster has an essentially anti-war platform; but it differs in that it doesn't distinguish between the Martian civilization and the Earth civilization and rather ruthlessly lampoons both as self-destructive. Released one year after Stanley Kubrick's (the sultan of sociopathic detachment, as if I needed to tell you) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster acts as a spiritual sequel. In a bizarre Churchillian "fireside chat" with their invading army, Princess Marcuzan and Doctor Nadir describe how their recent world war has left most of their fellow countrymen dead. Of those who survived, some will go mad while the rest will rot away in incredible agony. Nadir tells them they won the war and they are the sole survivors, seemingly unaware of how completely stupid that sounds.
While it's never overtly expressed, everything points to this being a nuclear war or something roughly similar: the mass casualties; the slow death of the survivors; and the now-uninhabitable planet. The idea that they are going to repopulate their race with nubile earth women is like an extension of the ending to Dr. Strangelove, in which the title character predicts that we'll have to have multiple wives in order to repopulate the Earth. The satirical point is the same as Dr. Strangelove's: Mankind's capacity for nuclear war severely outstrips nationalist rivalries, but we can never quite see it on that scale. Nationalist rivalries are the only thing we understand.
Our Earthling protagonist Frank(enstein) is no hero or real foil for the Martians, though. Upon getting his wiring singed he goes on a murder spree, picking off a handful of civilians. This idea appealed to me on a very base level, titillating portions of my brain that hadn't been titillated since I was a seven-year-old watching "Commander USA's Groovie Movies". Having two monsters with completely different agendas going on separate rampages always meant that the filmmakers were going to give us our money's worth. But this plot point is important in that it indicts the Earthlings as every bit the toddlers with shotguns the Martians are. Calling him a "Frankenstein" explicitly illustrates the theme of science developing at a faster rate than ethics. Presumably, he was built with the capacity for violence but programmed to suppress and redirect it. The line separating good violence from bad violence is paper-thin. All it took to turn Frank from the hero into the villain was a laser blast to the head.
In the last few minutes of the film, Adam and Karen succeed in getting Frank to fight the Spacemonster and kill Doctor Nadir and Princess Marcuzan. This threatens to emotionally engage us. On a basic level, we want the good guys to win; and on another level we even want Frank to tap into the good guy trapped deep inside--you know, kinda like you want Darth Vader to toss the Emperor down the furnace shaft in Return of the Jedi. Alas, the whole thing goes by so fast that it hardly registers. The last thing we see is a huge explosion and then we cut to motorcycle footage around Puerto Rico while a catchy pop song plays over the credits. It's frenzied, messy, apocalyptic, and a little glib, as though they couldn't be bothered to come up with a "real" ending. And in a way, I find it kind of perfect: It may drip with sarcastic condescension towards anybody watching something called Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster, yet you can taste the political anger and frustration behind the gesture.
I just want to say up front that although Dark Sky's DVD release of Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (or Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, as it's spelled on the cover art) isn't a revelation, I'm eternally grateful to finally have the opportunity to discover and review a bona fide masterpiece while on the job. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer unfortunately utilizes a badly-worn source print riddled with kinky hairs and cigarette burns; the stock footage is particularly degraded. If you're able to look past these shortcomings, the hires b&w image is a noticeable improvement upon the VHS captures featured on STOMP TOKYO's review of the film in terms of clarity and contrast. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio likewise falls victim to age-related defects. An included 14-page booklet provides a fascinating history of the project courtesy liner notes from co-screenwriter George Garrett, though a terrible EPINIONS review is inexplicably quoted therein. Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster's theatrical trailer and a photo gallery round out the platter. Originally published: December 6, 2006.