No reasonable person would say that Jesús “Jess” Franco was an artist of the same magnitude as Orson Welles, but the two men did have a lot in common, besides the Spanish director serving as an assistant on Chimes At Midnight. Like Welles, Franco was a hustler who grabbed any available opportunity to make a movie, even if that meant shooting multiple projects simultaneously, with casts and crews who didn’t always know what was going on (or that they were being paid once for three or four jobs). As a result, Franco’s films feature a unique visual grammar, born partly out of necessity, as his editors scrambled to find ways to make all these grabbed-on-the-fly fragments fit.
Say this for Franco, though: Given a handful of actors and a few hours of access to an old castle, he didn’t waste everyone’s time shooting a lot of exposition. According to some estimates, The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein was one of a dozen movies that Franco worked on in 1972—not all of which were ever completed—and over the course of its tight 74 minutes, nearly every scene features something shocking, sexy, or otherwise attention-grabbing. Putting the word “erotic” in the title is a bit of a stretch, since eroticism requires some element of desire, which is hard to discern amid The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein’s somber, costumed secret societies and robotic sadomasochism. The movie is mostly a muddle, governed by dream-logic. But at least Franco doesn’t spare the sensation.
The film’s actual plot is slight, and not that hard to follow. Fernando Bilbao plays a mechanical monster, in need of a new master after the death of his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The chief contenders are the young, aloof Vera Frankenstein (Beatriz Savón), and the dark mesmerist Cagliostro (Howard Vernon). Their rivalry plays out via a series of dark rituals, wherein naked men and women are bound, lashed, and carved into pieces in colorful underground chambers. Meanwhile, Cagliostro’s squawking bird-woman assistant (Anne Libert) lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce on and peck apart the vulnerable.
What’s confusing about The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein is everything that’s not plot. Because of the way Franco worked, the fuller explanations of who these warring scientists and magicians actually are was either never shot or never written. That’s where Kino/Redemption’s new DVD and Blu-ray edition comes in handy. Video Watchdog’s editor Tim Lucas provides a detailed commentary track, pointing out the characters Franco carried over from earlier films, and the images that intentionally evoke contemporaneous Euro-horror and comic books. Lucas also notes how the emphasis on masters and servants in Erotic Rites intersects with Franco’s anti-fascist politics.
Ultimately though, as with so many of Franco’s films, what’s most remarkable about this one is that it exists at all. It’s an odd, alluring artifact, resembling a series of excerpts from a longer, unfinished work. The movie has value in and of itself, if only because its frequent camera moves, extreme close-ups, and matter-of-fact nudity are all skillfully deployed to keep viewers alert and engaged. It’s just that the connective tissue between those shots seems to be missing, making The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein disorienting. Watching it becomes an exercise in thinking along with its director, imagining what he might’ve put into the picture if he’d had the time and money—or perhaps just the inclination.