Blackenstein is not the successful blaxploitation horror film Blacula managed, but it does have its weird moments. Severin Films has done a great job with two different versions of the film along with some new interviews, mostly focusing on Frank R. Saletri.
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Intriguing opening with some weird science
Two versions of the film including rare theatrical cut
New interviews about Frank R. Saletri
Film is overall a slow and tame affair
Video release cut looks rough because of the use of two sources
Blackenstein as a concept is pretty interesting; it was the brain child of Frank R. Saletri, a criminal lawyer with no real knowledge of filmmaking, who truthfully seems to have used the popularity of the blaxploitation horror movement – like Blacula‘s burgeoning success – as a means of cashing in with a loosely-related idea. Saletri’s biography is even more intriguing than the film itself, since his later murder is still unsolved. As a cinematic contribution, however, Blackenstein is a poor representation of the style, and its execution is about what one would expect from an inexperienced writer/director. The film lacks the finesse of Blacula, the racial criticisms of most blaxploitation, and even the lurid nature and nudity of those offerings; instead, Saletri often adheres to the common tropes present in most Frankenstein adaptations, except with more tedious direction.
Saletri’s plot is actually quite intriguing from a scientific perspective, following a Vietnam veteran named Eddie (Joe De Sue) after he loses his arms and legs in the war. His girlfriend Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) takes a position with the brilliant surgeon Dr. Stein (John Hart) so that he can reattach his limbs, using a special blend of Eddie’s own DNA to help facilitate the process. The jealous laboratory assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) mixes another person’s DNA into Eddie’s serum and voila! Eddie becomes Blackenstein, enraged and murderous.
Blackenstein‘s opening moments delve deep into the scientific process, even making Winifred into a surprisingly strong female protagonist. While Saletri’s writing – and certainly his choice of actors – is often suspect, the film has a particularly strong beginning setting up the conflict and even constructing some societal criticism about the treatment of war veterans. However, Blackenstein quickly devolves into chaos once Eddie becomes the titular monster.
That’s because Saletri seems to lose all sense of direction, featuring scene after scene of Blackenstein out on the streets causing destruction. There’s not much reason behind each of the attacks besides getting them on-screen and filling the time, and for the most part Saletri forgets about the dynamics between Eddie and Winifred after he becomes Blackenstein. As mentioned earlier, the film doesn’t explore black themes either – the blaxploitation style is simply a marketing device rather than any meaningful representation of culture. Even the exploitation is minimized to the film’s conclusion, with brief flashes of nudity and some poor attempts at gore thrown in haphazardly.
Pair this with some unnecessary scenes involving comedian Andy C and singer Cardella Di Milo and you have a lumbering horror film that’s nearly as slow as the character himself. Blackenstein truly misses the mark, and it’s unfortunate that this Frankenstein adaptation was unable to achieve the same results as the culturally important Blacula before it. Saletri’s one attempt at filmmaking results in a Frankensteinian creation that ultimately fails to deliver on its promise of horror or blaxploitation elements.
Severin Films has released Blackenstein on Blu-Ray with two different versions of the film. The theatrical cut has never been readily available, but Severin has made it a main focal point of this Blu-Ray – it appears as the first choice, and it is most certainly the better option for this release. The theatrical cut clocks in about 10 minutes shorter than the more widespread home video version (78 minutes vs. 87 minutes) and cuts out a lot of elongated scenes and extra shots within the home video version, and it’s overall a lot cleaner. The theatrical cut looks very good considering the age and damage to the master, with some excellent color preservation and good treatment of dark scenes. There are still some marks and burns here and there, but ultimately Severin has done a great job with this Blu-Ray.
The home video version looks a lot rougher, and that’s due to Severin’s Frankenstein-esque splicing of two sources – the regular theatrical cut and a 1″ master tape containing the video release scenes. (There’s a 30-second warning at the beginning of the cut.) Obviously the video release scenes do look quite deteriorated, with lots of debris, lines, and shuddering along with an overall blurry image; however, it’s good to see Severin including both versions, if only to please completionists. While I would recommend the theatrical cut over the video release version, it’s interesting to see how the drawn-out the video release truly is.
Both versions get two audio tracks – a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and a Dolby Digital Audio 2.0. While there aren’t many differences between the two, I found myself favoring the Dolby Digital track simply because some dialogue sounded a tad bit cleaner. However, neither track is a bad decision. Interestingly, Severin has included English subtitles only for the theatrical cut, another reason to pick that one over the video release.
Bonus features include a new interview with Frank R. Saletri’s sister June Kirk, nearly 20 minutes of discussion about the late writer/director; an archival video broadcast on the murder of Frank R. Saletri, about 6 minutes; new interviews with Ken Osborne and Robert Dix about Saletri, another 6 minutes; and a new interview with the creature designer Bill Munns, clocking in about 10 minutes. In truth, only the Blackenstein creature design interview is specifically focused on Blackenstein, but Saletri’s odd existence is enough to warrant the inclusion of the other remembrance interviews. All told, about 40 minutes of extra features are included on this Blu-Ray.
However, the most important part of this release has to be the two different cuts of the film, giving Blaxploitation film buffs even more incentive to own this on Blu-Ray. While Blackenstein certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Severin Films has done a great job of giving fans a reason to put this on their shelves.
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