BLACKENSTEIN (1973) Blu-ray
Director: William Levey
Severin Films

When American International Pictures inaugurated their line of "blaxploitation" horror flicks with the great BLACULA, it was inevitable that some genius was going to turn to Mary Shelley's literary creation for inspiration. The outcome is probably the worst black horror film of all time, making the AIP counterparts look like slick multi-million-dollar epics in comparison. Shoddy and incompetent in almost every way, BLACKENSTEIN is either very boring and unwatchable, or enjoyable “guilty pleasure” trash, depending on how close your mouth has dropped to the floor before it's all over. And now it’s on Blu-ray!

Pretty scientist Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) arrives at the California mansion of her mentor "Dr. Stein" (former TV "Lone Ranger" John Hart, RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP) in the hopes that he can help her boyfriend. The boyfriend, Eddie (Joe De Sue, a client of the producer), has just returned from Vietnam where he lost his arms and legs in a land mine accident. Dr. Stein is brilliant in the area of DNA, even winning a Nobel Prize, so he is able to graft new arms and legs on the hapless Eddie. After the operation, everything seems to be going swell, but Dr. Stein's servant (Roosevelt Jackson, who is apparently re-dubbed by someone with a very deep voice, except in one scene where they forgot to loop him!) becomes obsessed with Winifred, who is still very much in love with Eddie. Since he can't have her, he mixes up Eddie's DNA before injection, and what results is a hulking monster with a protruding brow, square-shaped afro, new two-piece suit, and shiny Beatle boots. The monster grunts, walks around really slowly with his arms extended, goes out and kills some folks, and comes back to his cozy cellar bunk with no one in the house taking notice of his nightly exits.

Not only does BLACKENSTEIN embrace numerous Frankenstein film clichés (and very little traditional blaxploitation swagger), it proceeds from one inconsistent absurd scene to the next. Our lumbering monster's victims are mostly women who have their breasts exposed and their intestines ripped out in exaggerated fashion. There's an obligatory scene in a nightclub, where a comedian named Andy C tells a terrible joke about a talking dog (who uses $5 for a hooker) and introduces soul singer Cardella Di Milo (DOLEMITE)! Aside from several soulful tunes belted out by Miss Di Milo, the soundtrack consists of overbearing library music (the type you would hear in old Jerry Warren movies) which blares over shots of the original laboratory equipment from Universal's first two Frankenstein films, supplied by Ken Strickfaden who also dug the gadgets out for Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN several years earlier. The familiar electronic apparatuses are displayed against a roomy blank background—one might suspect Strickfaden didn't want them taken out of storage, forcing the filmmakers to conduct business where he could keep an eye on things.

What really makes BLACKENSTEIN so notoriously bad is the acting. We've all seen bad acting before, but it really can't get any worse than this. Joe De Sue is by far the worst actor ever in a horror movie, and it's no wonder that he and most of the less-seasoned cast members never did anything else. Before he is turned monstrous, De Sue delivers his lines with absolutely no emotion or range, and his blank expressions resemble a bloated Flip Wilson in a coma. Watch his reactions to a scene where he is berated by an improvising racist hospital attendant (played by familiar stocky character actor John Dennis, using the name "Bob Brophy" here). You won't believe it. Some veteran actors try to rise above the material (including 1940s star Andrea King, who was in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS), but even stripper legend and second-billed Liz Renay (DESPERATE LIVING)—in a pink see-through nightie—is wasted in a cameo as one of the monster's blood-soaked victims. Director William A. Levey did a string of exploitation films following this one during the 1970s including WAM BAM THANK YOU SPACEMAN, SLUMBER PARTY ‘57 and THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON.

Severin Films in cooperation with Vinegar Syndrome and Xenon Pictures (who previously released the film on both VHS and DVD) presents BLACKENSTEIN on Blu-ray in two different versions: the theatrical version (1:17:46) and the home video version (1:27:05) which is the cut of the film Xenon previously offered. The theatrical version is presented in full 1080p HD and is more than a revelation when compared to the murky home video version. It’s presented in a fitting 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so we not only finally see it in a proper theatrical aspect ratio, but colors are vivid and distinct, flesh tones are more life-like and detail is consistently sharp. Black levels are deep and the grain structure is tight and appropriately filmic. The proper framing and the new HD presentation actually bring some aesthetic value to the film, including the lighting in the laboratory scenes and the monster’s nightly excursions. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is more than satisfactory throughout, with clear dialogue and the blaring library music has a nice prominence to it. The longer video version goes back and forth by matching between the new HD transfer and the 1” tape master (the same source used for the Xenon VHS and DVD) which of course is pretty worn and dingy; colors are gray and lifeless, and the general muddiness makes darker scenes difficult to make out.

So what are the differences between the two versions? Well, they represent two separate cuts of the film rather than what can be deemed a complete version and an edited version. The shorter theatrical version (which starts with a “Prestige Pictures Releasing Corp” logo) is actually tighter and does include bits not in the video version (namely a boy behind a fence witnessing the monster on the march and then describing him to the police as being “about 9 feet tall”, as well as scattered insert close-ups of the monster’s eyes) and omits Andy C’s first standup joke. The video release version’s extended length is mostly due to alternate shots and extended scenes (most of which are quite useless and meandering) including a pre-credit scene of Winifred and Dr. Stein working in a lab (taken from a later part of the movie) before she even arrives to the mansion. It’s great that both versions have been included for comparison sake, but the theatrical version wins hands down in terms of overall excellent picture quality and better pacing, and it might even be cause for repeated viewings.

Extras include “Monster Kid” (19:02) an interview with Frank R. Saletri’s (the late writer/producer of the film) sister June Kirk (brother Saletri was a well-liked criminal lawyer who was killed in his Hollywood Hills home in 1982 at the age of 54). She recalls her childhood with her brother, telling how they went to see the Universal monster movies in the theater, and that he had a lifelong love of horror movies, living in the Hollywood house once owned by Lugosi and being a member of The Count Dracula Society (an animal lover, Saletri named several of his dogs after Bela and Boris). Saletri had a number of celebrity friends and clients (including Liz Renay, hence her appearance in the movie) and wrote a number of other unfilmed scripts (including “Black the Ripper”) which Kirk is seen browsing through and flipping through here. As for BLACKENSTEIN, Kirk say her brother was very proud of the film, calling it his “baby”, and she of course talks about the events of his unsolved murder. An “Archive News Broadcast” (6:17) is a local news report about Saletri’s unsolved murder, a year after it occurred. Here he’s referred to as a “defender of the underdog” with no known enemies and no known motif for the crime, but the report paints some of his clients as shadier characters; a slant for a possible reason behind the tragedy. CAIN’S WAY director Ken Osborne and B-movie actor Robert Dix (FIVE BLOODY GRAVES) remember Saletri in another featurette (6:36). Both gentlemen tell some anecdotes and give insights on the man (both were clients and friends of his), and these interview subjects will also be part of Severin’s documentary on Al Adamson, something we’re definitely looking forward to seeing. “Bill Created Blackenstein” (9:13) is an audio interview (accompanied by scenes from the movies and still shots) with make-up artist Bill Munns who constructed the monster prosthetics for the film. He talks about getting the job, his approach to the monster head design and the conditions under which he had to work in. He describes Joe De Sue as a patient and nice man, and this featurette includes some rare stills of him in the make-up chair. Rounding out the extras is a newly-created theatrical trailer, and a pretty good one considering the likelihood that an authentic one no longer exists. (George R. Reis)