Color, 1973, 77 mins. 47 secs. / 87 mins. 5 secs. /
Directed by William A. Levey
Starring John Hart, Ivory Stone, Joe De Sue, Roosevelt Jackson, Andrea King, Liz Renay
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Xenon (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)

BlackensteinBlackensteinQuickly pushed into production to cash in on AIP's wildly overachieving gem Blacula, this very cheap L.A. take on one of the horror genre's most famous creatures is often cited as the bottom of the barrel among the blaxploitation horror craze. That's certainly true from an acting and technical standpoint, but if you love grimy drive-in films that wallow in tacky stock music, T&A, and cheap gore effects, there's a lot of entertainment value to be had here.

Three years after studying under the now-reclsuive Dr. Stein (The Centerfold Girls' Hart, best known as one of the TV incarnations of The Lone Ranger), young Dr. Winifred Walker (Stone) pays him a visit at his castle laboratory in California to ask for help. Her fiance, Eddie (De Sue), has been badly injured by a land mine in Vietnam and transferred to the nearby veterans' hospital, which has left him without arms or legs. Dr. Stein has come up with a revolutionary, Nobel Prize-winning process involving laser grafting and DNA formula injections to attach new limbs, which can be done without even Blackensteinleaving a sign of a scar thanks to daily injections. The procedure goes smoothly enough at Dr. Stein's home base, but unstable assistant Malcomb (Jackson) has developed a crush on Winifred and figures the easiest way to win her over would be to get Eddie out of the Blackensteinpicture -- by giving him tainted injections known to cause grotesque side effects. Before long Eddie has turned into a giant, shambling monster who prowls the hills of Los Angeles and disembowels anyone unlucky to cross his path.

Goofy and utterly ridiculous, Blackenstein makes the interesting choice to veer away entirely from the mad scientist angle of most Frankenstein-themed films of the previous couple of decades and tries to elicit some sympathy for all three of its primary characters. However, it's no wonder that Stone and De Sue never acted again for reasons that will be glaringly obvious every time they have to deliver a line. The lab equipment borrowed from the first couple of Universal Frankenstein films was also seen in Dracula vs. Frankenstein (in both cases courtesy of electrical special effects engineer Ken Strickfaden), which just reinforces the strong Al Adamson vibe throughout with Blackensteinall those lurid colorful lights and stilted line deliveries. This being a blaxploitation film, you also get a baffling tonal shift just before the one-hour mark with a lengthy nightclub comedy and music set that leads into a back alley attack that provides the film's most indelible image. Not to be overlooked is a random cameo by stripper/gangster moll Liz Renay, star of John Waters' Desperate Living, who turns up long enough to Blackensteinwalk around in a see-through nightie and get killed.

Released in theaters by short-lived out Prestige Pictures at 77 minutes, Blackenstein first bowed on VHS from Media and has since made the rounds in an odd, expanded 87-minute version that made the film much, much harder to sit through, padding it out with alternate and extended takes (lots of additional walking around, exploring, and needless chatter) as well as supplementing the story with needless extensions like an opening look at Winifred arriving to LA. from New York. The end result feels a bit like those extended Hammer Films TV versions, but thankfully the much more compact theatrical cut is finally back in circulation on Blu-ray and DVD from Severin Films. This newer release looks pretty good, all things considered given how cheap and soft the original lensing is, and it easily blows away the Blackensteindire 2003 DVD from Xenon in every possible way. The gaudy colors look greatly improved, the 1.78:1 framing seems comfortable throughout, and the night scenes are now far easier to watch than before. It'll never be anywhere close to demo material, but anyone who suffered through the Xenon release will breathe a sigh of relief. Audio options include a DTS-HD MA English mono track on the Blu-ray with a Dolby Digital option included as well. That applies to the extended video version included here as well, which slugs in the inferior old tape master where necessary while using the new transfer as a base wherever possible. English SDH subtitles are included as well.

However, the real reason to pick up this release is the fascinating array of special features exploring how the film was spearheaded by writer-producer Frank R. Saletri, a former Marine and criminal lawyer with a lifelong fondness for horror movies. His younger sister, June Kirk, turns up in "Monster Kid" (19m2s), an interview about the late Saletri's fondness for Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and pet dogs, as well as his celebrity clients including, yep, Liz Renay. She shows off some of his unproduced scripts like Black the Ripper and The Skid Row Slasher (somebody make those!). Tragically, Saletri was found shot to death in his own home in Blackenstein1982, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Featuring an amazing amount of rare photos and TV coverage, it's a real gem of an extra. In "Bill Created Blackenstein " (9m14s), Blackensteincreature designer Bill Munns appears for an audio phone interview (featuring some enjoyable production photos and other visual accompaniment) about how he was brought on as an independent makeup artist using inspiration from Jack Pierce's work on the original Universal film and sculpting it via head casts and latex cotton build-up into the monster we have now in "what was most emphatically a very, very low-budget production." He also has some amusing memories about the "astonishingly uninhibited" Renay, too. In outtakes from a Severin Films documentary on Al Adamson (6m36s), actor-producer-director Ken Osborne and actor-writer-producer Robert Dix offer their own warm memories of Saletri, who loved being around the film world and had unbridled enthusiasm for the process. There's also a theory offered about why and how he was murdered, too. The grimmest extra by far is a vintage news story (6m17s) soon after the Saletri homicide, which is peppered with clips from this film, comments about the deceased's involvement in the Count Dracula Society, and interviews with the likes of Don Reed of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Finally the disc rounds out with the film's very long theatrical trailer, complete with a bit of narration at the end you won't want to miss.

Reviewed on May 14, 2017.