Monday, April 2, 2018

"Continual Life Has Its Continual Ups and Downs" - Frankenstein Island (1981)

Let us now discuss the final film of Jerry Warren, Frankenstein Island (1981), made 15 years after his penultimate film, The Wild World of Batwoman (1966).

Reviewer angelynx-2 writes, "Nothing in it makes ANY SENSE AT ALL!" About the film's screenplay, humanresistor writes, "The dialogue seems to have been written by someone who's never actually heard a conversation between people before, and acted by people who've never participated in one." Dismissively, Paul Andrews writes, "How Jerry Warren had the nerve to film this rubbish I'll never know. Not bad in a good kind of way, just plain bad."

( do not know what Paul Andrews means by "Not bad in a good kind of way." There is only good and bad. And Frankenstein Island is in no way bad. Please read on to see the many ways in which the film is not bad at all...

The film begins in a unique way, as we watch from afar three colorful hot air balloons floating in the sky. The balloons, it seems, are a rescue operation, searching for someone named “Doc” whose own hot air balloon had been lost over the ocean due to a tornado at sea (known to most people, but not the rescue team, as a waterspout). We hear the search balloons radio each other using 1960s slang: “The water, man. The ocean. Any way you shake it, those poor guys wound up either on it, in it, or under it.”

(An aside: I have heard that in your universe airplanes and helicopters are more popular for rescue operations, which is one indication that Frankenstein Island is from my Universe-Prime, where for over 100 years we have recognized the superiority of lighter-than-air travel.)

The rescue balloons fail to find Doc and his compatriots, but we see that they, including their dog Melvin, have reached a nice beach on an island. Fortunately, their clothes are dry, not even wrinkled, and everyone is uninjured. Their main concerns become avoiding the religious exhortations of one of their party (Curtis) and finding a way over or through the beachside cliffs. Eventually they find a big cave and they all scramble inside, though their intentions are unclear.

The cave has an exit onto a hillside with desert scrub and some trees. “We’ve got plenty of wood for a raft here,” says one of the survivors.

“Dead trees are buoyant, too,” says Doc helpfullly.

After a confusing incident in which the religious fanatic suddenly loses control of his own arm, the group stumbles upon the bizarre sight of a woman strung between two trees, the scene marked by a rubber skull on a stake.

They are even more surprised to find a tribe of bikini-clad native women walking toward them. The men try to make contact: “Uh, we crashed in a balloon, you know?”

“You are pretty,” one of the women tells Curtis.

After giving the men sponge baths, the women cook a nice meal and serve beverages in coconut shells. The women also dance in their bikinis, to the delight of the men.

The next day, the women release their companion who was strung between two trees as an initiation ritual. Suddenly, one woman is kidnapped by a portly man in jeans, a sailor’s cap, and stylish shades.

The kidnapping is unsuccessful, as the kidnapper, a man named Zyrid, tires quickly and drops his intended victim. The women tell the men from the balloon that Zyrid was part of a ship’s crew that landed on the island, but now he acts strangely because he was experimented on.

We soon meet more members of the ship’s crew, who tell the women, perhaps referring to an old stereotype about women and vanity, “You should be thankful for the mirrors we brought.”

Later, unbothered by the sailors, the men from the balloon observe the women perform a ritual in which they smoke something from skulls.

While the women are busy with their ritual, the men formulate their plans. Mark says, “I suggest we get on our horses and get out of here right now.” (We have seen no horses, so we must assume he is speaking metaphorically.)

Doc says, “There’s no question they’re deep into witchcraft, so that might throw your travel plans into reverse.”

Changing subjects, Curtis explains the odd phenomenon that affected his arm. “I got that figured. It’s when you mix a particular place, not here, but on the outside. That’s when the power hits you.”

“The power?” Mark asks.

“Yeah, it’s sort of built in. It’s like telepathy.”

“Telepathy?” Mark asks.

“No, no, no, no. It’s LIKE telepathy.”

He demonstrates by suggesting that Dino tell one of the women about the time he scored three touchdowns against Miami. Dino loses his control of his arm; it appears that when one of the men speaks about a specific memory and names a city of place, then his hand is controlled telekinetically from an outside force.

The sailors suddenly appear, laugh at the men from the balloon, and then tell them their questions will be answered if they follow them to where the valleys rise to the sun, not far away. The men follow the sailors, leaving the women to watch them walk away.

The sailors lead the men to a complex of portable buildings, but the men from the balloon are forced to sit outside until nightfall. They explore the complex and find an imprisoned man played by Cameron Mitchell. Their interrogation of Mr. Mitchell is a classic scene of subtle, understated acting. “How long have you been here?” asks Mark.

“How long?” says Mr. Mitchell.

“Yeah,” says Mark.

“Have I been here?” says Mr. Mitchell. “How long? long? Um...I...” He shows them a handmade calendar made of a rectangle of plywood with some irregular marks on it. “Seventeen...this is the seventeenth year.”

Mr. Mitchell reveals that he has been imprisoned to serve as a blood donor. Curtis, the religious zealot, responds that he doesn’t want to end up in a cell. “Do you know where I can find a gun, or I can steal one?”

Suddenly, a bearded man enters the cell from behind and plunges a massive syringe into Mr. Mitchell’s neck while Mr. Mitchell recites poetry by Edgar Allan Poe.

The balloon men are finally invited into the main portable building, where they are greeted by a middle aged woman with a bottle of liquor. “My best brandy, the oldest in stock,” she says. Then she adds cheerfully, “I’m Sheila Frankenstein.”

She clarifies a second later: “Actually, it’s von Helsing. I don’t prefer my married name.” Her birth name is Frankenstein, as Dr. Frankenstein is her great-great grandfather. She passes a photograph of the doctor around, and we can see we’re in for a treat—the photograph is of the great John Carradine.

It seems Dr. Frankenstein set up everything on the island, including the psychic arm-controlling power, and still governs the island by channeling his consciousness through Sheila Frankenstein’s husband. “Through their communication,” she says, “Dr. Frankenstein still controls this island.”

“He’s pretty happy about you fellows,” says her servant.

“Even though he’s dead?” asks Mark.

“Being dead’s no problem,” says the manservant. “It’s just the opposite. What do you think was pulling you here, your own free will?” (Perhaps the servant is unaware that the balloon men were guided to the compound by the sailors.)

The conversation turns toward the native girls. “Perhaps some of you can serve to impregnate them in order to ensure future generations,” suggests Sheila nonchalantly.

Before the balloon men are shown to their chambers, Sheila explains the black-clad guards, who have been scientifically altered to have no bloodstream, and hence to be immune to guns. They are, however, extremely sensitive to light, so they need to wear sunglasses.

She further explains that the island was historically a landing site for aliens. “Yeah, aliens,” says Curtis, somewhat obliquely. “That explains it about the girls.”

They also find Sheila’s husband, von Helsing, a bearded, bedridden man who moves his arms spasmodically and says, “I have the power, the power of the Golden Thread.” He also says something about the devil’s baboon.

Later, back at the native girls’ village, the women perform a ritual to summon the floating image of John Carradine’s head. “You shall have the power,” he says. “The power. The power.”

The next day, Sheila Frankenstein gives the balloon men a tour of the grounds, including a garden that produces vegetables using new nutrient compounds. “Well, if you like sports, they’re over there,” she says.

“Oh, sports?” says Curtis. They observe the sports, which consist solely of a kind of zombie wrestling. Curtis takes part in the wrestling, awkwardly, and is beaten up by the zombies.

While the zombie guards are wrestling, Doc and Sheila are visiting her bedridden husband, Von Helsing, who imparts many things about the island, including the fact that the guards have no bloodstreams because they function on psychic energy, that a power source exists on the island that weakens someone he does not name, and the fact that Von Helsing himself is almost 200 years old. “Continual life,” he says, “has its continual ups and downs.” He also informs Doc that the original Frankenstein monster is chained underwater on the island. (One might think that this fact might have come up earlier in the narrative—perhaps when the name Frankenstein was first uttered—but one would be wrong.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the balloon men engage in the practice colloquially called “mainsplaining” as they order the bikini-clad women to find logs to make into a raft.

Next, the film moves into the realm of the artistically surreal as we watch two zombie guards torment a third guard with a battery cable and a plastic devil’s trident.

Of course, this tormenting results in the guard growing vampire fangs while John Carradine’s floating head recites a mystic spell: “Oh, Celeste of the heavens, oh horse within the light, I call for decrees in the tradition we perpetuated.”

Back at the lab, we see that Doc is working on experiments with Sheila Frankenstein. He ignores his fellow balloon men, choosing instead to experiment on blood transfusions between goats and a kidnapped half-alien girl (who among us would make a different choice?).

The experimentation, which requires one of the zombie guards to slack-jawedly operate some equipment, appears successful, but Von Helsing does not approve of the animal blood in his system.

Von Helsing orders Sheila Frankenstein and Doc to perform a new transfusion, using Cameron Mitchell’s Type A blood. They comply.

At night, the balloon men (minus Doc) and the half-alien bikini women mount a rescue operation with the goal of liberating Cameron Mitchell. “Do you know what a machine gun looks like?” asks Mark.

“Um, I think so,” says one of the women.

They sneak through a window into the main building, all of them together, presumably so the men can identify a machine gun for the women. They open a coat closet. “Here,” says Curtis, “it’s a machine gun all right. Looks like out of the Civil War.”

Sheila Frankenstein and her manservant catch one of the women and place her on a slab next to Cameron Mitchell; the woman helpfully pulls herself up onto the slab so her captors may more easily strap her down. Horrifyingly, she is forced to listen to Mr. Mitchell’s recital of more Poe poems, as he misidentifies the bikini-clad woman as his lost Lenore.

Suddenly, Curtis bursts into the lab, awkwardly pulling the old Gatling gun inside with him. He is followed by what might be mistaken for a Conga line of bikini women.

The villains and Doc, perhaps flabbergasted by the inefficient rescue operation playing out before their eyes, allow the balloon men and the bikini women to set up the machine gun on one side of the room.

Sheila sidesteps the machine gun nest and enters another room, where she spends about five minutes turning dials until electricity crackles everywhere and Dr. Frankenstein’s head appears. The head implies that it is time for the Frankenstein monster to return. We see images of stars and planets, and superimposed upon them a pair of green hands.

Then Frankenstein’s monster rises from a shallow pool of water.

In the lab, Mark and Dino try to convince Doc to destroy everything and escape with them. Dino says, “You’re psyched out, Doc, and you don’t know it.” For no apparent reason, these exhortations work not on Doc but on Sheila Frankenstein, who pulls a lever that, I believe, releases Doc from her psychic control.

Then Frankenstein’s monster wanders through the village of the bikini women.

The monster eventually makes his way to the lab, where Curtis attempts to cut him down with the machine gun, but unfortunately for Curtis the gun is jammed. A brawl ensues in the lab, though the Frankenstein monster does little more than strangle anyone who walks up to him. He also flips a table piled with plastic jars, though in the next shot the table is intact.

In the climax, a brain sitting under a plastic dome is suddenly damaged, which incapacitates the Frankenstein monster as well as the zombie henchmen.

The balloon men use the opportunity to escape the lab, yelling to the girls that they will come back for them.

The next shot shows a harbor. Presumably the balloon men constructed an unseen raft seaworthy enough to reach civilization. They tell their story to the American military authorities, represented by Colonel Andrew Duggan, who says, “If I didn’t know I was hearing this from the horse’s mouth, I’d check my communications for a big hole...somewhere.”

The Colonel explains why he believes their outrageous story. “I cannot brush off the reality of that raft that you were on. Those logs are tangible, obviously rooted to the ground.”

Mark adds, “And the ground is there, just like I told you. And if it hadn’t been for those logs, we wouldn’t have gotten anyplace.”

The balloon men return to the island with a few soldiers, including the Colonel.

They retrace their steps, but the village of the bikini women is gone. The buildings and the lab are gone as well. “It’s clear you hallucinated the whole thing,” says the Colonel.

In a twist straight out of The Twilight Zone, they find Melvin the dog, who is carrying one of the alien women’s necklace.

And the balloon men are left behind on the island by the Colonel.

It is hard to imagine a movie that is less 1981 than Frankenstein Island (1981), and that is one of its greatest charms. There is no big hair or disco music; there are no pastel fashions or digital watches. Instead, the film presents an aesthetic more related to 1963, though unfortunately John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell are not as vibrant as they would have been in that earlier decade. Nevertheless, as is appropriate to the subject matter, Frankenstein Island is a film of no specific time, a fact which goes a long way to make the film universal.

We have studied several films at Senseless Cinema that involve castaways finding an island--see, for example, Island of the Fishmen (1979), Attack of the Beast Creatures (1985), and The Dungeon of Harrow (1964). Frankenstein Island fits squarely within this genre, with the added attractions of the Frankenstein monster and of course bikini-clad half-alien native women, two components that for some reason are not present in the aforementioned three films.

It is unfortunate that Jerry Warren never made another movie after this. I can only imagine his take on a film titled, for example, Dracula Island.

It practically writes itself.