April 12, 2009

Richard Cunha and the Power of the Moment

FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1958)
Directed by Richard Cunha
STARRING:
Donald Murphy – Oliver Frank
Sandra Knight – Trudy Morton
John Ashley – Johnny Bruder
Sally Todd – Suzie Lawler
Harold Loyd, Jr. – Don
Felix Locher – Carter Morton

The DNA, that beautiful double helix of genetic instruction, has become seriously degraded in the Frankenstein lineage by the summer of 1958.

Family Patriarch, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive in Frankenstein, 1931), was a brilliant scientist, driven mad by the sheer, uncut light of his genius; bringing life from death in the isolation of his watchtower laboratory. Here was a frail, lonely Icarus, touching the face of God with his mind. The cavernous, damp stone rang with his shattered sanity.

The Doctor’s son, Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein, 1939), with his perfect illocution, crisply groomed mustache, and baronial manner; will do much to restore the Frankenstein name. Yet his Achilles heel will be his devotion to his father’s memory. His painful descent is nurtured by family pride; a son’s blind love for his father.

Felix Locher and Donald Murphy

By the late 1950s, the grandson of Dr. Henry, Oliver (Donald Murphy, Frankenstein’s Daughter, 1958) is a jittery date rapist – a near pedophile - working as a live-in flunky for a retired, research analyst; conducting his experiments in the spare room of a suburban residence somewhere in Los Angeles County. Unlike his Father, our Atomic Age heir is not driven to his Godless research by the horrible engine of genius nor a sense of hereditary duty. No. Not quite. In the case of Mr. Oliver “Frank”, his poorly-funded experiments are conducted as fitting punishment for teenage girls who won’t give his middle-aged ass a tumble in the back seat of his employer’s borrowed car

And with that, we have touched upon the glory of the maligned, beloved work of Director Richard Cunha, who was at the helm for this enduring, radioactive fragment from the Atomic Age. Say whatever negative you want about Cunha’s work and you will probably be right. Yet his films were never without their own poorly-funded experiments, done in the blink of an eye under the powerful duress of time; all of which produced a kind of scattershot lunacy that simply keeps me riveted. He produced a quartet of drive-in offerings: All made in the span of a single year (1958): She Demons (his best work), Giant of the Unknown, Missile to the Moon, and Frankenstein’s Daughter. I find myself watching these films repeatedly, never for hidden subtext or moments of deepening meaning (there simply aren’t any of those); but more to enjoy the sharp stab and flash of oddball edginess, and something more; a certain connection I find difficult to understand.

Harold Lloyd, Jr. and Sally Todd

I wish deeply that I could say critical opinion has been mixed regarding Cunha’s work, but it hasn’t. Critics have pretty much spoken with one voice through the decades: Cunha is not good – he is, in fact, terrible. Critics reviewing Frankenstein’s Daughter in year of release were brief and pitiless: The New York Times couldn’t decide which of Cunha’s films – Frankenstein’s Daughter or Missile to the Moon - was the “cheaper, duller piece of claptrap,” deciding it hardly mattered. Both were “simply horrible bores.” This was typical of the contemporary mainstream. In the ensuing years, even critics normally very sympathetic to B-movies and their makers have been equally consistent in their opinion. Pscychotronic has called Daughter “incredibly shoddy,” while Bill Warren (author of the towering Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, McFarland Classics 1982) has said flatly that “Frankenstein’s Daughter is one of the worst films ever made.”

Cunha has never received the chic renaissance awarded Edward D. Wood, Jr, (Plan 9 from Outer Space). As the above indicates, judgment has been harsh and swift, and a revival ala Wood seems highly unlikely. The work of the two directors has similar appeal, yet Cunha lacks Wood’s flea-bitten, bug-eyed panache. There is nothing in the Cunha oeuvre to match the straight-up, outcast vibe of Glen or Glenda (1953); and Cunha’s casting never gathered quite the fascinating collection of social misfits, borderline deviants, charlatans, and drug addicts as represented in Wood’s happy troupe. In short, there is nothing obvious for current social outcasts and borderline deviants to latch onto in Cunha. Even actors that worked with Cunha have been less than flattering in their memories. In a 2009 interview in Videoscope Magazine, Sally Todd, ravishing starlet of Daughter, has called the film, “terrible,” claiming that Cunha was virtually a non-presence on the set: “I really believe the director, Richard Cunha, is a myth. I don’t think the man ever even existed . . . he was always hiding in the shadows.” Star and B movie icon, John Ashley, who delivered lines as though forever, propped on one elbow, reclining by pool or seaside, has said that Daughter was, “really rock-bottom.” This from an actor whose career, while marvelous (check out his work in Brides of Blood or any of the Eddie Romero "Blood Island" pictures), was not exactly littered with A-list titles; and who surely knew rock bottom when he saw it.

Why then, do I love it so? Sure, I have a crush on ex-playmate, Sally Todd, but even Ms. Todd’s urgent appeal doesn’t account for my affection for Daughter. Well, let’s get to it and see what comes up by way of answer.

Our story begins with Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s grandson living under an assumed name, Oliver Frank, and working for a retired scientist, Carter Morton (Felix Locher), as a research assistant. Morton is working on a formula which will eliminate all destructive cells from human tissue, allowing humans to live forever. “Imagine,” says Morton in the early going, speaking in a completely unexplained heavy Swiss accent, “man will be ageless!” We can be thankful that dear Carter is a harmless crackpot, as the absence of death would create a horrid, overpopulated world of murder and a holocaust of competition for dwindling recourses; a complete a hell-on-earth, in less than a decade, but no matter. With Oliver “Frank” as his right hand man, constantly running the old man down with negativism, his failure is assured. Oliver Frank is working for the professor only so that he may have access to a working lab, a place where in secret he continues in the Frankenstein tradition of re-animation.

The early scenes between Morton and Frank establish the heir of the storied lineage to be a petulant, snotty ass hole; chipping in with snide comments at every turn and generally grinning up his sleeve at the old man’s dottiness. Never fully explained is why Morton keeps this snide prick not only on the payroll but living under his roof. Unexplained also is the continued employment of the household gardener, Elsu (Wolfe Barzell), who will fulfill the Fritz/Igor role for a new generation. Elsu scores high on the creep-o-meter, shambling around the house seemingly at will, constantly slobbering over Morton’s live-in niece, Trudy (Sandra Knight). In our non-to-subtle introduction to the grimy, smallish Elsu, we find him slowly handing Trudy a cut flower, saying, “From the garden, Ms. Trudy. I didn’t like killing it,” – and here actor Barzell stares meaningfully into space – “but some things are more beautiful in death.” Got it?

We will quickly learn that the repulsive goblin Elsu isn’t the only aging house employee drooling over Trudy, who, it is prudent to add at this juncture, is a teenager. Like so much in the film that is never explained, Trudy’s presence is left to conjecture. Where are her parents? Why is she living with an Uncle of completely different nationality? Anyway, graying-at-the-temples Oliver paws desperately at Trudy as well, forcing kisses and threatening gropes upon her whenever kindly uncle is not around. Yes, Trudy will be in counseling for years, trying to make sense of her Uncle’s house over oversexed but welcome guests.

While the nefarious Oliver torments his boss, we also follow Trudy and her friends, which include Trudy’s boyfriend, Johnny (John Ashley), her best friend Suzie (Sally Todd), and Suzie’s boyfriend, Don (Harold Lloyd, Jr.). This gang of kids spend most of their time playing tennis, going to movies, and making fun of Suzie who tries to convince them she has seen a monster. Johnny is particularly annoying in his dismissal of Suzie’s tales, claiming she tells stories for attention, but good girl Trudy (Todd always played the bad girl, thank heavens) backs up her story, sort of. Trudy has been having nightmares where she dreams she becomes a monster, just like the one Suzie describes seeing (huge teeth, bushy eyebrows). It is soon revealed that Oliver Frank has been experimenting with Niece Trudy, mixing in Uncle Carter’s magic elixir in her punch, testing the formula. If the cell-saving potion works, the new generation of Frankenstein’s monster can live forever! Unfortunately the formula has a negative side-affect, it turns Trudy temporarily into a deformed, very toothy monster, racing around town at night like Dr. Hyde but unable to clearly remember anything in the morning save her own confused exhaustion (caring but crushingly ineffectual Uncle Carter thinks things might be remedied by a substantial breakfast of eggs and bacon. Thanks, Uncle Carter. You're tops!).

Donald Murphy and Sally todd

The film trundles along on these wobbly legs for most of its length: Oliver slipping Trudy his monster Mickey Finns, the dirty “gardener” trying to collect body parts for Oliver Frankenstein from local car accidents (Elsu is a pointedly incompetent sidekick, bringing the doc pieces of mangled hands and limbs, explaining that it was the best he could scrounge before other cars showed up. “You fool,” snaps Oliver, “I have no use for this! It’s a head I need! Everything is ready except for the brain!”), and Suzie unable to convince anyone abut anything. Eventually Oliver manages to wrangle a date out of Suzie and runs her down in his car when she rejects his advances in a particularly oily scene (I have to go home now, pleads Suzie, who has had to wiggle out from underneath the lecherous Oliver. My dad doesn’t know I left the house. “I snuck out,” she tells him, looking a very fresh 17 or so. Remember, Oliver is a good 45 years old if he’s a day. Goddamn!).

After killing Suzie, Oliver makes the best of a bad situation and, in a moment of inspiration, decides to graft Suzie’s head on the body he’s got in cold storage. Viola! And the beauty part is, a female brain will be even better than the original creations brought to life by his ancestors, which were straddled with independent, male beans. As Oliver explains to Elsu, “a female brain is conditioned to a man’s world and therefore takes orders where the others didn’t.” Ah. This is a decidedly strange conclusion for our shifty-eyed, rabbity madman to come to, as not a single female in the movie has taken one of his “orders” seriously. I would have thought about the third time one of the movies’ compliant females slapped the piss out of him for touching her, a reevaluation of his hypothesis might have been in order; but stubborn is the genius will, I suppose. Somewhere in these high-strung shenanigans Trudy throws a barbecue, and we are treated to the contemporary stylings of Page Cavanaugh and his Trio, laying down a few numbers for the “cats.” Did I mention that Uncle Morton near the late middle of the film dies in prison of a heart attack, having been arrested for stealing a necessary chemical from the company which once employed him as a scientist?

If all this seems to lack a formal plot structure or linear sense, that’s only because, well, it does. In fact, none of Richard Cunha’s work ever had the benefit of traditional movie elements, like plot or coherent script. Events seem to happen on top of each other, perhaps a line here or there meant to string things together, but with Cunha, these fussy, film school details don’t mean anything, or rather have no weight in the jumble of shots and ideas that give a movie that stamp of Cunha. The tale ends up with the evil, silly doctor getting his but good via a beaker of acid to the face, which somehow makes him completely immobile, and the poor monster burning both them to death in kind of a lab accident. So all’s well that end’s well (except for the monster, who presumably burns to death with Suzie’s brain and consciousness screaming inside, but now were getting too picky). The film ends with the surviving young people tossing poor Don into the pool (Don, it must be said, gets over the fact that his girlfriend has burned to death in the body of a monster with breathtaking ease, but then the young are so resilient). We roll to credits with pretty boy Johnny and Trudy necking while Don comically splashes around theatrically and cries for help.

So, nothing as yet would explain this films’ enduring appeal beyond fodder for the loathsome MST3K. Perhaps we will find something worthwhile when we get to the Good Stuff. Well, when discussing Cunha’s work, there is no such thing as good stuff, at least not in the traditional sense. Such a designation would place emphasis in the wrong place. Let’s call it, for the sake of Cunha, the interesting stuff:

Interesting Stuff Pt. I: The Monster and the Makeup

The monster makeup was done by Harry Thomas, and I have always thought it very good; yet odd. The problem being it is in no way female. The story goes something like this, according to an interview by uber-fan Tom Weaver with Cunha in Fangoria Magazine #31 (this brief conversation still stands as one of the few shards available to Cunha scholars, if there are any other than myself): no one told makeup man Thomas that the monster was supposed to be female. This is completely believable as Cunha, according to Sally Todd, was not exactly a dominant presence on the set, and was, to put it kindly, a delegator. When Harry Wilson (the actor that played the monster) stomped onto the set for his first scene, Cunha was beside himself, as he had envisioned a sexy monster befitting Sally Todd. Well, crap! No time for regrets or changes now. Time is money, people!. Roll ‘em, Goddammit! Monster comes to Life -- Take one! Cut! Print! To make matters even worse, a compromise was struck: Thomas smeared about a pound of lipstick over the mouth of the creature. There! Now it’s a girl! And people wonder why I love B-movies.

Frankenstein's Daughter

Speaking of the monster, it is perhaps the most clumsy and unthreatening monster ever brought to the screen. With actor Wilson playing the Daughter, lurching in a particularly robotic way and dressed in what looks like a vinyl warm up jacket and fireman’s gloves, one could escape the monster’s clutches easily with a brisk walk. Indeed, in the final showdown, Johnny, no fighter by any means, manages to ward off certain death by rolling an operating table between himself and the rampaging creature. He holds her at bay, in fact, by simply and gently sliding the wheeled table around a bit. “Kill them!” demands Oliver Frankenstein hoarsely, but his creation simply isn’t up to the task. “Oh, Johnny,” says Trudy, as she and Johnny watch her dead uncles’ house burn down, killing Oliver and his monster, “it was gruesome!” Well, maybe, but it was also pathetic and near harmless.

Interesting Stuff, Pt. II:
Harold Lloyd, Jr. and the ballad of Daddy-Bird

There is something heartbreaking about watching slight, sad Harold Lloyd, Jr. in this film. Lloyd, Jr. was the son of silent film comedian, Harold Lloyd, and had a very dismal and short life. Lloyd, Jr. was gay and at least a bit of a masochist as well as a chronic alcoholic. He would often return home to his father’s house after a night of high times badly beaten and bruised. The nights of beatings and blackouts finally resulted in a brain hemorrhage in 1965 that ruined the young man for life. He only lived a meager six more years, dying in 1971 at the age of 40.

There is barely a moment that Lloyd, Jr. is on screen where he doesn’t look lost, or desperate, or just terribly alone. He is the butt of jokes in the film, barely tolerated and never more than an apology waiting to happen. The moments when he is caught smiling, he looks suddenly wan and hopeful. Sally Todd has said that she felt awfully sad for him, as he was gay and forced to do a passionate necking scene with her. “Back in those days, people were still hiding being gay and Harold was very gay and trying very hard to hide it. But we all knew.” Cunha gives the pale boy a moment, though, that's all his own, as he performs two numbers with Page and boys; “Special Date” and the jazzy, oddly named “Daddy-Bird.” To watch Harold Lloyd, Jr., performing his heart out with the Page Cavanaugh Trio at poolside, so enjoying this brief moment of complete acceptance; is to endure a moment of strange and wondrous sympathy. There is a scene near the beginning of Daughter, when all the kids are about to enjoy an afternoon of tennis, when Lloyd, Jr. has his head resting in Todd’s lap, that one cannot help but pray was a moment of brief, warm comfort.

And maybe such a moment touches upon my reasons for treasuring this very bad film. Struggle and failure, brief moments of safe harbor, reach us in ways the brilliance of success never can. Daughter's appeal is also rooted, somehow, in a very personal nostalgia - those brief blinks of film time when a viewer wonders if anyone, anywhere, sees what they see; those quiet seconds every film-lover has when a film, regardless of quality or cold logic, becomes theirs.

Harold Lloyd, Jr.

Perhaps it is the place that Daughter creates in the mind; a drive-in moment surrounded by the gentle, vast darkness of summer night and flickering images on an immense, white, curved wall. Crickets . . . speakers hung on window edges; and the smell of grass. Where noble boyfriends took a long, silent walk toward the lights of the concession stand, feeling the warm evening of promise on their fresh skin, the dew covering their sneakers.

A place where a collection of utter, swinging nerds like Page Cavanaugh and his Trio could play cool at a hip-cat barbecue; that place of American imagination where Harold Lloyd’s sweet and fragile son could sing and beam like a happy child under a shower of poolside applause, instead of being beaten to near death in some sordid "fag" affair in the shadows of Los Angeles. A place where Sally Todd forever walks away, smiling at you over her shoulder while those long legs make her high heels ring the sidewalk, her figure working its perfect magic in a simple gray dress.

It is a land that never was, but can never vanish because Richard Cunha, through no fault of talent, captured it completely by accident. It is, indeed, a terrible film, but one saturated with moment.

6 comments:

  1. Hi! I hope you like awards because I just gave you one on my blog :) Here is the link to pick it up -- click here. (It's the Splash Award, by the way)

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  2. This reminds me that I should put up a review of Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. If you haven't seen it, you should check it out. It was so bad. I bought it at a pharmacy for $2.99.

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  3. Kate: Thanks so much! Very kind of you. I Can't wait to get to that William S. Hart article for your wonderful blog!

    Starmummy: Dude! You don't know how many times I have been tempted to tackle that film myself! It was done in 1966, tough - a bit to contemporary for my beloved Atomic Age theme. Should fit snug as a bug on your blog.

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  4. I saw this film on WPIX ch 11 NYC TV around 1963. I waited all week for Saturday nights at 730PM and I loved all the movies I saw on Chiller Theater. Some more than others to be sure but never the less I loved them all and bugged my parents to spend 15 cents to bue TV Guide so I could see what was playing each week.

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  5. Ken: We had Creature Features (WKBD channel 50) in the Detroit area when I was growing up, which filled the same bill as did Chiller Theater in NYC. That is where I learned to love movies.

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  6. PS - that and Bill Kennedy at the movies also on channel 50.

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