Blackenstein: Sleazy Blaxploitation horror movie is a testament to the legacy of its late producer Frank R. Saletri
It’s easy to laugh at 1973’s Blackenstein. People have been deriding, dismissing and making sport of the admittedly low (low!) brow blaxploitation horror film, designed as it was to capture some of the success of AIP’s smash hit Blacula but with very little of the talent in front or behind the camera. But after fully absorbing Severin‘s (released in collusion with Xenon Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome), exhaustive and even semi-investigative Blu-ray release of this greaseball sorta classic, only the hardest heart wouldn’t have a new appreciation for the film. But that’s always the case and Severin — whose co-honcho David Gregory directed the stunning investigative doc Lost Soul — has always reveled in trolling the bottom of the D-movie barrel and finding unique points of entry into the histories of the dodgy films it celebrates, thus allowing a deeper appreciation of the previously-unloved pictures. And their sterling work on Blackenstein is no exception. In this case, the disc serves as a tribute to slain producer Frank R. Saletri, whose life — and the mystery surrounding his death — give the film substantial, fascinating weight.
A VHS favorite in the ’80s, Blackenstein was notorious not just for its ineptitude but for its ample gore and nudity. But really, the first half of the film is pretty good, setting up the tale of Dr. Stein (John Hart) who is treating a wealth of eccentric patients in his Hollywood castle lab, one of whom is limbless Vietnam vet Eddie (Joe De Sue). His doctor fiancee Winifred (Ivory Stone) is convinced the award-winning Dr. Stein can perform the needed transplant on her man and he does, until jealous and lovelorn lab assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson), rejected by Winifred, tampers with the experiment and gives poor Eddie tainted DNA, turning him into a mush-minded, grunting, black-suit wearing cannibalistic brute.
For a cheapie, the production values in the castle are rather lush, with much of the whizzing, sparking lab equipment left over from the real deal Universal Frankenstein film. But when “Blackenstein” breaks out of the clinic and goes on the expected rampage, things get cheap and tacky, with dodgy gore and gut-eating galore and the most relentless use of hyperactive library score classical music since Shriek of the Mutilated.
But Blackenstein is still a fun and fascinating trash film (with an hilarious, Dolemite-esque nightclub scene that comes out of nowhere and features a dog joke that goes on forever) and it commands an oddball power that is hard to ignore. The real story, however, as charted in a series of interviews and news clips on the back end of this beautiful release, is the soul of the movie. Saletri was a Hollywood criminal lawyer who was fully completely obsessed by horror movies and monster culture. He was friends with all his heroes, looked like a cross between Clark Gable and Forry Ackerman and had a wild, very social life in and around the fringes of the film community. But years after Blackenstein‘s release, the reportedly charming and kind Salteri was executed gangland style in his home, a case that remains open and unsolved today. In a moving interview, Salteri’s sister cites that her one wish before she dies is to know what happened to her brother and why. Did he borrow money from the wrong people? Offend the wrong guy? We might never know.
What we do know is that for all its failings, Blackenstein is a remarkable testament to Salteri’s child-like adoration of the genre and making it was simply the extension of that love. Severin has done this man’s legacy — and the film itself — a great service and honor with this release (which includes the theatrical version and the longer home video cut) and every budding cinema historian would do right by themselves to pick up this Blu-ray.