Jesse James Meets Frankensteinís Daughter (1965)
Hey there, today I'll be reviewing the fantastically named genre-crossing epic that is 1965's Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. It will be a treat for us all, I assure you. The cast was about 99% scraggly casting agency rejects and nickel-and-dime television bit part actors, and the director was William "One-Shot" Beaudine, famous for "editing in the camera", which is shorthand for "Oh, God, what am I going to do, I only have three days to finish principal photography, I'm way over my $50,000 budget, the studio accountant is so far up my rump that I can taste his fingernails, my leading man skipped all the rehearsals and doesn't know his lines, my union key grip just walked out when the check bounced, the location shoot is full of scorpions and rattlesnakes, and I think I got the craft service girl pregnant, so let's get this goddamn shot in the can in one take so I can go curl up in my trailer with a bottle of scotch." The results are just what you would expect from a movie with that sort of title, so sit back and enjoy.
On to the show!
First let's meet Maria Frankenstein, the villain of our film, and supposed relation of Count Victor Frankenstein, he of the obsession with science and the love of monsters and electricity. She's played by Narda Onyx, a fairly attractive woman who unfortunately really should have given up trying to be a professional actress years ago. On the plus side, she was Estonian, so she already has down pat the suitably haughty imperious German accent that you'd expect from Frankenstein's heirs.
Now, despite the movie's title, Maria is NOT the daughter of the famous doctor, but his grand-daughter (she says so several times). To further waste your time, we can go to Shelley and see that Victor Frankenstein was born in 1760, and Maria looks to be around 30ish, so we can assume that she was born in 1845ish. Thus I can deduce that the date of the movie is around 1876 or so, which will be confirmed later in this review (I promise). And yes Victor never had kids as far as the novel is concerned, but it's in the public domain so we can do whatever we want with it.
Another look at Maria, she always has her eyes opened wide like she's in some Manga comic.
She's in the Old West Arizona Territory area (AZ was not a state until 1912), down along the present-day Mexican border (internal references point to the Fort Buchanan area). Maria has moved down here recently from Europe to continue her experiments in a place that is both more conducive to her...ahem, special brand of genetic science and has better bean burritos. She says with delight that the American Southwest has vastly more electrical storms than in Vienna (she needs electricity to zap-power her machines, just like in the old Frankenstein mythos), but I'm not sure I believe anything that wikipedia can't tell me. All this is kinda sorta like Santo versus Frankenstein's Daughter, but without the wrestling and the masks and all the sweating.
The old mission house where they have set up their operation. Yes, that's a charcoal pencil drawing.
Her assistant is an old man named Rudolph, desperately out-of-place and time in his stuffy waistcoat and Edwardian tails. Rudolph is a wanted man in Austria, presumably for crimes committed while helping Maria (robbing graves, chopping up corpses, icky stuff like that). Rudolph is not a stereotypical "Igor" character (or even Fritz, if you know your Shelley), that particular named character will appear later on. He might be her older brother, maybe.
Rudolph with Maria (she's cute!).
Maria is using local Mexican peasants for her ungodly experiments to raise the dead to life. They are posing as medical doctors, luring in people, killing them, taking their brains out, and then blaming their deaths on a contagious disease. Most of the town's residents have by now run off in fear. These are simple peasants who blame/thank everything on God and Jesus and they see Maria as the Devil incarnate (not exactly far from the truth).
Maria, holding a brain! In a pan!
She tries to bring her very last available test subject back from the grave, but fails. Rudolph actually puts him out of his misery with a shot of poison, unbeknownst to Maria, as he's not happy with this and his conscience has been nagging at him lately. Little is made of Rudolph's internal conflict, though I can't say as I'm surprised.
Bottle of poison, well-marked (not something that you'd think they'd have lying around).
Maria goes and pulls a book down from a shelf and flips to a (seemingly) random page, looks at it for all of a half second, and then announces that she knows what she did wrong, "What a fool I've been! I've allowed the dual thermic impulsonater to be attached only to the body!" and further that the "...impulsonater must also be attached to a living brain to transmit living vibrations to the artificial brain." Yep, that's pretty much all you need to know about this movie. So, to plant the foreshadowing seed, Maria needs a strapping man with a strong heart for her work to be successful. I'm sure the DUM DUM DUM music cue was cut out in editing.
Maria reads from Genetic Engineering For Dummies.
Grinding to an unwelcome halt, our movie flips completely now to the style of a classic '60s western television series, like Bonanza or Ponderosa, with six-shooters, ten-gallon hats, tinkling spurs, and women in frilly dresses. The setting is the same as the first part, southern Arizona, as is the date. Let's meet the infamous outlaw Jesse James, played by John Lupton, a virtually unknown and totally nondescript man whose main claim to fame might (supremely sadly) be this movie. Oddly, despite playing such an iconic figure, Lupton is not exactly leading man material in the physical sense, if you know what I mean, a fact that will become apparent as the movie goes on.
Jesse James (you'd think he'd be a bit younger).
In our movie, there are some questions about this Jesse's real identity as rumor has it he's, like, dead and stuff. There are some references to the "Northfield raid" of 1876 where he might have been killed, with his brother Frank leaving for Tennessee afterwards. From these few lines, and the assumption that in this continuity Jesse parted ways with his brother after the Northfield debacle and went down here to Arizona, I can say that our movie is set in late 1876 or early 1877. Am I over-thinking this?
The black hat and vest look might look suitably James Dean cool, but it has to be murderously hot in the Arizona sun.
Jesse is here with Hank Tracy, who seems to be his last surviving partner-in-crime (not a historical person that I can tell, a missed opportunity). Hank is a burly blond man with big linebacker muscles and a limp, dull brain. His few coherent lines of dialogue consist of variations of, "Duhhh...anything you say, Jesse." or "Ok, Jesse, I'll punch this wall/eat this engine block/terrorize this cow."
Hank, channeling Forest Gump here.
Jesse has been called down to Arizona by another outlaw group for a big-payoff robbery job (uh, how? Via cellphone?). Let's meet "The Wild Bunch", which bears no resemblance to Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch of the turn-of-the-century, nor the Dalton's Wild Bunch from the 1890s, nor the 1980s underground techno club DJ group the Wild Bunch from Bristol, England. They used to be a large gang, but after some attrition, there are only three men left (Pete, Butch and Lonny) and they've been reduced to hanging around in drafty barns and spitting into the dirt. Their plan is to rob a stagecoach with 100g's of Territorial ca$h.
The Wild Bunch, who don't really seem that wild to me.
Jesse's arrival (and the subsequent hosing down of the decks with testosterone as all these bandits jockey for the prime cuts of the take) causes one of the Wild Bunch to turn Judas. Lonny slips away to tell the Marshall (Jim Davis from The Day Time Ended) about the gang's evil plans, hoping to "turn straight" and also collect the reward on Jesse's head.
The Marshall, he's got thirty pieces of silver for Lonny.
You know, I just have to say that this movie is proof that crime doesn't pay. Here we have quite possibly the world's most infamous outlaw, plus one of the most well-known criminal gangs (albeit the shattered remains thereof), and they are living like squatters at a hobo camp, wearing dirt-filthy clothes and having to get into fights with local ruffians just to get money to eat. What's the point of a life of crime if you can't enjoy the spoils of your ill-gotten gain? Jesse in particular seems to have fallen on hard times, he can't even afford a decent pair of boots and he looks like he hasn't showered in a month (Big Jim Colosimo he isn't).
Not living large. Notice the deer head on the wall? It's the same prop that is on the wall of the Marshall's office (check the pic above if you don't believe me).
Anyway, now we have a double ambush at the mountain pass. Showing zero tactical skill, the bad guys (a relative term in this movie) clump up in a group behind some rocks and wait as the stagecoach comes rumbling down the dirt road. Spread out on the high ground above them are the lawmen, waiting patiently for the bad guys to expose themselves to their withering crossfire. The gunfight itself is quick and dirty, with rifles and pistols shooting like mad and people running around yelling and stuff. In the end, the two Wild Bunch guys are shot dead and Hank is wounded. Quisling Lonny joins the lawmen for the final stages of the gunfight, even firing the shot that wounds Hank before being driven to ground by Jesse's astoundingly accurate shooting from the hip with a pistol from a hundred yards (sure). Jesse and Hank escape on horseback. The Marshall and Lonny pursue them (rest of the deputized men go back to farms and jobs).
Hank has taken a high-powered .30 caliber rifle bullet in the upper left chest (you know, where the heart is located) but other than a localized blood spot, he doesn't seem in too bad of shape. Sure he's a little loopy and slurs his words, but he can still ride his horse just fine (men were vastly tougher in the 1870s, I guess, that sort of sucking chest wound would send a pansy modern man into massive shock from the blood loss, but I guess that's how the west was won). Jesse and Hank stop to rest near the campsite of a Mexican family. The young daughter is Juanita, played by some woman who is insanely over-acting in every scene and seems to have watched every episode of I Love Lucy to prepare her for this role. Her lover (or maybe brother) was killed by Maria Frankenstein in one of her failed experiments and she's sworn vengeance (though she and her parents are fleeing). [Editor Pam: Estelita Rodriguez, the actress who played Juanita, was far from being a girl. Imdb lists her date of birth as 1928, but says she might have been born as early as 1913. I must say she's holding up well, although in her closeups you can see she's got a few too many wrinkles to be in her teens, or even twenties.]
Juanita (as always, I love a woman with a gun, and yes, I will vote for the Palin/Bayh ticket in 2012).
For some inexplicable reason, Juanita takes a "special liking" to both Jesse and Hank (despite the latter's proximity to death) and she agrees to take them back to Maria for help. As to why she would want to go back to the crazy scientists who killed half her village, and not to any of the nearby towns with real doctors, we can only guess that she's hoping to enact some unspoken revenge plan. The Juanita's character motivation is suspect in most scenes, and I really don't even see why she's in this movie at all. She adds zero to the plot in the end, and only serves to bog down a movie that is already as muddy as the Delaware.
Juanita cleans Hank's festering trauma wound with a bandana she just pulled off her sweaty neck.
So they go back to Maria's house and ask for help, after first stopping to hide behind a rock and watch stock footage from The Searchers for thirty seconds (wish I was making that up). As Maria is kinda sorta an actual medical doctor (as well as a nutjob) she takes the wounded Hank in and fixes him up. The Marshall and Lonny arrive now, hot on the trail of the outlaws, but they are bluffed off by a persuasive Maria (helped by her sultry voice and unearthly cheekbones, no doubt). They leave, saying they are going to the nearby town of Shelby to wait (which they do a lot of, these are the least proactive lawmen in the history of criminal justice).
I'd listen to her, too.
You know, this movie sucks like a urinary tract infection. Why couldn't Jesse James meet some other famous 19th Century literary character's granddaughter instead? How about Jesse James Meets Sherlock Holmes' Granddaughter Katie Holmes? I'd illegally download that onto my iPod. They could talk about how Dawson got jobbed by Pacey, about how her actual acting resume is miniscule compared to what people assume it is, and about that eye-popping scene in The Gift where she blessed the world with her lady-lumps on the hood of an '87 Grand Cherokee. She could even babble about Scientology to distract him as the law closes in, he'd be wishing for a Marshall's bullet to the head after she's done clubbing him with Hubbard for six hours.
Photoshops provided by MMT's crack research intern Jack.
Anyway, Maria sees Hank as her new monster, and she doesn't need The Law messing this up for her (she's had a really bad week). In reality, she doesn't need Jesse anymore for anything (never did, actually) so she really should just kill him, but she doesn't (ah, hormones). In fact, like a Bond villain spilling her secrets while Aught-Aught-Seven is swinging over a shark cage, Maria sits Jesse down in the parlor and tells him everything about her wicked experiments. Why is she doing this? Isn't having Jesse know her story a liability? Is she trying to impress him, doesn't she know that men are frightened by attractive and intelligent women?
Jesse listens intently to the story, though he's probably thinking about the NASCAR race he's missing.
Jesse seems genuinely befuddled here, as he has all movie, uncomfortable in talking to this pretty lady, uncomfortable in the Arizona heat, uncomfortable in his ill-fitting pants, uncomfortable speaking more than a few lines per scene. Throughout it all, Jesse James, supposedly one of the most feared and reviled men in Old West history, comes across as quite the namby-pamby milquetoast, almost always upstaged by the other people in the room, often lost in his surroundings and never quite coming across as anything remotely dangerous or wiley. But, then again, Brad Pitt didn't exactly add any badassery to the role, either.
Finger sandwiches!?! You didn't see Tyrone Powers' Jesse James eatin' no finger sandwiches!
At some point I looked up from the keyboard and realized, much to my horror, that this mess had turned into an episode of Melrose Place. Juanita hearts Jesse, Juanita also hearts Hank, Hank hearts bacon, Maria hearts Jesse, Jesse seems to heart Juanita (sorta), but not Maria (though maybe just because Juanita got there first). Juanita gives Jesse a sloppy kiss, and if his sweaty brow and twitchy mustache is any indication, he enjoys it. Then Maria tries to give Jesse a kiss, and defying all manly logic, he pushes her away. Maria realizes then that Juanita (that be-yotch!) stole her man and she's hella pissed. This scorned-woman subplot will set up the subsequent events of the movie.
Also, not that we might have anything other to go on, but you'd think Jesse James would be a better ladies-man, as all women love the outlaw bad boy (science proves it!). But in our movie, Jesse seems just as confused and confounded by the ways of woman as 99.9% of us normal non-serial killer guys are. As it is, he's barely more than C3PO with six-shooters and a cheesy mustache. As an actor, John Lupton sucks on every level and I wonder if he was the studio head's sister's retarded cousin or something, there has to be some reason why this man collected a paycheck for this. I can imagine at some point the frazzled director lured the casting agent into a back alley and shanked his pasty ass for sticking him with such a lump of tapioca pudding.
Don't look at me for help, buddy, I think you're a douchebag.
Maria gives Jesse a note to give to a druggist in Shelby, supposedly for meds for Hank, but really the note says, "This here's Jesse James, call the feds!", or words to that effect. You see, if it wasn't nauseatingly clear by now, Maria has decided that if she can't get her clammy continental hands on Jesse then she'd rather see him rotting in a jail cell. On an unrelated note, a shot shows Maria licking an envelope containing the note, which struck me as anachronistic and drove me to google. When was the lickable sticky envelope flap invented? Around 1845 it seems, though details of the global distribution of this English patent are vague. I assume that some of them would have made their way to Arizona Territory in the 1870s to be used by Maria. Or she brought them from Europe with her. To tangent off that, how did she get all her stuff here in the first place? Did U-Haul have an office in Phoenix in 1876? These are the sorts of things that keep me up nights.
Jesse rides into the Hollywood backlot known as Shelby and gives the note to the druggist. The druggist reads the note, freaks out, and goes to get the Marshall. The lawman is out of town, but the turncoat Lonny is there and he sees only dollar signs at this news, as there's a $10,000 reward on Jesse James and he's looking to collect (which is only like $177,000 in today's money, far less than you'd expect the bounty on such a famous outlaw's head to be). Lonny tries to jump in, but is shot dead by Jesse before he can even pull the trigger. I should note that up to this point, Lonny is the only person Jesse James has shot (sure, he fired a few rounds during the stagecoach ambush, but missed). And this wasn't the "stand up tall and exchange volleys in the street" type of gunfight we are used to seeing in Westerns, here Jesse actually falls to the floor cowering and seems to have fired almost on accident as he went down. Not exactly a John Woo money shot there, but again indicative of Scaredy McWimpy's decided lack of stones. The "real" Jesse James, by the way, killed 16 men and was complicit in the deaths of a few hundred others (a badass worthy of more than a 10g bounty, I say!).
Jesse firing while flat on his back.
Why, oh why couldn't I be watching Jesse James Meets Moll Flanders' Granddaughter Maude Flanders! Our Jesse seems more suited to baking quiche with Ned and having bible studies with Rod and Todd than trading gunfire with lawmen and robbing trains. Bart would come over and kick his ass and we'd all have a good laugh.
Coming to theaters June 2009!
Anyway, Jesse rides back to save Hank, and runs into a frantic Juanita on the road. She's riding to tell Jesse that Hank has been turned into a monster! While Jesse was gone, Maria and Rudolph turned Hank into Igor! The actual process of turning Hank into a zombie monster owes more to campy 1950s drive-in sci-fi films than anything the good Count was written to be doing in the mountains of Hesse. There's a Spartan laboratory set with a tacked-up poster of the human anatomy on the wall, there's a funky electrical sparky thing without any visible power source, there's a woman in a white lab coat with a maniacal laugh, there's a hapless man strapped to a table, there's a unpaid film school intern pounding away on a spooky organ on the soundtrack, and there's a goddamn pulsating freakishly alive brain in a pan! Maria is going to transplant this cortex-less magically alive brain into Hank's skull (after his own brain has been removed, of course). A flaming rip-off of Spock's Brain, anyone? Whoa, whoa, hold it. Gene Coon wrote Spock's Brain in 1968, a full three years after Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, which means that Coon (and Roddenbery by extension) freakin' stole this bit like a VCR in a race riot.
Maria's helmet, which is an old WWII US Army helmet painted like the flag of Senegal and outfitted with fluorescent tubes and TV rabbit ears. [Editor Pam: I've never transplanted a human brain, so maybe the tubes and rabbit ears are a necessity. But what purpose is served by painting stripes on it?]
Doctor McCoy's helmet from Spock's Brain, which, to be honest, isn't much better than Maria's.
Anyway, Hank/Igor is "re-animated". Rudolph, showing that pesky conscience again, tries to kill the beast with poison, but Maria is on to him this time. Hank/Igor follows Maria's commands to kill Rudolph, her own brother (I think). All this viewed by Juanita who snuck in and runs to tell Jesse.
Ugh, this is so low-rent it hurts. Hey, how about Jesse James Meets Billy Budd's Granddaughter Jesse Budd (see the name similarity, huh, huh, yeah), a Miss Rodeo USA contestant from Texas. She and Jesse James could talk about horses and how their parents cursed them with boy/girl names designed solely to cause gender confusion as adults. Maybe Jesse could name his mount Sparkles the Wonder Horse and they could ride off to have magical adventures in the Land of Fluffy.
They have matching hats!
Anyway, Jesse rides back and confronts Maria, who now sees that maybe, just maybe, ratting out the man you love to the cops and then turning his best friend into a slobbering zombie is not the best way to win his heart. Hank/Igor comes out of his room and knocks Jesse out cold. Maria ties up Jesse, she's going to experiment on him also, having learned from Misery that the way to convince a man to love you is to tie him up and torture him. Hank/Igor seems to remember something about Jesse, some repressed emotion or recognition of who he used to be.
This is not what it looks like.
The Marshall arrives now and barges in, having been told by Juanita that bad things are going on here. The Marshall is also knocked out by Hank/Igor and drug off-camera until the end of the movie. This is the least impressive lawman ever, having totally screwed up the ambush back at the pass, lost Jesse's trail in minutes during the subsequent chase, been bluffed off twice by obviously-lying women, spent most of his time parked in his office chair, and now allowing a lumbering brute to subdue him even though he's holding his pistol in his hand as he approaches.
This isn't what it looks like either, I promise.
Juanita then comes in (damn, it's like Grand Central Station up in here!) and manages to untie Jesse before Hank/Igor returns. Maria tells Hank/Igor to kill Juanita (but not Jesse, she's still in love with him for some reason I cannot understand), but Hank/Igor can't do it. He seems to remember something fondly about Juanita (you know, in the thirty seconds of screen time they had together, all of it while he was delirious with gunshot fever, unaware that she was also playing hide the weasel with Jesse) and can only stutter her name slowly as he falters in his commands. Hank/Igor then turns on Maria and kills her!
"Where are the plans to the Death Star!".
Hank/Igor then turns to Jesse and advances to strangle him. Why he does this is unknown as before he only did what Maria told him to (though, to be fair, he did just kill Maria without orders so maybe his command and control system is fried and he's now just a kill-crazy monster zombie). It's Juanita who has to pick up a fallen pistol and shoot Hank/Igor dead to save Jesse (the man who she has already deliberately sent into the arms of the evil Maria and also dropped a dime to the Marshall on, not to mention said she loved only him while at the same time making googly eyes at his best friend Hank).
Juanita pulls the trigger (the actress flinches as the blank fires and almost drops the prop pistol, it's amusing).
The stinger is Jesse and Juanita burying Hank. Juanita tells Jesse that thanks to him her village is saved (though what really did Jesse do? All he did was stand around and look stupid, it was actually Hank who killed off both Maria and Rudolph, Jesse actually almost screwed everything up by being captured). She wants him to stay with her and raise ugly babies with bad teeth, but he says he's "an outlaw looking at a noose at the end of my days" and rides off (good for him!).
The End (thankfully).
I'd still rather see Jesse James Meets Tom Sawyer's Granddaughter Diane Sawyer. They could talk about fashion and childhood trauma and she could ask Jesse if he could be a tree what kind of tree would he be (a weeping willow, of course).
On tomorrow at 8/9 central after Dancing With the Stars.
While I'm thinking about it, why not Jesse Helms Meets Maria Sharapova? The Reverend Jesse Jackson Meets Maria from West Side Story? LeBron James meets Al Franken? James T. Kirk Meets Frank Lloyd Wright? I'd pay to see any of those.
[Editor Pam: While this is not a good movie, as you might have guessed from the title, it does have its moments. Somebody had some fun making it, as you can see from the shot of Maria and her helmet. If you watch it with the idea that it's a subtle spoof on both the B-grade horror movie genre and the B-grade Western genre, it's fairly enjoyable.]
Written in June 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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