Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Movies: I wish I had Jesse's girl.


In my review of the new comic series Dracula vs. Capone, I discussed the mini-genre of the film team-up. These films are the product of nuanced philosophical argument that goes like this: A is good, B is good, therefore AB kicks ass.

We can use this formula to explain many modern cinematic mysteries. For example, why was Pirates of the Caribbean II so inferior to its predecessor? Let's break it down.

Pirates are good. Zombies are good. Therefore pirate zombies kick ass.

Because this sentence makes logical sense, we can see why the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, worked. Now let's analyze Dead Man's Chest.

Pirates are good. Rejected villain designs from the '80s cartoon 'Tigersharks' are good. Therefore piratical rejects from 'Tigersharks' kick ass.

This statement is illogical because the second sentence introduces a false premise. We now understand why the first PoC flick was so much better than the second.

The film reviewed today breaks down like so:

Jesse James is good. Frankenstein's monster is good. Therefore, Jesse James fighting Frankenstein's monster kicks ass.

Did the formula work? Somewhat.

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter is one of the 50 titles found on the shovelware Chilling Classics DVD set. It's a charming low-budget throwaway that works, when it does, mainly because of its unpretentious effort to fuse together the B-flick clich├ęs of discount-brand westerns and drive-in monster movies.

The flick starts in a small Mexican town. This town has a serious problem. It seems that ever since two doctors moved into the creepy mission up on the hill (a wonderfully ineffective matte painting) the young men of the town have been turning up dead. Unable to stand the misery, families have been fleeing the village and, when the movie starts, the place is pretty much a ghost town.

One of the doctors in question is Maria, the daughter of Frankenstein. Though not that Frankenstein. She is, technically, the daughter of Frankenstein, but of, like, Ned Frankenstein, general practitioner. The Frankenstein you're thinking of was her grandfather. The title is somewhat deceptive on this point, but who would watch a flick in which a famous outlaw meets the Granddaughter of Frankenstein? It would sound silly.

Dr. Maria Frankenstein, like nearly all of her accursed clan, is trying to carry on the work of her illustrious predecessor. She and her bother, the whiny and unhelpful Dr. Rudolph Frankenstein, fled to America so they could continue their work in secret. However, work has not been going well. Maria is running out of chances to get it right. Apparently, the key to getting a re-animated body to work is in the artificial brains Maria's grandfather built. Fortunately for Maria, her grandfather left several working artificial brains behind when he passed away. Unfortunately for Maria, they seem to be a one-shot usage sort of thing and Maria is down to her last artificial brain. What she needs is some big, strong, hulking man to work on. (Don't we all, sister.) But where could she ever find such a man?

Meanwhile, famed outlaw Jesse James and his big, strong, hulking man of a friend, Hank, are down on their luck. The James gang has fallen apart and our outlaws are reduced to fighting impromptu boxing matches for meals. But their luck's changing. James meets up with the remnants of the Wild Bunch, who have themselves fallen on hard times, and he agrees to help them in a heist that could get his fading outlaw career back on track. However, all our crooks are not united in purpose and arrayed against the common enemy. One of the members of the Wild Bunch resents Jesse and Hank coming in on the job and getting a share of the pay-off. This weasel snitches to the sheriff in hopes of collecting the reward on Jesse's head. The heist goes pear-shaped. The Wild Bunch, except for the Snitchy McStoolie, end up dead and Hank catches a bullet. He and Jesse are forced to flee the scene.

Now on the lam, Jesse and the wounded Hank run into a Mexican family that is fleeing the town plagued by the Doctors Frankenstein. The family's young, sassy daughter, Juanita, tells Jesse (or "Yessie Yeahmes," as she says) that she knows where they could find a doctor. But, she warns, the doctors she's thinking of are evil. Jesse says that evil's good. This is an emergency after all and beggars can't be choosers. Juanita, who rapidly develops into a love interest, agrees to lead the outlaws to Frankenstein's mansion.

Once Jesse and Hank arrive at the mansion of our good doctors, Maria greets them warmly. She immediately realizes that Hank is exactly the big, strong, hulking man she needs for her experiments. She also decides that Jesse is hot stuff and starts putting on the moves.

Will the law catch up with Jesse? Who will win Jesse's wild outlaw heart? Will Hank end up a mindless, deathless creature under the command of the evil Dr. Frankenstein?

(The answers are: kinda, Juanita, yes.)

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter is one of those cheapie disposables that fly-by-night outfits cranked out by the dozens as something for 1960s teens to ignore as they engaged in petting-sessions in the back of the theater. A slight diversion, but only just. Using my patented "Popular Avicides" rating system, this movie is strictly chloralose.

For film buffs, the movie might hold some interest as product of the insanely prolific William "One-Shot" Beaudine. In a film biz career that stretched from 1912 to 1967, Beaudine cranked out between 350 to 500 films. Back in the '20s and '30s, Beaudine was a respected director. He worked with superstar Mary Pickford on a couple flicks and his film Sparrows was supposedly a major influence on Charles Laughton's classic Night of the Hunter.

During the Depression, One-Shot (so named for his habit of getting every shot in one take) went overseas to crank out flicks for a British studio. This three year absence from Hollywood (during which time he cranked out 13 films) was enough to bury his rep. When he returned in 1937, Beaudine became a strictly Poverty Row director. The most famous of these flicks was the "hygenie" film Mom and Dad. This pseudo-documentary promised to explain the "facts of life" and, ads claimed, included actual footage of a baby being birthed. The flick featured a marketing campaign that would have made William Castle green with envy. Men and women had to attend separate showings. Nurses (actually actresses) were on hand to help with fainters. A phony doctor ended each screening with a lecture about the importance of sexual education. Called "the Gone With the Wind of exploitation films," it was a massive success and was one of the top-grossing films of 1947. In 2005, Mom and Dad was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Happy to work on any project that paid, this avowed atheist behind the nation's most successful exploitation film also cranked out 11 films for the evangelical Protestant Film Commission. The man who once worked with Mary Pickford also directed several television episodes of Lassie for Disney.

Beaudine retired in '67, Hollywood's oldest and most prolific director. One-Shot passed away in 1970. It is unlikely that Tinsel Town will see the likes of him again.

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