Review by Mike Finkelstein
I will admit that I have slightly different tastes from the general, modern horror viewing public. Over the years I've watched a lot of horror, especially for this site and companion Asteroid G, delving into sections of the genre that most likely wouldn't explore anymore. Foreign films from the height of the Hammer Horror era, mimicking their style to tell their own tales of Gothic horror? Sign me up. Whether you would find the same delights is entirely reliant on what films you enjoy (or can even stand). After going through all the Hammer horror I could lay my hands on I've developed a fondness for this era of Gothic horror, but that is entirely an acquired taste. These films aren't for everyone.
With that said, I will note that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Lady Frankenstein (original title La figlia di Frankenstein, aka "Frankenstein's Daughter"). This is a film from Italian production company Condor International Films designed to act as a vehicle for Rosalba Neri (entirely because producer Henry Cooke Cushing IV wanted to date the actress and he assumed, quite incorrectly, that this film would grease the wheels). This led to a film that played straight in the Hammer wheelhouse -- Gothic horror, gore, and thrills, along with the expected amount of nudity for the Hammer era -- just without the Hammer production house being involved. Frankly, were it not for the foreign language used on screen (in the cut I watched the language dub kept changing between Spanish and German) I could easily have mistaken this for a proper Hammer film. It feels like a lost work from the studio, and that's meant as a compliment.
The film focuses on Dr. Tania Frankenstein (Neri), back from university at her father's estate after graduating as a full-fledge surgeon. Her father, the Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten), has long held sway over the girl, with his many mysterious experiments in his lab, working on animals, fueling Tania's own interest in science and medicine. She's long known he wanted to try and grant life to the dead, to find a way to "play god", in essence, and instead of being horrified by this, Tania wanted to aid him in his quest. That's why she went to medical school and why she fought so hard (despite the rampant sexism of the era) to be a doctor.
Now home, Tania hoped she could join in her father's experiments. Sadly, before she could get a chance to convince him, the doctor managed to create his fire living beast. This creature rises up and kills he doctor before heading out into the night to terrorize the land and its villages. Tania, though, is not dissuaded. She feels that she can bring honor to her father's name and prove that not all lives raised from the dead will be evil. She convinces the baron's lab assistant, Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Muller), to create a new experiment, a new beast that could not only fight and kill the old one but also to prove there was good in this experiment. If only the daughter weren't as mad as her father...
For a film of the era, Lady Frankenstein really moves. The film doesn't waste much time getting the characters introduced or the plot in motion. We have the raising of the beast within the first act, and then the quick plotting from Tania and Charles from there to set in motion the rest of the film. Watching character plot and scheme doesn't necessarily sound interesting, and the film knows this. That's why the beast is out in the world, attacking and killing people. It allows the film to spike the dramatic moments with plenty of action and horror. The film doesn't really let up its pace, always moving and jumping from scene to scene to ensure the cruises to its goal within a tidy 99 minutes.
This really is commendable as I've seen plenty of films from this era that couldn't manage the same economy of storytelling. Usually, Frankenstein films delay the creation of the monster for the last act, teasing out little creeps and scares over the film with the promise that the carnage from the monster will bring the real delights. This film doesn't waste time on that and that allows for more action to engage the audience, and thus more interest from them. It works in its own way.
This is also a lush looking production, one that could rival the works of Hammer. Despite a budget of around $200,000 USD the film manages to feel rich and real. It has solid sets and string costuming to really convey the feel of the era its set within. Not everything is perfect, mind you, with the creature effects for the Baron's monster looking particularly bad and goofy, but in general this is a film that feels much richer than the $200k spent to produce it.
Credit is also due to the actors, who do a commendable job with the material. Bearing in mind, of course, that I could only watch this via a dub (as I found it trawling through random streaming services without a lot of language options), the performances were pretty good. The on-screen actors, led by Neri, properly get into the spirit of the film, conveying their characters with the right level of interest (and, at times, malice). The voice actors for the dub were also good, and while the voices never lined up properly with the mouths on screen, I still was able to get involved in the characters. It didn't pull me out as the voice actors has the same level of investment in the story as the on-screen performers.
With all that said, the film is let down just a little by its ending. In horror films of the era (from the 1940s on through the 1970s) the monsters always have to die. In this case, that "monster" is the Lady Frankenstein herself, and the film not only goes ahead with that convention, as you'd expect, but it does it in a rather ham-fisted way. It really rushes the ending, having an overblown climax that feels like it comes out of nowhere and is tonally against the rest of the film. I expected the lead character to die, as any Frankenstein would in these films, but I was figuring it would be by the noose (like another criminal dies here) and not by mob and monster. Something was missing from the ending that really held this film from being truly great.
Still, for the era and the subject matter, Lady Frankenstein does work. It's a classic, low-budget slice of 'othic horror, produced during a time that really perfected that craft. For anyone looking for a taste of horror film they haven't seen before, there's a lot to like about Lady Frankenstein. It's absolutely for the lovers of this genre, but for those primed to enjoy it, the film does deliver on its charms.