Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, 1969
Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970
Paul Morrissey ‧ 1973 USA ‧ Horror/Exploitation ‧ 1 hr 35 mins
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was written in 1818, a time where homosexuality lacked any categorical term. According to Eve Sedgwick, this lead to a time ‘prodigally productive of attempts to name, explain and define this new creature, the homosexual person’. The creature metaphor has prowled through generations of queer storytelling; Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), De Palma’s Carrie (1976), as body-specific dramatisations of the repression of Otherness ‘in the figure of the Monster’ (Robin Wood). Such a spectacle of repression and release finds its climax in the horror films of Paul Morrissey.
Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974) are the grim twins in Morrissey’s body of work - films which have over the years been dubbed his ‘Andy Warhol films’ given that Morrissey began his career working with The Factory, on features such as Women in Revolt (1971) and Heat (1972), both of which had Warhol attached as a producer. Warhol had nothing to do with Morrissey’s horror flicks, but similar to the tale of Frankenstein where the name of the monster usurped the name of the creator, the horror films have become synonymous with Warhol. And despite Morrissey’s outrage, the white-haired pop spectre lingers over these films like an incubus. Both Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula are queer re-inventions of the classic horror tales that have always implicitly been about sex - blood-sharing, flesh-groping, gender re-inventing bodies that defy the categories of active/passive, living/dead.
To think of Warhol’s body as Frankenstein-like has always been inextricable from his image; the zombied gaze, the corpse-like complexion, an identity always in the works, always being fictionalised and re-invented for the camera. But looking at the iconography of Warhol’s scarred body, after being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, Warhol’s new body becomes a literal site of fragmented flesh. His torso is stitched up, recomposed, rewritten. Post-resurrection he is physically, more than ever, a body between life and death. But the two images above reveal Warhol’s sly manipulation of his own flesh. In Richard Avedon’s photo, we have Warhol the exhibitionist, definitively ‘masc’, decked in leather and flaunting his stitches like battle scars or ‘erotic scarification’ (David E. James). He’s staring right into the camera, reflecting back the camera’s aggressive gaze. Contrarily, in Alice Neel’s painting of Warhol, the body is frail, flaccid, sagging in a way that redraws the chest as a set of breasts. His gaze is diverted, his posture reticent. The two conflicting images blur any kind of consolidation as to whether the scarred body is active or passive. From a dynamics of role-play with one’s own undead body, a performance tied to the way the body is seen and the way the body sees, we’re naturally lead to Morrissey’s horror films, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula.
Both films resemble each other like a pair of conjoined twins; they share a cast comprising the likes of the delinquent stud Joe Dallesandro, as well as Arno Jürging and Udo Kier (whose predatory eyes and vampiric bone-structure lead him to play the eccentric, boy-hungry Hans in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, 1991). Morrissey, looking back at his career, asserts that his films were intended on ‘showing how stupid the whole world is’, his ‘stupid’ implicating a culture of dandified entertainment and salacious meanderings that end in either sex or death (or both). Such a culture was nourished by an emerging queer sensibility: from Sontag’s contagious camp to Stonewall, Reality TV and lush soap opera realness, all mesmerising and revelling in the years that lead into the tragedy of AIDS. In short, for Morrissey to satirise a world where people like Warhol make-or-break culture, such a world would have to be flagrantly gay, a kitschy, horror mirror-image of a kitsch horror world.
All the more delightful, that Blood for Dracula opens with a close-up of Udo Kier’s Count doing make-up in front of the mirror (which reflects the make-up but not the Count himself!) almost like a drag queen, prepping her face in a changing room vanity mirror. Morrissey’s Dracula has a couture sense of style, a fur-decked trench coat that looks like it was pried from Alexander McQueen. But most strikingly, the opening shot of Dracula refracts the omniscient presence of Warhol; the Count is seen with naturally silver hair, lumping black paint on his scalp with a paintbrush. In David Bailey’s documentary Warhol (1973), when asked why he stopped painting, Warhol replies (as Factory folk speak on his behalf in the first person), ‘I haven’t stopped painting. I paint my nails, I paint my eyes, every day’. Returning back to the idea of Warhol’s body as a composite, a congealing of paint and self-image, it’s not improbable to see the pop artist’s presence in the first shot of the Count, labouring over his cosmetic image.
In Flesh for Frankenstein, queer sexuality resides on the surface; the pleasures of Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier again) are collapsed into the violence of Shelley’s monster, indicative of Warhol's own queerness. His paintings having ranged from car crashes to electric chairs to portraits of presidential widows - Warhol’s pleasure is directly tied up with the death-drive (like the eroticised blood-draining in Blood for Dracula), contouring the canvas with the sensual undeniability of violence. One of the most unwatchable moments in the film involve Baron Frankenstein penetrating his first, female monster. Instead of a sexual penetration, he tears into the stitches of her torso and plunges his arm elbow-deep into her bowels, rummaging, groping, moaning with arousal. Necrophilic as well as queer, Baron Frankenstein has instigated an erotic act indifferent to either sex; his male anatomy and the creature’s female anatomy are made useless in the moment’s penetration. Much like the Baron’s displaced masculinity in the act of non-genital rape, the Count succumbs to a violent castration in Blood for Dracula; Big Joe slices off his limbs with a burly axe before beheading poor Udo. In both films, the compulsion to recreate family politics fatefully ends with violence and deformation. Morrissey (channeling Warhol) relates the insidious failure of heterosexuality.
These failures are all the more visible as they fall through a set of cracks; eye-contact, body language, working against the hetero expectations imposed on the characters. In Blood for Dracula, the Count’s eye is penetrative, caressing, lingering; when introduced to the daughters of an Italian aristocrat (played, for some reason, by Vittorio de Sica!), the camera moves from sister to sister as they’re introduced to Dracula, posing as a potential suitor. This gliding pan positions us with the Count’s roaming eye, his eyes at one point filling up the entirety of the frame. It’s a consumptive gaze, similar to Flesh for Frankenstein where gazing is an immediately sumptuous act; Joe Dallesandro (like a gift from the Greek gods!) plays Nicholas, a groundskeeper who is almost too aware that he’s a spectacle of eye-candy. Various shots have him ploughing the field shirtless and sweaty, a Whitmanesque wet-dream, a soft-core theatricality of staged porno role-play. The viewer is invited to tantalise and drool as the male body becomes a place of forbidden want and monstrous pleasure, kind of like a haunted house - again a site of repressed Otherness.
Looking at what shouldn’t be looked at is crucial to the film’s ‘narrative’. Baron Frankenstein needs to steal a brain in order to complete his second creature, a male this time. His attention falls on a local groundskeeper, Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), who the Baron believes will be endowed with a strong libido given his Serbian features. The Baron hopes his two monsters will copulate and produce a new race of loyal subjects. But one scene reveals the improbability of the plan’s success; Nicholas has dragged his pal Sacha to a brothel, and while Nicholas jumps straight onto a sofa of bouncing bosoms, it’s clear that Sacha has eyes for only one thing - Nicholas’s tight, peachy ass. The Baron’s plans are set-up to fail as he recruits a closet-case for his monstrous re-enactment of heterosexual sex. Sacha’s gaze is all too-telling in how the repressed interferes with the mechanisms of hetero production.
Lastly, Morrissey’s films are rapturous in the way that the body is continuously disrupting the narrative. Classical storytelling strategies are put on hold, deferred, interrupted by moments where the body becomes a spectacle of excitement and relief. In both films, there is an almost rhythmical pacing of orgasms, exhalations, moans of pain and release; they occasionally reach climax in scenes that defy cause-effect logic, scenes of aeshetic-erotic spectacle, similar to giallo lushness of Dario Argento’s films. Giulio L. Giusti has commented on Argento’s Deep Red (1975) where ‘a situation or set of actions where narrative function… gives way to spectacle… disrupting the reasonable and discursive order’. In Blood for Dracula, the narrative momentum is frequently disturbed by the Count’s routine vomiting. After drinking impure blood, Udo Kier seethes and vibrates for what feels like forever, shaking like a junky on ten espressos, only to then regurgitate the surplus of impure blood, vomiting on himself, vomiting on the floor, in the toilet, in the bathtub. These moments of physical relief feel endless and ridiculous. In one episode, his whole face turns lime under a strange green light, as his head shakes and his tongue wags and his eyes rock side to side; his face turns into a firework display of sickness, and the scenes play on for longer than what’s necessary.
In Flesh for Frankenstein, the body’s spectacle bleeds into the art direction and staging, where the pictorial compositions turns the violence into set-pieces. The final tableau is delicious; like Hamlet, every prime member in the cast lies dead in Frankenstein’s laboratory (apart from Nicholas strung from the ceiling like a butcher’s lamb); their bodies are slumped into perfect place, forming a beautiful composition out of the amassed corpses. The Baron is impaled, a spear penetrating through his chest (an ironic visual turn-around from his earlier penetrating impulses). What’s curious about the Baron’s death is the fact he’s sitting up despite being dead. Incongruity? Or intentional oddity, like those in the films of David Lynch; the yellow-blazer man in Blue Velvet (1986) standing up despite the lethal hole in his head. Morrissey’s final scene collapses into an aesthetic surrealism; the composition too perfectly framed, flagrantly artificial, and an ambiguous, disturbing role-reversal between the living and the dead.
The fun, stylised experimentation of these films carry with them some much-deserved credit for Paul Morrissey, who had to fight the master/monster relationship with Warhol for the entirety of his career. Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein are unique among the ‘Warhol films’; less like home-movies, more like B-pictures that marry John Waters with Roger Corman. Even without Warhol’s overview, the films are still spontaneous, rough and stupidly sublime (‘stuplimity’). And the credit goes to their true creator. But while they’re essentially Morrissey’s films, Warhol (Warhol as a sensibility, as a Sedgwick-like creature, a vampiric parasitism, a compilation of torn flesh) haunts the work, the way an old-school movie-monster stalks the shadows.
Written by Alex Matraxia
Writer and Filmmaker