by Nel Dahl
Low-budget horror cinema’s potential to unexpectedly reverse its initially mixed reception is epitomized by the strange afterlife of Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol-produced double feature, Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). After nearly two decades of censored cuts and derision, the films received an unexpected tribute via Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” music video. Warhol star Udo Kier’s voice opens the video and there are recurring shots of a revolving disco ball that dissolve into close-ups of his gaze. Madonna is an Edie Sedgwick-esque socialite on Kier’s arm at parties. Further allusions to Warhol iconography are woven throughout the video: a performer modelled after Joe Dallesandro poses and preens in front of a small audience who are eating bananas, in a reference to the Warhol-designed Velvet Underground album cover, as well as Warhol’s film Mario Banana. This embrace of Morrissey’s horror cinema bucks their humble beginnings, a sign of the films’ strong cult appeal and influence. Udo Kier remarks on the disparity: “The whole film [Blood for Dracula] cost $300,000[…] When I did the Madonna video it cost more than that for four minutes.”
After directing a trilogy of films for Andy Warhol in the early 1970s, Paul Morrissey was approached to make a horror film in Italy, which led to the production of Flesh for Frankenstein. After wrapping, much of that film’s cast and crew started shooting Blood for Dracula. (This includes cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, who also crafted images for lurid films by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.) Dracula’s wistful opening scene signals a shift from the chaotic Frankenstein: composer Claudio Gizzi’s melancholy piano melody plays softly as Kier applies makeup to mask his deathly pallor, and the opening credits conclude as the camera moves from Kier’s face to the mirror where he has no reflection, revealing his vampiric identity and draining vitality. Flesh for Frankenstein’s marathon of gore, emphasized in 3-D showings for many audiences, is replaced by loneliness. Dracula’s theme of presence and absence is also reflective of the ambiguity surrounding Warhol’s own absence and premature death looming large over the films’ reputations.
Only a virgin’s blood can sustain Kier’s Dracula in the film. He befriends a nobleman, Il Marchese Di Fiore (played by filmmaker-actor Vittorio de Sica) with several beautiful young daughters and hopes to recover his strength from their blood. Di Fiore has financial troubles signified by his disintegrating estate and likes the suggestion of marrying off one of his daughters to the wealthy Dracula. Di Fiore and Dracula’s mutual desperation to preserve their deteriorating aristocratic lifestyles are contrasted with the gruff, straightforward Mario (Dallesandro), the estate’s Marxist handyman. Dracula’s bite is quickly undercut by the fact that his body rejects the blood of the first two daughters he targets, who it turns out are not virgins. Kier’s face changes as he senses his body about to regurgitate the blood: his usually bulging eyes become faint and tinged with terror. Most of the horror in this adaptation is experienced by the weakening Dracula himself. Gizzi’s piano theme rises as these attempts to use his victims’ blood backfire, accentuating his realization of his doomed attempts at survival.
Morrissey and Warhol had already made a star of Joe Dallesandro before the horror films, but Udo Kier was reportedly a rising young actor who Morrissey encountered on a plane and asked to star in Flesh for Frankenstein. Kier’s striking, androgynous beauty was topped off with huge, penetrating eyes that could offer both vulnerability and alarm onscreen. Frankenstein and Dracula became perhaps the first major instances of Kier as a cinematic villain, crystallizing a persona that proved fruitful to the actor even as the size of his roles fluctuated heavily.
Over time, Warhol’s legacy has sometimes overshadowed Morrissey’s contribution. Maurice Yacowar writes that Morrissey saw Warhol “as a benefactor content to let others achieve their own desires,” then quotes Morrissey himself: “In everything to do with film, Andy always did whatever I asked him to do.[…] I was completely free. He paid the bills and I did what I wanted to.” Warhol’s most distinctive contribution to the films might be the photos he took on set, including one of his signature polaroids, of Kier in Dracula makeup, but with a contemporary plaid shirt and jacket. From the many tributes and careers they helped start, to the roller-coaster of surprises within the films’ legacies, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula – true to their narratives – have managed to maintain an unexpected immortality.