By Ed Garea
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (Circle Prod./Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (original story and s/p). Cast: John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Cal Bolder, Estelita Rodriguez, Jim Davis, Steven Geray, Nestor Paiva, Rayford Barnes, Roger Creed, Nestor Paiva, & William Fawcett. Color, 88 minutes.
This is it, the companion piece to Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which played the drive-ins and second-run theaters. Billed as the first “Horror-Western,” it really wasn’t. The first “Horror-Western” was the 1926 silent, The Haunted Range, with Glenn Strange and Max Terhune. Other entries in the field include the 1932 John Wayne cheapie, Haunted Gold, and the 1938 Republic “Three Mesqueteers” film, Riders of the Whistling Skull. However, in all three films, the supernatural forces turn out to be quite natural, like something from a Scooby-Doo mystery. There’s also Gene Autry’s 1935 Republic serial, The Phantom Empire, which is concerned with a long lost underground civilization armed with ray guns and other superior technology, but perhaps that’s more in the realm of science fiction rather than horror.
In 1956, the Nassour Brothers released the low-budget Beast of Hollow Mountain. Rancher Guy Madison is being plagued with a slew of missing cattle. When he goes into the nearby mountains to investigate, he gets more than he bargained for in the form of an animated stop-motion Allosaurus. This, then, may be considered as the first legitimate Horror-Western.
Besides not being historically accurate, the title of the movie itself is a misnomer. The villainess of the piece, Maria Frankenstein, is actually Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter. However, as is the case with these sorts of films, the titles are dreamed up in advance and the screenplays fit in. Also, this is not exactly the sort of movie where critics would take the producers to task for this “mistake.” They were just grateful to see the words “The End” flashing on the screen.
Along with Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, this was the last film in the long career of 73-year old director William “One Shot” Beaudine. Beaudine’s name has become synonymous over the years with low-budget stinkers, but he was actually a director of merit in the silent days (such as Mary Pickford’s 1926 Sparrows). Virtually wiped out by the Crash of 1929, he found work directing B’s for Warner Brothers and other majors, but in 1937 he began a long association with Poverty Row for such studios as Monogram and PRC. His work in television in the ‘50s allowed him to set aside a nest egg, but the Depression ingrained in him a fear of retirement, lest his savings once again be wiped out. After helming these two turkeys, however, he realized there are worse things than retirement and handed over his director’s chair to son William Beaudine, Jr.
Produced by Carroll Case for Joe Levine’s Circle Productions, both films were envisioned as a package for the drive-in crowd. Like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was shot at the ranch of former Western star Ray Corrigan in Simi Valley, California. While it doesn’t quite have the star power of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (John Carradine), it can boast something better for aficionados of bad movies: Narda Onyx. Ms. Onyx is quite possibly the hammiest actor I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching in action. She gives an entirely new meaning to the term “over the top” with the way she spews every line of dialogue with a look of wild-eyed abandon and anticipation.
As the film opens, we are treated to a view of a small village with what has to be on the phoniest matte paintings of a rustic-style monastery. We then find ourselves in the house of the Lopez family as they take part in a family whine. It seems that many of the townspeople are fleeing, depressing real estate values in the town. They note that nothing but death and sorrow has come to their town since the two doctors moved into the phony matte painting on the hill. Daughter Juanita (Rodriguez) is especially perturbed about the deaths of the village children and the disappearance of her brother. Well, there goes the neighborhood.
Cut to an especially cheesy laboratory in the house on the hill. Doctors Maria and Rudolph Frankenstein (Onyx and Geray) are prepping for their latest experiment. Maria is the granddaughter of the Old Baron and Rudolph is her brother, though he looks old enough to be her father. Oh well, I guess these experiments can take a lot out of anyone. They get the audience up to speed on just why they’re here in the Southwest. Seems they got into a bit of trouble with the authorities in Vienna for their experiments and had to beat it out of town fast. Most people choose an area for the scenic view, the close availability of the railroad, but the Frankensteins chose this area for the strength of its thunderstorms, the electricity of which is needed to run their equipment. Looking around the lab we see an anatomical chart, electrical equipment (supplied by Ken Strickfadden, who designed the electrical equipment in the old Universal horror films), the ever-necessary medicine chest, and, of course, an operating table.
Now, it’s back to their experiment. Starring today on the operating table is none other than Francisco, Juanita’s brother. They strap on what looks to be a World War II helmet adorned in colorful bright thick stripes of red, yellow, and green, looking as if they use it as a piñata when they not performing an experiment. Protruding from the sides of the helmet are two plastic-looking antenna. Maria zaps Francisco, who sits up, but suddenly collapses. She tells Rudolph to inject him with digitalis, but unbeknownst to her, he injects the poor slob with poison. What went wrong? Maria is beside herself, hamming it up to the limit: "What a fool I've been! I've allowed the duothermic pulsator to be attached only to the body!" She decides to consult the only reference book that can help at a time like this: her grandfather’s account. (How I Did It?) She miraculously turns to just the right page (this is One-Shot Beaudine, after all) and reads. So, that’s it. Her eyes turn bright and she gets a funny look on her face – and it’s not gas. Duothermic pulsators aside, Grandpa’s notes clearly state that a living brain is required for the hook-up. (She didn’t know that? How long have they been experimenting?) Then they can have a servant “to do our bidding.” Good help is clearly hard to get. Rudolph protests, but Maria brushes him aside, calling him weak as she yanks out the last artificial brain Gramps has created. Apparently, either the secret died with him, or Maria and Rudolph are really incompetent.
Cut to a saloon, where two men are engaging in an improvised MMA contest, which is won by a shirtless man with a great physique and a really stupid look on his face. We learn this is Hank Tracy (Bolder), sidekick to none other than Jess James (Lupton) himself. Seems Jesse has won the bet placed on Hank but the saloon owner (Paiva) doesn’t want to pay up. Hank tells him that he’s welching on none other than Jesse James himself. Why, I thought you were killed at Northridge, says the saloon owner. Oh no, replies Jesse. The man’s at large with a price on his head, so what does he do? Why he broadcasts his presence, of course. Smart.
Jesse and Hank are in town to meet up with Butch (Creed) and brother Lonnie (Barnes), two of the last three Wild Bunch members left (the others have all been killed). Butch and Lonnie are having a disagreement over inviting the James Gang and the proposed cut of the loot: Lonnie still wants his third, but Butch demurs. When Butch discovers that only Jesse and Hank remain from the gang, he’s naturally disappointed, but a job is a job. The disgruntled Lonnie runs to the Marshal (Davis) to dime out everyone in the plot, and the Marshal, with Lonnie in tow, rounds up a posse to ambush the baddies. During the firefight, the two Wild Bunch boys are killed and Hank is wounded. On the run, Jesse and Hank come upon the Lopez camp, where Juanita looks over Hank's wound. The hospital is far away, she says, but I know of two doctors in the area. Great, just great. She was accusing the Frankensteins of murder, but is okay with taking the wound Hank to see them. What scriptwriting! On the way, an Indian comes from nowhere to capture Juanita. He attacks Jesse when he rides to the rescue, but Jesse turns the attacker’s knife against him, and no more Indian. My Hero, says the look in Juanita’s eyes as they embrace. Jesse works fast.
Over at the Frankenstein place, Jesse meets Maria: “You’re the doctor?” He gives her the tried and true “Hank shot himself while cleaning his gun” excuse, but Maria’s not buying it. Not that it matters – Maria is overjoyed, for she figures they have to be running from the law and are stuck. As for Hank, well, “what a brute he’ll make!” Indeed. The Marshal, meanwhile, is questioning the Lopez family at their campsite. They claim ignorance; after all, Jesse identified himself to them as “Mr. Howard.” Juanita reports the Marshal’s questioning to Jesse back at the Frankenstein ranch. They engage in as deep as “stay,” “no, I must go” scene as the film will allow, which ends with another embrace. After Juanita leaves, Maria makes her move on Jesse, telling him the reason the villagers all moved out is because they are ignorant and do not understand. She tells Jesse that she needs his strength and plants a big kiss on his lips. But Jesse is unmoved, which sends Maria right into a jealous snit. She gives a note to Rudolph, telling him to hand it to Jesse. It’s a prescription for Hank, who has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. In reality, the note tells the recipient that the bearer is none other than the notorious outlaw Jesse James. Amazingly, Jesse complies, taking the note to the town druggist without ever stopping to read it. Rudolph, for his part, thinks the whole thing hilarious. He accuses Maria of being jealous and has a good laugh at her “being human after all.” For his trouble, he gets smacked across the face.
Juanita, for her part, does not trust this “errand” her “Yesse” has been sent on for Hank, and decides to snoop over at the Frankenstein place. She’s just in time, for Maria is about to carve into Hank, despite Rudolph’s obligatory admonition that no one should tamper with the laws of God. She’s shaved his head, has his magic helmet affixed, and has swapped her grandfather’s artificial brain for Hank’s. It’s okay; he wasn’t using his, anyway. Now she puts on a duplicate helmet so he doesn’t look silly all by himself. She intones into a portable microphone that from now on, Hank, “You are Igor. You are Igor.” Hank/Igor begins to sit up, but collapses. Rudolph is quick to label this yet another failure and gets out the “digitalis.” But Maria insists that she should administer the shot, and while they jockey for control of the syringe, she cops a quick peek at the medicine chest and sees there, right on the shelf, is a flask labeled “Poison.” What kind of poison we don’t know; all we know is that it’s poison. She now goes berserk, accusing Rudolph of sabotaging her experiments from the beginning. They wrestle for the syringe; Rudolph gets the upper hand. Maria cries out, “Igor, Help me!” Igor dutifully arises from the table and puts the kibosh on Rudolph, while Juanita, who has witnessed the whole shebang, turns tail and gets the heck out of there.
Jesse, meanwhile, has arrived at the pharmacy, and hands the druggist the “prescription.” The druggist takes one look at it, claims that it’s a special mixture and ducks out the back to the marshal’s office, where he finds only Lonnie. Lonnie tries to ambush Jesse, but Jesse draws first and there’s no more Lonnie. Jesse reads the “prescription” and figures out that he’s been double-crossed. So, it’s back to the Frankenstein place – with a vengeance. (While this is going on, Juanita runs into the real Marshal and spills the beans, figuring it’s better than leaving him to the mercies of the Frankensteins.) Jesse enters the lab and gets a good view of what’s been happening while he was away. Maria blames her brother, distracting Jesse until Igor can conk him and lay him on the operating table. She straps him in with some bon mots, “We have something in common: we’re both outside the law.” She injects Jesse to knock him out as the Marshal comes in. Maria sics Igor on the Marshal, who crushes the Marshal out cold, or dead, and drags him into the back room. Juanita revives Jesse. Maria then tells Igor to kill Juanita. As Igor goes to do his duty he begins to mumble Juanita’s name. Then he turns on Maria, chanting “kill, kill,” and strangling her. He then goes after Jesse, but Juanita grabs Jesse’s gun and shoots Igor twice in the back, ending his short career as a monster.
In the film’s final scene, Jesse and Juanita are standing over Hank’s grave. Juanita pleads with him to stay with her, but Jesse’s a fugitive and rides off with the Marshal, who wasn’t killed after all. Over his career, William Beaudine directed 199 movies, including this one.
What makes Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter watchable is the miserable quality of the acting added to a ludicrous script. John Lupton, as Jesse James, is so wooden he should’ve been checked annually for termites. It’s difficult to fathom the attraction he has for the opposite sex, much less have two women fawning over him to the point of distraction. His film career began in 1951 with Edgar G. Ulmer’s St. Benny the Dip. Lupton’s career was mainly one of supporting roles. He may be best known among cinephiles for his portrayal of upright Marine Corporal Marion ‘Sister Mary’ Hotchkiss in 1955's Battle Cry. His few lead roles came in low-budget B’s and Z’s. Otherwise he kept busy guest-starring on television.
Cal Bolder (real name Earl C. Craver) played football at Wichita University and fought in the Korean War. After the war he settled in Southern California, where he joined the LAPD. The story goes that a talent agent whom he pulled over for speeding spotted him and convinced him to change careers. Bolder worked mainly in television; the only other film he acted in was George Cukor’s 1960 comedy-romance, Heller in Pink Tights, with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren. He retired at the end of the 1960s and moved to Washington, where he pursued a vocation as a novelist. He published “Last Reunion,” a novel about a serial killer, under the name E.C. Craven. (It’s available on Amazon for those who care.) As Hank Tracy, Cal wanders around as if he doesn’t have a clue – which he doesn’t.
Veteran actor Jim Davis somehow survived this turkey to go on to play Jock Ewing in Dallas. It was said Beaudine hired him because they worked together in television. At any rate, Davis practically sleepwalks through the film, looking disinterested to boot. Rayford Barnes was another supporting actor who worked mainly television and Westerns. Ironically, while in our film he played the last of the Wild Bunch, three years later he actually had a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. He also had a small role in the 1973 psychotronic classic, Little Cigars, about a troupe of circus midgets whose sideline is robbing banks.
If anyone in the cast could be said to give a halfway passable performance, it would be Estelita Rodriguez as Juanita. Born in Cuba, she specialized in Hispanic “spitfires” at Republic Pictures, most notably with Roy Rogers. She also had a part in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) as Consuelo, who, along with husband Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and no that's not a typo), runs the town’s hotel. Rodriguez was married four times; one of her husbands, actor Grant Withers, committed suicide a few years after their divorce. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was Estelita’s last film. She reportedly died of influenza while prepping to star in the life story of Lupe Velez.
But as I said before, it’s the completely over-the-top performance of second-billed Narda Onyx that makes this a Z-classic. She also appears to be the only one in the damn movie who’s excited to be there. Without her, this could easily sink to the level of Manos: The Hands of Fate, needing a MST 3000 treatment to make it watchable.
Onyx was a child actor in Estonia who fled with her family to Sweden in 1944, but was intercepted by the Germans and brought to Danzig. During the last months of the war, the Onyx family made their way to the American lines at Bonn and sought refuge with the Swedish Red Cross. After the war the family moved to Sweden, where Narda resumed her acting career. She later traveled to England, where she worked for the Old Vic Company, and later moved to Canada, where she worked on stage and television and married fellow Estonian refugee George Virand in 1961. The couple left for Hollywood shortly thereafter. This was Maria’s last credit – she turned to writing and penned a biography of Johnny Weissmuller titled Water, World and Weissmuller. (It can be found on Amazon.)
Rudolph: Maria, you've already caused the death of three children and violated the graves of others just to make the experiments.
Maria: My, you're a humanitarian! You should have stayed in Europe and given pink pills to sweet old ladies.
Maria (to Jesse): You have refused me, Maria Von Frankenstein, granddaughter of the count.
Maria: Igor, go to your room!
This was the last film shot at the Corrigan Ranch. Right after filming ended, Ray Corrigan sold his ranch to Bob Hope . . . Screenwriter Carl K. Hittleman had been associated with two previous films featuring Jesse James as the main character: I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949) which Hittleman produced for director Sam Fuller, and The Return of Jesse James (Lippert, 1950), based on a story idea by Hittleman.