Monsters and Matinees: All in a Dysfunctional Family with ‘Frankenstein’s Daughter’

All in a Dysfunctional Family with ‘Frankenstein’s Daughter’

Teens, cars, kissing, music, dancing and a pool party: you might be thinking it’s time to settle in with a 1950s hot-rod film.

Not so fast. Meet Frankenstein’s Daughter, a 1958 film that has all of that plus the bonus of a mysterious woman running around Los Angeles in a negligee, bathing suit and the head of a monster.

“Woman monster menaces city!” the newspaper headline screams.

An innocent teen (Sandra Knight) needs a makeover after a scientific experiment in Frankenstein’s Daughter. (Photo courtesy The Film Detective.)

We hate to tell them, but they haven’t seen the true horror – as unintended as it may be – of the title creature in Frankenstein’s Daughter, newly restored on home video by The Film Detective. (Hint: Lipstick is not going to help the poor girl.)

It’s one of four drive-in films made in 1958 by director Richard E. Cunha. (The others are She Demons, Giant from the Unknown and Missile to the Moon). These “six-day wonders” were made, as you would expect, in six days with a miniscule budget of $65,000 to $80,000. Every penny is there on the screen: the good, the bad and the truly ugly.

[Read more on Richard E. Cunha and his six-day wonders.]

Unlike the worthy family sequels to Universal’s original Frankenstein (1931) – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) – this film comes from another world of horror starting with a title that’s a misnomer.

There isn’t a daughter, although there are young women in peril. There is a Frankenstein but he’s a grandson and we can all agree that Grandson of Frankenstein doesn’t roll off the tongue very well (but it would at least be accurate).

Sandra Knight and John Ashley are a young couple in love in Frankenstein’s Daughter. (Photo courtesy The Film Detective)

The film plot

Frankenstein’s Daughter features another of the well-meaning scientists who proliferate 1950s B-movies. Dr. Carter Morton (played by Felix Locher) is working to stop diseases and save lives, but he keeps falling short. One small problem is that his formula causes brief disfigurement, something he knows he could fix if only he had the chemical Digenerol kept under lock and key at a nearby research laboratory.

Living with him in his lovely house are his teen niece Trudy (played by Sandra Knight, the future Mrs. Jack Nicholson) and his assistant Oliver (TV actor Donald Murphy, in an interesting performance that is part ladies’ man, part sleaze, part madman). In one of those strange tropes of the sci-fi films of the era (The Fly, Tarantula), the laboratory is off the first-floor vestibule making it easy for everyone in the house to come and go.

Trudy is dating cute Frankie Avalon look-alike Johnny (played by John Ashley, the future Mr. Deborah Walley) and they double date with dorky Dave (Harold Lloyd Jr.) and sexy Suzie (former Playmate Sally Todd). These kids are fun.

It might almost be idyllic if Oliver didn’t hit on Trudy or pick fights with the doctor as he increasingly becomes more of a hinderance than a help to the old man.

Oliver does make a few good points, but he’s unnecessarily rude and too quick to anger. Then it becomes clear he has some type of agenda and then we learn he’s using the phony last name of Frank – yes as in Frankenstein.

He’s only working with the professor in hopes of successfully completing the work of his grandfather and father while also restoring the family name to the glory he feels it deserves. (“They were geniuses!” he exclaims.)

The handsome but off-kilter Oliver (Donald Murphy) flirts with and experiments on Trudy (Sandra Knight) in Frankenstein’s Daughter. (Photo: Mary Evans/AF Archive/Cinetext Bildarchiv/Everett Collection)

He has their original notebooks and believes he needs a woman to succeed where they failed.

“The female brain is conditioned to a man’s world and therefore takes orders where the others wouldn’t,” Oliver says, in reference to the bodies used in earlier experiments.

Despite that awful chauvinistic statement, he clearly has a thing for the ladies in both the romantic and scientific departments. Living in the house with Trudy makes her an easy target for Oliver who grossly puts the moves on her. When that doesn’t work, he targets Suzie the sexpot who is a much easier mark.

Wolfe Barzell, left, is the faithful Elsu who tries to help the title character (Harry Wilson) in Frankenstein’s Daughter. (Photo courtesy The Film Detective.)

Adding to the atmosphere and the Frankenstein backstory is the pitiful gardener Elsu (Wolfe Barzell) – clearly a stand-in for Fritz/Igor – who has faithfully worked with the family from the beginning.

Frankenstein’s Daughter is easy to figure out in real time as you’ll guess the identity of the first female monster in the negligee, the fact that Oliver is up to something, and that there was something in Trudy’s punch.

It takes a while for others though, including the police, to believe that there is a monster(s). And even after those newspaper headlines proclaim the truth, the kids don’t hesitate to attend a poolside party with a live band (The Paul Cavanaugh Trio). It’s an odd scene of frivolity thrown in perhaps to allow actor Ashley, who was also a singer, to show off his vocal talents.

A female monster in a negligee roams the streets of Los Angeles in the opening scene of Frankenstein’s Daughter.

The monster(s)

There are various looks for the creatures since there are multiple experiments done on different women. For the female monster we see in the opening scene and the first part of the film, the look is simply dirty buck teeth and bushy eyebrows, nothing some toothpaste and tweezers couldn’t fix. Facial shadows will later be added to varying degrees.

Oliver (Donald Murphy) with his creation (Harry Wilson) in Frankenstein’s Daughter. Note the lipstick, used to add a feminine touch to the monster. (Photo courtesy The Film Detective)

The title creature is a different story. Frankenstein’s Daughter, as she’s named by Elsu, is clearly a man (played by Harry Wilson). It’s in a big and boxy rubber-looking suit with a patched together head and large bulbous nose.

A story behind the masculine makeup is that the artist didn’t know the monster was supposed to be a woman. To make up for the oversight, lipstick was added as a quick fix which worked about as well as you would expect.

It’s a look that confused even director Cunha who was introduced to it on the set with a quick “here’s your monster,” he said in the documentary included in the extras of the home video release.

“I nearly died. The monster wasn’t designed like that – it just looked that,” Cunha said. Without time or money to fix it, “We had to keep it.”

That documentary with Cunha features video footage the director did to answer questions that were mailed to him by author Tom Weaver around 1983. It’s a treat to learn about the film directly from Cunha.

The new DVD and Blu-ray from The Film Detective also has an audio commentary, color booklet plus a short, but fascinating career retrospective on actor John Ashley.

In John Ashley: Man from the B’s, film historian C. Courtney Joyner details how Ashley’s career started when he was a tourist with friends visiting the set of a John Wayne film and the Duke pointed him out because he looked so much like Elvis. (I still say he looks more like Frankie Avalon, an actor he co-starred with in such films as Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo.) Ashley later had a successful career as a producer especially on television with such shows as The A-Team.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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