Weird Western Films: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966)


I have two things to say about "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter," and maybe they are contradictory. Firstly, the film is not very memorable, and by that I mean I watched it maybe a year ago and forgot I had, and then watched it again recently and didn't remember anything from the film.

But, secondly, I love the Frankenstein's monster in this. He can be explained, but not briefly. In the movie, Jesse James survived being shot by the coward Robert Ford and is traveling the southwest with one of the most muscular cowboys ever put on the screen. Specifically, this is Cal Bolder, a former marine and motorcycle policeman who once injured his back lifting a small car, so he was basically a golem. James has him wrestle other cowboys for money, and, since cowboys are generally smaller than a small car, Bolder handily wins.

In the meanwhile, the granddaughter of the original Frankenstein (the title has it wrong), as well as her much much older brother (he is 27 years her senior) have depopulated a remote Mexican village by trying to turn the residents into monsters and failing. They succeed with Bolder, a process that involves sawing off the top of his head, replacing his brain with a synthetic one, putting a helmet on that is the colors of the Mexican flag and has neon lightning bolts extending from either side, and then screaming at him to come to life.

So this is our monster: A 6'4", shirtless muscle man with a huge scar around his shaved head, and that's it. But he looks magnificent. Not that there was never any question he was going to end up as an experiment, as Bolder was not much of an actor, so they had him deliver all his dialogue in the same halting way that Lon Chaney, Jr. used for Lennie in "Of Mice and Men." In this film, Jesse James used him as mindless muscle, the Frankensteins use him as mindless muscle, and really all that has changed is now he has a wicked scar.

The film was directed by William Beaudine, the same man responsible for "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," and, in fact, the two films were shot back-to-back and were the last films Beaudine made. I think I prefer this film, in part because Frankenstein's monster as a shirtless cowboy is a great deal more inventive than your run-of-the-mill Dracula, and in part because the film actually seems to make an effort to pretend it is in the southwest, including casting Latinx performers in a lot of the supporting roles, including Estelita Rodriguez as Jesse James' love interest and, in fact, the hero of the story. She rescues James more than a few times, and, in a film about a legendary gunfighter, it is Rodriguez that fires the bullet that resolves the story.

I also like the remainder of the cast. John Lupton plays James, and he was a lanky leading man with weary eyes; his James is dressed like a mortician and generally seems impatient with and disappointed by everything. Frankenstein's granddaughter is played by the marvelously named Narda Onyx, a native of Estonia with florid, almost expressionistic mannerisms; her brother is played by the Hungarian-born Steven Geray, playing a Frankenstein who clearly wishes he wasn't a Frankenstein. Geray repeatedly sabotages his sister's experiments by secretly injecting her subjects with poison, and otherwise just seems like he'd rather be anywhere else doing anything else.

And there is another performer, Rayford Barnes, who was a longtime character actor in westerns. He was sort of the cowboy version of Richard Widmark's giggling psychopath in "Kiss of Death," in the sense that both seemed to always be sneering and only really seemed encouraged by the thought of killing someone. He spends much of the movie hunting Jesse James down in a side-story that's a classic Western, getting shot to death in a pharmacy after trying to get the drop on the gunslinger.

His character dies never knowing that there is a second movie going on, just over the hill, and it is a much weirder one. And suddenly it feels like maybe this is possible in all Western films — that if we just followed the heroes when they are not onscreen, maybe they're riding over a hill and fighting a werewolf or a mummy and simply failing to mention it.

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