Cult Film, Cold Case: Who Murdered The Man Who Made “Blackenstein”?

Blackenstein (1973), Joe De Sue/publicity photo [promotional image]

LOS ANGELES, CA — On July 12, 1982, an assassin somehow gained entry into the stately Hollywood Hills residence of Frank Rytenhyde Saletri, a likably eccentric Los Angeles attorney and lifelong horror film fanatic. No evidence of a struggle resulted.

Blackenstein Blu-ray, front cover image [Severin Films]

Once inside, the killer confronted Saletri in the master bedroom, bound the lawyer up by his arms and legs, and, in classic gangland execution style, pumped one bullet into the back of Saletri’s head. After that, the gunman fled into the night. No one has ever been caught for the crime.

Frank R. Saletri, in the meantime, has become a tragic legend.

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The Illinois-born Saletri made a handsome living going to court on behalf of Hollywood’s “underbelly” class — i.e., pimps, prostitutes, pornographers, and other fringe-dwellers around the dark edges of show business.

One typical Saletri case, for example, occurred during the 1970s “streaking” craze. He defended a 48-year-old stripper who alerted the media that she would run naked down a single block of Hollywood Boulevard — and she did.

All this enabled Saletri to realize his dream of making movies, as he scripted and produced the 1973 cult classic, Blackenstein. He was also forever planning all sorts of follow-ups.

On top of that iconic fright film contribution, Frank Saletri also died in the very “castle” that was once owned by Dracula icon Bela Lugosi.

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Still, for all of Saletri’s professional work among potentially dangerous clients, he was not known to have any enemies. In fact, most accounts indicate just the opposite, describing him as a popular presence all over town and a frequent guest at celebrity soirees.

In reporting on the murder, The Los Angeles Times wrote:

“People who knew him described Saletri as a tall, broad-chested, handsome man with a mustache who fancied himself something of a ladies’ man. He was divorced, with no children.

He liked to fly single-engine airplanes, was active in the American Legion’s Midtowne post and belonged to the Cauliflower Alley Club, a Hollywood social club whose members are predominantly boxers, wrestlers, or performers who have played roles as fighters (Sylvester Stallone is a member).”

June Kirk, Saletri’s sister, has never entirely stopped grieving for her brother, nor has she waned in her search to find his killer.

Blackenstein (1973)/newspaper ad layout [promotional image]

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In 1986, after offering a $10,000 reward for information, Kirk told the press, “He did not indicate to me any problems, or that he was in fear for his life.”

She theorized that since Saletri owned legal guns, was an expert in karate, and had multiple large dogs, that the murderer “would have to be someone that he felt comfortable with, or the animals felt comfortable around.” Kirk also added, “Even at my brother’s funeral, I often wondered if that person was even there.”

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Movingly, June talks at length on Severin Films’ newly restored Blu-ray release of Blackenstein not just about her brother’s murder, but about his extraordinary life as a dreamer whose child-like love of monster movies drove him to unique heights.

Another special feature on the disc is an extensive 1982 Los Angeles TV news story about the case. The news piece profiles Saletri in depth. It takes viewers inside the murder location and also offers a look at some of Frank’s unproduced screenplays, including Sherlock Holmes in the Adventures of the Golden Vampire, which was to have starred Alice Cooper as Dracula.

Blackenstein (1973)/Mexican release movie poster [promotional image]

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While the murder case remains open, and June Kirk continues to search for answers, Saletri did give us the remarkable Blackenstein by which to remember him.

The off-the-wall fright flick took its cue from the 1972 hit Blacula, which combined a classic scary character with the era’s popular “blaxploitation” genre (e.g. — Shaft, Foxy Brown, Super Fly).

With its instantly unforgettable title, bizarre-looking title creature, and an affable air of affection for its own nuttiness, Blackenstein has remained a pop- culture fixture since its release.

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The Halloween perennial has even been memorably parodied on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons (where a TV announcer welcomes viewers back to a triple feature of “Blacula, Blackenstein, and The Blunch Black of Blotre Blame”).

Given the enduring fun and good times that Saletri bestowed upon the world via Blackenstein, his still-unsolved murder seems even more tragic.

Anyone with any information on the killing is encouraged to contact the LAPD’s Cold Case Homicide Special Section at (213) 486-6880.

Read more:
Los Angeles Times
Severin Films
Curbed L.A.
Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor

Main photo: Blackenstein (1973), Joe De Sue/publicity photo [promotional image]



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