NOTE: I have to apologize for posting an incomplete, often inaccurate version of this review. I've been exhausted from work, and I have barely enough time in a week to watch a movie, let alone comment meaningfully on it. It seems the busier I get, and the less time I have, the more ambitious I become... I should have known better than to attempt a triple feature while I'm so busy. I've learned my lesson, though: no more artificial deadlines for me! I'll try to update this site at least once every month, but for the foreseeable future, I probably won't be able to manage more frequent additions.
In real life, it was Frankenstein who won.
In 1931, the movie Dracula simultaneously saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy and made Béla Lugosi a household name. When Universal considered following the success of their horror picture with an adaptation of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, they asked Lugosi to appear as the monster. Lugosi refused. He was upset that his features were to be obscured beneath heavy makeup, and that his dialogue would be merely grunts and cries. So the role of the monster was given to a virtually unknown English character actor named William Henry Pratt.
"William Pratt" was hardly an appropriate name for a character actor with such a distinctive and menacing appearance. At some point in his early silent film career, the former truck driver Mr. Pratt assumed a pseudonym that also hinted at Eastern European origins, though Slavic rather than Hungarian: BORIS KARLOFF. In some of his early films, he was billed only by the last name: KARLOFF... the way the great Russian stars of opera and ballet were sometimes billed. The Universal version of the Frankenstein monster established itself in the minds of the moviegoing public, and part of its appeal came from the fact that "Boris Karloff" had a name and appearance as exotic as "Béla Lugosi".
Of course, Lugosi himself was working under a pseudonym. His real name was Béla Blaskó, not a very interesting name in English or Hungarian. In Hungary, he had tried to establish himself as Béla Lugossy, using an aristocratic form of the name to which he was not entitled; his attempt was not well received. In his early career in German silent films, he appeared as Arisztíd Olt. He was "Béla Lugosi" when he came to America and appeared as Dracula in the stage play by Hamilton Deane. His name and his strong Hungarian accent gave him a sense of mysterious otherness that audiences found appealing.
But with the release of Frankenstein, a second international horror star had been born. Lugosi now had a competitor for the title of the screen's most popular monster.
Karloff had two advantages over Lugosi in establishing his Hollywood career: first, he was a native English speaker; second, he had a much more contemporary style of acting than Lugosi had. Lugosi has been accused of being a poor actor, but this is not true. Instead, Lugosi came from a stage tradition that was unsuited to the development of theatre and film in the 20th century. His broad style was a carry-over from the late-19th century Romantic tradition, and while that sort of thing worked fairly well in the silent era, by the late 1930's it had begun to look much too artificial.
With the Second World War, America faced horrors of a different sort, and the Universal monsters lost what little of their scare power was left. Lugosi was simply too old-fashioned and too ethnic to get work in other genres. On top of this, Lugosi's self-destructive personal life cost him deeply: he was known for living beyond his means, and for being absurdly generous to people who were rarely known to return the favors. He was also known to be temperamental and egotistical, traits which didn't stand him well for getting regular work. His overbearing personality alienated his first wife; a late second marriage resulted in misery for both parties. An addiction to painkillers debilitated him. As the years wore on, he found himself relegated to ever more demeaning roles. Karloff, on the other hand, went through career ups and downs, but was able to maintain his celebrity and his dignity to a much greater degree than Lugosi.
Lugosi resented Karloff's success. He especially resented the fact that Karloff's big break came in a role he, Lugosi, had turned down. And for what was this English prat Pratt given so much praise? For stumbling around under heavy makeup and grunting! Anyone, thought Lugosi, could have done that.
Now, it's interesting to note that even when the rivalry of Karloff and Lugosi was in full swing, and even though the two actors appeared together in several films of the 30's and 40's, Universal took its sweet time bringing its two greatest screen monsters together. Before the two movie monsters met, there would be other entries in their ongoing stories: Frankenstein was followed by the wonderful Bride of Frankenstein in 1935; then came Son of Frankenstein (1939), featuring Karloff's last appearance as the monster, and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). The Dracula story, on the other hand, had been given only one sequel in 1936, Dracula's Daughter, in which Lugosi made no appearance at all.
Lugosi had made a terrific impression as the broken-necked shepherd Ygor in both Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein. At the end of Ghost, Ygor's brain had been put into the body of the Frankenstein monster. This brings us to 1943, when Universal made a noble attempt at one more Dracula sequel, Son of Dracula, and one more Frankenstein movie, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Lon Chaney, Jr. had been the Frankenstein monster in Ghost, but his performance wasn't particularly distinguished; and besides, he was the Wolf Man... so he simply wouldn't do as the monster in the new Frankenstein movie. Since Ygor's brain was put into the creature in the previous film, Universal decided to offer the part to Lugosi one more time.
Lugosi accepted the part, no doubt because he didn't want to make the same mistake twice... but also, importantly, because the role had been re-defined. The monster was now articulate, since it had a new and functional brain; however, it was also blind, a result of the closing catastrophic fire in Ghost.
It was really rather brave of Lugosi to accept this demanding role. Not only was it a stretch for him, it was also a radical change to a character that was well-known to millions of people. In fact, on consideration, it seems to me it was a doomed project from the start. Whatever the theoretical merits of the studio's decisions or Lugosi's career move, in practice it turned out very badly. The film makers were unhappy with Lugosi's performance... they thought it was ridiculous rather than frightening. So in production, they cut out all references to the monster's blindness, and removed all of Lugosi's dialogue. The result: they made Lugosi's performance look awful, much worse than the supposedly poor impression they were trying to fix.
Then, to add insult to injury, Universal turned around and cast Lon Chaney, Jr. (of all people) as the vampire lead in Son of Dracula.
Lugosi was not faring well in Hollywood, and obviously neither was Dracula. Frankenstein and his creation were ahead five sequels to three. As horror fell on hard times, Universal started brining more of its stable or monsters into contact with each other. House of Frankenstein cast Boris Karloff as the mad scientist (not actually Frankenstein, but... well, you get the idea), and brought in the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster and even J. Carrol Naish as a hunchback. Dracula (John Carradine) also appears in the film, but is killed after a brief appearance. Chalk up one more for Frankie.
The next year brought House of Dracula, but once again, the poor Count was given short shrift (not that the Frankenstein monster has much to do either). In a nominal Dracula movie, it's odd that the vampire should exit the picture halfway through. Again, the symbolic victory goes to Frankenstein, if only on a technicality.
Yet for all of this -- the ongoing rivalry of two great horror stars, the series of sequels, the appearances of multiple monsters in the later films, and so on -- Universal never saw fit to bring together its two greatest monsters mano à mano. Even in movies where Dracula and the Frankenstein monster both appeared, they never actually confronted each other. The only possible exception is Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which Lugosi (playing the Count on screen for only the second time in his life, and the last) attempts to use the Frankenstein monster as his slave. Here again, though, Dracula's enemy wasn't the monster itself, but rather the Wolf Man.
Maybe that was a good idea on Universal's part. After all, the two monsters are much different: the vampire subtle and seductive, a force of spiritual evil; and the monster a misbegotten scientific blunder, first misunderstood, later a murderous simpleton relying on brute strength, and its inability to die. How do you match up two such creatures? Universal decided not to. Hammer Studios brought new life to the Dracula and Frankenstein sagas starting in the mid-1950's, but in spite of the regular cross-casting of actors between the series, the two monsters shared no films.
However, there are three films called Dracula vs. Frankenstein, all products of the late 1960's - early 1970's. It's difficult to believe it took 40 years for someone to come up with a movie to fit that title. It's even more difficult to believe that even after 40 years, only one of those films actually brought together the King of Vampires and the Frankenstein monster in combat. And the most unbelievable thing about the whole situation is this: not one of these three movies is particularly good.
Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1969)
(Los Monstruos del Terror; El Hombre Que Vino De Ummo; The Man Who Came From Ummo; Assignment Terror)
Last Role For: Michael Rennie
(NOTE: I'll be the first to admit that I'm cheating a little by including this movie under its video title. As far as I know, Los Monstruos del Terror was never released to theaters as Dracula vs. Frankenstein. When it played on TV, it was known as Assignment Terror. Still, for a long time this movie was only available on video under this title, and under this title it has been reviewed in several publications.)
Aliens from a far distant planet come up with a plan to conquer the Earth. They first re-animate the bodies of two brilliant scientists who were recently killed in accidents. The leader of these scientists, Dr. Varnoff, is played by Michael Rennie, who looks old and ill and light-years away from his performance as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The other scientist is played by European genre film regular Karin Dor.
Once the scientists have been resurrected and inhabited by the alien consciousness, the invaders prepare for the main part of their plan: they will locate and bring back to life the world's most terrifying monsters. These ghouls will strike fear into the hearts of the Earthlings and allow the aliens to take over. There's an ugly little side-plot involving a plan to take over the minds of beautiful young women, because (as everybody knows) all the world's great leaders are men, ha-ha, and every man is putty in the hands of a beautiful woman.
Is this starting to sound a little familiar? You know: aliens taking over the bodies of the dead to start an invasion? Or aliens taking over the world's greatest monsters to form an improbable invasion force? Mm-hmm. Plan Nine from Outer Space meets the previous year's Destroy All Monsters. To make matters worse, the makers of the movie seem to have been worried about stepping on Universal's copyrights. Thus we have an invasion force consisting of Count de Meyerhof, the vampire; the Farancksollen Monster; Tao-Tet, who is not a Vietnamese diplomat but rather the Mummy; and -- since this is a Spanish movie -- the Polish wolf man, Waldemar Daninsky.
There's an amusing scene as the police investigators stumble on Count von Farancksollen's Book of the Monsters. In it, they read of all the monsters that will appear in the film, plus the Golem, who was probably cut for budgetary reasons. The funny thing about the book is this: Farancksollen describes the creation of his creature, and its subsequent rampage, and how he must destroy his life's work... and then he goes on and writes a whole new chapter about the Wolf Man. The poor Count obviously knows nothing about the technique of climax and release...
In a scene lifted directly from House of Frankenstein, Rennie finds the skeleton of Dracu-- er, Meyerhof being used as an attraction in a carnival. You have to feel sorry for poor old Dra-- oh, hell; this is supposed to be a Dracula vs. Frankenstein movie, so let's call them by their proper names... Dracula, being reduced to a side show spectacle. Imagine what the show must be like... Pull out the stake: presto! Instant vampire. Put the stake back in: poof! Gone before your very eyes. Three shows a day, four on Sunday; that's gotta hurt.
The main source of conflict that upsets the aliens' plan is that the Earthlings have minds of their own, even if they happen to be dead. Dr. Varnoff's assistant is the first to start regaining her human feelings -- it's implied that it's because she's a woman, and therefore (all together now) the weaker of the sexes... The irony here is that her emotional "weakness" is really her great strength. Furthermore, the monsters don't want to be controlled (if only they could have shown a similar resistance to being cast in the movie!). Drac keeps trying to cadge a snack from the brainwashed babes. Least obedient of all is poor Waldemar Daninsky, who is still uncomfortable with the whole "monster" gig. This is, after all, a relatively early appearance for him. Paul Naschy played Daninsky and similar figures for so long that it's hard to remember a time when he was a fresh new face in the horror business. Daninsky rebels at the thought of betraying the human race, especially after he falls in love with a pretty young thing (Patty Shepard, star of Naschy's first big success, Walpurgis Night / The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Women). Since Waldemar can only die at the hand of someone who loves him, he plots with the girl to invade the aliens' castle, fight the monsters in his werewolf form, and then have the girl take him to the vet to be put to sleep. Or something like that. I was pretty much asleep by that point myself.
There's also a subplot involving the gradual return of human emotions even to the re-animated Dr. Varnoff, but it's treated in a rather perfunctory manner. And that's about it for dramatic conflict: once again, "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" might as well be in separate movies. The video title is a cheat: it's the wolf man who's at center stage.
The monster makeup is unbelievably awful. The vampire and the Frankenstein monster look like runners up at a Halloween costume party, but it's the poor Mummy that fares worst: with his inexpressive blue face and his fake bandages, Tao-Tet is laughable rather than frightening. All the pathos and mystery which helped put these characters into the world's popular mythology is missing from the film. Instead, they are simply "the Universal monsters", supposedly frightening just because they are the monsters.
To be fair to the movie and its director, Tullio Demichelli, Los Monstruos del Terror was originally shot in scope format (2.35: 1), while most available versions on video are severely cropped, badly edited TV versions. My copy is not only faded, it also features the worst sound I've ever heard on a commercially-duplicated tape. This really hasn't helped me appreciate the movie's stronger points (it hasn't even let me find them). To be realistic, though, this isn't the sort of movie where you need to pay careful attention to the screen compositions. It's a by-the-numbers generic "monster movie", which totally misunderstands the appeal of the genre, and is only worth suffering through today for its amusement value.
This movie used to pop up on Saturday morning TV all the time... usually not on the hosted horror shows, but on the channels that scheduled horror movies just for the hell of it. As a child, I saw this movie several times, and I thought of it as a passable time-waster, provided nothing else was on. The days of classic Bad Horror on TV are long gone, though, and even if this film were restored to its pristine state on DVD, I doubt it would win many friends among the eleven-year-olds of today. Paul Naschy completists and fans of movies that completely misunderstand their source material will want to see this film at least once, but I doubt that even they will want to sit through it again.
Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)
(The Blood Seekers; Satan's Blood Freaks; Teenage Dracula, etc. etc.)
Last Role For: Lon Chaney, Jr.; J. Carrol Naish
This is one of those rare films which deserves its classic reputation. If Dracula and Frankenstein's monster can be called "un-dead" -- existing in a state between life and death, never truly belonging to either state -- then this movie should be called "un-good". It's not that it's simply bad (actually, it's epically bad), nor that it's so-bad-it's-good (because few, if any, bad films have managed to be so gloriously endearing) -- it's in a category all by itself.
Though much has already been written about this movie, I'll attempt to summarize both its history and its story. The movie started production in 1968 as a non-Dracula, non-Frankenstein picture called The Blood Seekers. It was apparently about a mad scientist (J. Carrol Naish) and his mute assistant Groton (Lon Chaney, Jr.) searching for the key to eternal life through blood experiments. The self-deluded Doctor, believing himself to be a benefactor of mankind, would murder pretty young girls, then bring them back to life. The trauma of death would create a new chemical in their bloodstreams, which the Doctor wishes to use to cure his paralysis. Unfortunately, he chooses to kidnap the wrong victim, as a concerned member of the abducted girl's family begins to investigate the Doctor's shady practices...
Somehow, the movie simply failed to come together. Director Al Adamson tried to make a coherent film out of the footage he'd shot, but was unhappy with the result. Next, so the legend goes, he and producer Sam Sherman decided to turn the movie into a Frankenstein story, even going so far as to book the unfinished film in theaters as Blood of Frankenstein. Even then, Adamson was unable to pull his film together; Sam Sherman scrambled to fulfill his obligations to the theaters by coming up with a new, color Frankenstein movie. At the last minute, he found La Marca del Hombre Lobo, Paul Naschy's debut film, which was originally shot in 3-D and was establishing Naschy as a new horror star in Spain. Sherman released the Naschy film as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, though the movie really features vampires and werewolves. In spite of the misleading title, the movie was a success, and today Sherman rather immodestly suggests that it was his and Al Adamson's "discovery" of Naschy that led to Naschy's subsequent popularity.
Meanwhile, Adamson and Sherman were left with an unfinished mass of footage. Adamson was never one to give up on an unfinished film: another of his movies, Blood of Ghastly Horror, was assembled from the bits of at least three unrelated projects. Finally, they came up with the idea they thought would pull the film together, as well as make it tremendously attractive commercially: they'd throw in Dracula.
Sherman wanted John Carradine to play Dracula. Carradine worked with Adamson on a number of pictures, including the moderately successful comedy Blood of Dracula's Castle (a movie which I think is one of Adamson's most enjoyable). Curiously, in Dracula's Castle Carradine was cast as George the butler, rather than as Dracula. Though Carradine is a hoot in the film, it is strange to think that Adamson was so reluctant to cast him as the King of Vampires. I think Adamson would have used Carradine better in the role than William Beaudine did in Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (Adamson featured Carradine in another film called Doctor Dracula (1981), this time pieced together from bits of another director's discards).
Adamson's judgment is called further into question when you see the "actor" he did cast as Dracula: former stock broker Robert Engel, a man with no acting ability at all, who was cast simply because Adamson thought he looked right for the part. Adamson's previous Dracula had been played by Alex (Horrors of Spider Island) D'Arcy, a tubby, unthreatening little man. This actually made sense, because in Blood of Dracula's Castle, the vampires were effete creatures who had given up the messy business of hunting victims. By contrast, the inexpressive Engel is supposed to be playing the role straight... though he comes off looking like a cross between Frank Zappa and Rudy Ray Moore.1
In the great tradition of Lugosi and Karloff, Engel was assigned a "scary" pseudonym in the attempt to establish him as a new horror star. The name eventually chosen (by Famous Monsters publisher Forrest Ackerman, who appears in the film) was "Zandor Vorkov"; Zandor for Anton Szandor LeVey, real-life leader of the Church of Satan, and Vorkov because it sounded vaguely like Karloff.
Vorkov's footage was shot considerably later than the initial footage for Blood Seekers. Short inserts of Vorkov peering from the shadows were inserted into existing scenes. Other new scenes were shot with members of the original cast. Here the spartan low-budget look of the film worked to its own advantage: since much of the film takes place in total darkness, it was reasonably easy to shoot new footage and have it match the scenes that had already been filmed.
The opening credits play over a montage of images from the film, which show you everything you really need to see in the movie: goofy-looking Drac, goofy-looking Frankie, Drac fighting Frankie, Dracula's ring... you could really turn the movie off before it's even started, and come away with the impression that it wasn't all that bad. The credits are actually rather entertaining, nicely designed and atmospherically scored with Bad Movie Music (the music is credited to the composer William Lava, who wrote many familiar scores for movies and serials of the Golden Age). However, the circuit boards which frame some of the credits, while meant to evoke the high-tech experiments of Dr. Frankenstein, look absurdly old-fashioned today.
The revised screenplay opens with Dracula unearthing the remains of the Frankenstein monster from a California cemetery. A cut to a sign reveals that it is "Oakmoor Cemetery" -- initials "O. S." Ouch. A security guard comes to investigate, and finds more than he bargained for. Note: this is the one and only victim Dracula bites in the entire film.
The action then switches to a pier on a beach. A girl is walking through a curiously bright bank of fog. Suddenly she is attacked by an axe-wielding maniac (a sadly decrepit Lon Chaney, Jr.). Her bloody head flies off her shoulders and into the sand.
We cut to Las Vegas, where headliner Judith Fontain is performing her act. Though we occasionally cut to shots of an approving audience, when we pull out for a longer view of the stage, it's painfully clear that the hall she's in is absolutely empty. After her act (which, to be honest, really isn't all that bad... just out of place in anything other than an Al Adamson or Jess Franco movie), she retires to her dressing room. There she receives a telegram from Sergeant Martin of the Venice, CA "Missings Persons Bureau" [sic], informing her that her sister Jodie has been reported missing (at first I thought the sister's name was "Joanie", and that distressed me: she would have been Joan Fontain...)2.
Judith goes to investigate. She gets little help from the cynical Sgt. Martin. "The world is a dark place," he informs her, as he switches out a piece of overhead symbolism. Left to her own devices, she wanders into the dangerous, hippie-infested neighborhoods where Jodie was last seen.
Here it should be noted that Adamson's world view often seems extremely conservative. He may have made pictures about savage biker gangs, hippies, swinging stewardesses or other counterculture types, but his sympathies seem a million miles away. His movies may seem shocking at times, but unlike the genuinely countercultural movies of the era, they seem intended to reinforce stereotypes rather than force audiences to think through them. True, the hippies themselves may have been a shallow lot as a whole, but when we hear Greydon Clark (as "Strange") talking about the coming protest (he doesn't know what they're protesting, but he's sure it will be "fun"), we can imagine the heads of plenty of people over the age of 30 nodding in agreement. Adamson's carefully-constructed Hippie Den of Iniquity, into which Judith stumbles, is hilarious: just look at the neatly painted slogans on the walls (POT... SOCIETY SUCKS... [something out-of-frame] IS A RELIGIOUS HEAD TRIP...).
Adamson intercuts a few frames of these slogans during Judith's "acid trip" sequence -- those dirty hippies have slipped a drug in her coffee. We can tell she's tripping because she goes into a PG-rated Dance of Wild Abandon, tearing at her hair and hallucinating clips from some other film, possibly a home movie... now she's writhing on a platform covered in red velvet... now she's doing acrobatics in a spiderweb, while wearing a white fishnet body stocking... now she's pretending she's in a Roger Vadim movie, dressed in a baggy pink robe while running along the shore...
In the meantime, we've been introduced to the wheelchair-bound Dr. Durea, proprietor of a Chamber of Horrors funhouse at the pier. Durea's show, hosted by the dwarf Grazbo (Angelo Rossito), is only a blind for his real work: creating a formula for eternal youth and health from the blood of victims who have been murdered and revived.
Durea is convinced that he is no mad scientist, but rather a benefactor of mankind. His servants, the idiot Groton and the dwarf Grazbo, have been promised physical or mental normalcy once the Doctor's serum is perfected. The sticky thing is that in order to get the formula right, he has to kill, revive and chemically lobotomize young women. And he talks. Oh God, does he talk. He pontificates about the importance of his work, punctuating each sentence with his outstretched finger. He blathers endlessly to the mute Groton, as he injects him with the drug that turns him from a gentle half-wit to a homicidal maniac, finally sending him out with a benediction: "Walk silent, and walk well!"
Durea occasionally steps into his funhouse to talk some more, bludgeoning his audiences with his thoughts on life and death. The funhouse is completely dark. Occasionally, an animated figure will light up and do its sad little act, but otherwise the place is featureless. This has a certain effectiveness, even if we know in the back of our minds that it's so dark because Adamson didn't have the money to build a more elaborate set. At least in the funhouse scenes, the principals manage to stay well-lit. The trouble with the rest of the film is that it is much too dark, often shot with only natural light. As an example, there's a scene in the above-mentioned Den of Iniquity in which the shifty, scar-headed waiter goes for a secret chat with the biker Rico. The scene is so shadowy that we can barely see that scarface is talking to Russ Tamblyn. Perhaps Russ wanted to keep it that way...
Where was I? Oh, yes: Durea and the funhouse. One evening, Dracula steps out of the darkness and demands to speak to Durea. Durea agrees, petulantly, and the two go off to Durea's empty lab. Durea identifies Dracula by his ring, and by the fact he casts no reflection in a mirror; Dracula, for his part, identifies Durea as "the last of the Frankensteins". Then the two get bogged down in a mess of dreadful dialog. Dracula's lines in particular go off on wild tangents, explaining details of the movie's back-story that were probably best left alone. We find out that Durea was adopted by the Durea family, and that's why he is not known as Frankenstein (who cares?); that he was discredited before his crippling accident by three doctors, only one of whom has any bearing on the rest of the film; that that one Doctor, Dr. Beaumont, was actually responsible for Durea's accident ("Yes, it's all clear now," croons Durea, and we wish we agreed with him); and that Beaumont himself had buried the remains of the Frankenstein monster after an epidemic claimed his accomplices and made his work difficult to continue... (oh, good grief, why this complicated history? We've all seen the other mad scientist movies; we can fill in more convincing explanations than these ourselves!).
Later, Drac will start blithering about the approach of the Zornov comet, heralding the start of the monster's "second life cycle". As music highly reminiscent of the 1930's Flash Gordon serials plays in the background, Dracula looks out a window and sees the incredibly silly "Zornov comet" flash across the heavens. For one brief moment, the classic power-drill "rocketship" sound effect from Flash Gordon accompanies the comet's appearance. This is clearly one of the moments where Adamson had his tongue jammed in his cheek. Unfortunately, there are few such moments in the whole movie, so his attempt at spoof falls flat.
Meanwhile Judith, last seen convulsing from a spiked cup of coffee, has been taken to the "pad" of an aging hippie (Anthony Eisely) who is a sort of wacked-out father figure to the local disaffected youth. Gradually the two of them put the pieces together and figure out that Dr. Durea's House of Horrors is the key to all the mysterious disappearances and murders. They are certainly better at putting the pieces together than the police, and in some respects they're even better than Adamson: in one of the most glaring examples of orphaned dialogue from some previous draft, Judith comments that Durea's exhibit was where Jodie "got her parchment". There has been no parchment in the film so far, and there will be no parchment.
Judith and er, what's-his-name go to investigate Durea's pier late at night. Wandering in the dark, they manage to just miss the attempted rape of Strange's girlfriend Samantha, and Groton's murder of Russ Tamblyn and his bikers. They do hear the faint noise of the trapdoor leading to Durea's lab, though. When they go to find the source of the noise, they must be standing right on top of three hacked-up bodies, but they see nothing in the darkness. I'm willing to believe this, though, since the movie has been so badly lit all the way through.
Durea catches them sneaking around, and lures them into his lair. Here I have to wonder about the layout of the Chamber of Horrors: it's on a pier over the beach, but somehow it manages to have stone steps leading down to a deep basement. Anyway: Grazbo falls on his own axe in the melee; Judith manages to get out of the building, while the hippie guy flees Durea's pistol shots back into the darkness of the funhouse. In a clumsily mismanaged bit of irony, Durea (ahem) "falls" into his own guillotine exhibit, and is decapitated.
While Durea meets his just desserts, Groton is pursuing Judith over the roof of the pier. Just at this moment, Sgt. Martin and Strange come walking by. They've evidently found the three bodies under the pier, removed them, thought about it for a few minutes, and come to the conclusion that -- wait for it -- something may be a little screwy about the pier. Strange sees Judith running across the roof, and when Sgt. Martin spies Groton (who's supposed to be a gentle simpleton when he's not on Durea's formula), he immediately pulls his gun and shoots the idiot off the roof.
Here's a true mark of a bad horror film, a unifying principle for all manner of awful films from the 30's through today:
1. The Good Guys will always identify the Bad Guys immediately, even if they have never met them before (almost as though they'd been reading the script);
Again, this is a moment that could be read as tongue-in-cheek, but which doesn't come across as being anything other than careless.
Adamson and friends filmed a climactic scene, in which a confused and injured Frankenstein's monster accidentally attacks his master, Dracula, thus precipitating the title battle. Dracula is forced to destroy the creature, but is himself destroyed by being impaled on a pipe. The original ending is included as an extra on the Dracula vs. Frankenstein DVD. If Adamson had been satisfied with this ending, the movie would have been totally ruined. The fight between the monsters comes off foolish rather than awe-inspiring; Dracula's disposal of the creature is too abrupt; and Zandor Vorkov's "performance" as the dying Dracula is very likely the lowest point of any Adamson movie. The final moments of the original ending go like this: we cut from Zandor "ummm, I think there's this thing sticking out of my chest" Vorkov, to Anthony Eisely and Regina Carrol making serious faces at each other, to a skeleton arm sticking out of Dracula's cloak, with Drac's ring on one bony finger (the death of the vampires in Blood of Dracula's Castle was similarly cheap and unsatisfying, with the hero simply staring off-screen and shouting: "Look! They're turning to dust!" The next thing you saw was an empty suit of clothes and a pile of dust).
To Adamson's credit, he realized that this ending simply wouldn't do. By this time, I'm sure that even he had lost track of the number of false starts and dead ends this project had run into. His resources, never abundant at the best of times, were running out. When Sam Sherman identified a nifty location in upstate New York, Adamson and Regina Carrol flew out to join him and -- hopefully -- complete the film. Zandor Vorkov was already living in New York, and they got a stand-in for John Bloom, the 7' 4" accountant-turned-actor who had played the crusty Frankenstein monster in the footage shot so far.
However, they were left without Anthony Eisely, who had emerged as the hero of the previous draft. Not to be held up by such a trivial detail, Adamson killed off the hero. Adamson himself donned Eisely's jacket for a quick scene in which Dracula incinerates the aging hippie. With no more extra characters to worry about, Adamson could finally finish.
With their scaled-down unit shooting on 16-mm film, using mostly natural light, they shot a new ending, in which the Frankenstein monster regains some of its humanity and attempts to save Judith from the vampire. Dracula eventually tears the monster limb from limb, but the struggle has gone on too long: he is unable to get back to his coffin by daybreak, and he dissolves in the light of the morning sun.
Once again, and to the best effect in the whole film, Adamson's limitations work to the film's advantage:
When faced with limitations that would have discouraged a less resourceful man, Al Adamson and Sam Sherman did some of their best work. No one could have expected that a movie cobbled together out of so many ill-matched pieces would be so much fun, let alone become such an enduring favorite. And it seems that the bleaker the filming situation got, and the more desperate Adamson became, the better and more interesting his results became.
I'm not trying to make any claims that Adamson is a misunderstood genius, or even that he was a particularly competent film maker. Sam Sherman gets defensive on the DVD commentary track on the subject of Adamson's abilities, and on the unfairness of the critics in their judgment of him. I only want to add this in Adamson's defense: his movies are often naïve, and often unintentionally hilarious, but unlike the work of so many other "bad movie" directors, his movies are almost always watchable, enjoyable in their own right.
At odd moments, he has the capability of giving the viewer a real surprise -- something genuinely unexpected, which gives the impression that the guy really did have an instinct for film. For instance, Adamson punctuates one scene with a cut to a carnival ride. A bright-yellow pendulum-shaped gondola is swinging though the air, part of a ride that's a sort of cross between a ferris wheel and a roller coaster. Adamson shoots this brief insert from underneath the falling gondola, looking straight up at the yellow car against the pure blue sky. The gondola arcs up a bit, then comes screaming down at the camera like a clenched fist. It's over in less than two seconds, but it shakes you up, and really awakens your interest for whatever is to follow. The fact that the scene following is extremely uninteresting is beside the point.
Follow the editing in the big fight scene in Dr. Durea's dungeon. It's not always successful, but it's far better than the similar static scenes that clutter up so many other mad scientist movies. Clearly some thought went into the camera angles and movements (though not so much on the lighting), and the result is a credibly suspenseful scene. The movie even repeats the opening credit music at this point -- a nice touch. The action is timed so that the music's most distinctive, lumbering cadence accompanies Dr. Durea's ascent in the elevator. The moment would have been really boring without that music, but with the music it seems purposeful and laden with menace. Again, the scene goes nowhere, but for a moment it really seems like it's about to.
Strange to say, in many of Adamson's films I find those few moments enough. Of the three films listed in this review, this is the only one I can endorse without hesitation to any fan of Bad Movies. Dracula vs. Frankenstein is now available on a surprisingly well-done Troma DVD, part of a new Al Adamson series that restores several of his lesser-known films to home video circulation.
Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1972)
(Dracula: Prisoner of Dr. Frankenstein; The Screaming Dead)
In 1970, the prolific exploitation director Jess Franco made El Conde Dracula / Count Dracula for producer Harry Alan Towers. The film starred Christopher Lee as the Count, with support from Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski and Paul Müller, and was planned to be the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel ever attempted.
I have no idea why either Towers or Franco thought this was such a great idea. The Dracula story in its most basic form has traveled around the world, and has become part of a larger pop mythology. By comparison, the actual source novel is really pretty uninteresting. It's written as a long series of letters between the principal characters, a narrative device that was extremely old-fashioned even in 1897. As was the case with most of Stoker's other novels, its heroes are too simple and unconflicted; everybody gets along far too well to be either believable or interesting. Dracula never quite descends to the banality of, say, The Jewel of Seven Stars, and has some moments of real power, but the modern reader really has to do some work to appreciate it.
Still, the idea of filming a faithful version of the story continues to fascinate film makers. Recently, a certain big-name director though that he'd go make the real, definitive version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. This version, which drew heavily on modern notions of psychology and sexual expression, turned out to be just about the farthest removed from Stoker's conception of any version yet filmed (excepting, perhaps, the XXX versions with Jamie Gillis from the 1970s). It was so radically different from the source novel that a new novel (called "Bram Stoker's Dracula", strangely enough) was written from the screenplay.
Franco's film from twenty years earlier may have departed from the basic plot of Stoker's book, but it did stay relatively close to its spirit. Some choice details were retained from the book, most notably Dracula's ability to grow younger as he feeds. On the whole, Franco's film came out episodic, sometimes boring and sometimes absurd -- and in those respects, it certainly was faithful to the book.
Franco followed Count Dracula with a string of movies on the Dracula theme: Vampyros Lesbos: the Heirs of Dracula, Daughter of Dracula and Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Of the three, Vampyros Lesbos is generally the most highly regarded; it's recently been released on DVD, and its soundtrack became a surprise cult favorite when it was re-released in the late 1990's. Dracula vs. Frankenstein has inspired less enthusiasm. It's either a colossally bad movie, or it's a painfully bad joke on the audience. I've watched the film several times, to the point where my former-rental copy has become stretched and unplayable, and I still have no idea what Franco was thinking.
The film starts with a condensed version of Dracula: at the turn of the century in some nameless central European town, the cloaked vampire is preying on innocent women. As Dracula stalks his victims, the camera swoops in on a bat, a kitty and a doggy; I have no idea why.
Dracula is played in this film by Franco regular Howard Vernon. Had Vernon been given the chance to -- er -- sink his teeth into the part, I have no doubt he would have made a superb Count Dracula. As it is, he's given no lines, and very little to do. Oh, he puts the bite on a few hapless young women, but he's apparently supposed to be hypnotized by Frankenstein through the course of the film. He wanders from scene to scene looking dazed. Vernon could be suitably evil (Gritos en la Noche / The Awful Dr. Orloff), or just plain off-the-wall (Jeunet and Caro's Delicatessen), or stultifyingly awful (Zombies Lake), as the mood and the material struck him; in this case, he's merely bland, which again makes me wonder what Franco was thinking.
Soon we're introduced to the one man who can deal with this occult threat: Dr. Jonathan [sic] Seward, who runs the towns sanitarium. Actually, though he's referred to as Jonathan, Seward is named Manuel in a scrolling text that accompanies the narration. Perhaps he's from Barcelona.
Seward visits the body of one of Dracula's victims. Seeing the mark of the vampire on her throat, Seward proves he's seen Mario Bava's Black Sunday by piercing the dead woman's left eye. Just as he does this, the candle by the woman's bier blows out. This is a good moment; but its impact is undercut by a restatement of the candle motive (to much less effect) later in the film.
Determined to put an end to the curse of the vampire, Seward rides to Castle Dracula. The going's been pretty slow so far, even for a Franco film, and the dialogue has been mostly limited to screams and grunts. Still, this scene is the first indication we have that Franco may be taking the Mickey with this entire film. We are given a close-up of Seward in his carriage; then, deliberately, the camera swings around and centers on one of his horses' ass. Then it goes back to Seward... then back to the horse's ass. Was there ever a clearer comment from a horror director on his leading man?
Arriving at Dracula's castle, Seward wanders through the darkened halls. A bat circles around him -- there are many bats in this movie, and it's sometimes unclear whether they are vampires or merely bats. Seward's flashlight is barely capable of penetrating the gloom of the ruined castle. Eventually, however, he finds the ornate coffin where the vampire lies slee...
Wait a minute: Seward's flashlight??!
Yes: that's unmistakably a modern flashlight he's carrying. And this is our second indication that Franco's taking the piss with the House of Frankenstein motif.
Seward pulls out a thin wooden stake, and a tiny silver hammer... the kind you might use to crack nuts, provided they weren't too hard-shelled. Placing the point of the stake over Dracula's heart, he goes >>poink!<< with the little hammer...
... and Dracula turns into a dead bat with a popsicle-stick up its butt.
I am not exaggerating. This is precisely what happens. Seward leaves the batsicle behind and goes back to his sanitarium, where he watches over a strange mute girl.
Now it's time for the nefarious Dr. Frankenstein to enter the picture. Not to be outdone in the anachronism department, Frankenstein rides in on a Mercedes hearse. We first catch sight of his lumbering mute assistant as he walks into the village inn, through a door displaying a sign with directions to the toilet. The henchman (Luis Barboo) has come to ask directions, not to the toilet, but to Castle Dracula. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Frankenstein emerges from the hearse.
Price's presence seems to confirm that Franco's having a joke at the audience's expense. He seems to be implying that studios3 and audiences who still felt some sort of nostalgia for the Universal monsters were out of touch with their times. Dennis Price looks like a walking symbol of the Old Times Gone Sour; he's gone from being the handsome male lead of the 1940's to being a drunken wreck in a Jess Franco cheapie. Price has no lines: evidently he was either so drunk or so ill during the shooting that he couldn't be given any on-screen dialogue. Instead, an off-screen voice provides all Price's thoughts as narration. All Price gets to do is look thoughtful as he scribbles in his journal. Occasionally, when the "action" really "heats up", Price clenches his fists, widens his eyes, and puffs out his lips. As a performance, it makes Zandor Vorkov look like an Oscar® contender.
Frankenstein moves into Castle Dracula, with his monster in a box. He manages to find a good deal of Strickfadenesque equipment in the Castle: either he brought it with him in a scene we don't get to see, or else that sort of thing is stock decoration for any haunted castle. When he turns on the power, all sorts of absurd flashes and sparks fly out of the equipment: one coil catches fire and burns away... there must be a better way of wiring his instruments. As the monster awakens, somehow the lid of his box becomes transparent. I guess it must be science.
This time, Frankenstein's monster is a tall goofy guy, wearing the "Karloff" uniform, with the standard Jack Pierce-style flat head and bolts in the neck. Lines have been drawn on his face and hands to simulate the scars of sewn-together tissue... and as usual, it looks like Frankenstein has chosen odd pieces to mix and match (for crying out loud, the chin?!).
But re-animating the monster is only the first part of Frankenstein's plan. He also intends to awaken Count Dracula. With Dracula as his slave (says the voice over), he can create an army of undead, who will make him ruler of the world. Or something like that. Sometimes I get confused: after all, didn't Dracula say this about Frankenstein in the previous movie? And haven't I heard similar sentiments somewhere before?
To bring back the Count, Frankenstein does exactly what you might expect him to do in a Franco film: he sends his monster to abduct a dancing girl. Naturally, we have to sit through her entire act, as she does her tame little can-can for a captive audience. An old-fashioned dance number is a staple gimmick of Franco's, but here he manages a miracle: he makes us nostalgic for Regina Carrol's Las Vegas number. The dancing girl ends the act by shooting a frilly-pantied moon right at the camera, and AGAIN I'm tempted to think Franco's trying to tell the audience something.
When the girl goes back to her dressing room to disrobe, the monster is there waiting for her. He throws her over his shoulder and stalks out. Just a minute ago the inn was full of people, drinking, talking and watching the show. Now, there are perhaps three people who try to stop the girl from being abducted. Their comically inept attempts to stop the monster are useless, as usual. All the while, the monster is moving so slowly and clumsily -- presumably through a very public area -- it's a wonder nobody else tries to a.) stop him, b.) follow him to see what's going on, or c.) at least try to get the girl out of his clutches. Anyway, I also want to point out that this scene is spoken of with reverence by Tombs and Tohill in their essay on Franco in Immoral Tales. As the monster lumbers out, the camera zooms in on a convex mirror. The monster's exit is filmed in the mirror. Now, I'll admit it must have been difficult to set up the shot without revealing the cameraman. Still, with all due respect, there's a good reason why this kind of trick shot hasn't been used more often: it's stupid.
Now Dr. Frankenstein can bring the dormant vampire back to life. He hooks the danseuse up to a transfusion apparatus, the other end of which is connected to a bell jar. Inside the jar is a bat. As the transfusion proceeds, red fruit juice representing blood dribbles down onto the bat, who is at first happy to lap up the liquid. Soon, though, the liquid pours in too fast and too deep for the poor creature, who begins to struggle to get out. I think at this point -- I hope at this point -- they substituted a fake bat for the poor creature. I'd hate to think they drowned the poor thing just for this stupid movie. Anyway, as the "bat" struggles in the red fluid, Frankenstein pulls a switch; there are sparks, and Dracula reconstitutes, complete with fangs and tuxedo.
Unfortunately, he's still stuck in the tiny bell jar, so he's crushed to death. JUST KIDDING! Although I do wonder what happened to the bell jar when Drac resumed his human form.
Frankenstein gives the dead girl to his assistant to incinerate. The hunchback pauses to molest the dead girl's body a little before he chucks her in the furnace, just to remind us that this is a Jess Franco movie. In the meantime, Frankenstein sends Dracula out to hunt, to build up his unstoppable vampire army.
One of Drac's victims is the silent girl in Seward's asylum. Seward, on discovering the attack, rushes to Castle Dracula to see what's going on, but on his way he is attacked by the Frankenstein monster and left for dead.
Seward is rescued by the queen of the local tribe of gypsies. Frankenstein also sees the gypsies as a threat because of their occult knowledge, so he has sent his vampires to gradually drain the blood of the queen. Sensing she is soon to die, the gypsy nurses Seward back to health so that he may destroy both evil creatures. She also reveals to him a prophecy that a third undead creature will arrive to help them: the Wolf Man.
Sure enough, on a full moon night, an extra in fuzzy makeup storms the castle. This just happens to be the night that Dracula's vampire bride kills Frankenstein's henchman, as the vampires try to usurp Frankenstein's power. The mad Doctor discovers the plot, however, and is able to avoid the swooping bast. While his lumbering creature is busy swatting down the Wolf Man, Frankenstein grabs a spear from the wall and staggers into Dracula's crypt. As Dennis Price boggles silently over Howard Vernon's inert form, the voice over croons that Frankenstein will have his revenge for Dracula's attempt at mutiny. He stabs Drac with the spear, and this time the vampire turns into a pile of bones.
The Wolf Man has given up and disappeared by this time, so Frankenstein decides to beat a hasty retreat. He bundles the monster back into his box, reverses the polarity or something, and renders the monster lifeless once more. The world will hear from him again, ha haaa!
This is the moment that Seward and the usual torch bearing natives arrive at the (now vacant) castle. Seward enters the crypt, only to find the place abandoned and the vampires turned to dust. Gesturing solemnly with his silver crucifix, Seward gives thanks to God for giving him -- that's right, him -- the strength to destroy the evil. Again, it's an overwrought joke on the stock horror conventions... the hero is always the last to catch on, isn't he?
An hour and a half has passed, and for the whole length of the movie nothing has happened. Oh, sure: a few people got bit, and a few people got menaced, and we had brief appearances by three horror archetypes... but what did it all mean? What was the point? While the movie seems to follow on from Count Dracula in a loose kind of way, it's really more of a prologue to the next year's much more interesting film, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein. In that outing, Dennis Price's Doctor Frankenstein dies in the first part of the film, and his monster is abducted by the sinister Cagliostro -- Howard Vernon, flexing his overacting muscles once again and giving a fine genre performance.
To be fair to Engel, he did a much more credible job in a brief, sympathetic role as "Mohammad" in Adamson's Brain of Blood. Back
I goofed again. Sit through the movie until the very, very end, and on the last page of credits you'll see her character's name really is Joan. Back
...like the increasingly decrepit Hammer Films, whose Dracula AD 1972, released the same year, was probably the worst entry in their Dracula series. Back