Frankenstein 1970; Dracula A.D. 1972

Guest Review by Brendan O'Brien of Iniquity Films

It's a hard task to update a story into a film. Sometimes it turns out right, as in the case of Reanimator. Sometimes it doesn't, as in various Shakespeare adaptations. When transplanting a story from one era to another, one has to ensure that even the slightest details are accounted for and that the tale still makes sense in its new digs. What usually results is overcompensation and alteration to the point that we're barely dealing with the same story.

The only thing harder than doing this with a story is updating a legend. Given the difficulty of updating an insular story, why on God's green earth would someone decide to update a tale that has:

1. Centuries of lore behind it.
2. An entire set of expectations for it.
3. A following that is going to demand accuracy.

Why bother? Well, these kind of things just happen. Remakes that have no need to be made are made. Sequels drag out the death throes of franchises long after their rightful, wheezing ends should have occurred. And Dracula 2000.

In the 1930s, Universal Studios started the first truly great wave of horror films, which begot sequels. Every great film had a Bride, or a Son or Daughter, a House perhaps, even a Ghost, and they would invariably Return. After they petered out, American genre cinema turned to the great Sci-Fi schlock-fests of the 1950s with the horror stalwarts of Universal given only the occasional nod. It took Britain's grand Hammer Studios to revive Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, and for a few years they churned out horror films that were second only to the Universal films to which they paid homage. Christopher Lee became possibly the greatest monster actor of all time, and Peter Cushing was always there to thwart him. Hammer eventually faded, as did Universal, but at least Hammer had the ingenuity to turn to twin lesbian vampire flicks before totally fading away.

Hammer was for the most part content with keeping Dracula in their trademark gothic settings until the 1970s, or the decade that fucked everything up royally. Perhaps inspired by British crime / spy series such as "The Avengers" and "The Prisoner", they decided to take the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing and turn it into an epic struggle, spanning centuries and generations. Hence was born Dracula A.D. 1972. In brief, it didn't really work. First, the set-up. The film opens in 1872, with Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula taking a carriage ride in Hyde Park. Except that they're hanging on to the carriage for dear life rather than being in it. The carriage crashes, Drac dies a rather improbable death, and Van Helsing doesn't make it through either. A strange man rides up and gathers some Drac dust into a vial, which he is seen burying at Van Helsing's funeral. Skip ahead 100 years to the ten most excruciating minutes of this film: an upper crust party besieged by hippies. There's a guy sitting around who looks exactly like the strange man from the prologue; he turns out to be the ringleader of a young group of hippies. He has the vial, and convinces his friends to join him in a black mass at the local desanctified church. They go to the church, and while listening to the drum solo from "Ina Gadda da Vida" on a reel-to-reel, resurrect Dracula. Dracula does Dracula type stuff for a while until a hippie girl's grandfather, who just happens to be Larimer Van Helsing catches wind of it. With the help of Scotland Yard, he tracks down Drac and kills him.

There's a lot wrong with this movie. There has to be work done in order to bring Dracula into the 1970s convincingly, Hammer just didn't do it. There's no thought put into it, and it shows. Fer instance, the lead hippie guy's name is, get this, Johnny Alucard. Alucard?? Maybe in 1972 someone had to stay up all night to think of that one but please. And when Van Helsing has to write out Dracula and Alucard and connect the letters to make a connection, you really wonder if this is the guy you want to be opposing the ultimate evil. Bad puns also pervade the film; such as being invited "in for a bite" and feeling "a bit drained". Most of the writing is pretty flat, but the Scotland Yard inspector betting his partner "a pound to a pinch of shit" had me pretty hysterical for a while.

Next, the acting. Christopher Neame got the plum part of Johnny Alucard. My guess is that he was cast for his slight resemblance to the young Malcolm McDowell, who is of course Alex from the previous year's A Clockwork Orange. Parallels can be made between the two characters, but I'm sure that most of them have to do with the fact that they look kinda alike, and don't occur in discussions about classic portrayals of teenage nihilism. There's not much to say about the rest of the young people in this film other than they're a filmmakers version of hippies. Take that for what you will. Of course our main players are Lee and Cushing, and neither one of them is as good as they can be and have been in other Hammer films. Cushing gets to do his standard "explaining the nature of vampires to laymen" scene and his "gearing up for battle" scene, none of which carry any weight. Lee, in his usual limited screen time, gets to snarl and sweep his cape, and intone some lines in a voice that would make 9 out of 10 vampire hunters wet their knickers. The difference is that the weakness of the rest of the film doesn't allow his presence to be felt as in the better Hammer Dracs.

There are a few subplots that could have been emphasized a bit more, such as the older, traditional Van Helsing against the wanton ways of his hippie granddaughter and her group, or the conflict between Van Helsing's belief in the supernatural and the skepticism of the inspectors. These are flirted with but ultimately abandoned, their brief inclusion hurts more than their total exclusion would have. There is one plus about this film; Hammer learned from their mistakes and followed this up with the much better Satanic Rites of Dracula. While far from a masterpiece, Rites demonstrates a certain deal of forethought and attention to detail. Much that went wrong with Drac A.D. is right about Rites, proving that you can do well in this kind of task.

You know when you see Dracula that Frankenstein can't be too far away, and yes, there exists an attempt to bring Frank into the 1970s. In addition to the problems with updating that I previously mentioned, the makers of this film decided to put another colossal burden on their shoulders; that of updating a story into an era that the human race hadn't quite gotten to yet. Frankenstein 1970 was not made in 1970, for in 1970 its star, Boris Karloff, was dead. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Boris was alive in all of his films. Except for Cauldron of Blood. Anyway, Frankenstein 1970 was made in 1958. Karloff is the Doctor this time around, but he still has to hop around with a limp and have a strange facial deformity. 'Cause he's Boris Karloff, y'know. Anyway, he's hosting a film crew at his castle and they are an odious bunch. There's the quibbling husband and wife who are the director and script girl, respectively. There's the photographer / cameraman who wears a beret because he's an artist. There's the leading lady who will of course be carried off by the monster, and there's the comic relief whose purpose I'm not sure of. Also there's the big tall silent actor who conveniently disappears halfway through the film so he can play the part of the Baron's finally created, completely bandaged monster whose face is never revealed. We just might not think it's the same guy. Also hanging around are the Baron's friend Godfried and his butler Shooter. Trust me, I listened really close to make sure it wasn't a sloppy pronunciation of "Gunther" or "Uther", it's Shooter.

So the Baron is allowing these people to run rampant in his castle so he can get an atomic reactor for his experiments. Apparently American film crews have a lot of clout. The Baron gets his reactor and goes full steam ahead on making his monster. Of course, many of the secondary characters end up in this monster, which looks like a mummy that got wrapped up with a bucket on its head. As is wont to happen in this kind of story, the creature turns on its master and they both end up dead. There's nothing going on here that isn't telegraphed well in advance.

As far as updating the Frank myth into the 1970s, the film doesn't just do poorly, it barely even tries. In feel and tone it is positively a throwback, recalling aspects of the latter Universal films and only the merest vestiges of some of the early masterpieces. Actually, only one vestige of the masterpieces: Karloff is sporting an Edward Van Sloan style crew cut. The lengthy, music-less stretches of dialogue in front of a static camera also recall similar scenes in Universal films, but the dialogue and delivery aren't quite up to snuff. This makes what was interesting in the earlier films downright painful here. Also pulling the film back a few decades are troubling references to Nazism. It's perfectly understandable to believe that the Baron was forced to do Nazi experiments during World War II, which justifies his talking of Belsen; but this adds a positively ugly color to an inexplicable comment by one of the women after Shooter's disappearance: "Never know who you'll find dead in an oven". While I'm fairly certain there's no Nazi agenda here, the line is simply in bad taste.

Another point that recalls WWII and further drags the film back is the emphasis placed on the atomic reactor. I think that 1958 was a little too late for these kind of post-war themes, but I guess the filmmakers decided that atomic was just the way of the future. Atomic bombs, atomic energy, atomic monster labs is just the next logical step. So where's the future fit in to all this? In the Baron's lab, I guess. If futuristic is a sliding operating table and a disposal system that flushes like a toilet. Cutting Edge!

What else, what else, oh yes … the acting! What can I say about the acting. Well, Boris is Boris. This guy gave his all right up until the very end, no matter how awful the film: Die Monster, Die!, The Terror, in all he manages to give his roles an air of dignity that contrasts sharply against the mountains of crap he's up against. No exception here. The disfigurement of his character seems unnecessary and almost an insult, as if some people still wouldn't accept Karloff unless he was a monster. As for the rest of the cast, to them I shall not be so kind. Don "Red" Barry, who wasn’t totally horrible, looks like he had himself a pretty damn good career in westerns, the IMDB shows upwards of 100 credits. The rest of the cast is simply odious; their other credits include titles such as Sex Kittens Go To College, Nude Heat Wave, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and I Married Too Young. Interestingly, good ol' Shooter went on to be the emcee of the performance in Young Frankenstein.

The cast is even less remarkable when compared to the supporting players in the Universal films. Such a comparison is unfair but inevitable, given the way the film so strongly recalls its predecessors. In my opinion, the quality of the Universal films is just as dependent on the supporting casts as it is upon the stars. Boris and Bela are all well and good, but without Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, Una O'Connor (as intensely annoying as she is), et al, it wouldn't be the same. Frankenstein 1970 is a case in point. Boris is surrounded by, shall we say, lesser lights, and he can't carry the film on his own.

There's nothing really to recommend about Frankenstein 1970, it's an unremarkable mix of attempted Universal old school and schlocky Robot Monster type stuff. Its attempts at updating are half-hearted and ultimately negligible. I don't know if there has been a nearly successful attempt at updating Frank, I would check the IMDB again but I keep getting distracted by pictures of Kirsten Dunst. But that's got nothing to do with what's going on here, and that's finishing this goddamn piece.

Can you see what I'm getting at here? Dracula and Frankenstein were doing just fine in their usual locales and eras before these films came along, and I'm sure they will continue to do so. After all, it's films like these that make us long to see their subjects back where they belong, in ratty old castles with creaky casket lids and lab equipment throwing sparks and hunchbacks. Gotta have a few hunchbacks. If you're not gonna put the time and effort into updating your chosen target correctly, stick to Lovecraft stories, they're used to it by now. Some things are just better left alone.

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