23 May 2011

DRACULA vs FRANKENSTEIN/1972/AL ADAMSON/LON CHANEY JR.

DRACULA vs FRANKENSTEIN

1971/Director: Al Adamson/Writers: William Pugsley, Samuel M. Sherman

Cast: J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr., Anthony Eisley, Regina Carrol, Zandor Vorkov, Angelo Rossitto, Russ Tamblyn, Jim Davis, John Bloom, Forrest J Ackerman


AKA: Blood Freaks (working title), Blood of Frankenstein, Satan’s Bloody Freaks, Teenage Dracula, The Blood Seekers, The Revenge of Dracula

Dracula vs Frankenstein is certainly one of Al Adamson’s more memorable offerings. Released by his and partner’s Sam Sherman’s Independent-International Pictures company in 1971 the movie is a “high point” for Adamson’s technique of joining together previous films projects and in some cases (as with the utterly bizarre Horror of the Blood Monster) inserting unrelated film footage from other  films entirely. With Dracula vs Frankentstein the effect is a little more cohesive than he is usually given credit for though the story and production are pretty shoddy in typical Adamson style. I am saying that as an Adamson/Sherman production it is one of the better projects. The movie is entertaining enough in a midnight movie way and is lots of fun for fans of bad movies though others would be well advised to stir clear of this debacle.

The film has some notable once greats in the cast. Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story) has an out of place role as a biker. If the character seems reminiscent of his character Anchor from Satan Sadists it is more than a coincidence since scenes from a prior Adamson/Sherman project, a sequel to Satan Sadists, was used. That project got shelved for a couple years and some footage wound up in Dracula vs Frankenstein along with newly shot scenes where Tamblyn and crew appear noticeably older and heavier. Here the biker characters seem to pop up to intimidate one of the female characters once in a while for no explainable reason and simply wind up hacked to death by veteran horror star Lon Chaney Jr. who appears here in his final film role. Chaney looks weak and feverish most of the time and would die a year later from liver failure and beri beri. Also appearing in his last film role is screen bad guy J. Carol Naish whose film career, like Chaney’s, goes back to the 30’s. Naish works from a wheelchair throughout the film and was in such feeble condition he could not remember his lines. He read from cue cards and in some scenes you can see only one eye scrolling left to right as he read because his glass eye would not move. Naish would also be dead within a year. In a small role is Famous Monsters of Filmland founder and editor Forrest J. Ackerman who gets his back snapped by the freaky looking Frankenstein Monster. And in a less mentioned role is tough character actor Jim Davis (Jock Ewing of Dallas) who plays a police detective.

The whole project was began in 1968 as The Blood Seekers and that time Naish and Chaney played a mad scientist and his mute, idiotic assistant. Seems mad scientists can only enlist the help of retarded cripples in the genre films of the 60’s and 70’s. The misguided though brilliant doctor sought the secret of eternal life to help mankind but in the process had to kill off pretty young girls to perfect his formula.  Their is always some blasted snag to every mad doctor’s benevolent plan of saving mankind it seems. The film didn’t go anywhere and was canned but later Adamson wanted to revive the project and with Sherman decided to releases the film as a Dracula and Frankenstein film. The story gets blurry here really for me and Sherman had promised a film called Dracula vs Frankenstein and had a release date scheduled with distributors and was unable to actually release the film because it was far from finished. Instead he got his hands on Paul Naschy’s debut film that was a small hit in Spain called La Macrca del Hombre Lobo (maybe The Mark of the Werewolf). The film was originally shot in 3D and was released in the states as Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror though the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Frankentstein. The film was a bit of a success though and Sherman likes to take some credit for Naschy’s soon to come success in the field of 70’s Euroshockers. I guess all this filled contractual agreements and allowed Adamsons to get back to assembling the mess that would become the film this post is about. Another film of the same title was released in 1972 by Jess Franco and the two are sometimes confused by people seeking to see one or the other. And to make it all still more confusing there is a 3rd film with the same title released in 1969. That one is actually a Spanish film that was the last role of Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still).

Unfinished film projects seem to be the thing that fueled Adamson the most and many of his movies were patched together over a period of years and the haphazardness of the end product is what gives the films their notoriety or appeal depending on the predisposition of the viewer. Things did not work out with Sherman’s original choice for Dracula, John Carradine-who had starred in Adamson’s bewildering Blood of Dracula’s Castle-and so to play the count they enlisted someone with absolutely so acting credibility whatsoever. Adamson selected former stock broker Robert Engle for no better reason than he liked the way he looked for the role. I thought he looked like a pimp myself. With the help of Forry Ackerman changed his name to Zander Vorkov  (a combination of Anton Szandor LaVey and Boris Karloff). This was supposed to be in the tradition of film greats like Karloff and Lugosi who changed their names to something dramatic but Engel’s comic book name is the least of problems with him and his horrible performance. He really seems to want to try and be an actor and it must have put the zap on him to see his name in the credits as “Introducing Zander Vorkov”. Luckily he made only one more brief appearance in Adamson’s next film Brain of Blood as a Muslim priest or something who dies in the first few scenes then he vanished from the world of film forever.

The story is very confusing and at times simply incoherent. This is in part due to the conflicts in the two scripts (there is orphaned dialog from the first script about some “parchment” that never appears in the film at no point) and mismatched film stock as well as the poor quality of filmmaking itself. The opening credits are sort of cool though and the Moog laden music score by William Lava is listenable at times. The opening scenes shows Dracula unearthing the remains of the Frankenstein monster (played by John Bloom who would also appear along side Vorkov in Brain of Blood as yet another monster) and killing the night watchman. This is the only person Dracula drinks blood from in the entire picture. I am thinking that the action here takes place where the rest of the film does and that is around the Los Angeles area. Exactly why the Frankenstein monster wound up buried in a grave in southern California is not explained. Maybe the opening action takes place in Transylvania or some spooky place but I am not sure and do not see any reason to review the film once more to be clear. If I am mistaken just smack me a couple times. The scene ends abruptly and soon a girl is strolling along the beach and the next thing you know her head is lobbed off by the imbecilic Groton (Chaney in a role that echoes back to his excellent portrayal of Steinbeck’s Lenny in Of Mice and Men because Groton cuddles a small puppy throughout the film). Suddenly the story cuts to Las Vegas where we are treated to an entire song and dance routine by Judith Fountain (played by Adamson’s wife Regina Carrol). We soon discover that her sister Jodie has come up missing in the Venice district of LA. and she leaves to see what information she can gather. Cynical and life weary Sgt. Martin (Jim Davis) is little help as his spouts off his nihilistic diatribe and grumbles that the “world is a dark place” and hits the viewer over the head with a hammer as he clicks the overhead light off.

Judith is off on her own and in the hippie side of town alone and looking for Jodie. A couple hippies of note is future trash film maker Greydon Clark as Strange and Anthony Eisley (Samual Fuller’s The Naked Kiss) who plays Mike, a slightly older and patronizingly wiser hippie guy with a really weird necklace. Judith asks the bartender of a local hippie dive about her sister and after he passes this information onto his boss (none other than Russ Tamblyn as the biker Rico) he is told to slip her an LSD mickey and soon she is freaking out and hallucinating and dancing around in weird clothes. Why Rico felt he had to give acid to a woman who is asking about Jodie remains a mystery since he had nothing to do with her death. The spaced out Judith aided by Strange and his girlfriend Samantha. Now I should mention that earlier in the film (or maybe it is a little later, I totally forget) Strange and Samantha had taken a tour of the “funhouse” of Doctor Duryea (Naish) and met the lovable midget (or dwarf or little person) Grazbo (Angelo Rossitto who would also appear in Brain of Blood with Vorkov and Bloom, and he would again play a midget). The guy is really annoying and eats the dollar bill that Strange probably had to panhandle all morning for. The funhouse is a collection of torture instruments and murder recreations that are almost impossible to make out because the lighting is so damned bad. In many cases Adamson elected to use natural lighting to ill effect. Maybe he did not elect to or more likely did not know better. Adamson did not have future Deer Hunter cinematographer Vilomos Zsigmond aboard this time to help out as he did with other projects like Horror of the Blood Monsters, Blood of Ghastly Horror and Psycho A Go-Go, though little in those “works” show much of Zsigmond’s skill anyway.

Guests to the funhouse are treated to Duryea’s blatherings about illusions and reality and all sorts of meaningless mumbo jumbo, while all the time the good doctor is using the the funhouse as a front for his real purposes. In the basement which is reached by an elevator (this is confusing since the funhouse rests on top of a pier on the beach with trap doors that open directly over the beach itself) he is carrying on the experiments as his calling, as the last of the Frankensteins, to… er… well… I am not sure what his calling is. It has something to do with the original story for Blood freaks I think, before Naish was actually a descendent of the Frankenstein’s, who is now called Duryea as he was adopted by the Duryea family in an attempt to explain the original name of Naish’s character from the first film. He is seeking some drug that will benefit mankind by endowing people with eternal youth. As mentioned earlier he must kill attractive young girls to get the base for his serum or whatever. And the kills must be in a state of total fear so that the correct balance of chemicals is produced. This is where the mute and idiotic Groton comes in. Normally passive and withdrawn he becomes a frothing maniac after the doctor injects him with a drug that unleashes the killer in him. He then goes out to the beach area around the pier on a regular basis and chops off girl’s heads. Duryea is also assisted by the dwarf/midget/little fella Grazbo in his research.

Well, one night while Duryea is hanging out in the funhouse alone when out of the shadows walks Count Dracula and we are treated to some of the most highhanded and ludicrous dialog of the entire film. A strange effect is added to Vorkov’s voice and it is all warbly and echoy. I guess this is suppose to sound eerie and supernatural but in fact it sounds rather like someone’s voice being amateurishly processed through some audio filter. The dialog that takes place in the “underground” lab is too outlandish to go into. There is stuff about the Duryea being crippled by some rival doctors or something and one in particular is Dr. Beaumont (Ackerman) who also was responsible for burying the Frankenstein monster-after all his associates died in some unnamed epidemic and are conveniently written out of the script before we ever see them-in the graveyard we saw at the beginning (so it must have been LA and not Transylvania) and that Dracula now has the beast and Duryea must continue with what he is destined to do as a Frankenstein. That is to, what? Do something with the deformed freak. And he has to hurry as the Zornov comet is passing close to earth on that same night fro the first time in like a hundred years or so and the Zornov comet is important for some reason. As dracual looks out the window we get to see the Zornov comet and I think it is best you just have a look for yourself at this thing. Beaumont is later killed by the monster in a classic scene for any fan of famous Monsters of Filmland. I found some scenes from FMF and posted them below and you can see Forry doing the best acting in the film.

To release us from the mounting tension and suspense Adamson cuts to a groggy Judith who was taken by Strange and Samantha to the local over 30 hippie who can still be trusted a little Mike. Mike introduces himself and informs her, after her asking where she is, that “this is my pad.” They quickly conclude that Dr. Duryea’s funhouse is the focal point of the all the disappearances and it is this scene that Judith makes mention of the “parchment” that Jodie had gotten from there. What parchment? Jodie’s head is hacked off within moments of her character being introduced. There is no friggin’ parchment in this movie but maybe there was from Blood Freaks. Who the hell cares.

They take off to the funhouse and miss the slaughter of Samantha and Rico and his gang by Groton, which again takes place under the pier of the funhouse. The bodies are later found by Strange and Sgt. Martin who finally figures he should go down to the beach and look into all these missing person reports. Earlier Mike and Judith had managed to escape from Dr. Duryea’s evil clutches after they found Jodie there with her head sown back on and a blank stare on here face. Grazbo dies a pretty cool death when he falls through the trapdoor onto Groton’s ax. Duryea winds up decapitated by the show’s guillotine and Judith runs out to the roof and soon Sgt martin gets to do hid job and shoots Groton with out warning or Miranda rights.  The ending that now follows was discarded by Adamson and it is available, I think, on the Troma DVD release of the film. Basically the film ends with Judith and Mike alive and staring at each other as Dracula and the monster die off and turn to dust. Adam son was not satisfied with the ending and decided to re-shoot it… but not all the cast was available for the re-shoot, including John Bloom as the monster and Anthony Eisley as Mike the hippie. No problem to get a stand in for Bloom who was covered in make up any way. Harder for Eisley, so Adamson actually stood in for him himself and had Dracula zap him in the back with his evil ring (whose designer receives mention in the opening credits for some reason) as he ran away. It is a totally comical scene with low grade animation and frozen frames. It is during this sequence also that Frankenstein starts battling Dracula in the confusion and some we actually have some combat between the two monsters and it continues a little later as well in some of the worst lit scenes in a movie filled with horrible lighting.

The film was shot on 16mm film stock and when the final confrontation between the monsters occurs it is all shot in a thick wooded area using natural lighting. The action is often washed out and the sunlight cutting through the tree leaves and branches does not help at all. In any case, the final scenes of the newly shot ending are interesting enough as Dracula rip the monster limb from limb concluding with its spongy looking head. But the fight went on a little too long and Dracula is too far from his lair as the sun rises higher and higher. He makes it back within feet of the entrance and starts to dissolve in a scene that contains the best special effects of the film but that is not saying much of course. In the tradition of older films that would cut away from a transformation then back Adamson switches between shots of the sun rising and then back to Dracula in various stages of decay. Here Vorkof has the opportunity to display the breadth of his acting ability as his thickly made up face dissolves into Styrofoam.

I can certainly recommend Dracula vs Frankenstein to fans of campy midnight movie fare. Others are warned to steer clear. I have actually come to like Adamson’s work and find some of it more watchable than a lot of the grade-z material I have sat through recently. Like Ed Wood Jr, who I repeat was not the worst filmmaker of all time by far, Adamson seemed to possess some vision but lacked some fundamental filmmaking or story telling skills to bring it all together in a cohesive package. But that’s does not mean he work is void of talent or at least watchable and enjoyable moments, even if those moments are often campy and unintentionally comical. There will certainly be more Adamson reviews here as I have about a dozen or so projects he was involved with. The next one will either be Brain of Blood of the unbelievable Horror of the Blood Monsters.


MAIN THEME FOR DRACULA vs FRANKENSTEIN
WILLIAM LAVA COMPOSER

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