July 11, 2009

The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon: Dracula vs. Frankenstein

This post is part of the Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon hosted by Greg of Cinema Styles.
Click through for links to all the participating blogs.

“She used to have fantasies about being a freak…
Two heads, an eye missing, elongated spine.
Anything that was grotesque turned her on.”

Produced by the Independent International team of Samuel Sherman and Al Adamson, Frankenstein vs. Dracula, released in 1971, began its convoluted road to drive-in immortality as an exploitation piece called, alternately, The Blood Seekers and Blood Freaks.

The script, by William Pugsley and Sam Sherman, reads like a sleazed-up AIP Bikini Beach picture. Judith, a nightclub singer, goes from Vegas to Venice Beach to look for her missing kid sister. Her quest is complicated by a hardnosed police detective and a three-man biker gang led by the glowering Rico. She’s rescued from a freaky acid trip by Mike, a simpatico beach bum who falls in with her and solves the mystery.

As it turns out, Judith’s sister was the victim of a mad scientist working out of The Creature Emporium, a beachside amusement park spookhouse. At night, Dr. Duryea sends his deranged assistant out to axe the heads off hippie beach girls. The heads are reattached to new bodies and displayed in upright glass coffins. Somehow, a new type of blood serum would be distilled from these experiments allowing the scientist to escape his wheelchair, the deranged assistant to recover his wits, and even make a dwarf grow taller.

Playing Judith, chanteuse Regina Carrol opens the film with her cabaret act. She starred in several of director-husband Adamson’s drive-in classics, notably as ‘The Psych-Out Girl’ in Satan’s Sadists (1969). Anthony Eisley, who would accumulate credits in B-movies and TV dramas, plays the easy-going Mike. As head biker Rico, Russ Tamblyn, one-time star of West Side Story (1961), was on a career decline, playing juvies and junkies in increasingly small pictures. His fortunes turned around in 1990 when he was cast as Dr. Jacoby in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The part of Sgt. Martin, the detective, was shopped around to Paul Lukas, Francis Lederer and Broderick Crawford before falling to Jim Davis, a cowboy actor who would go on to fame as the Senior Ewing in TV’s Dallas. The part was meant as an authority figure but, with terse dialog and brusque manners, the character comes off as an insensitive jerk.

In the manner of Ed Wood’s casting of faded film stars like Bela Lugosi or Lyle Talbot, Sherman and Adamson recruited a trio of Hollywood veterans as the Emporium villains.

Director Adamson got a lot of mileage out of the elderly J.Carrol Naish, in a prop wheelchair, perpetually lecturing anyone within range, though hampered by enormous, clicking dentures. Naish had a long and distinguished career behind him, beginning in Vaudeville, through theater, films and television, with two Oscar nominations along the way.

Forties horror icon Lon Chaney, Jr., bloated and in obvious bad shape, hams it up as the mute, axe-happy Groton, reverting when necessary to his trademark Lennie, complete with puppy dog. Angelo Rossitto, whose credits included the silent While The City Sleeps (1929) with Chaney Sr., and the notorious Freaks (1932), played Grazbo, the carnival barker and doorman to the funhouse.

Naish and Chaney had previously worked together in Universal’s House of Frankenstein in 1945, with Naish’s hunchback and Chaney’s Wolfman forming a love triangle with gypsy girl Elena Verdugo. Dracula vs. Frankenstein would be the last hurrah for both men. Though they appear together in a few scenes, most of their work was shot separately, their interaction created through editing. Likewise, Rossitto, though he participates in a climactic free-for-all, is never actually in the same frame with Naish or Chaney.

“You must understand... You are not trapped, but rather you will be spiritually released by what will occur in the next few minutes.”

The absurd climax has Rossitto falling through a trapdoor face-first onto Groton’s axe. Chaney is shot off a roof by the police inspector, and Naish, racing his wheelchair, accidentally decapitates himself when he trips up and flies headfirst into the funhouse guillotine.

Principal photography wrapped in 1969, but Sherman and Adamson were not satisfied with the results and the film was temporarily shelved. Something had to be done to make The Blood Seekers a better box-office bet. Solution: Throw Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster into the picture, and then you’ve got something.

Adamson cast his accountant, the 7 foot, 4 inch John Bloom as the popcorn-head Frankenstein Monster. Bloom would go on to play The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971) and assorted hulks with names like Bruno, Munger, Jimbo and Rhino. He was the Behemoth Alien who wrestled William Shatner in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

For Dracula, Sherman wanted John Carradine, a terrific idea, but Adamson preferred his stockbroker, Robert Engel. Berated by critics as a rank amateur, Engle actually pulls off a decent, if stiff Disco Dracula sporting a short afro, a snazzy Van Dyke and Marcel Marceau whiteface. His monotone delivery is made menacing with a booming echo chamber effect, but his evil cackle needs work. If there was anything truly embarrassing for Engel here, it was allowing Forry Ackerman to pick his screen name: Zandor Vorkov.

Now shooting in 1970 as Blood of Frankenstein, the Dracula/Frankenstein material would essentially bookend the original film, with a new scene dropped in roughly halfway through where the Frankenstein Monster attacks a lover’s lane couple, ripping the door clean off their car and carrying off the girl after being shot by policemen.

Naish was hired back to interact with Vorkov’s Dracula, who has dug up the Frankenstein Monster for revival. A lab scene uses some of the now slightly tattered sparking equipment originally created by Kenneth Strickfadden for the 1931 Frankenstein.

Vorkov is saddled with a lot of expository dialog, mostly superfluous, meant to tie the new title monsters to the existing storyline. Among other things, we learn that Duryea is really the last of the Frankensteins, hot for revenge against the scientists who conspired against him. Conveniently, considering the budget, only one of them is still alive. Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman cameos as Dr. Beaumont, seen driving his car when Dracula suddenly pops up in the passenger seat and hypno-orders him to get out, whereupon he’s bear-hugged to death by the towering Monster. Ackerman is also billed as a “technical consultant” for the film, though his name is misspelled in the opening credits.

In the new climax, Dracula drives around in his Cadillac hearse, electrocutes The Monster with his power ring, then gets impaled on a wall and turns into a skeleton. But Sherman and Adamson were still not satisfied, and a yet another ending was concocted, one that would pit Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster against each other. Tacking the new, ultimate climax onto the film, however, would require some major tweaking as Eisley was no longer available for reshoots.

With Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster surviving the Emporium bloodbath, Judith and Mike — with director Adamson doubling for Eisley — make a run for it. What happens next makes you jump out of your seat, laugh out loud, and will drop your jaw to floor, all at the same time. As the couple flees, Vorkov’s Dracula points his funky cyclops ring and shoots a beam that nukes Mike to Kingdom Come. In one startling swoop, the good guy hero is reduced to a pile of burning bones.

“All those who would meddle in the destinies of Frankenstein and Dracula will see an inferno bloodbath the likes of which has not swept the Earth before.”

The movie now shifts to an entirely new set, a decrepit house, apparently Dracula’s hideout. Vorkov’s makeup is startlingly different now, eye sockets painted black and a mouthful of fangs (Naish’s dentures, perhaps). In another switcheroo, Shelly Weiss takes over for John Bloom as the soufflĂ© head Monster. Though two men shared the same part, they are credited separately in the titles, Bloom as The Monster, and Weiss as The Creature.

Judith is roped to a chair but The Monster, suddenly moonstruck over the helpless blonde, objects when the vampire tries to bite her. A shoving match ensues and the action tumbles outside where Dracula and Frankenstein go at it in shady woodlands. The sequence is so dark that you can hardly make out anything, the monsters appearing in stark black silhouette. Dracula proceeds to dismantle The Monster like The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, ripping off one arm, then the other, and finally stopping the relentless Monster by unscrewing its head. Then the sun comes out and Dracula is caught outside, aging, mummifying, and collapsing into something that looks like a pile of grass clippings. Judith breaks her bonds and walks off, The End. For real, this time.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein tries very hard to be groovy. It has bikers with nazi armbands, pothead hippies in ponchos, surfers, and a beatnik hangout with graffitied walls that read “Sock It To Me” and “Society Sucks!”. The good-looking front and end titles by Bob Lebar are done as an animated montage using what appear to be colored photocopies. Music cues are well chosen, with a spooky slide whistle effect when the goings get strange. The film pauses for a love song that plays to footage of crashing waves and seagulls, and Carrol’s acid trip is a silly standout, with hallucinatory, quick-cut inserts of her tossing and turning, hanging upside down from a spider web and running in the surf.

“Nobody but nobody knows anything about the subconscious,
Miss Fontaine... Not even ourselves.”

The dialog has that dreamy, wrongheaded Ed Wood quality to it. Witness the samples sprinkled throughout this review. Flubs abound. Carrol’s brassy nightclub number presumably plays to a packed house with cutaway shots of applauding patrons to prove it, but a wide angle view shows her performing in a vast and completely empty auditorium. Naish, who refers to Chaney as Grogan and Groton, is seen in extended closeups, his good eye scanning the lines as he reads from a cue card. Naish’s character, Dr. Duryea, is called “DOO-ray” and “Du-REE-ay”, and Jim Davis’ cop is referred to as sergeant and lieutenant. In the process of patching, tweaking and hammering the film into some sort of shape, characters are introduced, then drop off the face of the earth, never to be seen again. Carrol’s Judith doesn’t appear overly distraught when she finally finds her sister in zombie mode with her head stapled onto another body.

Many will look upon Dracula vs. Frankenstein as dreck, and yes, it’s pretty bad, but this is one of those films where the outlandish sum is greater than its kooky parts. The old actors, the demented script, the hilarious hippies and bikers, the flood of clichĂ©s, the laissez-faire pace, it all keeps you watching, and somehow it gels into a perfect chunk of schlock, to be thoroughly enjoyed when you're in the right mood.

“They want to see an illusion. They do not realize that the reality itself is the grandest illusion of all… And that human blood is the essence from which future illusions may be created.”

The Spirit of Ed Wood lives in Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

Video of the second ending to the film, with Dracula driving his Cadillac hearse.

The original trailer for Dracula vs. Frankenstein.


Greg said...

was on a career decline...

Yeah, I think that would apply to anyone appearing in this movie. This isn't the type of movie that gets you back on Hollywood's A-List. I haven't seen this in years and have seen it only the one time. I recall the filmmaking style to fall somewhere in the Isis/Shazam Hour level of quality. However, like many Wood pics, it is entertaining, I agree. Maybe I'll have to finally check it out again.

Pierre, thanks for this and the picture posts at Monster Crazy all week. I appreciate all your contributions to the blogathon.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Of all the non-Ed Wood movies in the Ed Wood Blogathon, this is the one that is the most Woodian. I watched this film tonight and was struck with so many similarities, all of which you cover in fine fashion.

I think it is the legends-over-the-hill factor that really seals the deal. Performances range from excellent (God love Lon Chaney, Jr., who simply couldn't not give his best) to absolutely phoned-in (Russ Tamblyn). Poor Mr. Tamblyn appeared as though lost and too embarrased to ask directions.

I loved this film, as I love all Al Adamson's work; and I am glad it came up in the blogathon. Great Post. -- Mykal

Rick said...

Terrific piece, Pierre. This might be the one that finally convinces me to revisit this sad old movie, a trip I've sidestepped for decades. I saw it on its original release (at a drive-in, of course) and thought, "well, I'll never have to sit through that again." But maybe I just will.
I even learned a couple of new tidbits that had somehow escaped me. Fun and informative too. Good show!
But you might want to take an editorial glance at the early sentence beginning "Anthony Eisley..." and dealing with career declines. I think something got lost there between brain and blog.
That's nitpicking, though. Great work as always.

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

Hola, PF! This is one of those moments when we boys should have thought to call Pierre to see what he was wearing to school today...

We Macistes have ALSO written about Maestro Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN for this blogathon! So as not to steal your thunder we will wait a few days to post our analysis and post an entry excusing us for petering out or something making us look lame like we couldn't meet deadline...something like that. Don't worry, we have it all taken care of!

In any case, nice to see you mentioning Adamson's work -- it's a film near and dear to what we Brothers are all about!

Max the drunken severed head said...


Excellent post!

I saw this as a kid during its original release in a regular theater, then last year at a drive-in. In both cases, I was really looking forward to it, then saw it, then realized that is a mix of fun, funky elements and deadly dull passages.

And both times I was embarrassed for poor J. Carroll Naish, who was still capable of a good performance, but the lousy dialogue, the ill-fitting dentures, and the ill-advised overuse of closeups just left us with an embarrassing final hoorah, much like Laurel and Hardy's horrifying final go in ATOLL K/UTOPIA.

Still, it was a kick to see a cheap Halloween version of Frankenstein and Dracula on the big screen--I never tire of that. And seeing Uncle Forry up there with them is a deathless treat for late-Baby Boom Monster Kids like me.

Pierre Fournier said...

Rick: Thanks for the heads up! I fixed that Eisley line, Must have blown up when I copied the text from Word to Blogger.

Bros: I cannot wait to read your take on this film! Gotta say, I am still in awe of your recent deconstruction of Gunman's Walk.

Mykal, Max: With the two monsters, the old actors and Forry, this one really is a Monster Kid movie.

Christopher said...

THis one used to get thrown in with the likes of the Philippino Blood Island films and the paul naschy WOLFSTEIN ..lol type movies on one channel here back in the 70s..I remember reading all about this in Famous Monsters of Filmland before it came out..definately not as good as one would expect..didn't see it 'cept by chance a year or so later..

rob! said...

While a fun movie in its own way, I found the parts with Lon unbearably sad. I feel like he was exploited in this movie way more than Bela ever was in Ed Wood's movies.

Booksteve said...

Perhaps my favorite bad movie from my favorite bad filmmaker! Still, I learned things from your piece that I never knew like two guys playing the monster! Forry, of course, really pushed this in FM, going so far as to cover feature it so we were all led to expect something GOOD! Would love to see a recent interview with Robert Engel.

Nate Y. said...

Great minds! I didn't see your expert analysis of DvF until after I began writing my own review of it on Monday. It'll be interesting to compare notes.

Uranium Willy said...

Great write up. Still reading it but some cool info here. I did a post on the same film and put in some home made audio clips if you are interested. I am a fan of Adamson's work and have seen most everything though have only reviewed two films so far at the Uranium Cafe. I cannot write quite with your style but I hope I gave fair homeage to the film.