Saturday, October 17, 2015

31 Days of Halloween: They’re Not Bad, They Were Just Filmed That Way- Dracula vs Frankenstein (1971)



The month of October is upon us. This means it’s that time of year again when every major magazine, television special, and entertainment news show rolls out their own list of the best horror movies (EVER!) that should be on your required viewing lists in the run up to Halloween. This series will not be looking at the films that would end up on those lists. No, we’ll be looking at the movies that, while still kind of good, didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the creators involved. These are the films that might be best served at your next Halloween get together by viewing them only after copious amounts of your favorite adult beverage has been consumed. Yes, these are the films that are so bad that they’re good(ish) and often only enjoyable for how spectacularly they failed to live up to their potential.

Today we’re looking at Dracula vs Frankenstein.

Holy mother of god… They don’t make films like Dracula vs Frankenstein anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. There’s a special class of so bad they’re good films from the old days where you look at them and realize that they weren’t so much released into theaters as they escaped. You watch them and wonder how anyone in their right mind thought the film in question was suitable for public consumption. Dracula vs Frankenstein is a movie that sits damned near at the very front of that class.

The pitched concept of the film itself is an absolute winner. Two of the classic monsters from the silver screen face off in a fight to the death as mankind is caught in the middle of the epic battle. You’d think this was a can’t lose proposition even for a quick film made on the cheap. Dracula is an easy character to portray on film with minimal makeup and FX needed to pull him off. Of course, giving him a Yellow Lantern ring of death as they did here sort of undercuts that.


Frankenstein’s Monster is likewise easy to pull off if you go for the simpler look of stitched together parts without the bright green makeup. You can further avoid the use of elaborate special effects by nixing any of their other supernatural powers, and ensuring that everyone else in the film is just a regular Joe and Jane who won’t require any special makeup or FX tricks. Hey, two famous monsters going 12 rounds. What more could be needed, right?

Of course, the idea of this being a can’t lose proposition fails to take into account two key factors. The first thing is that this was an Al Adamson film. Al was not exactly Orson Welles. Hell, for that matter, Al was not even Ed Wood. Of the 30 films Al is credited with directing, even most bad movie fans can only name two or three (at best) off the top of their head. The second thing is that this was an Al Adamson film. Yes, that’s such a huge factor it gets counted twice.

Okay. I admit that’s a cheap shot on Al. It’s true, but it’s still a cheap shot. So we’ll call factor #2 the long road the film took to making it to the big screen and all the changes that came along with that long road. What kind of changes? Well, for starters Dracula and Frankenstein were never originally in the thing. The movie started its cinematic life as a badass biker film before changing into a strange little horror film with the working title of The Blood Seekers. Still no fangs or Franks in sight though. For various and sundry reasons the film again fell apart (basically twice) before completion, but Adamson, in part due to dishonestly sending a few films out under the false pretenses of being Dracula vs. Frankenstein pictures, needed to slap a film together really fast and on the cheap. In order to do this, he grabbed the finished footage for the badass biker film turned The Blood Seekers, wrote some new shooting scripts, shoehorned our famous monsters into the thing, and gave the world one of the worst (and worst filmed) monster fights known to man.

Things pretty much managed to go downhill from there. One of the first signs of doom for the film was the casting of Dracula. In what was a sure sign that mandatory drug testing would have lost Adamson his job, he staked the film’s success on the casting of a guy who had zero acting experience to be his Dracula. To be specific, he cast a stockbroker who was involved in financing film producer Sam Sherman’s film company. This was apparently done because Frank Zappa wasn’t stoned enough to agree to star in the film that weekend.

If you’ve never seen this film… Well, you’ll understand that joke in a minute.

In a sign that even this guy likely knew how bad this was turning out, he took on a pseudonym to play the role of Dracula. Now, this isn’t exactly an uncommon thing in Hollywood. Sometimes an actor takes on a screen name that makes their professional name less like that of another established actor. Then there are the times that someone has an almost unpronounceable name and the studio wants to simplify or Americanize it. This was neither of those things. If anything, it was actually the reverse of one of those. The guy was born Roger Engel. He did two films with Adamson and Sherman under the name Zandor Vorkov.

One of the things that may have made him want to put as much distance between his family name and these cinematic disasters could have been the look of his Dracula. When you say the name Dracula, you tend to envision a certain level of dignity with the general appearance of the character. Dracula has a sense of nobility and a sense of pride about him. Sometimes he even has a sense of primal, animalistic sexuality and terror about him. Not this Dracula. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Disco Duck of the Dracula world.


Yeah… The only way things could get worse than that is by giving us a Frankenstein Monster that looks like someone walking around like a stiff armed voodoo zombie wearing what looks like an oatmeal facial they left on for a few days too long. Oh, wait… I forgot… We’re talking about an Al Adamson film here. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Fanged Fro Frightener Vs Voodoo Zombie Oatmeal Man.


Yup, that’s the face they went with for poor Franky's Monster. The sad thing about this, well, one of the two sad things about this actually, is that the idea they put forward in this movie was actually really cool. Dracula digs up the Frankenstein Monster, has him revived, and proceeds to give him a little nibble on the neck. To the best of my knowledge, no one else has ever created a vampire version of Frankenstein’s Monster on film before or after this.

Anyhow, Village People Dracula has a goal. He wants more than one monster. He wants an army. One would hope that the rest of his army looks better than the first soldier he recruited for it, because, beyond looking bad, there were a few serious technical issues with Mudmask McGee. Not the least of these was his fangs constantly falling out of the crappy makeup around his mouth whenever they were going to show them. This would not only lead to issue of a visual nature, causing them to basically call it quits on the idea in general, but it led to issues with the other people acting in the film.

Example- Enter Dr. Beaumont in the form of iconic horror fandom figure Forrest J. Ackerman. 4E wasn’t the best actor in the world, but I’m sure he was not hired for the role simply in the hopes that the film might get the cover of his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and thus some higher profile publicity.
 
Nope, it never occurred to them. Not in a million years. Anyhow…

Even back when this was filmed, Ackerman was not in the best of health. As he would later relate to Count Gore de Vol on his old WDCA20 Creature Feature show, there was a little negotiating going on with regards to his death scene before he would agree to appear in the film. Ackerman was not interested in getting crushed or beaten down by the monster in large part due to the physical ailments he was suffering from at the time. High on that list was the issues he was having with an injured arm and shoulder.

Adamson assured him that this was no issue. The monster, he explained to Ackerman, was now a vampire with monstrous fangs. He would descend upon Ackerman, gently take him in his arms, give him the daintiest of nibbles on his neck, and look up at the camera as Ackerman hung limp in his powerful arms.

Except the damned fangs kept falling out whenever they tried to fit them to the monster’s mouth.

When Ackerman arrived for his scene, it was explained to him that the monster was now going to gently give him the Snuggle Bunny Squeeze of Death (i.e. crush him to death.) After much discussion Ackerman agreed to this. He was then crushed and dropped on the ground like a bag of wet cement. To add insult to injury, Ackerman was under the impression that the camera was to pan over his “dead” body until the scene ended. One of his pet peeves was “dead” bodies on film visibly breathing. So he held his breath for a couple of minutes as footage was shot. It’s just that none of the footage was of his “dead” body on the ground. But he still gave them the magazine cover, so there’s that.

Anyhow, Dancing Queen Dracula and the Dried Spud Monster can only become an army of greater than two if they get some special help. Drac seeks that special help in the form of the descendant of the man who created the original monster in order to revive the original, make more like him, and create a serum that will make Dracula and his army indestructible. This leads us to sad part #2. Enter the new Dr. Frankenstein in the form of actor J. Carrol Naish. This… thing… would be his, and, playing the part of Naish’s mute(ish) helper, Lon Chaney Jr’s last film.


Naish and Chaney were holdovers from the film’s second incarnation, and it really shows in the case of Naish. He was pretty close to climbing into his deathbed and pulling up the covers when it was time to film The Blood Seekers, and the extra time that went by before they resumed filming for Dracula vs. Frankenstein really shows on him. He does however serve the film well by explaining its plot in a scene of exposition that lasts somewhere around half of the film’s total runtime. But at least his explaining the plot in the way he does sort of, kind of, almost, not really at all clarifies what this jigsaw puzzle mishmash of film is all about for the viewer.

But at least the film gives us the big battle payoff as promised by the end. Dracula fights the Frankenstein monster in the battle royal to end all battle royals. Not that you can clearly see a damned thing through most of it. Eventually the monster shoves Dracula out of the church (yes, the church) Dracula has chosen to hang out in so that Dracula can continue ripping his limbs off in the deadly morning’s light. At this point we get a Dracula death scene rivaled only by the acting found in your local elementary school’s Halloween play.

This is an absolute train wreck of a film. This is a film that in every possible way misses the mark at being a good film. But, weirdly, it transcends bad filmmaking to become something watchable if only for the humor value of it. This is the Mona Lisa (maybe even the Sistine Chapel) of so bad they’re good films. It’s almost not a film you watch so much as experience, even if the experience is akin to trying to make sense of things during a complete mental breakdown while high on acid. It’s a film that you watch, and then maybe immediately rewatch in the futile attempt to figure out what the hell it was you just watched.

Sadly, I must admit to the fact that not only have I seen this film more than once, but I actually own the DVD. This is a film that every fan of so bad they’re good films should see at least once. There are at least one or two horrendous copies uploaded onto YouTube from extremely poor prints, and I believe a somewhat decent print is available on Hulu. But, honestly, you can get the best print by getting the DVD from Amazon. It runs for around $6 these days.

Whichever medium you choose to watch it on though, do try to make a party movie out of it. Have some of your friends over for a pre-Halloween or Halloween bash, get them reasonably drunk, and do your own MST3K on the thing. Getting in the mood to make fun of the thing may be the only way to survive a first time viewing with your sanity intact.

But don’t take my word for it!

As I was fleshing this out in preparation for the month of October, the fine folks at the Decade of Horror podcast released their take on Dracula vs Frankenstein. Give a listen as the Black Saint and Doc Rotten discuss the fantastic badness of Al Adamson’s monster smackdown with special guest, NC indie film writer, director, and actor (and good friend) Bill Mulligan. You can find it on iTunes, or you can find it at this link.


Or here

Want to look into another film that's so bad it's good? Check out last week's offering if you missed it then-

They’re Not Bad, They Were Just Filmed That Way- The Loch Ness Horror (1981)

Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.


No comments:

Post a Comment