Why Does It Exist?

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972)

In Reviews on April 15, 2011 at 11:00 am

One of the only shots of Dracula that isnt a) a rubber bat or b) asleep in a coffin

I want to preface this review by admitting that, yes, this is a Jess Franco movie and that Franco is rather well-regarded within some cult circles. There are websites out there that have devoted themselves entirely to the sometime horror auteur’s body of work, meaning that I am not pulling this out of the same thin air as I would a Master P production or some Bulgarian thing with Val Kilmer. However, part of my goal with this project is to explore avenues that I wouldn’t necessarily flock to out of my own volition. It just so happens that Jess Franco is a filmmaker who a) I’ve never seen any work by, and b) has made some truly outrageous-looking movies.

So, here we are. Jess Franco (billed here under his birth name of Jesus Franco). Certainly one of the more prolific exploitation directors out there, still plugging away at the age of 80 with hundreds of movies under his belt (including a couple of Emmanuelles, an Ilsa, some porn and a whole heap of horror). By the 80’s he was mostly focusing on the porn, most of which featured his wife Lina Romay. While Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is considered one of his better-known works, his major contribution to more ‘high-brow’ cinema is probably his assistant director work with Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight, the unfinished Don Quixote) and Juan Antonio Barden (Death of a Cyclist). That being said, the man made a movie that promises some sort of power struggle between Dracula and Frankenstein – and that’s enough for me (worryingly, the original title is Dracula contra Frankenstein, which translates as Dracula vs. Frankenstein – not as interesting a power dynamic).

Seward in full-on Clooney mode.

A convenient title card (for some reason signed by David H. Klunne, a Franco pseudonym) informs us that Dracula has been snatched from his lair by Dr. Frankenstein, creating a war of titans between those two monsters (this is not only completely inaccurate, it is totally useless, but I digress). As various animals flip their shit, we are treated to Dracula (first appearing in the form of an unconvincing rubber bat) feasting on a nubile young woman. We are introduced to Dr. Jonathan Seward (Alberto Dalbes), a kind of cop/coroner/judge/jury/executioner guy who performs an autopsy on the dead girl and heads to Dracula’s castle to investigate. He finds Dracula in his casket and drives a stake through his heart, thereby returning him to his rubber-bat form.

From the very first frames, Franco takes a rather original approach to the material. Although extremely cheap (the rubber bat being a particularly egregious example), the film is atmospheric and deliberate. There’s almost no dialogue throughout and the film’s atmospheric pacing is more Nosferatu than Hammer. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always come across as immersive and artful – in fact, it can be pretty fucking boring. It’s great that Franco can infuse style to two minutes of Dalbes walking through the castle aimlessly; it’s not so great that we have to watch him walk through the castle aimlessly in the first place.

We are then introduced to Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price) and his messed-up, quasi-mute assistant Morpho (Luis Barboo). This jolly pair is moving into Dracula’s castle to work on their monster when they discover the remains of Dracula and (quite coincidentally) a fully operational lab. They use the lab to bring the monster to life and send him to break into a cabaret where he kidnaps the leading attraction (Josyane Gibert). He brings her back to the lair where Dr. Frankenstein uses her blood to revive the dessicated bat formerly known as Dracula. Evidently, the best way to bring vampires back from the dead is to submerge their bodies in blood after which the body of Dracula (played by Franco regular Howard Vernon) will magically appear next to the involuntary donor’s corpse.

Perhaps Mel Brooks is a Franco fan?

Although Franco has a knack for atmosphere, he has absolutely no concept of pace or structure. This leads to frequently baffling cuts to sequences that seem to have nothing to do with anything (Gibert performs an entire cabaret number immediately after the Monster is brought to life, for one, and the film frequently cuts back to a woman in a red dress sitting in a room in some sort of an asylum and screaming her head off with little in the way of context) inserted either as misguided attempts to give the film texture (dubious) or as desperate attempts to stretch out the thin material to feature length (very plausible). While Franco apologists might argue this makes the film some sort of surrealist masterpiece, I found it to be confusing as fuck and a rather unconvincing argument.

Morpho brings the body of Dracula to a coffin in the cellar after burning the corpse of the cabaret singer. Once Dracula is laid to rest, a female vampire is immediately summoned from another coffin in the cellar. Frankenstein announces to his diary that he now has control of the dead; using his newfound skill, he will raise an Army of Shadows that he will use to enslave men and take over the world. I, for one, salute Franco’s revisionist approach to the Frankenstein mythos; I bet if Mary Shelley had thought of writing Victor Frankenstein as a megalomaniac hell-bent on global domination through the formation of an army of vampires, she would’ve done so.

Morpho, the Doctor and Dracula head to the asylum/mansion owned by Dr. Seward and Frankenstein orders ol’ Drac to ‘seek shelter’ in the woman in the red dress that keeps screaming up in Seward’s mansion. He bites her and takes off; her new transformation (i.e. she doesn’t wail like a banshee every time she’s on-screen and she has a bite mark on her neck) pisses Seward off and he heads out to the mansion to get some answers. Unfortunately, he’s ambushed by the Monster and his karate-chop moves (!). The Monster knocks Seward out and takes the woman back to the lab where she’s plugged into the contraption and turned into a vampire, the first member of Dr. Frankenstein’s army of shadows.

I think Rusty may be more appropriate than Morpho, but thats just me.

I know what you’re (probably not) thinking. What happened to the first female vampire? Wouldn’t getting bit by Dracula pretty much make you a vampire automatically? Why does Frankenstein have to plug you in the machine? If the same machine revives dead tissue (like when they revived the Monster) why does he use it on a living person to turn her into a vampire? The answer to that is: I don’t know. Clearly, Franco is working within entirely different parameters of famous movie monsters than any other you’ve ever seen. He has some improvements on the canon; for example, there’s no denying that Morpho is a much cooler name than Igor.

While Morpho and the doctor are working on turning two aristocrats into vampires, a bunch of gypsies find the doctor by the side of the road and bring him back to the village. A gypsy woman (Geneviève Robert, wife of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and mother of Juno director Jason Reitman!) explains that a curse has been put upon her people by Dracula and that Dr. Seward has been brought to them in order to break that curse. She explains that she will basically conjure up the Wolf Man on the next full moon and he will serve as Seward’s most trusted ally.

Pissed off that she’s been ignored all movie, the first female vampire kills Morpho. Meanwhile (or possibly soon after, given the film’s slippery grasp on sequential time), the gypsy woman is brought back to the village with bite marks on her neck and explains to Seward that everyone is turbo-fucked and only he and the Wolf Man can save the human race from enslavement at the hands of the army of shadows. The full moon rolls around, bringing our good friend the Wolf Man to life (he looks and acts almost exactly like that monkey from the Land of the Lost remake). Imagine my surprise when a film that, at the very least, advertises a conflict between a vampire and Frankenstein’s monster and instead delivers a runty little ape in a dinner jacket.

There are no words.

Our newfound protagonist jumps around the castle until he stumbles upon the Monster. They have a bit of pro-wrestling-inspired tussling while the OG female vampire chases Dr. Frankenstein around in bat form. He leads her to the lab and explodes her with her life-giving machine. He heads back to the body of Dracula, says a little speech about how Dracula betrayed his plan for a new master race (!) and stabs him in the heart. The monster, having ostensibly defeated the Wolf Man (this is unclear), returns to the lab and is killed by the very machine that gave him life. Their would-be saviour, Seward, arrives late to the party to find that Dracula and his wench have both been reduced to a pile of bones.

I’ll give the Franco fanboys one thing: it could’ve been worse. Despite a flagrant lack of budget and a dodgy concept, the first half of the film has decent atmosphere. Given the almost complete absence of dialogue, none of the acting comes across as particularly embarrassing. Franco makes good use of his locations and the cinematography doesn’t look as cheap as you would assume.  Nevertheless, if this is amongst Franco’s strongest work, the worst must be fucking abysmal. I love campy, dumb horror as much as the next guy, but Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is almost impossible to follow and constantly throwing useless filler at the audience. The editing is a complete mind-fuck and, worst of all, Dracula and the Monster are never even in the same frame. Franco (or whoever produced the film, most likely) pulls the oldest exploitation trick in the book and I fell for it.

Part of my reticence towards horror fandom is the tendency to lower expectations considerably in order to appreciate it. It seems like the cult of Franco is built 25% on his acknowledged skill and 75% on the fact that he’s made movies that aren’t as mind-bogglingly terrible as its ilk. Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is an interesting yet terrible film – and I think that’s nice enough.

So why does it exist?

Who WOULDN’T want to see a feature-length movie about this?

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