Monday, April 23, 2018

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972)

Jess Franco had already covered Dracula by directing a movie adaption of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror vampire novel from 1897 a couple years prior. So, what does Jess do next when returning to make another Gothic Count Dracula movie?... Take the Universal route and throw Dracula in with other classic monster figures, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, to have a go at it and see who would win in a fight.

With Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, the familiar monster mashup style gets the Jess Franco treatment, which is essentially Classic Universal horror in color with Franco’s flavor of visual and hypnotic storytelling, yet for a Jess Franco film, the eroticism is quite tame, with no nudity to be found. It adapts certain elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Dracula angle, but the Frankenstein angle borrows more from Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and less from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Curiously, the opening text, credited to David H Klunne (a Franco pseudonym), is pretty much a poetic and short synopsis of the film, rather than some sort of backstory setup to get viewers up to date, like an opening Star Wars crawl. That’s OK, because there isn’t really a whole lot to spoil, since the experience of the film, in this case, is a little more important than the story, which I think isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but it doesn’t really sink in either since there is a lot of visual depth, atmosphere, and cool ideas in what is a slow and thin plot.


Anne Libert has a small role as Dracula’s victim in the opening grabber. If you felt she was underutilized in this Jess Franco Dracula movie, you’ll be much happier with Daughter of Dracula (1972), filmed back-to-back with this one.

One of my most prominent memories of this movie is that of the heavily used visual of Dracula’s foggy castle on a precipice, the Santa Bárbara Castle in Alicante, Spain. It’s such a beautiful but gloomy shot that Franco really makes the most of, perhaps even to the point of it being a little overused.

The classic horror style soundtrack is fitting and sets the right mood. It’s credited to Bruno Nicolai and Daniel White (who is also cast) and most of it was previously used in Jess Franco’s Justine (1969) and Count Dracula (1970).


Alberto Dalbés plays Doctor John Seward (he also played Seward in Franco’s Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973)), who is the same from the book, but he’s also a pretty clever consolidation of Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing as well. The Condes de Castro Guimarães Museum in Portugal (a marvelous piece of architecture also seen in other Franco films such as A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)) poses as Dr. Seward’s asylum, which houses a mental patient, Maria (Paca Gabaldón), who’s essentially a female Renfield, painting the walls and blissfully singing to herself. She has a psychological connection to Dracula (Howard Vernon) that causes her to convert into a panic whenever Dracula is active or nearby.


When Dr. Seward travels to Dracula’s (poorly guarded) castle, it feels a little sudden. Since he’s also part Van Helsing in this movie, Seward is already knowledgeable about vampires and Dracula. When Seward examines Anne Libert’s character, deceased after being assaulted by Dracula, he thrust a stake into her eye, presumably to keep her from turning undead and kidnapping children, Lucy (bloofer lady) Westenra style, which causes the lights to go out, telling him all he needs to know. He then sets out with his horse and carriage to the castle on the hill to kill Dracula. When Seward finds Dracula’s coffin and stakes him, I thought the scene had a peculiar calming effect to it since Seward was rather delicate about it, tapping the stake in to Dracula rather gently, generating a soft tapping echo, as opposed to the intense staking moments you see in other vampire movies.


With Dracula being defeated, a gypsy community nearby seems to be celebrating in ritual, but the leader, Amira (Geneviève Robert, who would later go on to become a director and marry Ivan Reitman), a kind of seer, is able to see the coming of Frankenstein (Dennis Price). These scenes with the gypsy community are frequently accompanied by humming voices in choir, which makes it seem like they’re always in chant (always humming their jam). Amira usually looks mesmerized, conducting esoteric rituals, drawing runes in the sand and predicting the direction of the story. Robert is quite intense in this role and is probably my favorite character.

Just as Amira foresees, Dr. Frankenstein arrives and sets up his lab in Dracula’s castle, because apparently in this universe, you can just claim any old castle as your own to setup shop and begin work on your plans to take over the world. Dr. Frankenstein has a vague objective to enroll invincible monsters into his “army of shadows” in order to overpower the world.


Luis Barboo is amusing as Morpho, Frankenstein’s brute and hulky assistant, who almost seems to be chewing the scenery with some real cartoony facial expressions. Morpho drives Frankenstein around in a new looking car, contradicting the Victorian feel of the film up until this point, especially considering that Seward travels by horse and carriage. There’s also a jukebox visible at the pub. Plus, the people attending the stupendous cabaret scene, with Estela (Josyane Gibert) who scintillates with a playfully sexy song and dance performance, seem to come from a different era too. I consider this one of the film’s charms, whether Jess intended for it or just didn’t think it mattered.

Frankenstein’s monster in this (Fernando Bilbao, who also played the Frankenstein monster in Erotic Rites of Frankenstein) moves and looks like a generic Frankenstein monster (not bad for the budget) but acts more like Morpho from The Awful Dr. Orlof, since the monster kidnaps beautiful female dancers, Estela in this case, for Frankenstein to operate on as part of Dracula’s revival, in what I feel is part of a tiresome trope of sex-workers always being murdered. 


Howard Vernon’s Dracula in this is unusual but works. He’s quite lethargic, which is deliberate, since he is Frankenstein’s prisoner, but the threat is still there, like an evil, unblinking, static corpse that’s deadly if you get too close. Vernon is imposing and freaky without having to hardly move or speak a word (although it seems a little funny, in a cool way, at one point when he's sitting in the back of Frankenstein’s car looking like a still Halloween prop). After he sucks someone’s blood in one scene he looks like he’s wearing a lush shade of red lipstick, and it looks fabulous!


Livening up Dracula’s castle/Frankenstein’s lab a bit is the stunning and statuesque Britt Nichols as a lurking vampire who likes to come out and play sometimes (like Liebert, Nichols is more of a main character in the next film Daughter of Dracula). I’m assuming she’s Dracula’s bride, since her coffin is close to his. The times she emerges from her coffin are definitely memorable highlights. I like the way Nichols’ vampire is overlooked for a time by most at the castle. Since her beau, Dracula, is under Frankenstein’s control, she slips by unnoticed, lurking around and even getting the drop on Morpho.


Rounding out the monster mashup, el hombre lobo (sadly not played by Paul Naschy- he’s instead played by a stuntman known as Brandy, who is still cool) makes an entrance real late in the game, summoned by the gypsies to fuck shit up at the evil castle, or more specifically to aid Dr. Seward in the final bloody battle. The werewolf is cool and all, and he’s foreshadowed a bit earlier in the film, but he’s tossed in the mix without much backstory; I would’ve liked to have known his human side before he turns. It is probably one of the only werewolves I can think of who’s human side isn’t explored.  

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is a movie I usually crave around Halloween. It’s special to me, but at the same time I can see how others might view it as nothing special. Franco is heavy on the zooming (although I feel I’m immune to the zoom shot at this point for some reason). For a while, I didn’t catch on at just how minimal the dialogue is, with most of the story told through sequences, sound, and images, so if you’re not in the mood for something real talky that you have to pay attention to, this may be something you can really relax to. It is fun the few times the monsters go at it, but the story is a little flimsy and may fail to hold the interest of anyone who isn’t feeling the gothic Franco vibes. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


2 comments:

  1. This, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN and DAUGHTER OF DRACULA were all filmed one right after the other and this, the first, was definitely the least of the trilogy. I like some of its ideas, particularly Dracula as a virtually immobile corpse, but I've always found it pretty weak tea.

    The blending of different eras you mention is an intentional reference to the Universal pictures with which these films are playing, which composed a world of gods and monsters from elements freely drawn from many different places and times.

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    Replies
    1. I thought it felt like a composite of eras and settings, but I wasn't sure if it was intentional, but I see what you are saying.

      I feel like I should cover DAUGHTER OF DRACULA to complete the trilogy since I've covered the other two. Maybe real soon.

      Thanks for your comment, J. Your readership and support over the years has been much appreciated.

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