Wednesday 26 September 2012

Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein

‘Drácula contra Frankenstein’, ‘Die Nacht der offenen Särge’, ‘The Screaming Dead’.

Incredibly, there was a new Jess Franco film hitting cinemas about once a month during 1972-73 – an astounding work rate, even by the standards of the man who is quite possibly the most prolific feature film director of all-time. For some reason or other, Jess took time out during this period of peak productivity to bang out a couple of slightly uncharacteristic Frankenstein/Dracula ‘monster bash’ movies – whether on the behest of some producer, or just for a change of pace, who knows.

Of these, ‘The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein’ is usually held to be the most noteworthy – in fact it’s one of the wildest pictures Franco ever made - but I think ‘Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein’ also has its charms. A slightly more low key effort, its general vibe has a lot in common with the kind of tired, last gasp gothic horrors that independent producers in Europe still seemed to be making in defiance of all reason in the early ‘70s (think ‘Lady Frankenstein’, ‘Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks’, that sort of thing). But, Franco being Franco, he puts a uniquely strange and somnambulant spin on the material, resulting in a movie that is… certainly unlike anything else being offered up by the commercial film industry in 1972.

You know those scenes that sometimes turn up in ‘70s/’80s horror films, when the characters go to the cinema and watch a schlocky film-within-a-film monster movie (the unspoken implication being that of course OUR smart, modern horror film isn’t like one of those corny old flicks etc etc)..? Well basically, ‘Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein’ plays a lot like a real life, feature length version of the fake footage created for scenes like that. I can’t pretend to know much about how or why the film got made, but it seems like somebody just got on the blower to Franco and ordered a few reels of horror film, so he turned on the sausage machine and churned it out.

Largely plotless and featuring no real dialogue in the opening half hour (and precious little after that), ‘Prisoner of Frankenstein’ exists within that magic moment when the production of genre-based exploitation footage becomes so mindless and automatic that the results emerge as almost entirely abstract, bordering on avant garde. Kind of a zen-like ‘first thought / best thought’ meditation on the proliferation of horror movie imagery through popular culture, perhaps? Or alternatively, just imagine if some joker kept spiking Al Adamson’s coffee with ketamine and you’ll be thinking along the right lines.

In fairness, some kind of a storyline does begin to develop in the second half of the film, communicated largely via a post-production voiceover from Dennis Price’s Dr. Frankenstein. Although his conventional monster seems to be doing quite well for itself, the Baron seems to have an altogether more ambitious scheme in mind this time around. Announcing that he “now rules the great beyond”, Frankenstein has succeeded in attaining dominion over the spirit of Count Dracula (Howard Vernon) and another female vampire (Britt Nichols), intending them to head up a “new and bizarre army, an army of shadows” that he claims will allow “the great beyond” to “overpower the world”. So there ya go. Any questions?
Of this hypothetical army of darkness, the only other member who turns up – perhaps summoned by some gypsy magic, perhaps not – is the Wolfman, and unfortunately for the Baron, he seems largely concerned with just stirring up a ruckus, picking fights with the other monsters as the inevitable flaming torch wielding villagers led by vampire hunter Alberto Dalbes closes in.

It’s possible that a stronger cut of this might been assembled for some markets, but there’s certainly very little hint of eroticism in the version I’m watching. A German language cabaret scene, and the subsequent kidnapping of the singer by the Monster, seem like a straight recap of ‘..Dr. Orlof’, with some similarly unsavoury “lady in lingerie tied to the operating table” jive following in turn, but it’s pretty mild stuff by ‘70s standards. Nichols certainly looks great as ‘un chica vampire’, and there’s a marginally kinky moment when Anne Libert (appearing as ‘Primera víctima de Drácula’) takes her leather boots off, but, uh… that’s about it? 1/5

With any thread of narrative coherence banished to the same “great beyond” that Dr. Frankenstein keeps going on about, most of this film’s run time is spent drifting insensibly through a patchwork of certifiably creepy goings-on.

Bats both real (stock footage?) and laughably unreal (flopping about on strings, perhaps left over from 1970’s ‘Count Dracula’?) are much in evidence, and Howard Vernon seems to be popping up outside windows and doors all over town, white-faced, top-hatted and baring his fangs like some sort of Dracula/Orlof crossover, as intermittent bursts of lightning strike, and prolific Spanish actress Paca Gabaldón freaks out in what I think was her only role for Franco, rocking back and forth humming to herself and shrieking in a room full of by neo-primitive sunflower paintings and straw dollies… (an example of the common Franco motif of occasionally cutting to seemingly unconnected scenes of an unidentified woman experiencing some sort of mental breakdown, perhaps implying that she’s either dreaming the action on screen, or else a prior victim of its antagonists, cf: ‘Lorna the Exorcist’, ‘Nightmares Come At Night’). 

Grumpy looking Alberto Dalbes rides around endlessly in a coach, whipping his horses and looking determined, whilst Dennis Price favours a vintage motor car, in which he cruises around (sometimes with Vernon sharing the back seat) looking thoroughly suspicious in a fur-collared coat and fez. Back at the chateau, he’s got a superb collection of mad scientist gear on the go (lots of flashing lights!), and his own monster to play with (an endearingly dirt-cheap, rubber mask approximation of the Karlof monster, it’s a more traditional creation than ‘Erotic Rites..’ rather bizarre “bodybuilder painted silver” effort).

Probably the film’s strangest scene is the one in which Price resurrects Dracula by draining the blood of the kidnapped cabaret singer into a bell-jar containing a bat (a real one, alarmingly - seeing the poor blighter floundering around as they dribble ‘blood’ all over it is pretty uncomfortable), as lights flicker and the mad scientist machines whir away like happy hour at the Radiophonic Workshop. At the crucial moment, the doc hits the power switch, a fizzing coil overheats, and bat, bell-jar and everything suddenly disappears in a puff of smoke, leaving a fully sized, opera-caped Howard Vernon lying there! Top dollar horror flick craziness.

Soundtrack-wise, Bruno Nicolai’s score from ‘Justine’ is re-used wholesale here, but his bombastic, James Bernard-esque theme actually sounds a lot more comfortable and less irritating in this pulpy, ghoulish context. Elsewhere, a strange backdrop of exaggerated wind sounds, looped animal cries and disembodied melodic humming proves incredibly atmospheric, summoning that eerie, earthy atmosphere that characterises many of the best ‘70s Spanish horror films. 4/5

Pulp Thrills:
Well, let’s see: we’ve got Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman running around, loads of pulsing, flickering mad scientist machinery, a hunchback assistant (named Morpho of course, this time portrayed by some hairy ginger guy), lines like “these two vampires will obey my orders and terror will prevail”, and a final monster bash showdown that aspires to the primitive chutz-pah of a Mexican luchadore movie. Pulp enough for you? 5/5

Altered States:
In the notes I scribbled down whilst re-watching this film to get some screen-grabs, I wrote that at times ‘..Prisoner of Frankenstein’ is “like some retarded version of one of Chris Marker’s travelogue films”. Perhaps not the most eloquent phrase I’ve ever penned, but I can’t think of a better way of communicate this film’s accidental avant garde stylings, as Franco spends his time shakily zooming in on dogs, cats, flocks of birds, window panes, street signs, candlesticks… I know it sounds mental to say this in view of the film’s subject matter, but it’s almost got a documentary/home movie kinda thing going on in places, as if Jess is simply capturing the minutiae of his surroundings for posterity, and monsters and vampires just keep getting in the way.

With almost every shot climaxing in some kind of weird, meandering zoom, zeroing in on some seemingly random detail, this is precisely the kind of slap-dash, zoom-heavy direction that Franco’s detractors have always ridiculed, but once you get used to the technique, it has its own idiosyncratic appeal. Breakin’ all the rules just for the sake of speed and laziness, it allows the film to run free alongside the director’s wavering attention, as his unpredictable camera movements imitate the way one’s eyes might shift back and forth across an unfamiliar scene. It may be the complete opposite of the well-planned, deliberate filmmaking that we’re all taught to respect and aspire to, but here we actually get to witness in real-time the process of the director noticing something or other, thinking “whoa, check that out”, and filling the screen with it, just because he feels like it. The effect is disorientating, and the constant disruption of on-screen space can be near intolerable at first, but the more of these films you watch, the more you’ll learn to love the woozy, displaced feeling that results.

The somnambulant pacing too is something that neophytes are just going to have to roll with if they want to remain conscious beyond the halfway point. Regardless of what transpires in them, Franco films are never exactly ‘fast-paced’ (Stephen Thrower has spoken of him filming according to his own “internal, metabolic tempo”, or something like that), and the way he lets scenes drag and wonder and drift into each other has a tendency to make any sense of logic or connection between the images disappear entirely. Once again here, he manages the unique feat of taking a film in which a huge number of things happen, but almost all of them fall out of the viewer’s mind immediately, leaving us with the impression that we’re stuck in a kind of trance-like, repetitive limbo, as the clock slooowly rolls by. In the best possible way, of course. 4/5

Much of this film appears to be shot around a mist-shrouded hilltop castle overlooking a dilapidated little Spanish town full of narrow, maze-like streets, and, if some of the meandering landscape shots are to be believed,  I think this is actually a single location, rather than a composite of several places. Clearly a GREAT one-stop horror movie shooting destination, it lends the film a huge amount of ready-made atmosphere, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen such a distinctive locale popping up in more gothic horror movies.

Don’t take my word for it though – writing on imdb in November 2000, one ‘Maxorin-2’ commented that:

“This is the horror film with the best castle I've ever seen. It's better than all that castles of the Hammer. Trust me. It's bigger and darker. Very strange and interesting. I've visited it in Alicante, Spain, and it seemed to me that Dracula was walking around. If you want to be scared go on and watch it.”

Duly noted. 4/5

An utterly disconnected piece of filmmaking, I think ‘Dracula: Prisoner of Frankenstein’ actually makes a good tool for the diagnosis of Franco Fever.

If you’re unafflicted by the malady, then the film’s complete lack of narrative drive or audience involvement, its lethargic pacing and inept, disorientating zooms, will likely prove insufferable, to the extent that you may find yourself furious that this aimless garbage is actually being offered to you as a piece of structured entertainment. And that’s fine. You’re better off that way. Just walk away, put something else in the DVD player. You’ve got a long and fulfilling life ahead of you.

For those of us who’ve already succumbed to the sickness though, it’s too late - this is pure nectar of the gods. Drink it in in all its pointless, zonked out glory, my brethren, and go to a happy place. I’ve watched it three times at the time of writing, and I’ll likely watch it again. In the Church of Franco, we can ALL rule the great beyond.


Kev D. said...

OH NO! I think I've got the fever!

Soukesian said...

Belated comment on this one - fantastic review of a Franco title that I only recently managed to track down as a rental. It was the film's companion piece EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN that really infected me with Franco Fever, and this is every bit as good.

As a kid I collected a set of bubble gum cards featuring stills from classic B/W horror with weak joke captions. There is something in these two Franco movies that reminds me of poring over these cards in a random flow of images, whose sources were beyond my reach. This was the pre-video era, and vintage horror films were rarely screened on TV.
When I did actually get to see the Universal classics, the clunky plotting and interminable exposition often disappointed. Franco simply dispenses with this armature, leaving the imagery to run wild.

The point about re-watching Franco is an significant one - I've seen EROTIC RITES at least as often as you've seen this one, and more often than many, many films that are formally 'better' in every respect. His delirium is endlessly surprising, and the fascination of the images that he pulls off does not diminish. I need to actually own a copy of this, and VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD as well, come to think of it. Yes, I've got it bad!