Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Franco's DIE NACHT DER OFFENEN SÄRGE reviewed

DIE NACHT DER OFFENEN SÄRGE
"The Night of the Open Coffins"
Drácula contra Frankenstein / Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / The Screaming Dead
1971, Colosseo-Film (Germany), 2.35:1, 82m (BD-A)

Though there has never been any particular shortage of it, Jess Franco's DRÁCULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN has always been a much sought-after title by his collectors. It had a badly-pan&scanned VHS release here in the States from Wizard Video back in the 1980s, under the title THE SCREAMING DEAD, after which it surfaced with modest letterboxing and a different title sequence in Japan, a version subsequently marketed here through Bill Knight's mail-order company Midnight Video. There have been subsequent DVD releases, both here and abroad, but they have always been marred by something - usually an inaccurate aspect ratio. This new German Blu-ray release, region-free, is the first ever to present the film in its authentic 2.35:1 format, but it's still not all that we hoped for. The nudity promised by a swatch of German lobby cards, for instance, does not materialize on this disc, which strongly suggests we may never see the alternate "adult" version that exists for so many other Franco titles.

The film is one of those dashed-off-on-a-napkin Franco plots: When Dracula's reign of terror is finally foiled, Dr. Frankenstein arrives in Transylvania (in a limousine driven by a misshapen chauffeur - though the film, up to that time, has the look of a period piece) and reactivates the vampire with his laboratory equipment, enslaving him to do his bidding. Drunk with success, Frankenstein unleashes his "New Gods" on the village - causing Amira, a gypsy sorceress (Geneviève Deloir, the future Mrs. Ivan Reitman, giving the film's best performance), to invoke the return of the Wolf Man on the night of the full moon.

DRÁCULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN is generally regarded as part of a trilogy; it was directly followed by DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (which began as a remake of Franco's earlier THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, but was talked into incorporating unused and new footage of Howard Vernon as Count Dracula, making it an implicit prequel explaining the origin of the Count's coffin companion, played by Britt Nichols) and then THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (a wild romp inspired by the erotic horror comics coming out of France at the time). Franco often spoke in interviews of his dislike for most Hammer films, stating his preference for Universal horror and, even more so, the expressionism of silent horror pictures. True to his word, this film can be viewed as a rough sketch of what filmmakers raised on the stage productions of Max Reinhardt might have made of Universal's three great terror titans.

It's an unabashed Monster Rally, a HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or a VAN HELSING of its time, and Franco delves into the challenges of such a picture armed with little more than his love for such things and the promise to deliver one. Despite these shortcomings, they conspire to create a kind of hyper-reality in which all chronologies, geographies, even characters from different movies get shuffled together. It is a movie to be enjoyed simply on the level of sustained mayhem and delirium. In this version of the film (which is lacking a brief onscreen text by that revered authority on supernatural topics "David Khune" and some narrated diary scribblings by Frankenstein), there is literally no spoken dialogue for the first 18 minutes; the cinematography (credited to José Climent) has a quality so baroque as to appear gnostic; the soundtrack plays needle drops with a barnstorming Bruno Nicolai score, much as Godard used Georges Delerue's few cues in CONTEMPT; and the make-up is comparable to what you might see in a high school play.

Watching the film again, it occurred to me that the wily Franco may have also been using this film for the more covert purpose of lampooning the kind of old-fashioned Spanish horror being put forth by his colleague Paul Naschy. The werewolf (played by someone identified only as Brandy) is particularly poor, his appearances signaled with an ancient wolf howl sound effect heard in many a Naschy picture. Furthermore, the film's Spanish title is a flagrant steal of the export title for a Naschy picture best known in English as ASSIGNMENT: TERROR (1968, which has had VHS release here as DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), itself an all-star monster rally. But Franco never made films that work only on a single level, so poking fun at his rival would not have been his only goal with this. Indeed, DRÁCULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN embodies a conflation of so many commercial and experimental approaches to cinema that it feels radical in its construction, even in its raucous primitivism and disregard for continuity, despite the material's overall familiarity.

One hopes that the more adult version of this film that was apparently shot will surface at some later date. Till then, this Colosseo presentation is the best we have. It is sourced from an Italian print - screen title: I MAESTRI BLACK HORROR: DRACULA CONTRO FRANKENSTEIN; the aspect ratio is correct, but claims Cinemascope instead of its actual four-perf Techniscope format, which may be somewhat to blame for the image's overall softness. The image generally lacks the sharpness we associate with digital releases and particularly with digital restorations. The soundtrack is offered in German, Spanish and Italian (the wretched SCREAMING DEAD English track is not in evidence), while subtitles are included in German and English. The extras include a nice 10m featurette documenting a July 2001 visit by Franco and Lina Romay to a retrospective at the Film Museum in Munich, Germany (where he makes a heartwarming reference to "a critic, a nice guy in the States" who once said that "you cannot see one of my films until you have seen them all." There is also an artwork gallery, a restoration demonstration (which shows the elimination of a lot of green speckling), and German-language liner notes by Gerald Kuklinski.

Most easily obtained Stateside from Diabolik DVD or Amazon.de.


(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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