Monday, July 13, 2020

Groton and Grazbo Go Boating

From Bob Labar's terrific main titles sequence for DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN.
DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971, 90m 47s) is the film for which Al Adamson will always be best-known, which is a shame; as the original cuts of his films in Severin Films' AL ADAMSON MASTERPIECE COLLECTION show, he was capable of doing much better when working in the genres that most engaged him. Horror, alas, was not one of them - and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is yet another film that sprang out of initial detritus. It was originally filmed as THE BLOOD SEEKERS, initiated as SATAN'S BLOODY DEVILS, which followed upon the success of SATAN'S SADISTS as another biker picture with Charles Manson-like associations starring Russ Tamblyn. When this version (no longer extant) was screened, it was decided it didn't work, so Adamson and producer Samuel M. Sherman embarked on a two-year schedule of reparations.

Lon Chaney Jr. as Groton, before and after his injection.

What ultimately prevailed was a typically schizophrenic film with biker elements and hatchet murder elements struggling to incorporate biker elements. The new storyline posits the former Dr. Frankenstein (J. Carrol Naish) as hiding behind a carnival haunted house of illusions, with his pet moron Groton (Lon Chaney Jr.), whom he periodically injects with a formula that transforms the puppy-petting simpleton into an axe-swinging killer (dubbed with the heavy breathing of Brother Theodore from his MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND trailer session) along the Venice beachfront. The wheelchair-bound doctor then drains the victims of their terror-heightened blood to reshoot into Groton. If it sounds like Dr. Frankenstein is slumming, "Lord of the Manor of Carpathia" Count Dracula ("Zandor Vorkov" aka Roger Engel) materializes and blackmails the doctor, forcing him to resurrect the inert body of his monster (John Bloom) and thus ramp up the terror factor to yield some truly trippy blood for Dracula to drink. The doctor also uses the Monster as an agent of vengeance against his old colleague (actually considerably younger) Dr. Beaumont, quickly crushed to death and played by FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND editor Forrest J Ackerman. 

Angelo Rossitto, whose film career dated back to FREAKS and earlier.
The carnival boardwalk is patrolled by the dwarf Grazbo (Angelo Rossitto), who has lines like "You see? You must open your eyes to see things!" while taunting a young hippie couple who, for some unexplained reason, have to walk through the haunted house "ride." 

Judith Fountain (Regina Carrol) and her Vegas stage act.
Tacked onto all this mayhem is a subplot carried over from THE BLOOD SEEKERS, in which Las Vegas performer Judith Fontain (Adamson's wife Regina Carrol, we see her singing to a thin crowd about overpacking her bags for a trip to the Hilton Mau Mau) comes to Venice in search of her missing sister Joanie (Joe Sarno veteran Maria Lease), who has actually been decapitated and then nonsensically recapitated before becoming repurposed as a blood donor for Groton. Crusty police detective Sgt. Martin (Jim Davis) isn't much help (though he does get the terrific line "Nobody but nobody understands the subconscious, not even ourselves"), and after Tamblyn's biker gang doses Judith with LSD, she gets the help she needs from Mike (Anthony Eisley), the straightest looking hippie you ever saw. (We know he's a hippie because he wears a turtleneck, a toothed necklace, and has a "pad.") As with the romance between John Gabriel and Erin O'Donnell in THE FAKERS, Mike and Judith's fall into limerence plays a lot like a Salem cigarettes commercial of the period. For a love story that takes so long to set up, it's over hilariously fast due to some laughable circumstances. 

"Let's not get involved": Regina Carrol and Anthony Eisley.
Apparently the climax of the original cut - titled THE BLOOD OF FRANKENSTEIN (not preserved) - didn't play too well, so Sherman conceived the new title and had Adamson shoot a hastily concocted battle royale between the two living dead icons in a dilapidated church location. Apparently the crew arrived under ideal Dracula conditions (they were "losing the light") because Zandor Vorkov's makeup had to be brightened to Kabuki white-faced proportions to show up onscreen. Under the heavily blue-tinted murkiness you can barely see what's going on - and believe me, you see more of the battle on Blu-ray than you ever could in the pre-digital days of drive-ins, early television broadcasts, VHS and even laserdiscs.

Dracula (Zandor Vorkov) revives the Frankenstein Monster (John Bloom).

Photographed by three different cameramen (Paul Glickman, Gary Graver, and an uncredited Sam Sherman), the patchwork film is not without interest but it's never as rewarding as one hopes. Adamson really knew nothing about creating or sustaining a horror atmosphere; he's all about cute, ironic cutting; when Jim Davis ends a scene by saying "It's a dark, dark world," we cut to him turning off an overhead light that wasn't turned on earlier in the scene, and when Beaumont is fastidiously crushed in the arms of the Monster, he takes the cue to cut to the slogan on the back of a 1969 bottle of Mountain Dew ("It'll Tickle Your Innards!"). Tony Tierney's makeup for the Frankenstein monster is actually one of the better post-Universal designs and John Bloom embodies the role acceptably well. Likewise, Naish, Chaney, and Rossitto all strike macabre characterizations and the film is also given a nostalgic charge with the library music of William Lava, which extends to some CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON cues later in the picture, and the use of Kenneth Strickfaden's mad laboratory equipment used in the original FRANKENSTEIN (1931). I also must admit that the promised confrontation between the two monsters gives us somewhat more than Universal did when Frankenstein met the Wolf Man, or when HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA pulled all the great monsters into one story and then disappointingly kept them largely apart - but even so, more amounts to less. The major disappointment is "Zandor Vorkov" as Dracula, a role that requires innate authority - which is not the same as treating all of his dialogue with reverb. Not only is Vorkov more Doctor Strange than Dracula (firing animated beams from his magic ring, no less), he's basically too young and lacking in presence. Giving credit where credit is due, his disintegration scene is not bad, though Roger Engel's explanation in the featurette of how hastily and crudely it was accomplished is hilarious. 

J. Carrol Naish as the enfeebled Dr. Frankenstein. Oops, spoiler!
The disc includes a Samuel M. Sherman commentary - Sam is very well-spoken and is a highly responsible film historian who shares his experiences with clarity and a bit of humor - as well as a featurette of interviews with cast and crew members. Most engaging, however, is a visual essay called "Feed Your Head! Lose Your Head!" by the Flying Maciste Brothers (Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr), narrated by smooth talker Berger. It is their view that DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN is something of a misunderstood masterpiece, that beneath its misbegotten surface resides a multi-tiered investigation into the schism of illusion and reality, especially as manifest in the pleasure we take in our darker forms of entertainment.

Judith's uncredited stage show partners in the "Travelin' Light" number.

Berger's narration identifies the film as being made in the spirit of the 1940s "monster rallies" like Erle C. Kenton's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), in which both Naish and Chaney were prominently featured, which is of course readily evident - and so it goes. Though the points he and Marr make help to underscore some aspects of the patchwork narrative that Adamson's direction (and the film's disjoined origins) left muddled, there's a fundamental difference between pointing out connections and bringing them together in actual chords of enlarged comprehension. Rather than arriving at answers or a bigger picture, the narration is more inclined to pursue the duo's notes to a series of ironic, self-reflective, zen-like questions. For example: it's true there is a similarity between Dr. Frankenstein's self-proclaimed status as one who lives "beyond fear" in a threadbare palace of illusions and the subplot about Judith (herself a stage performer) and her quest to find her lost sister, which takes her through a kind of looking glass into psychedelics and a different kind of life/lifestyle than she has been exposed to before. These details are certainly there but I would argue that what the essay savors as subtext is most often text; these elements are up front and don't exactly galvanize one another so much as merely coincide. The essay also credits Adamson and Sherman with providing all of these subterranean connections with knowing, masterful deliberation, while never mentioning or questioning screenwriter William Pugsley's role in all this, nor that of the cameramen or art director when pointing out revelatory details in composition and backgrounds. Though certainly diverting in its own right as entertainment, what this literate if not entirely persuasive essay ultimately proves is that some folks like this movie a lot more than others, and some - God bless 'em - have worked really hard at it.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.