Monday, April 29, 2013

Meltdown 08: Francophilia (Part IV)

Count Dracula 

(El conde Drácula


What begins as a slavishly faithful, po-faced, and stylish adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel eventually devolves into something, well, less than that, but for a movie that credits its editing to Bruno Mattei, hey, we're lucky it even resembles a motion picture. Credit where credit is due: unlike any other adaptation up to 1970, El conde Dracula makes a serious go of adapting the source material with proper reverence (and it predates Coppola's "Bram Stoker's" label of "authenticity" by over two decades). These novelistic aspirations are most noticeable in the film's fantastic first act, which depicts in minute detail Jonathan Harker's visit to the Count's castle in Transylvania (down to the baby-eating). Christopher Lee's performance of Dracula in this film is a wild divergence from his previous portrayals of the character in the series of Hammer films from decades previous. Here he's an intentionally isolated racist, lonely and angry at the world. He's defined through his hunger for power, even if that power can only be the small physical power he wields over those in his vampiric thrall, and not that power implicit in possessing the same mighty conquering military force of his ancestors. In this sense, this incarnation of Dracula is (much like the novel's, but maybe even more so than the novel's) a pathetic figure: dangerous-- surely-- but ultimately ill-equipped for the realities of the modern world. Moreover, he sports a killer 'stache. (Of course, Lee was still playing Dracula for Hammer at this time, so imagining this Dracula alongside the bloodsucker of, for instance, Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) is a draining mental exercise.) Otherwise, the cast is a Who's Who of European genre stars (Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Paul Muller, Maria Rohm, Jack Taylor, Emma Cohen, and Franco's early muse-- Soledad Miranda-- in their first major collaboration together), and though they all do fine in their parts, the stoic tone of the film prevents all but Kinski from standing out. (Kinski is Renfield, naturally, and his mute scenery-chewing at one point earns him the title of "Soup Bowl Pollock.") 

Once the film exits back through the Borgo Pass and returns to London, the adaptation starts playing fast and loose, and this is where the film probably becomes problematic for most viewers. While some changes make sense in light of a need to condense narrative (the collapsing of Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris into one character) and others are most likely due to actors' availability (Van Helsing's "slight stroke"), still others appear arbitrary and so less meaningful (like Dracula's death by torch rather than by bowie knife to the heart). Unarguably the most arbitrary and absurd moment in the film is when Van Helsing, Seward, and Morris enter the Count's home with some slaying in mind and are confronted by a room full of snarling, sentient taxidermied animals. It's a more of an, uh, intense stare-off with constant quick edits and zooms, but it's an enlivening dose of batshit Franco spectacle in an otherwise perhaps too staid film. Being Franco, the film does make sure to put extra emphasis on the erotic component of Dracula's vampirism (an emphasis easily conveyed by Soledad Miranda's constant subtle expressions of ecstasy), but-- more interestingly-- it also highlights the unnerving near-glee that our would-be vampire hunters take in bloodily slaughtering sleeping vampire brides (their once beloved Lucy included), adding layers of gender dynamics and human barbarity into the picture. Count Dracula is a fine film earnestly made, but not at all what the typical Franco admirer would expect, nor exactly what the admirer of standard issue classic horror would hope for. It's an unloved mutt, stuck somewhere between past cinematic horrors and the erotic brew that Franco was soon to stir, with no clear place in the world of its time. Kind of like the Count himself.

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein 

(Dracula contra Frankenstein


Call me batty, but I find Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (perhaps more commonly known by the literal translation of its misleading original Spanish title, Dracula vs. Frankenstein) to be a fascinating exercise in updating the performance style and visual language of classic silent horror filmmaking for the 1970s. Moreover, the film simultaneously expresses a cynical contempt for its audience that's unmatched in Franco's filmography. If Count Dracula was an earnest but flawed attempt at portraying a classic literary monster on the silver screen, Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein messily demonstrates how dissatisfying those same monsters can become when commodified as defanged puppets in money-grubbing Hollywood monster mashes. Of course, that's precisely what happened with Universal's stable of monsters when its members were demoted from starring in the artistic successes of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and James Whales's Frankenstein (1931) to kindergarten cash-ins like House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and the unabashed farce of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). I can only speculate, but the notion that there might have been commercial pressure on Franco to produce a monster team-up film after the success of Count Dracula doesn't seem unreasonable. And if that was the case, it's easy to read the resulting film as a visual essay on exactly how lightweight that concept is. After all, how powerful, how menacing are our cinematic monsters when they're teamed up like superheroes and expected to execute pratfalls? 

Not very, is what Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein posits. Its monsters are mind-controlled, blank-faced props, mutely enacting the bidding of Dr. Rainer von Frankenstein (Dennis Price). At the climax of the film, when Dr. Frankenstein has decided he no longer has any use for them, he slaughters his primary monsters with nary a tussle: Dracula (a perpetually snarling Howard Vernon) fails to stir from his slumber as he's staked, and Frankenstein's Creature (Fernando Bilbao, in a Boris Karloff costume less convincing than the one your dad wore when you were seven) meekly and willingly shuffles into the electricity-producing box of his doom. The film's title and opening text almost guarantee a monster brawl, but the film seems pleased with itself for almost completely denying any such thing as it wraps up. Besides the anticlimactic deaths of its main baddies, the only monster-tussling provided is a brief scrap between the Creature and a Wolf Man, who enters the film out of nowhere and just as soon departs from it. Did the Creature kill him? We're neither told nor shown, and so again the film is rubbing our faces in what it sees as juvenile expectations for cross-monster encounters: they fought, you got what you came for, does it honestly matter who won? The film's cynicism materializes through both its critique of these sort of commercial horror ventures and its self-awareness of its own production of pure, incompetent schlock.

One might argue that the incompetence of this schlock was not at all a desired feature, and, sure, that's possible, but underestimating Franco always seems a losing proposition. As it so happens, Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is fascinating on a technical level, despite whatever intentional or unintentional narrative deficiencies it possesses. It's virtually a silent film, with almost no dialogue whatsoever in its opening twenty minutes and very little after that (so little that it all could have easily fit on a few intertitle cards). The narrative is communicated through the actors' broad performances and the emotional tenor through its orchestral score (like the score for Count Dracula, another Bruno Nicolai effort) and ADR'd sound effects. This stylistic choice is pulled off with surprising skill (no other film of Franco's feels quite like this one) and creates the curious juxtaposition of a trite commercial horror premise in the mode of a film from horror's silent, earnestly horror-minded origins. It's as if the film is trying to show us what it would be like-- and how dreadful it would be-- if halfway through Nosferatu (1922) a Wolf Man jumped out of the bushes and clawed at Count Orlok's elongated face.

Daughter of Dracula 

(La fille de Dracula


If I were told I was the last living descendant of Count Dracula, I know I'd probably spend my undead afterlife rolling about all day and night with the lovely Anne Libert and her massive hair, much like Britt Nichols does in this film. Released in the same year as Dracula, Prisoner of Darkness, the more typical Daughter of Dracula falls in line with Franco's other erotic lady vampire films like Female Vampire (1973) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971). While failing to create the stylish and melancholy excellence of those superior films, Daughter of Dracula nonetheless survives with the help of a bleeding vampire heart of its own. The main narrative (when the film chooses to stick with it, which is not all that often) concerns the jealous, possessive love that our Dracula daughter, Luisa Karlstein (Britt Nichols), has for her adorable and devoted cousin, Karine (Anne Libert), which evolves into awkward passion before exploding into if-I-can't-have-you-then-no-one-can vampire violence set to a second cousin of the Merrie Melodies tune. Karine's tragic fate (she wasn't even considering leaving the irrational Luisa!) provides a coherent emotional anchor for the film, but even then its often crowded out by all the other stuff going on over the film's brief running time. There's a police investigation (naturally), an occult expert,  the nearly inexplicable basement appearance of the stone-stiff ancestral vamp, Count Karlstein (Howard Vernon, reprising his non-performance from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein), and a series of voyeuristic (read: eyeball zooms!) stalkings and slashings by a giallo-esque killer. That last bit is especially odd:  for reasons entirely unclear, most of Luisa's vamp attacks occur when she's decked out in a fedora and trenchcoat. This visual association with the giallo film-- at its peak in 1972 and always resplendent in leering, maladjusted peeping toms and janes-- lends some emphasis to Luisa's psychosexual issues, but it also results in the film feeling confused: our villainess trades out a straight razor for a pair of fangs, and we haven't a clue as to why. But this one's undeniably a quickie for the exploitation crowd. Not convinced? Peep the conclusion of Karine's emotional death scene, in which the camera, nonplussed, pans from a close-up of her lifeless face to a close-up of her pubic hair. Classy, Jess.

Revenge in the House of Usher 
(El hundimiento de la casa Usher)

Well, one supposes Franco's declining reputation in the 1980s wasn't spurred for no reason whatsoever, and Revenge in the House of Usher is pretty good reason. Though purporting to be based upon the similarly titled E. A. Poe novella, the film is nonetheless another thinly veiled Orloff variation set in a house that crumbles at the conclusion. Howard Vernon returns to familiar territory as Dr. Usher, a hermetic mad scientist with an assistant named Morpho and a daughter with a bizarre, incurable disease named Melissa. Melissa's affliction has led Orloff to commit sundry murders in her name, as the only temporary relief from her debilitating illness comes from complete neck-to-neck blood transfusions by way of nubile lasses. Unlike the Orloffs of past films, Dr. Usher displays a certain intriguing uniqueness by admitting that he's an unremitting sadist who discovered that he enjoyed every scream that his killing for "a larger purpose" produced. This is an explicit dimension of the Orloff personality only hinted at in previous films. Previous films like, say, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), which Revenge in the House of Usher helpfully reminds us of by dedicating its entire second act to replaying the greatest hits from that landmark film. Yes, unfortunately, this film is one of those lazy footage recyclers, in the tradition of spendthrift classics like Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987), Boogeyman II (1983), and much of Jim Wynorski's filmography. It's a shame, because what's here apart from the roughly twenty minutes of padding is a moderately intriguing film that interests not due to the ways in which it adheres to the Orloff formula, but rather through its divergences (like the icky ghost of Usher's dead wife who haunts him and desires to drag him down to hell with her; Lina Romay's devoted assistant character, who appears to be supernaturally trapped by the house and who messily makes out with a member of Menudo; and of course the crumbling Usher mansion, the shaky existence of which is tied to the grim fate of its owner). Alas, all of this original material plays a far too minor role in what emerges as a basic retread with rotted foundations begging to give way.


  1. On a second viewing of Count Dracula I was more keyed in to it's charms. I may be the only person that enjoys the taxidermied animal standoff. I think there is a lot to admire in the film and it works more often than not (to me at least.) Of course there are missed opportunities (expertly detailed in the Naschycast episode) but as I said I rather like it. Richard (and you in your excellent review) says there isn't enough Franco in it, and I can agree. But I also think this possibly was a bid at respectability for Jess.

    Dracula, Prisoner Of Frankenstein is another one I enjoy although not to the degree that I like Rites Of Frankenstein. It very much is a silent film (and Franco can induce a certain drowsiness anyway) and I like what he was going for. I still think that Assignment Terror is the champ of the 'all of the monsters together' Monster rally (not counting other Naschy films with say two monsters per film) but I know that that film doesn't get a lot of love. I haven't seen the other two films reviewed here but rest assured when I do I will be coming back to read them. I have really enjoyed the Franco series.

    1. Thanks, Brad!

      I totally agree with you in re: Count Dracula. I think he was shooting for legitimacy, but thankfully he soon abandoned that goal and sleazed things up. I like the film too, warts and all, and especially the taxidermied showdown. So you are not alone, my friend.

      I wish I liked Assignment Terror more than I did, but it feels to me like Dracula Contra Frankenstein without the self-awareness. It is a bad, goofy movie for sure, which I do appreciate, and I'd bet my appreciation would rise with a viewing outside of the Naschython context.

      Stay tuned for Peter Walkermania next month!

    2. Pete Walkermania! Richard, you and I really do inhabit the same iceberg because we have a Walker double planned. I have The Comeback and Schizo on bluray and they look great. I hope to turn Richard into a Walker fan.

      I'd love to hear you thoughts on The Lords Of Salem.

    3. Yeah, I have Redemption's gorgeous Pete Walker blu box set. Just lovely. I'm anxiously looking forward to the semi-announced second set coming later this year, too (with Frightmare, Flesh and Blood Show, The Confessional, and the weird non-horror statutory rape drama Home Before Midnight).

      I can't fathom anyone not being a Walker fan. Therefore, I'm certain that Richard will become one.

      And I'll have some words on Lords up on Monday in the new Footstones entry. Your demonic wish is granted!

  2. Excellent! I agonized over the Walker box set. I was angry that Marriane was in it. I really didn't like it when I saw it and I wanted Frightmare or The Confessional in it's place. So I passed and bought them separately.

    Richard and I have periodic discussions wondering why folks hate Rob Zombie so much. We have a couple of theories. I think Halloween did him in. But it also seems like I'm always a fan of divisive directors. Ti West I'm looking at you.

    I am very much looking forward to the next Footstones. I highly value your opinion and commentary.