70s Memories: Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)

Written by William Pugsley & Samuel M. Sherman
Directed by Al Adamson
Starring J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr., Russ Tamblyn, Zandor Vorkov, John Bloom
US Release Dec. 19, 1971
RT 90 min.
Home Video Shriek Show
Classic Horrors rating = 1 (out of 10)

dracula-vs-frankenstein

Sometimes memory does not fail me, but I wish it would. Just because I clearly remember how bad a movie was when I first saw it, I usually like to hope that I’m remembering incorrectly.  Or, at the very least, I like to hope that the movie improves over time or in retrospect fits my critical sensibilities.  Such is not the case with Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), a movie so boring when I saw it at the Enid Drive-In at the age of 8 or nine years old that I ran around playing hide and seek during it.  I’m also pretty sure I told my parents we could leave early.  (Either that, or they drove me out of there early, although I’m sure I didn’t complain.)

I’d also like to think there would be at least one redeeming element in almost any movie, but in this one, there’s not. I thought it might lie among the appearances of three horror legends: J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr. and/or Forrest J. Ackerman.  Ackerman (founding editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland) fares best as Dr. Beaumont, but he’s mercifully knocked off in a brief scene midway through the movie.  Naish (whom I remember as the hunchback, Daniel, in House of Frankenstein) is merely present as Dr. Frankenstein (aka Dr. Duryea).  And poor, poor Chaney (The original Wolf Man) is just plain sad to watch as Frankenstein’s henchman, Groton.

This was Naish’s last film; he died two years later at the age of 77. I don’t mean to be cruel, but in Dracula vs. Frankenstein, he’s confined to a wheelchair, as I assume he was in real life.  It certainly appears that he has no energy to stand on his own.  Dentures clacking, he compares his “creature emporium” at the local amusement park to historical Roman spectacles.  Eyes periodically darting to the side, presumably to read his cue cards, he babbles on and on about reality being the grandest illusion of all and human blood being the very essence from which new illusions are created.  He’s always shot in close-up, as if he’s not even occupying space in the same room as the other actors.

This was also Chaney’s last film; he died two years later at the age of 67. His is a sad story.  Overshadowed by his father, he was plagued with illness and alcoholism.  In Dracula vs. Frankenstein, he’s overweight and clearly unhealthy.  Blessedly, he plays a mute, so if you close your eyes, you can pretend he’s not even there.  As Groton, Frankenstein gives him inexplicable injections that actually make him more crazed.  After these injections, he takes his axe out chopping for new female experiment victims.  In between, he’s a trembling simpleton who cuddles with puppies in the one clever part I’ll admit about the movie: it’s reminiscent of his earlier, classic performance as Lennie in Of Mice & Men.

If the stars look awful, the monsters look worse. Dracula (Zandor Vorkov) sports an afro and goatee and seems to have issues with perspiration.  No one could look further from the image of the traditional vampire king.  And for some reason, he speaks as if he’s standing in a well, with a tinny, echoing voice.  But as Frankenstein’s original monster, John Bloom is even worse yet.  His face is a swollen blob of pasty flesh with no distinguishing features.  In Frankenstein movies, the creature’s forehead is normally built-up with prosthetics and make-up, but here, it’s everything below the cheekbones that’s exaggerated.  He looks like he’s holding a large rectangular box in his mouth.

What about the story itself? Well, there’s no improvement for the movie in that area.  It’s not clear what Dracula hopes to get out of the deal when he appears to Frankenstein to tell him there are ways they can help each other.  He provides the monster’s body, but to what end?  Near the movie’s conclusion, he states that Frankenstein’s serum will help him become immortal, but isn’t Dracula already immortal?  When he talks about a comet returning to complete the monster’s life cycle, I stopped paying attention.  You’d think it’s all a set-up for the titular battle between monster titans.  I suppose it is, but it’s so poorly staged it’s just not worth it.

For multiple reasons, Dracula vs. Frankenstein is physically distasteful to me. While at first glance it’s the very definition of a grade-Z drive-in movie, it’s really not even that good.  I made Super 8 films in my backyard when I was a kid that are of better quality than this.  It’s dark, has horridly-dated porn music (even for 1971), is obviously dubbed (badly) in places, includes misplaced fade-outs and abrupt cuts… need I continue?  It is simply the longest, most excruciating 90-minute movie I’ve ever seen.  Oh, and I didn’t even mention it includes a Las Vegas song and dance number (at the world’s most pathetic nightclub) and a ridiculous love song on the soundtrack as the young protagonists walk the beach.

Who is responsible for this mess? Well, that would be a man named Al Adamson, founder of Independent-International Pictures which produced and distributed many of the movies he wrote and directed.  I want to say that Adamson went to the Ed Wood school of filmmaking, but there’s none of the giddy joy in Dracula vs. Frankenstein that you experience when watching one of Wood’s movies.  Sadly, Adamson’s life ended with a story far more compelling than his movies (if this one is any indication).  In 1995, he went missing and was found five weeks later buried beneath the floor of his newly remodeled bathroom.  That’s a movie I’d like to see.

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