Written by: William Pugsley (story), Samuel M. Sherman (story)
Directed by: Al Adamson
Starring: J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr., and Zandor Vorkov
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"And all those who would meddle in the destinies of Frankenstein and Dracula... will see an infernal bloodbath the likes of which has not swept the Earth before!"
The specter of faded glory hangs over Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein; not only does it feature the final screen appearances of veteran actors J. Carrol Naish and Lon Chaney, Jr., but it’s also headlined by a couple of monsters long past their primes. With Universal’s golden age having expired nearly three decades before, the presence of these old-fashioned ghouls transplanted to the drive-in circuit feels like aged crooners trying to reinvent themselves as garage rockers, only they’ve become something of a creaky lounge act. Of course, none of this is really of any concern in the film because a film titled Dracula vs. Frankenstein is likely to have exactly zero concerns outside of featuring two monsters raring to beat the hell out of each other.
But even that was an afterthought, as the film originally began life as something different altogether. When it began filming in 1969, it was apparently intended to be a sequel to biker flick Satan’s Sadists before morphing into a horror film centered on mad scientist Dr. Duryea (Naish) and his murderous, lapdog assistant (Chaney). Sensing that something was missing, the producers decided to inject the titular monsters into the proceedings and arrived at some semblance of a final product where Duryea’s usual activities—abducting girls from the local strip and transforming them into macabre displays in his surfside funhouse—are interrupted by the Count (Zandor Vorkov, in perhaps the only turn that could make you believe Dracula moonlights as a used car salesman), who knows the mad doctor’s secret: he’s the last living descendant of Frankenstein, and Dracula is willing to resurrect his ancestor’s famous monster in exchange for a formula that will make him…even more immortal, apparently?
Hell if I know. Predictably, Dracula vs. Frankenstein is an absolute mess, with certain scenes and subplots dropping in at their own leisure. There’s a bit where Dracula magically teleports into the car of another doctor (played by Forrest J. Ackerman, here done in by a famous monster of filmland), and I’m not even quite sure what the point is. Likewise, whatever material survived from the aborted Satan’s Sadists sequel made the cut, which explains the presence of Russ Tamblyn’s (billed as a “special guest star”) biker gang, who appear to randomly terrorize other cast members before meeting their doom. With so many disparate plot threads strewn wildly about, the film is obviously roughly constructed and often feels as though it were spliced together in a frenzied rush. Scenes often wildly jump from one moment to the next, with the music sometimes not even matching up.
Enthusiasts of such regional exploitation fare will not be surprised by the film’s technical shortcomings, nor are they likely to be dismayed by them. Dracula vs. Frankenstein is many things—amateurish, borderline incoherent, seemingly crafted on the same budget as your local haunted house attraction—but it is never, ever boring. Like his fellow drive-in auteurs, Adamson had a knack for stuffing his films with enough oddball charm and flavor to overcome their deficiencies, and this is a sterling example. Hardly a moment passes by where you’re not reminded of how much of a hoot this movie is. Consider the actual protagonists’ plot: showgirl Judith (Regina Carrol) is in search of her missing sister, yet takes time to party down at a hippie-joint, where she’s seemingly drugged and picked up by a guy (Mike Howard) that spends the rest of the film helping her sort out the mystery. To say the film is full of such abnormal behavior is an understatement, as Adamson has no intentions of sacrificing entertainment of the altar of coherence or common sense.
Loudly testifying to this is the presence of the monsters themselves, which, quite frankly feel out of place in more ways than one. Dracula is clumsily welded into the proceedings, and his resurrection of the Monster feels even more arbitrary when you consider his plans for it are vague at best (generally speaking, anyone’s plans are rather vague, including Dr. Duryea’s nefarious plots involving undead bodies). Still, there’s something oddly alluring about the clash in style: here are two horror titans completely slumming it in a drive-in scene that had largely left them behind years earlier. Joined by actual props from the Whale’s Frankenstein (supplied by that film’s designer, Ken Strickfaden), these two are remnants of a more elegant age, a far cry from some of the more grungier aspects found here, such as the brutal, bloody decapitations and the attempted rape. It’s almost appropriate that both are shades of their previous incarnations, with the Monster’s visage resembling something like a rotting potato and Vorkov giving one of the most detached, disaffected Dracula performances imaginable (Adamson’s decision to add a warbling, ethereal echo to his voice doesn’t help).
By the time Adamson delivers the fight promised by the title, it’s quite late in the proceedings, coming after all sorts of assorted madness (such as Dracula’s laser-spitting ring capable of reducing victims to fiery ashes). But it’s worth the wait and mostly lives up to its billing. Adamson’s nauseating camerawork aside, the rumble is a messy precursor to Freddy vs. Jason’s bloody, limb-ripping finale, though there’s something a little bit melancholy about watching these two essentially cannibalize each other. There’s an interesting culture clash bubbling just beneath the surface here: the film is very much grounded in the milieu of the late 60s and early 70s (it was actually shot over the course of three years), with the revolutionary spirit of the era’s youth being inexplicably captured during a protest scene that has no real bearing on the film. They find themselves preyed upon by an old guard in Duryea, his assistant, and the two monsters but also contend with more modern, grounded horrors taking the shape of bikers, leaving viewers to a world that just seems completely chaotic, especially when all the participants conspire to eat each other alive.
If the film is about really about anything (and I am admittedly stretching by even suggesting as much), it’s to be found in this weirdly on-point capturing of the zeitgeist. You don’t expect a film like Dracula vs. Frankenstein to adequately reflect the era’s angst about entering a savage new world, one where even classic monsters are reduced to disposable husks of viscera. Even Chaney’s final turn is an appropriate pathetic one: his body having been ravaged by cancer and addiction, he too is a pale shadow of his former self as a mute, imbecilic puppet (think Steinbeck’s Lenny but with a hatchet). The title might only highlight two monsters, but make no mistake: Dracula vs. Frankenstein is something of a pitiful, final howl for at least three of them, and it echoes across the unexpected landscape of the drive-in. There are worse resting places. Rent it!
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