Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein

Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein
Original Title: Dracula contra Frankenstein
Directed by: Jesus Franco
Spain / France, 1972
Horror/EuroGoth, 88min
Distributed by: Midnight Video

It really is Francomania here right now, I find myself being drawn back to the films I saw years ago, and it really is like reuniting with an old friend. Movies that I once saw too many of in one go and perhaps didn't appreciate as much as I should have. But boy am I enjoying them this time round. At one point I actually started having regrets that I let all those damned VHS tapes go to the rewinding grounds in the sky (I donated them to Monkey Beach actually). I’ve taken it so far that I’m actually listening to Jess Franco and his B-Band on my iPod on the way to and from work! But it's good stuff, and a nice change from the Piero Umilliani & Chet Baker disc I've been playing too long.

Once can’t argue that Franco really has a fascinating spectrum to his catalogue. Not only the cheesy sleazy stuff, the horror flicks, the strange drama stuff, the sexy comedies, the sinister W.I.P. films, the jungle film, but be he’s also been a healthy contributor to the genre that somewhat defines European horror, the niche I refer to as EuroGoth.

I feel that it’s kind of unfair to give Franco’s Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein a hard time, because you can’t really go into a Franco film wanting to experience hardened emotions of fear, shock and dramaturgical fulfilment. It doesn’t work that way, and I can’t really believe the amount of trash that has been written about his movies when you start to poke around the net and even in the books and magazines of say ten-fifteen years back. They all complain about the same thing. Dracula looks silly, Frankenstein’s make up is tacky, and the Wolfman is ridiculous... you get the message.

You have to take it for what it is, and this is one of the keys to understanding his movies. There are a set of themes and motifs that Franco keeps returning too, and until you know these, you won’t get it. The mad scientist trying to recreate the face of his loved one, the widower seeking revenge for the death of her beloved partner, the seductive - but complex female and so on. Then there's the returning characters like the Red Lip Detectives, The Countess, Dr. Orloff, Al Pereira, the Jazz club/Cabaret scenes etc. etc to name a few. Before you have a knowledge or insight into these motifs, characters and traits, you probably won’t enjoy the show, or get the full magnitude of their intent.

A majority of criticism against Franco is that he constantly remakes the same film over and over again – The Awful Dr. Orloff 1962 has been remade with the same base theme several times up to Faceless 1987. The avenging lover was remade several times as Miss Muerte 1966 and as She Killed in Ecstasy 1971 and so on. You get the point. Now this shouldn’t’ really become a foundation for debate, as people rarely criticise, say Picasso for painting several similar themed paintings over and over again, you rarely criticise your favourite band for sounding as they did on the last couple of albums, you rarely criticise Hammer Studios for using the same casts and location over and over again, you rarely criticize your favourite TV show for reusing the same formula over and over again! It’s in our nature, we want safety, even if it means repetition and don’t want to be challenged with change. So please don’t waste your time writing "Yet another tiresome piece of crap from Franco…" over and over again. And I’m not telling you that you aren’t entitled to your opinion, it’s just that that exasperating opening or ending line just proves your ignorance - You didn't get it.

It’s the same principle when watching a Franco film. He goes back, or returns to the initial idea and sees how he can recreate the piece from a different perspective - be it with new actors, a new producer and Production Company, or a new location and sets. One could say a new budget, but Franco seldom received more money for his next film, than he had for the previous. I can relate to this from my line of work. Great the show rated wonderfully, now let’s get to work with the second season – but there’s never a penny more put n the kitty, as we managed so grand the first time around, instead let’s see what we can make cheaper. It sucks, and it definitely takes the edge off creativity. You can see the initial ideas and line of thought in The Awful Dr. Orloff, and then watch how he tweaks and refines the source up to Faceless – which still stands as the better of the two, even though The Awful Dr. Orloff was the movie that gave him his breakthrough and got Orson Welles interested in the Jazz man from Madrid.

So if you have seen a Franco film and didn’t find anything that you liked, enjoyed or actually had a positive experience from and thought that it was the largest pile of garbage you have ever seen, then back the hell off and don’t go back there. These films are obviously not for you! You wouldn’t go back to eat a meal at a restaurant you didn’t enjoy, just to see if they got any better at the same meal would you?

With that out of my system, let’s get down to work with Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein. Well what can one say? Sure it is a slow movie, sure the creatures do look kind of dorky, but that’s what special effects on a minimal budget looked like in those days. Remember that the zombies in Romero’s landmark Dawn of the Dead 1978 still look pasty however much we want them to look scary as hell in our memory of the film.

Basically the movie sees Doctor Frankenstein [Dennis Price] bring back his monster [Fernando Bilbao] with the aid of his slave Morpho [Luis Barboo – see, that Morpho! Remember Dr. Orloff’s handyman from The Awful Dr. Orloff? It’s Morpho – Frankenstein is Dr. Orloff in the Franco universe. It all comes together when you know what to look for doesn’t it!). With the monster resurrected they plan to enslave Dracula [Howard Vernon], who has been put out of action by the Vampire Hunter Dr. Jonathan Seward [Alberto Dalbés], and create an army of the undead.
One by one the women of the village fall victims to Dracula’s bite and become part of Dr. Frankenstein’s army. Just like the primary cast that consists of regular Franco actors who all had equivalent parts in the counterpart film The Curse of Frankenstein (La maldición de Frankenstein) shot at the same time – the female victims are also frequent Franco ladies, Britt Nichols, Geneviève Robert, Eduarda Pimenta and Josyane Gibert.

After sustaining a vampire bite – strangely missing from the movie – Steward becomes almost apathetic, while he is nursed back to health by the village Gypsy [Geneviève Robert]. She becomes so outraged by the plan and procedure that Frankenstein and Dracula have taken that she curses them all and calls upon the Wolfman [Brandy – your guess is as good as mine, he, or she, never acted again!] to put a stop to their fiendish plans.

Needless to say a final battle is in store and the whole show goes down with a bang. Even if it’s not much of a bang, perhaps one could say it’s more of a frizzle, but I’ll get back to that in a short while.
I don’t want to say that Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein is a homage to the Universal Horror’s, or a nod to the Hammer flicks, because I don’t feel that it is. I’m certain that somewhere along the lines, producers – the guys with the small bag of cash, that call the shots – told Franco that they liked the Hammer films, which where, and had been successful in the late sixties, early seventies, but now heading downhill at full speed. The same year as Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein, Hammer produced the appalling Dracula A.D. 1972, directed by Alan Gibson, which set the Count in a modern London. An idea that I’m certain Franco would have used if he were to copy the Hammer films - where better to locate the Gothic characters if not sizzling Spain. Just imagine Dr. Frankenstein and The Count checking out sexy chicks at a hot, vibrant Jazz club. It almost happens, but instead Estela [Gibert] performs a French song and can-can like dance in its place. Again a recurrent scene in Franco's movies, is the light going on yet?

So instead I look at the film as Franco’s interpretation of Universal and Hammer, as seen through his frequent used themes, inside a Franco universe, but with the use of their iconic characters. Sure an influence, but not a homage. And to his defence, the sets in this movie are astonishing, it’s probably some of the best laboratory set design [by Antonio de Cabo – his only one] that ever was made during this period of low budget cinema. Also, despite a pretty diligent use of the zoom, this movie has some awesome imagery and wonderful compositions thanks to cinematographer José Climent, and knowing that Franco wasn’t a stranger to getting behind the camera himself, I’m sure that he had a decent participation in the images. Some of the shots easily beat the Hammer films atmosphere and visuals of the same period in time.

Sure the fake bats obviously hanging off rods just out of frame are silly, but then again, the Hammer movies never managed to pull this one off either, their bats are still just a stuffed bat hanging from a rod just out of frame, so that’s just fine by me. On the other side, Franco and editor María Luisa Soriano [who worked on many of Franco’s films and on Paul Naschy films crash cuts from the real bat – yeah, real bat, because in the close ups, it’s a real bat held up by the wings for the valuable shot – to the actor or actress looming over their victim with such efficiency that the illusion actually works!

The movie has a magnificent score by Bruno Nicolai and Daniel White, who both scored many great Franco movies, and the soundtrack for Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein isn’t too far away from James Bernard’s music for all those Hammer films. But still keeping that wonderful style that we love from those great movie soundtracks they composed for Franco.

And for the narrative, well I’ve never been a fan of compilations of iconic monsters bashing it all out, they all belong in their own narrative space and those films don’t really get me excited at all – not even Ishirô Honda’s King Kong vs. Godzilla 1962.

But that isn’t what I feel this movie is about. In some strange way I feel that there’s a cunning Franco critique towards the Universal monsters, and the Hammer films hidden away in the movie. Because, and I love the movie for this reason; they are all completely incompetent. Yes completely incompetent! Dr. Frankenstein’s plan fails miserably, Seward (the Van Helsing character of the flick) is a utterly worthless vampire hunter, and spends the last half of the film a vampire bitten drone, the Vampire maidens lay comatose in their coffins, all but one with an apparent own agenda as she bites and kills Morpho, Frankenstein’s monster more or less takes his own life, hiding away in his electrical chamber when the push comes to shove, and the Werewolf doesn’t really have any impact at all, but getting tossed around by Frankenstein’s Monster, and finally the angry mob of villagers, lead on by Seward, complete with pitchforks and burning torches arrive at the castle after the Doctor has killed Dracula, the vampires and scampered off towards new experiments in fear, leaving Seward to wave his crucifix completely pointlessly as the movie comes to an end...

So there you go, the Universal monsters, reinvented by the Hammer Studios are completely incompetent in the wonderful world of Jesus Franco.

2.35 Widescreen

English dub, Mono

Original Trailer for Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein and Franco's Jack the Ripper 1976. Unfortunately Midnight Video doesn’t produce their exclusive Collector Series anymore, but the movie can still be obtained on DVD-R from them and is still the most superior version of the film available.

I can't locate a trailer, but instead I leave you with this and ask the question: What happened, and where did it go?


Alex B. said...

Thanks for a positive review of one of my favourite Franco movies, some excellent screengrabs too!

CiNEZiLLA said...

Alex, Thanks.

Glad you liked it, and I really do feel that there are certain states of mind you have to be in when watching Franco.

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