Thursday, 6 May 2010

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972)

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (Drácula contra Frankenstein) isn’t one of Jess Franco’s best efforts (and I’m a big fan of his movies). It’s more of an interesting oddity, an attempt to combine two radically different kinds of movies.

While Franco is most renowned for the psychedelic trippiness and erotic weirdness of his best films there are two things about him that are often overlooked. One is his sense of fun, and the other is his immense love for the old Universal horror movies of the 30s and 40s. Once you start to see Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein as a homage to the Universal monster rallies of the 40s then it starts to make a kind of sense.

Not that the plot makes any sense at all, but then the plots of the 1940s Universal monster rallies were pretty thin and pretty silly as well. In fact the movie is intended to be rather silly. It’s trying to be goofy fun. Goofy fun was something that Franco was quite good at, but somehow the Universal monster rallies and a 1970s eurohorror vibe aren’t really compatible.

So what is the plot about? That’s an excellent question. It involves an attempt by Dr Frankenstein to revive Dracula after he’s been staked by his nemesis Dr Seward. Dr Frankenstein has clearly become very unhinged indeed, and dreams of having an army of monsters at his command. He will not only revive Dracula, but be able to control him afterwards. Dracula will be a kind of vampiric undead version of Frankenstein’s original monster. Apart from having a very powerful monster under his control, Frankenstein will gain another benefit from this - being a vampire Dracula will create other vampires, and these vampires will also be under Frankenstein’s control.

It’s the kind of bizarrely nonsensical idea that Universal might well have gone for back in the 40s, and there is a certain coolness to the idea. And in keeping with the monster rally theme, Dr Frankenstein still has his original monster with him. And yes, there’s a werewolf, but the werewolf appears as an unlikely ally of Dr Seward. Dr Seward also has the invaluable support of a band of gypsies.

For some reason Franco decided to make this movie with very little dialogue. The only reason I can think of is that watching the old Universal movies as a youngster on Spanish TV it was probably the visuals that captivated his imagination, so he wanted to create the mood in this film mostly by purely visual means. Again it’s not entirely a bad idea. The major weakness is that although the movie does have atmosphere, it doesn’t really have enough action to compensate for the sparseness of the dialogue.

It was extremely common for European movies in this period, especially Spanish horror films (this one is a Franco-Spanish co-production), to be released in multiple variants. Some cuts would have virtually no nudity or sex, while other cuts might have copious quantities of both. The Image Entertainment DVD release of Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is very tame indeed, which leads me to believe this was probably a toned-down cut intended for the Spanish market and that the film probably existed in much racier versions as well.

Howard Vernon as Dracula was potentially the movie’s strongest asset but unfortunately he isn’t given enough to do. Dennis Price as Dr Frankenstein would probably have been tremendous fun a few years earlier but by this time the British actor’s health was failing rapidly and his performance lacks the spark that is so desperately needed.

Overall this is an oddball movie that is probably only going to interest very keen Jess Franco fans. Anyone who is relatively unfamiliar with Franco’s work would be well advised not to choose this film as an introduction to the eccentric Spanish low-budget auteur’s work.

If you’re a devoted Francophile on the other hand then it’s worth a look as a movie that is offbeat even by Franco standards.

Given the multiplicity of variants of so many Franco movies I must confess that I don;t have enough specialised knowledge to be able to say how savagely the print used by Image Entertainment had been cut. The picture quality is fair-to-middling, and there are no extras.


The Vicar of VHS said...

I recently watched and reviewed Franco's EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN, which shares Denis Price as the mad doc if memory serves. That one was nuts, and a lot of fun. I need to put DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN on my to watch list.

You make an excellent point about Franco's sense of fun, which is something that many viewers often don't credit him for--they think if something looks or seems ridiculous, it must be b/c of Franco's short attention span or his sloppy, fast-moving production style, and never stop to consider that he might actually be making a joke. When you make that leap, you add a level of enjoyment to the films that you would miss otherwise.

Of course one of the joys for me of watching Franco DVDs is the interview with the director that accompanies so many of them--when you watch him talk about the movie, you can sense his passion (and impishness), and it often makes me like the movie better in retrospect than while I was watching. He's one of a kind, that's for sure, and I'm glad we have him, even if I don't always love his films.

dfordoom said...

Vicar, I think it's very easy for people who've only seen a few of Franco's movies to get completely the wrong idea about him. The tone of his movies, and their level of seriousness, varies so wildly.

Depending on which movies of his people see first they can get the idea that he's either excessively serious, or not serious enough!

And I can't imagine what people would think if the only Franco movie they'd seen was The Sex Is Crazy!