There are many reasons you might watch Dracula vs. Frankenstein. The premise is plenty awesome, but let’s talk about some of the others.
First, you have the last performances of classic Hollywood stars Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish. Naish also had a long career as a character actor. He was Charlie Chan for a couple of seasons in the 1950s, starring with (and apparently firing) living legend James Hong. He was also Sitting Bull in… er… Sitting Bull. Naish is Dr. Duryea, who is really Dr. Frankenstein (more or less).
Lon “The Wolf Man” Chaney Jr. plays Duryea’s igor, Groton. You know him well enough, I am sure. I mean, who wants to skip a Lon Chaney movie? Not me.
Angelo Rossitto is “Grazbo the Evil Dwarf.” You might have trouble placing Rossitto, but he was the Master half of Master-Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Yeah, you recognize him now.
Rossitto, who was not quite three feet tall, played monsters and freaks for most of his career. Dracula vs Frankenstein has him playing a carnival barker — a hype man for Frankenstein’s torture-dungeon wax museum. You might call that “casting against type” but he is listed as an Evil Dwarf so maybe it’s just a failure of imagination.
Greydon Clark is the hippie “Strange.” Clark didn’t have too many acting roles because what he really wanted to do was write and direct. Between Rifftrax and MST3K Greydon Clark has had at least six of his movies riffed, including Angel’s Revenge and Final Justice. He’s also responsible for Uninvited, about a stowaway cat terrorizing the guests on a luxury yacht, and if I am not careful I will start talking about that movie instead of this one.
You may have noticed that I have not yet actually said anything about the movie, and I will get there. But I am not done name-dropping yet!
Composer William Lava wrote the score for Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Lava was responsible for much of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies music through the 1960s.
Finally, there’s a cameo by the original Sci-Fi Fan Forrest J. Ackerman as Frankenstein’s nemesis Dr. Beaumont.
Well then, I guess we have to get to the movie. Sigh.
The movie opens with a couple of brief vignettes. First, Dracula excavates Frankenstein’s monster from “Oakwood Cemetery.” We don’t have many clues about where we are at this point beyond that, but it’s somewhere the signs are in English and there’s no reason to think it’s not California. So we will assume the original Victor Frankenstein flew the Monster’s corpse all the way from Ingolstadt and had it interred in Oakwood. This fantasy will keep us entertained during the long, slow moments of the film to come.
There then follows a short scene where a young woman walks down alone to a beach at night, where she is attacked by an unseen madman wielding a giant double-bladed axe. She is beheaded. Or maybe a Barbie doll in the vicinity is beheaded. It’s hard to tell, it’s kinda dark, and I’m distracted by imagining the Monster’s casket going through customs.
Then we get to meet our heroine, Judith. Judith is a Vegas nightclub singer and we join her during the climax of her show. This show is such a big deal they don’t even bother to raise the curtains, and the tune she’s singing is an original — “Travel Light.” It’s a little show-tune number about luggage, which risks driving me further into my gothic airport fantasy. But the lyrics and music are … so … bad.
It’s about how she packs very efficiently, and men carry all of her luggage. “But there, what do you got in there?” her male chorus sings, pointing at a huge suitcase. She sings (sings!):
Judith Well in there, I carry my telephone, the one that I took from the wall.
Male Chorus But why do you carry a telephone?
Judith When I leave home I’m liable to get a call!
That material might have worked for George and Gracie, but not these folks. Anyway, Judith gets a telegram that says her baby sister is “still missing,” (which is a strange status update to get via telegram). The girl we saw on the beach? That was Judith’s sister Joanie.
Judith heads back home to California to pressure the Police into doing something, because the police are notorious for ignoring the brutal murders of young white women. You think I’m being snarky? Judith gets treated to a bizarre lecture from the police sargent “investigating” the murder justifying exactly that:
Sgt. Martin Now it seems that living near the water brings out the best, and the worst, in us. There’s an amusement park just east of the pier. It’s a hang-out for pushers, and white-slavery operators. Oh yeah, we’ve still got them around. And you’d be surprised just how many young girls come out here, just hoping to get involved in all this kind of stuff. Here are some shots…
[Sgt. Martin hands a stack of crime scene photos to Judith]
…murder, rape, and beatings. Now maybe you ask yourself a question. “Why do all these terrible things have to happen?” Well, it took me 21 years of my 22 on this business to get the answer, and at last I have it.
Judith: What is the answer?
Sgt. Martin These people want these things to happen.
Talk about victim-blaming.
I swear, this movie practically requires a support group. Scenes drag and drag — we get to watch Dracula light candles in slow motion — and the exposition sounds like it’s been passed through Google Translate a few times.
Here’s an example. Dr. Duryea, the last living Frankenstein, has reattached Joanie’s head to her corpse. As she comes back to life, Duryea monologues to the mute Groton:
Dr. Duryea Yes, you’re seeing it coming into being now, Groton. The final stages of the adrenal molecular structure. The traumatic shock, which has vibrated through these bodies, has now been tempered. Tempered to an even rhythm. The blood has reversed through the pulmonary artery. We are all going through changes of having the same blood. It is following throughout all our bodies. We shall soon become more and more as one. Soon perhaps, we will even look as one. Your cure is here, I promised.
The upshot of all of this is that Duryea is murdering attractive young women to subject them to the maximum possible amount of horror, and then bringing them back to a kind of zombie-like life so their fright-changed blood can be processed to make a rejuvenating serum. I missed that the first time because I was puzzling out how to pick up a smuggled long-dead corpse from baggage claim.
What can we say about Dracula? Dracula is performed by Zandor Vorkov, the screen name of Raphael Peter Engel. Vorkov was chosen on a whim after Adamson discovered veteran Dracula actor John Carradine cost too much money. Depending on which generation you belong to, Vorkov’s Dracula resembles either Frank Zappa or that one dude from Jamiroquai.
It was Ackerman who gave Engel his screen name. Ackerman and Vorkov share an amusing scene, when Dracula hijacks Dr. Beaumont’s car.
Dr. Beaumont Who are you?
Dracula I am known as the count of darkness, the lord of the manor of Carpathia.
[Dracula points left.]
Vorokov’s voice is barritoney and dark, but his Dracula seems less like a creature of the night and more like a gloomy technical consultant.
Dracula’s motivations are unclear until the final moments of the movie. Then, clumsy exposition sheds a firefly’s amount of light on the story:
Dracula (to Joanie)
You are responsible for the death of Dr. Duryea, last of the Frankensteins. I am Dracula. The serum he perfected would’ve rendered me invincible. But do not worry, it will not be long before I get all I need of that serum. When I do, I will return with a league of living vampires, an indestructible army of the undead!
Until he has that serum, Dracula can only wield the Power of the Schwartz through a cheap, plastic Dracula ring he bought at a sketchy booth at the Big Lick Comiccon (I assume). It’s an odd addition to the Vampire mythos, to say the least.
It’s easy to make fun of Vorkov, but he did go on to better things after making one more movie with Adamson. He eventually ended up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he founded the Asheville Playback Theatre. “Playback theatre,” as I understand it, is like dramatic improv. Here’s an article from 2009 on the troupe.
This was the last film Naish and Chaney made. Chaney was drunk and depressed for much of the shoot, and Engel says Naish was snappish and in a great deal of pain. This is the story for far too many of the classic Hollywood icons, with many of them working budget films right up until their deaths. Fifty years in movies does not guarantee a comfortable retirement, even for someone like Lon Chaney Jr. That’s something to consider while the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are on strike.
Severin’s restoration probably makes the movie look better than it ever has. I am aware of the theory that bad movies work best in their degraded, faded, muddy state, it’s hard for me to understand how not being able to see anything that’s going on would actually add to the entertainment value. At least with this movie, which has so little entertainment value to begin with.
If you plan on buying the film it comes on a double-feature disk with Brain of Blood. That one’s Vorkov’s other movie. Both films are also part of the Severin Al Adamson Masterpiece Collection, along with thirty more of his films. Unfortunately, that one’s out-of-print and seems to be running about $600 on the collector’s market. I did not invest in this one myself, alas. My movie collection already weighs a ton, dear.