Friday, August 3, 2012

135. DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN, 1972)

After asylum director Dr. Jonathan Seward (Alberto Dalbes) brings an end to Dracula's (Howard Vernon) reign of terror, Baron Rainer von Frankenstein (Dennis Price) revives him and his vampire bride (Britt Nichols) in the hope of using them to found a new super race more subservient to his will than his rampaging Monster (Ferdinando Bilbao) proved to be. His plans are thwarted when Seward joins forces with Almira (Geneviève Deloir), a beautiful young gypsy who uses her occult knowledge to materialize a werewolf (Brandy) to oppose them.

After making 1969's COUNT DRACULA with Christopher Lee -- flawed to be sure, but still closer than most films to Bram Stoker's novel -- Jess Franco made a series of semi-sequels, beginning with VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970, with a basis in Stoker's story "Dracula's Guest") and continuing with this hommage to the Universal "monster rallies" of the 1940s, like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1946), which were so seminal to his imagination as a teenage film-goer. On initial exposure, and depending on the presentation, DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (which had a VHS release as THE SCREAMING DEAD) can look painfully inadequate beside its inspirators, but the more one studies it, the more one appreciates that it gives us more time with the monsters than Universal ever did, and that Franco's imagination was equally fertilized by silent films (very few words are spoken), French horror comics, serials and particularly German expressionism.

Much of the film, particularly its arresting opening minutes (which Franco has reckoned among his best work in interviews), is shot in a cheap but expressionistic style that's more Danish than German, evoking Dreyer's VAMPYR in particular; at the same time, it features some startling, progressive touches, like showing Dracula's face for the first time at the victim's window in an almost proto-Friedkin subliminal flash. Vernon makes an odd, pasty-green Dracula, lacking in the personality then associated with the role but more bat-like than usual; his casting acts as a tacit acknowledgement of the film's placement in the Franco universe. Bilbao's Frankenstein Monster has some striking visual moments despite a somewhat slapdash makeup, but Brandy's werewolf -- though energetic -- fails to convince, which brings the film's conclusion to a kind of Monster Kid Home Movie level. Luís Barboo appears as Morpho, Franco's all-purpose hulking monster minion (first introduced in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF), and can be seen furiously articulating the wings of a fake bat as it allegedly bites him to death. Geneviève Deloir (aka Geneviève Robert, the wife of Ivan Reitman, and mother of Jason Reitman), who worked only once more with Franco (on THE LOVERS OF DEVIL'S ISLAND), gives the film's best performance and her scenes with Dalbés are among the film's best. There is also an interesting if underbaked sidebar story involving Maria (Mary Francis, aka Paca Gabaldón), an inmate of Seward's asylum, who seems to find an annex to Dracula's influence through her work as an abstract artist -- a character resonating with others in Franco's filmography, such as Heidrun Kussin in VAMPYROS LESBOS.   


This film is tough to find in a decent official presentation, as none of the extant releases are anamorphic and they are all derived from the censored Spanish release. Some unclothed shots in a German stills set indicate that an alternative, more adult version was lensed for France and other countries.

Viewed via Image Entertainment DVD.

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