The FIrst of the Universal monsters to appear in Jess Franco’s cinema – at least, under his own name – was Count Dracula, in the Towers-produced El Conde Dracula of 1970. Having not seen it in nearly twenty years, I can’t really comment on the film’s merits beyond recalling that I was somewhat bored and noting that critics at the time were also largely unimpressed. Indeed Franco himself had little positive to say about the film, referring to it much later as an adaptation of a Victorian novel rather than a Jess Franco film. He also commented that his dissatisfaction with it had provided the impetus for two subsequent monster movies, Dracula Contra Frankenstein (1971) and La Malediction de Frankenstein (1972). Far more characteristic of their writer / director, these are wild reworkings of the classic monsters and their mythos that remain quite startling to this day.
“Under my command, darkness will dominate the world.”
Obviously intended as a homage of sorts to the monster mash-ups of the 1940s, Dracula Contra Frankenstein – or Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein, in its English incarnation – sees the eponymous doctor (Dennis Price) arriving in Transylvania and taking up residence in the Count’s clifftop castle. Finding only a dead bat in the vampire’s coffin, he has his monster apprehend a cabaret singer, whose blood is then used to resurrect the Count (Howard Vernon) and enlist him as the first member of Frankenstein’s monstrous army . . .
Eccentric even by Franco’s standards, I should probably put some caveats around the above. For instance, I am assuming the film takes place in Transylvania, though the location is never actually specified. Nor is the timeframe for that matter, albeit the weight of evidence suggests the 19th century. Certainly the costumes of the principles suggest a period setting, though the attire of the audience at the cabaret looks suspiciously modern to me. Having Frankenstein arrive in a hearse and travel in a Mercedes thereafter simply adds to the sense of temporal disorientation. As I say, eccentric even by Franco’s standards.
Further confusion stems from the fact that there is no dialogue whatsoever in the first fifteen minutes and precious little thereafter. Indeed, I can only recall three or four instances of exposition in the entire film – notably monologues rather than dialogues – which is something of a double-edged sword. It’s a significant stylistic attribute, as we’ll discuss later on, but doesn’t help in discerning the finer points of the narrative.
Of course a cynic might argue that incoherence and incompetence are typical of Franco, and that Dracula Contra Frankenstein provides ample evidence of both. There is probably some truth to that, as the narrative here is awash with inconsistencies and holes. For instance we see two quite different methods of killing the vampire (a nail through the eye and a stake through the heart) and two quite different results of the latter (one turning the victim into a bat, another a skeleton). We see a / the Wolfman – did I mention we get the Wolfman, in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula – appear from nowhere and disappear shortly thereafter without a word of explanation. We also see Frankenstein abandon his plans for world domination and destroy his monsters for no obvious reason. One begins to wonder if Franco was deliberately poking fun at the inherent silliness of his sources.
For all that, the film is extremely watchable, a riot, compelling almost in spite of itself. The inconsistencies are more problematic on reflection than during viewing, probably because of the heady, dreamlike atmosphere that pervades throughout. Working with established characters – albeit somewhat idiosyncratically rendered – has the effect of freeing the director from the burden of providing a backstory and also helps reduce the need for exposition, which can often fall flat in his films.
The relative lack of dialogue and exposition also obliges him to tell his story visually, which might go some way towards explaining the (relative) consistency of the finished work. That’s not to say it’s well crafted or carefully shot – it’s cheaply made and quickly shot, with the zoom in full effect from the outset – but he does seem to have been engaged throughout, which was not always the case.
As usual, there are interesting images and moments of pure inspiration, most notably when a bat in a bell-jar – the carcass of the Count – is revived by a stream of blood from above. The vampire attacks themselves are also quite effectively mounted, with one providing probably the most surreal shot of the film, as we see in closeup one of the Count’s open, bloodshot eyes looming over the gasping mouth of his victim as he feeds.
On the subject of images and aesthetics, the film is often criticised for its thrift-store costumes and amateurish make-up, again with some justification. To my mind, Howard Vernon makes quite an interesting-looking Dracula, with his top hat and thousand yard stare. Fernando Bilbao has the physical proportions to play Frankenstein’s monster but the surgical scars – which appear to have been applied with lipstick – might grate on some. Dennis Price, the film’s other major presence, was apparently drinking heavily throughout shooting, though it’s hard to differentiate any wobbliness this might have engendered from the general delirium of the piece.
“I foresee pleasure and death and blood.”
Even stranger is the following year’s La Malediction de Frankenstein – better known today as The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein – in which all of the principals return, several reprising their earlier roles. This time around Frankenstein (Price) is the victim of the piece, as the evil Cagliostro (Vernon) takes control of his monster, killing him in the process. It transpires the wizard has his own plans for world domination, and to that end sets about constructing the perfect woman (Britt Nichols, naturally enough) with whom the monster will mate . . .
The primary inspiration here appears to have been the fumetti and bandes dessinees comics which were popular in Europe during the early seventies, meaning we get considerable kinkiness throughout. Indeed, the film features numerous scenes of frontal nudity, most famously when Cagliostro’s henchman and Frankenstein’s daughter are tied back-to-back and whipped until they collapse onto a bed of poisoned spikes.
Of course this and the (aborted) copulation between the monsters are presented in ‘clothed’ variants in the Spanish version, which raises the question of whether there is an ‘unclothed’ variant of the earlier film. It’s certainly unusual for a Franco film from this period not to contain nudity, and there is none in any known release of Dracula Contra Frankenstein. There are apparently stills from the set which indicate nude scenes were shot, though I wonder if they might have seemed incongruous with the surrounding footage and been dropped for that reason. A French home video release would presumably shed further light on the matter.
While the cast return en masse for the second monster mash, there is a change behind the camera, with Raul Artigot taking over from Jose Climent as cinematographer. This might go some way towards explaining the different ‘looks’ of the two films, but I suspect it’s not the whole story. Several scenes appear to have been shot with an unusually wide-angled lens, and we will see this again in La Fille de Dracula (1972). As the two films share many of the same locations, I imagine the choice of lens owes more to confines of space than any particular aesthetic preference.
Leaving technical matters to one side, the most striking visual difference between the two films is probably the rendering of the monster itself, again played by Fernando Bilbao. Here the Munsters-style suit and make-up is replaced by silver body paint, giving him a slightly alien appearance. We also need to talk about Anne Libert in this context, as the blind bird-woman Melisa (did I mention we have a blind bird-woman rather than a wolf-man, this time around). Sadly relegated to a minor role in the earlier film, she’s used to much greater effect here, giving voice to Cagliostro’s psychic commands, attacking his enemies and feasting on their tender flesh. Her appearance also contributes to the feeling that we are watching an adult comic made flesh, given she spends the entire film naked, but for some feathers, claws and a cape.
The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is more coherent than its predecessor – which is not saying much – but there is still time for some silliness amid the sadism, much of it courtesy of Price’s Frankenstein, who is twice revived in order to provide information to those investigating his murder. The second occurrence does not end well though, as he attacks our would-be heroes – Dr Seward and Inspector Tanner, Alberto Dalbes and Daniel White respectively – in a scene that is executed so badly it borders on surreal. Of course, the whole thing borders on surreal, which is part of its appeal.
It occurs to me that I’ve said little about the production of these films, which is partly due to the information to hand being somewhat contradictory. I had always believed them to be produced by Robert De Nesle – to be among the first Franco films produced by De Nesle – though his name does not appear anywhere on the credits of the first film, or at least not on the (Italian) print under review. Of course, both were international co-productions, and while the IMDb lists Alberto Marcos as the producer in both cases, that should not be considered conclusive. My understanding is that Marcos was very much the junior partner in these productions.
Even more confusing are the production details of La Fille de Dracula, a rather awkward melange of giallo stylings and vampirism which is sometimes regarded as the third of an unofficial monster-themed trilogy, though it actually bears very little resemblance to the other two.
“Be brave. Brace yourself to see horrible things.”
Luisa Karlstein (Britt Nichols) rushes to the side of her ailing mother, who reveals a dark secret with her dying breath. Luisa is descended from a vampire, and worse still, its body – the body of the original Count Karlstein – remains in a locked room on the family estate. Elsewhere, a mutilated body is discovered on a beach and the police set out to identify the killer . . .
If we leave vampirism to one side for a moment, the premise of a parent revealing a terrible secret on their deathbed, and this revelation coinciding with a series of murders, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the director’s classic 1963 feature, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus. In fact the similarities between the two films run deep, albeit the gender of the protagonist switches as ‘Ludwig’ becomes ‘Luisa’. In both cases the townsfolk – or at least a prominent member thereof – attribute the murders to a supernatural force, a member of the press becomes involved in the investigation and an alibi brings to light the adultery of one of the main players. Indeed, one could almost believe that La Fille de Dracula began life as a remake of the earlier, far superior film.
That is the theory put forward by Tim Lucas in his audio commentary for the 2016 Redemption release, and it’s quite convincing. The onscreen vampirism is limited to three short scenes of the apparently coffin-bound Count (Vernon, of course) and various cutaways of Luisa’s fangs, all of which could have been shot as inserts after the original production had ‘wrapped’. The attacks themselves are – with one exception – carried out by a black-clad, fedora-wearing assailant which I believe to be Luisa in drag, and while (he or) she does appear to bite their victims, there is no evidence of fang marks on their bodies or of them transforming into vampires as a result.
The film was dubbed in post-production so the auditory references to vampires don’t reveal anything in terms its conception, meaning we’re left to draw our own conclusions from what we see on screen – and what we see on screen at times appears to have been cobbled together. Indeed Nichols and Anne Libert (as her cousin, Karine) almost seem to inhabit a different film to Alberto Dalbes (the inspector) and Fernando Bilbao (the journalist), with footage of the former tending towards the lyrical, while the latter are depicted in more prosaic fashion. This might simply be a reflection of the director’s disposition though, with the nuts and bolts of the narrative stimulating his interest less than, say, Daniel White at the piano or Nichols and Libert in bed, the juxtaposition of which provides one of the film’s few memorable scenes.
If we accept Lucas’ proposition, there is some enjoyment to be had in speculating as to whether the many apparent lapses – for example, the total mismatch between the cliff top castle we see at the outset and the beautiful structure we inhabit thereafter – are due to the stitching together of material from disparate sources or Franco’s lack of interest in such details. Of course, this will be of no help to the casual viewer, who is confronted with a film that doesn’t work as a giallo or a monster movie, and that borders on incoherent. The ending is particularly problematic in this regard, seeming to come from nowhere and leaving many questions unanswered. For example, who is the woman in the second coffin? It clearly isn’t Luisa, though perhaps it is suppossed to be? If not, we are left with a conclusion that entirely ignores our chief protagonist, who may or may not be the giallo-esque figure we have seen attacking women throughout.
In fairness, one doesn’t come to Franco for the neatness of the narrative and Dracula Contra Frankenstein also ends abruptly with many questions left unanswered. The other films we’ve discussed are somewhat consistent in tone though – they’re audacious, idiosyncratic, startling even. La Fille de Dracula is none of these things. Frankly, it’s rather dull. There are some nice shots of Nichols and Libert – who look absolutely stunning in all three films – making their way around the grounds of the chateau, particularly early on. There are also two extended lesbian sequences featuring them – one of which we’ve already mentioned – which were clearly shot with more care and attention than the bulk of the surrounding footage. In these moments the camera seems to come alive, moving around the figures, giving us their point of view, playing with focus as it moves in on and draws back from their naked bodies. It’s really not enough though – the icing instead of the cake, rather than on top of it.
WordPress doesn’t really lend itself to traditional footnotes:
Franco’s comments regarding El Conde Dracula appear in the interview with Carlos Aguilar found in the latter’s Bizarre Sinema book.
The nearest thing to a hero in Dracula Contra Frankenstein is Doctor Seward (Alberto Dalbes), though he really doesn’t contribute very much after the first fifteen minutes. The monsters are the stars of the show, both here and in The Erotic Rites.
The Immoral Tales and Bizarre Sinema books referenced below both cite De Nesle as producer – more accurately co-producer – of Dracula Contra Frankenstein although, as I say, neither his name nor that of Comptoir Francais appear on the credits of the version under review.
In terms of resources, I consulted the following in the writing of this piece:
Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill (Primitive Press, 1994)
Bizarre Sinema!, by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, 1999)
The interview with Stephen Thrower which appears on Nucleus Films 2017 release of The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein.
The audio commentary by Tim Lucas which appears on Redemption Films 2016 release of ‘Daughter of Dracula’.
Robert Monell’s El Franconomicon blog was useful in corroborating a couple of facts I’d acquired along the way.