EL FRANCONOMICON / I'M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND

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DRACULA CONTRO FRANKENSTEIN (Blu-ray) Review.

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Thanks to Francesco Cesari for additional  information and consultation on the making of this film and for helping me get a copy of this Blu-ray release.

I have managed to collect a good number of VHS and digital releases of this 1972 Jess Franco monster rally. There are several levels I want to discuss this film on: as a collector’s item; the film itself; this particular HD release; the legacy of the film, which is the first entry in an unofficial monsters-from-Universal Pictures, Jess Franco style, trilogy, the others being LA FILLE DE DRACULA (1972) and LA MALDICION DE FRANKENSTEIN/THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1972).

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First, it must be remembered that 1971-1972 was a very hectic time in Jess Franco’s already chaotic career. After the loss of his muse Soledad Miranda in mid 1970, the director was at loose ends. His “personal period” included films he made from the time when he left the Harry Alan Towers stable, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT (actually made before his break with Towers), EUGENIE DE SADE (1970), the lost SEX CHARADE, VAMPYROS LESBOS and SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY (all 1970 and featuring Miranda). THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAVA, was also made with Miranda, her very last film before her untimely death in August 1970. But AKASAVA is hardly a “personal” project and despite its obsessive demonstration of the telezoom, could have been directed by any of the German Edgar Wallace specialists of that era, which was rapidly drawing to a close. It was as if Franco were using the zoom lens as a way to visually scream his visual imprint onto sub-standard material (cf Mario Bava’s equally zoom-ridden direction of FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON-1970).

Jess Franco was ready to get back into personal film-making again, although his film-making is always somehow personal in terms of his habit of twisting his attitudes and personality into the most commercial, prepackaged product (ie ROBINSON AND HIS SEXY SLAVES-1971).  His admiration for the Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s and 1940s knew no bounds, it was as intense as his disdain for the Hammer remakes of the Universal classics, which he found “cold”.  He had made his own version of DRACULA, which was more of a Harry Alan Towers version in end result and only Pere Portabella’s experimental, on-set documentary CUADECUC-VAMPIR could be considered a successful by-product of that shoot.  With DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN he would go back to his own experimental approach, which can be seen in parts of VAMPYROS LESBOS, based on Bram Stoker’s DRACULA’S GUEST, but 100 per cent Jess Franco style.

Filmed in a period between early December, 1971 and January 14, 1972, this French,  Portuguese, Spanish co-production was filmed largely in Sintra and Cascais, Portugal, the exteriors were mainly shot in Sintra,* on many of the locations familiar from A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, which was previously shot there earlier in 1971, with some exteriors in Alicante,  Spain. Francesco Cesari adds that the film was viewed by Spanish censorship on Feb. 4th, 1972 at a run-time of 87m. Most versions of the film now available on DVD/Blu-ray run about 82 minutes, the Divisa DVD from Spain is listed at 85 minutes. None of the extant versions contain nudity or uncovered takes as in the “director’s cut” of LA MALDICION DE FRANKENSTEIN (1972).**

The screenplay is obviously based on Franco’s enthusiasm for the 1940s “monster rally” films of Universal Pictures, particularly  HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945).  That film features the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.), who all gather at the castle of a scientist  (Onslow Stevens) who attempts to “cure” them using scientific methods, rather than religious/occult ones. That film, released on December 7, 1945, was a commercial success. But the next Universal monster rally was the 1948 comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKSENSTEIN, which is actually quite amusing and also works as a fairly atmospheric Gothic horror film. The director of HOUSE OF DRACULA was Erle C. Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) a more than competent craftsman whom Jess Franco sometimes mentioned in interviews as an inspiration, both being consigned to B, B minus or B plus productions and not generally taken seriously as auteurs. DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN was shown in France, Spain, Italy and sometimes in North American and the UK. One English language double bill was with Leon Klimovsky’s similar monster mash, WEREWOLF SHADOW/LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS (1970), featuring Paul Naschy in the werewolf role Lon Chaney made famous. HOUSE OF DRACULA only lasts barely over an hour and Franco’s DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN has a similar programmer sense of dispatch, look and feel.

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I first encountered DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN as a grey market dupe titled DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, then Wizard Video’s Big Box THE SCREAMING DEAD and Midnight Video’s VHS release of the Japanese video of the film, which was the only one properly framed at 2.35:1, but containing the English language export cut, complete with the post-production diary readings.  The Midnight Video version was the way to go for me for years simply because it preserved Franco’s compositions, executed by Jose Climent and Alberto Prous. Most disappointing were the IMAGE and DIVISA DVDs, which besides being distorted and incomplete, had the problem of watered down color and poor definition.

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However, only the Divisa and Image DVDs open with the “quote” from David Khunne about the nature of the monsters: “The Vampire, a sinister night dweller, was sleeping his eternal slumber, when Dr. Frankenstein decided to seize him. He unleashed a fight between two Titans of Death, and in its wake, the other monsters, nightmare creatures, would awaken from their lethargic sleep, as a terrifying and devastating chorus.– David H. Khunne–“. The David Khunne beard is the name Franco used to supposedly write pulp novels at various times in his career, none of which have ever surfaced. He sometimes signs his films with the name. For instance, his 1982 zombie horror film MANSION DE LOS MUERTOS VIVIENTES, is based on a David Khunne novel according to the opening credits. Here it acts as a personal epigraph for this experimental genre version of HOUSE OF DRACULA. Note that he uses the word “chorus” to describe the other monsters, The Wolfman and Lady Dracula here, played by Brandy*** and Britt Nichols. Referring to these characters as a chorus indicates again that Jess Franco, an accomplished musician and composer of music for his own and other director’s films, uses musical analogies when conceiving and directing his films. He has said that the considers himself a musician who makes films. Francesco Cesari, who has acquired many original Jess Franco screenplays, confirms that the one for DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN is written more like a prose novel than a conventional film, which is carried out in the finished film itself, which has very little dialogue, and no dialogue whatsoever in the first quarter hour or so. It was conceived as his personal, down market, pure cinema variation on the Hollywood and Hammer models of famous monster films.

Both the IMAGE and DIVISA DVDS are not framed at the 2.35:1 Techniscope ratio, but default to an approximately 1.90:1 ratio, cropping off crucial visual information. Both DVDs also end prematurely, abruptly cutting off Bruno Nicolai’s orchestral end music before it reaches it crescendo. The Blu-ray does retain the 2.35:1 ratio and does let the end music play out as the camera slowly zooms black from the castle nestled on the misty mountaintop. The Midnight Video tape also retains the correct aspect ratio and the complete ending, albeit containing the reworked English language release with the diary readings and additional dialogue written by Rome based English language dubbing director Richard McNamara.

If an “uncovered” version exists it has never surfaced, although there have been reports of screenings in France in the early 1970s. The extant director’s cut is very successful as a silent film style Gothic comic book, but one which will disappoint Hammer fans looking for the types of lavish sets and literate dialogue which characterize those efforts. And it must be remembered that Hammer was also a B budget operation. Franco’s film is obviously under-dressed and under resourced. Early in the film we see mid 20th Century automobiles and a motorized hearse in the cobbled streets of the picturesque Portuguese locations. The costuming of Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and Lady Dracula, along with Doctor Seward (Alberto Dalbes) is strictly 19th Century, as is the gentleman’s wardrobe of Doctor Frankenstein (played by a bloated, tired looking Dennis Price, who according to Franco began drinking alcohol on set in the early morning hours). He looks depressed and not wanting to be there, and he probably did the best he could under those desperate circumstances. But he’s a far cry from the poised, articulate elegance of Peter Cushing’s Doctor Frankenstein’s in the Hammer series, from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN to FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL> Hence the derisive attitude hardcore Hammer fans often display toward Franco’s dilapidated looking efforts.  But Franco allows his passion for personal, experimental cinema to emerge in other ways.

DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN, when seen the way it was intended, is a no-budget fever dream of a committed cinephiliac. Franco is fast forwarding the Universal and Hammer models into his own personal parody/critique. It’s as if he were writing a scholarly critique on horror history using the zoom lens as his pen. The film opens and closes with zoom shots, a rapid zoom out from a Portuguese tower in the opening shot and closing with a zoom out from Frankenstein’s castle, after the monsters have been destroyed by Dr. Frankenstein himself, who spears Dracula through the heart, electrocuting Lady Dracula and the Frankenstein monster with his sub Strickfaden electronic power station. The electrical effects are on about the same level as Al Adamson’s 1971 DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, which actually used some of the vintage equipment of  Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984), who created the elaborate control panels, ribbed ceramic insulators and blinking lights for such horror classics as FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932), THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). Franco, of course, didn’t have a Hollywood budget, not even an Al Adamson one, so created his science fiction laboratory using colored lights, levers, dials and sound effects.

The monster make-up on Dracula and the Frankenstein monster is barely adequate, featuring painted and penciled in facial markings, scars, etc., with very ratty looking formal wear for Dracula, including the top hat evoking Baron Latoes in HOUSE OF DRACULA, and garbage dump rags for Frankenstein. The wolf-man facial make-up is quite pathetic and not lingered on. Only Britt Nicholl’s elegantly erotic Lady Dracula comes off as a credible, original creation. In fact, the actresses here, Josiane Gibert as the doomed cabaret singer, Genvieve Deloir as the gypsy and Paca Galaban’s mentally disturbed Maria are much more defined and interesting characters than the male leads. They have to react to the mad scientists and monsters, who are pretty much one-dimensional menaces in Franco’s raggedy mise-en-scene. But it’s all propelled by rather effective editing and the constantly propulsive zoom lens. At times the zoom shots seem almost synchronized with the impressive, rumbling Bruno Nicolai cues from EL CONDE DRACULA.

When I interviewed him in 2005 Jess Franco described his theory and practice of staging horror-fantastique scenes as one of working like a painter or opera director, using shapes, areas and colors as tools. He particularly emphasized his preference for the 2.35:1 Scope format, which he said allowed him to work as a muralist and have three different staging areas in one frame, center, right, left, and that he would attempt to have different actions going on simultaneously in each area within that frame during the duration of the shot. This is why the resulting film looks so jam packed with atmospheric architectural, geographical, topological, geometrical, sometimes geological detail, all of which permit the stylized movements of the deliberately unrealistic characters to unfold  against that backdrop, bathed in pools of crimson, gold and aquamarine light.  For instance, the striking image of the shadow of the vampire bats on a plush crimson carpet in the villa of the victim played by Antonio Da Cabo (DEVIL HUNTER). Another striking scene floods the screen with noxious red light as Morpho (Luis Barboo) molests the exsanguinated dead body of the cabaret singer. Then there are Maria’s garish water color paintings which evoke a child like attempt at a Van Gogh or Matisse canvas.  It’s all part of a nightmare world which refuses to awaken.

The Colosseo Film Blu-ray presentation utilizes a full 2.35:1 Italian Cinemascope print titled DRACULA CONTRO FRANKENSTEIN.  It does not have the sparkling luster of a transfer from original camera negatives. To finally see it properly framed, is something of a revelation. The colors are rich, saturated and as bold as they were intended. They have the eye popping quality of a freshly minted EC comic book. Unfortunately the image quality is rather dark and unsharp, although not as soft as the previous DVDs. There is also the odd issue of a light source which appears at variable intervals on the far right side of the scope frame, and then quickly disappears only to reappear again later. There is also some evidence of fading at the far edges of the side frames and an occasional color distortion in the same area, which also quickly disappears. Some cleaning has been done to remove scratches, lines and other marks from the image as illustrated in a Before and After Belspiele der Restauration featurette.  There is also a Jess Franco interview and a 6 page booklet by Gerald Kuklinski in German, along with a photo/poster gallery. The crucial audio options include German, Spanish and Italian language tracks, with English and German subtitles available. The way to go for me is the Spanish language track with English subtitles.

In the final analysis Dr. Frankenstein’s plan of world domination via the monsters is patently absurd and as unworkable as the mad doctor plots in DOCTOR X  (I932) and THE MAD MONSTER (1942).  But this is an enjoyably outre, comic book style operetta-monster rally as only Jess Franco could realize and bring to life. This Blu-ray debut of this title is a welcome, if somewhat flawed, edition, which at least is a complete HD 2.35:1 presentation of the director’s cut. I guess a 2 or 4K scan of original camera negatives would be the ultimate release, along with the legendary “nude” version, if it indeed exists.

DIE NACHT DER OFFENEN SARGE Blu-ray (2017)

(C) Robert Monell, 2017

[* In discussing this film Italian Jess Franco scholar Francesco Cesari notes that Sintra, which he visited, “…is a town out of time. You have the feeling of being in another time. The mood of Sintra is the film’s mood.”]

[** Jess Franco stated in my 2005 telephone interview with him that he preferred the uncovered, nude version, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN, which he referred to as the “erotic version.” ]

[***Brandy is the name of the Spanish stunt actor who sometimes doubled for Paul Naschy as the werewolf in such films as THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI (1976), a very different type of monster rally and a much more athletic one]

Written by Robert Monell

27 octubre 2017 a 10:41 PM

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