Sunday, June 28, 2020

Back in Drive-Ins: Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein

Through no merit of its own, this grade-Z exploitation movie keeps winning the distribution lottery. It reached its initial viewers on the drive-in circuit, which was the intended destination for most of director-distributor Al Adamson’s movies. Then it had a second life as one of the earliest VHS releases. Suddenly, drive-in distribution is a thing again, so it is headed back to outdoor screens. However, this time Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein will be serving a good cause when original star Zandor Vorkov makes rare personal appearances to support blood drives during the era of the CCP-Virus. The next stop for D vs. F (as part of a double-bill with Adamson’s Brain of Blood) and the “Vampire’s Blood Oath” will be the Family Drive-In (VA), this Wednesday and Thursday.

Wheelchair-bound Dr. Durea (if that is his real name, which of course it isn’t) runs a tacky yet shockingly realistic Venice Beach house of horrors, featuring Island of Dr. Moreau style monstrosities—and a functioning guillotine. Durea is actually the last of the Frankensteins, who is still secretly in the old family business. Somehow, Dracula knew this and also had the inside info on where Frankenstein’s enemies buried his last stitched together monster. Much to the crazy doctor’s surprise, Dracula wants to join forces, because he believes serum Frankenstein is perfecting will make him even more invincible. Remember, this doesn’t have to make sense. It is just supposed to fill time while teenagers made out in their cars and bought concessions.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas showgirl Judith Fontain has come to Venice looking for her hippy sister, who has become the latest victim of Groton, Dr. Frankenstein’s zombie hunchback (the monster named after an elite prep school). The cops are no help and the bikers don’t want anyone asking questions about their former customers. Fortunately, she falls into the pad of sensitive swinger Mike, who will help her amateur investigation. They are not the brightest people, but they still quickly identify Durea’s Creature Emporium as a prime site of suspicion.

D vs. F has a reputation for murkiness that is well deserved. There are old prints out there that look like it was filmed in Manos-Vision. Yet, it kind of fits this movie. Ed Wood films are so bad they’re good. Human Centipedes are so bad they’re repellent. D vs. F is so bad, its surreal. After watching it, you have to remind yourself you live in a world with decent natural lighting, where the laws of nature apply with logical consistency.

Al Adamson never claimed to be an artist, but he was a well-liked guy who deserved a better fate (as David Gregory revealed in his terrific documentary, Blood & Flesh). However, it is the other names attached to the D vs. F that make it memorable. This was Lon Chaney Jr.’s final horror movie and his penultimate film overall. Despite the cheapness of the proceedings, there is something poignant about his performance as Groton. Perhaps this is because the monster’s affection for a puppy brings back memories of his classic work in Of Mice and Men. Adamson isn’t called an exploitation master for nothing.

Although in poor health during the production (which spanned several years and sadly documents his physical decline), J. Carrol Naish (who was Oscar-nominated for Sahara and another film nobody remembers anymore) is better than you might have heard as Dr. Frankenstein. He can recite the ridiculous scientific double-talk with authority, which is something. Zandor Vorkov, the guest of honor, is all kinds of weird playing Dracula with a vibe evoking the dark, cultish side of the counterculture. Angelo Rossitto (memorable from Freaks, Child Bride, and three Bela Lugosi “Poverty Row” B-movies) is also still creepy playing Frankenstein’s ticket-taking minion, Grazbo. Plus, horror and sf editor Forest J. Ackerman has a cameo playing Frankenstein’s soon to be late rival, Dr. Beaumont (presumably a reference to Charles Beaumont, whom he represented as a literary agent).

By now, you are probably wondering why John Carradine is not in this movie. Adamson could not afford him, that’s why, but somehow, he could swing Russ Tamblyn, who oozes sleaze as the pervy biker, Rico. Adamson’s wife Regina Carrol looks but does not really sound like a Vegas entertainer, but she gets a cheesy musical number anyway. To cap it off, some of the shoot was lensed by Gary Graver, who served as Orson Welles’ devoted cinematographer and protégé late in the master’s career.

You can tell Adamson is a capitalist, because this film does not think much of the drop-out New Lefty generation. In one uncharacteristically sly scene, one hippy asks “what are we protesting tonight?” His hippy girlfriend does not know either, but it doesn’t matter to her, as long as they are protesting. They will soon learn that there is evil in the world—irrational evil in this case, but very definitely evil just the same.

Speaking of which, the big showdown promised by the title makes absolutely no sense when it happens, but at least Adamson made good on his hype. It is not exactly recommended, but as fans, we are happy that Dracula vs. Frankenstein exists. You can see it for yourselves and arrange to donate blood when it screens Wednesday (7/1) and Thursday (7/2) at the Family Drive-In, in Northern Virginia.