Drácula contra Frankenstein (1972) or: Deconstructing horror with Jess Franco

    As you look through my window
    Deep into my room
    At the tapestries all faded
    Their vague and distant glories
    Concealed in the gloom
    The icy fingers of forgotten passions
    Softly brushing my lips
    At the tips of my primitive soul

    (Black Sabbath – Born Again)

There are very few – if any at all – films in a filmography so rich in titles that showcase Jess Franco’s style, his unique method of eschewing classical narrative structures and displacing them with an unmistakable visual flow pushed forward by cuts, zooms, protruding architectual elements and odd angles better than this 1972 effort, the first in a line of films dedicated to horror cinema itself but also its deconstruction.

Opening up with a magnificent view on a far away castle throning on a hill José Climent’s camera suddenly begins to zoom in, to pend back and forth erratically between the now mist enveloped fortress and a small town just below, during this process meeting up with the latter’s inhabitants and creating a discomforting, uncontrollable flood of images that quickly begins to enervate not only the viewer but also stray dogs, a carriage horse as well as a group of kids – elements of Franco’s creation normally far outside the reach of the moving pictures that confine them. They’re clearly picking up on something that has yet to make a single move.
This is not the only time Franco let’s his mise-en-scène double for an actual narrative progression, let’s it push his characters into the paths they’re destined to walk. That obvious pestilent influence the safe haven of evil high above emits is turned visible time and time again, remaining a symbol of impending doom throughout. And so soon enough a frenzied montage let’s us meet up with Count Dracula (Howard Vernon) himself, whose coming was so eagerly announced by his home before he actually made his first appearance on screen.

A young woman is wandering about aimlessly in her house, is kept awake just like the animals outside, animated by the stench of corruption. The camera beguiles a tower’s bell, zooms in closer and closer – we expect it to strike midnight – but then: a sudden cut, now the camera pans away from an antique clock in the above mentioned house – it’s not midnight after all. And yet Dracula attacks, deceiving us – with Franco’s assistence. Someone else is not deceived at all: Dr. John Seward (Alberto Dalbés), who resides seemingly alone with just a single patient in his asylum and promptly, without any incentive to do so minus the driving montage, rushes to the oh so prominent castle, being pushed further and further by never-ending zooms and cuts connecting the two places, a connection he seems to be aware of. Arriving there big ruins soon enough reduce him to a shadow of himself – a huge blue door shot from below in a steep angle towers over him, who struggles to gain entrance, majestically. It opens out of its own volition, there are no monsters, no immediate threats to his life blocking the way and still no man ever seemed to undertake a greater adventure. As in life the architectual confines that dictate our very movements make for a far more scaring enemy. A powerless pawn in somebody else’s game the doctor’s subsequent victory over the dreaded enemy is not really his own: Once his hammer drives a stake into the undead heart a surprise cut reduces the formerly imposing, top hat wearing vampire to a pathetic little bat, taking away any film inherent control over the proceedings in the process. The pen’s mightier than the sword after all and all power is in the director’s hand, he dictates defeat or victory with his stylistic devices alone.

Now peace could reign eternally but insted something more terrible moves in, a speeding coach announcing it to the villagers. Natural movement, without any help of cuts or zooms, a sight so rare in „Drácula contra Frankenstein“ that it always, across-the-board indicates change – even a gipsy ceremony passed by the vehicle seems to notice this as it falls under it’s spell. Swept into the game by this unusual commotion is another horror regular – Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price). He has come to our hamlet looking for the man whose defeat we’ve just witnessed. He speaks, his grunting henchman (Luis Barboo) does not; either way, no dialogue is necessary anyhow, another low angle Riefenstahl shot tells us all we need to know. Towering next to his bizarre black limo the exiting doctor looks like a veritable giant and thous like a bigger threat than his predecessor ever could – in a strikingly distinct fashion Price is for most of the runtime made up to look huge, dominating, almost inviolable, even though he, Vernon and Barboo all seem to be about 6′ 0 to 6′ 2″ tall. This, like Seward’s sudden shrinking antics among enormous ruins, is indicative of a peculiar power Franco, as an unseen puppeteer behind the silver screen, seems to hold over his creations, reducing them and more importantly their might in a blink of the eye – alluding to the very theme of this classic mad scientist story. This staging of important characters comes to it’s crowning conclusion the moment our arrivals set foot in their new domain – you guessed it, a certain recently vacated castle. Caught on celluloid from the utmost left corner across the open front do both men dominate the scenery, leaving it looking like a tiny crawlspace and yet somewhat paling in comparison to a mysterious crate hauled in horizontally. Seldomly a McGuffin has been set up more stunningly! In there’s the centerpiece of what is likely the steaming motor of this film – the mandatory nightclub sequence which has become so associated with Franco during his artistic revival. A zoom on said crate, the doctor mumbling a weird monologue in an extreme close up – masquerading his rather unremarkable height to keep him in charge – and BANG! His creation comes to life before immediately rushing off to fetch a victim for the master’s grand scheme.

Cut – a woman’s leg is carefully being measured by the camera, then it moves upwards to her face – we’re in the aforementioned nightclub; a costumer get’s fondled by the previously gauged dancer, closer and closer the camera pans on his face, blurring completely when finally catching up with his triumphant smile – ecstasy! Intercut with these proceedings: A glimpse of a small ballerina doll in her room just before the designated victim returns to change her dress. Just a slight but then again certain, unmistakeble sense of longing, of dreams that never met or never will meet fulfillment – a reoccuring theme in the director’s massive body of work (and especially prevalent in „Les expériences érotiques de Frankenstein“ [1972], the last part of this loose trilogy on horror cinema, which more or less depicts, silently, in shy glances and gestures only, it’s film monsters as shattered dreamers yearning for a more complete existence). Some scenes earlier Seward’s lone patient was measured in just the same way as the dancer, from head to toe by Franco’s third eye, slowly going further out one zoom at a time, revealing dolls, mirrors, random memorablia, shards of a fractured existence and the room to be more of a prison, one filled with insatiable desire (and not only carnal one, that’s likely the most common misconception about Franco’s work), but a prison nonetheless – a fact that will become important again soon.

Meanwhile the monster’s carrying away a certain object of desire, wandering, prey over shoulder, along a tubelike corridor all the while being perforated by police bullets. Crossing a mirror the camera suddenly freezes up, resorts to partially showing the final stage of this peculiar getaway in form of the reflection in said mirror – a film in a film so to say. A glaring offence in any event that will rip anyone right out of immersion, destroying all make believe and alienating the viewer profundly. Things like this get Franco constantly marked as a hack, a purveyor of filth and shoddy filmmaking, but nothing could be further from the truth, which is a rather simple one at that: He was a perfectionist, who used deliberate and meticulously planned inconsistencies to mess with his viewers, to create an out and out fake environment that distinguishes all his countless sly satires, quasi-remakes and variations on the works he so feverishly admired or – more important in this case – not. One of the crowning achievements of this tactic has long gained a certain notoriety among admirers and detractors alike – the infamous opening sequence of „La comtesse noire“ (1973), which shamelessly concludes a glooming shot of Lina Romay wandering through the woods up to the camera with her bumping headfront into it. Cut. Hilarity ensues. This is not cinéma vérité.

Following this attraction of the public eye Seward and Frankenstein are soon pitted against each other – almost immediately resulting in the second centerpiece of „Drácula contra Frankenstein“: The mad doctor and his henchman spying on their adversary, who is calmly writing in his mansion. Standing in front of a big study window – all the while dissecting his rival in a long monologue – positioned just in front of this normally seethrough obstruction that seperates both men it surely seems the evil doctor is simply watching a movie with the window acting as a gateway to another story, precisely another life. His neverending monologue is even more important in creating a distinct feeling of otherworldliness, not in this scene alone – almost the entirety the scarce dialogue is exclusive to this form of delivery, with the overwhelming majority of characters outside our two protagonists being mute in the first place. Properly pieced together this scene pushes Frankenstein right out of the movies boundaries, paints him as an entity far out on another plane of existence – a movie director like Franco himself perhaps? A thought the films seems to support: Both scoundrels never change their obvious spying position even once, yet Seward never notices them through the magical barrier, it’s almost like they’re completely invisible to him; as invisible as the mad Spanish auteur pulling the strings above their own heads. The former paragraph about Franco’s methods, his powers begins to come full circle here.

An earlier scene featured Price monologizing while taking notes – like a screenwriter mentally going through his work over and over again, reveling in his own genius with a goofy grin of satisfaction. Likewise the way he treats his creations is a further hint – his seemingly endless powers, their total passivity. A trait brought up again by the resurrected count who is soon driven via car as well as mental prowess – he himself remaining absolutely static save for his second strike – to turn another woman, the forsaken patient into a vampire. Another soldier for the rapidly approaching final confrontation. This recent attack carefully replicates the nightclub’s dance scene – Vernon’s wild wandering eye is all we see, flinching faster and faster as he greedily feeds to moment of highest arousal – again the proceedings blur out. Even this little ecstasy is denied to the once so dashing symbol of dark sex, nothing remains but a pathetic hand puppet in a fixed game. The game of a man who uses or even abuses classical movie monsters, traps them in narrow genre confines, sends them off to experience cliched horror movie situations time and time again for the rest of their eternal unlife. Even Franco’s use of wide scope compositions turns diabolical in this context – steep angels filmed from bizarre positions, huge lifeless buildings in all their glory, the part by part revalations about rooms, obstacles obstructing chunks of the centered action while the sides remain largely unused (Just take a look at Barboo fondling one of their victims behind a conveniently placed column – pleasure denied again … and some pretty dapper dick symbolism!) – it’s much more of a prison than one might expect from this format.

Tío Jess once expressed his profound distaste for the horror films made by the British Hammer Film Productions predominantly in the 1950’s to 1970’s, their copious spin offs on Dracula and Frankenstein tales and especially the work of their most famous contract director Terence Fisher (1904 – 1980). In his characteristically snide tone he proclaimed:

(Jess Franco) There was this Renaissance of horror movies from Universal in the 40’s and 50’s […] which where much more accessible than Expressionist films.
Then there was all that shit from the English school – Christopher Lee and company which in my opinion is real shit. Terence Fisher is one of the worst film-makers that ever was.
(Interviewer) And yet his film are considered modern classics…
(Jess Franco) No, they’re not classics; his films are cold, there’s a sort of distance. […] Terence Fisher hated making fantasy films. He made them for money, whereas I feel that one doesn’t have the right to do something unless one believes in it.

From an interview with Jesús Franco at Studios Arcofon, 08/05/1986 – translated by Bambi Ballard for: [Lucas Balbo, Peter Blumenstock, Christian Kessler et alia – Obession – The Films of Jess Franco (Selbstverlag Graf Haufen & Frank Trebbin, 1993); p. 244]

With this seeming a hell of a lot like the situation at hand in this very film – is Dr. Frankenstein, the mangler of and rekindler of lifeless bodies, Terence Fisher after all? Maybe – Dennis Price certainly looks the part and, frankly, this is just the kind of subtle jab one imagines Franco pulling off.

Young Mr. Price (l.) and young Mr. Fisher (r.) – obviously seperated at birth!

Who’s who?

„Drácula contra Frankenstein“ is in any case a thorough and – its typically short runtime notwithstanding – almost exhaustingly complex meditation on horror filmmaking in 1972 – a year in which thoughts like these seemed to be among Franco’s prime concerns. After all his idiosyncratic German Bryan Edgar Wallace smasher „Der Todesrächer von Soho“ (1972) with its abundant torpedolike architecture coupled with utterly nonsensical dialogue expresses similiar metatextual thoughts on the by then somewhat stuck German Krimi craze.

But is there also a solution amidst these overwhelming impressions of confinedness?
Yes, there is and not one for this little meta problem alone, the gypsies, who had been so curiously aware earlier, hold it in their hands. Among them is a woman, a seer being able to see through more than anyone else in this film. To a dumbfounded Seward she recites a prophecy during extreme close ups of her pulsating eyes, often eschewing the mouth’s movements this way – insinuating some sort of mind control. She is a puppeteer, a director too. One allied with the outcasts and underdogs and a mighty one at that. The sole introduction of her character sets the stage for the crumbling of that wordly prison, or if we follow this interpretation the gridlocked genre itself, erected by her nemesis. To elaborate on this – 1979’s „El sádico de Notre-Dame“ is generally accepted as a reflection on the way Franco’s cinema works. Scholar Stephen Thrower puts it this way:

Franco says that he only stepped in as Vogel after failing to secure Vincent Price for the role. Leaving aside the bizarre mental image of Price in this project, the remark shows that Franco regarded Exorcism as a major undertaking requiring a committed central performance. His assertion that he himself was the best actor available to play the role underlines that he regarded the film as significant, and not to be entrusted to just anybody. […] With this in mind, we have to ask why a scumbag like Vogel matters so much to Franco that he should take on the part himself. Is the film some kind of „exorcism“ of Franco’s Christian childhood? Does he understand, and in some way carry within him, the religious disease of Vogel, who sees women as servants of the Devil designed to pollute men? By playing this character and then „twisting the knife“ does Franco aim to weaken the hold such thoughts might have had on his imagination? In other words, is the „exorcism“ as much fictional as personal?

[Stephen Thrower, Julian Grainger – Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco (Strange Attractor Press, 2015); p. 383]

„Drácula contra Frankenstein“ predates the inciting disease aspect of this and expands on it at the same time, perhaps offering a pessimistic twist to the countless self portraits he painted over the decades, sometimes and sometimes not portrayed by himself. While all hell breaks loose in the wake of the vocalized prophecy the power expenditure involved quickly drains all life out of the gipsy visionary, she wears herself out fighting the status quo, a long hosted infection, her neck bearing the marks of an earlier run in with the vampire, doing her in at long last. A fate that Franco was ultimately spared dying at quite a ripe age and yet his very own infection was still boiling madly in his blood – he never retired from cinema.
Change’s there though with or without our heroine – the very same doorway used to capture Frankenstein’s ascent to supreme reign is now the site of his downfall, in an inversion of the former scenes angled shot he’s now seen running frantically away from a tiny bat – a free spirited vampire woman whose presence is not once explained – that turns bigger and bigger, inevitably, with every step Price takes towards the camera … until it collides with it. Established proportations and confines are subject to the vision of the director currently holding the reins.
The end of this tale is told in rapid Franco fashion: Frankenstein disowns „his“ creatures (who didn’t even turn against him), scolding them for their perceived disobedience like a greedy producer would scold an unsuccessful filmmaker, impales them in their coffins and vanishes into oblivion (which more or less translates to inexplicably being dropped from the film altogether). When Seward and his gipsy allies storm the castle they merely come across two skeletons in their coffins, bound together by the scope compositions like an old couple reunited in death. The mist covering the keep dispenses, makes room for a bright new day for the little hamlet’s inhabitants … and for the film genre that relates stories like this.

Drácula contra Frankenstein – Spain, Portugal, France, Liechtenstein 1972 – 81 minutes – Direction: Jesús „Jess“ Franco – Production: Robert de Nesle, Arturo Marcos, Victor de Costa – Screenplay: Jesús „Jess“ Franco – Cinematography: José Climent – Editing: María Luisa Soriano – Music: Daniel White, Bruno Nicolai – Cast: Dennis Price, Howard Vernon, Alberto Dalbés, Paca Gabaldón, Britt Nichols and many more

Dieser Beitrag wurde am Samstag, April 7th, 2018 in den Kategorien Ältere Texte, André Malberg, Blog, Blogautoren, English, Essays, Filmbesprechungen, Filmtheorie, other languages veröffentlicht. Sie können alle Kommentare zu diesem Beitrag über den RSS 2.0 Feed verfolgen. Sie können diesen Beitrag kommentieren, oder einen Trackback von ihrer eigenen Seite setzen.

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