Monday, March 31, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #12: The Ghosts of O'Brien's King Kong vs Frankenstein (King Kong vs Godzilla...and beyond!!!)

A number of folks have requested that I fashion an overview of "King Kong vs Godzilla" (or at least a sampling of some influential Toho pictures), and I probably should have plunged into such after composing my "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman Influence" post: a prelude, for all intents and purposes, to my "Monster Team-up Reflections" series. Well, sorry it's taken me longer than expected, but at long last I've whipped up something in the spirit of my earlier post, catering to a particular faction of the giant-monster/Kaiju scene.

Anyway, as most of you know, Toho Studios, along with innovative director, Ishiro (Inoshiro) Honda, patterned its team-ups after Universal's, but the way such propserously emerged actually came via a "rip off" of a Willis O'Brien vision. Without such, the enduring success of Toho's monster franchise, particularly the ongoing Godzilla ventures, may not have become what history has otherwise dictated...

The genesis of all this is legendary: stop-motion-animation genius, Willis O'Brien, planned a sequel to "King Kong", beyond "Son of Kong", with the favored concept being "King Kong vs Frankenstein" (sometimes referenced as "King Kong vs Prometheus" or "King Kong vs the Ginko"). In essence, the story would have commenced with the discovery of a new Kong, while in the heart of Africa, a great grandson of Victor Frankenstein was constructing his own giant, simian-like specimen, made from various animal parts. Both creatures were to end up on display and promoted in the style of the original Kong, but ultimately would break loose and brawl in San Francisco. (O'Brien's striking illustrations give one a strong impression of how the Frankenstein counterpart would have appeared and how the battle would have unfolded.)

Evidently, O'Brien failed to attain Hollywood backing for his wondrous idea, and so producer, John Beck (who allegedly also helped flesh out the "Kong vs Frank" storyline), trekked to Japan on behalf of O'Brien to see if Toho might be interested in financing it. From there, something shady occurred. The "Kong vs Frank" proposal was suspiciously swept under the rug, only to resurface shortly thereafter in Honda's monster-costumed "King Kong vs Godzilla" ("Kingu Kongu tai Gojira"). Supposedly, O'Brien and Toho settled out of court on the matter, though no distinct details can be readily found regarding the resolution, with the film being released after O'Brien's death.

Though it's disheartening that O'Brien's concept never graced celluloid, thanks to Toho it clearly didn't die on the vein, as "King Kong vs Godzilla" proved to be the studio's most successful picture (and still stands as such to this day based on ticket sales alone). The film also resurrected the latter monster's city-stomping career prospects, for "Godzilla Raids Again" ("Godzilla's Counterattack", "Gigantis, the Fire Monster") proved a tad lackluster at Japanese theaters, even though it's truly a well constructed sequel (and, in fact, officially launched Toho's monster-vs-monster formula).

Toho temporarily toyed with the notion of immediately sequelizing its mega hit, under the title "Continuation: King Kong vs Godzilla", but the revamped O'Brien idea instead morphed into other similar formats, with a long-running Godzilla series following, and Kong ultimately entering "King Kong Escapes" (aka, "King Kong's Counterattack"): a spy-styled, action yarn, based on the popular RB cartoon show, which pits the titanic ape against a robot version of himself (a formidable adversary who was clearly the blueprint for Godzilla's later, mirroring foe). Nevertheless, that Kong faces a man-made adversary similar to himself  (whether in this case by accident or plan) thematically connects yet again to O'Brien's design.

Meanwhile, the idea of a super-sized Frankenstein continued to manifest through Toho, with the creature initially being considered as a Godzilla opponent (though Toho opted instead for the first Godzilla/Mothra entry). What arose was Honda's highly successful "Frankenstein Conquers the World" ("Frankenstein vs Subterranean Monster Baragon"), where the preserved, radioactive heart of the Monster grows into a colossus, just as a giant, four-legged reptile, Baragon, coincidentally awakens, leading to an inevitable battle of the behemoths.

In the story, the jumbo Frankenstein faces a left-fielded demise (whether in the U.S. or Japanese editions, where some differences otherwise distinguish the endings). This led to two mammoth monsters spawning from the remnants of the original's flesh, in Honda's "War of the Gargantuas" ("Frankenstein's Monsters: Sanda vs Gaira").

Dubbing obscures the first entry's link in the U.S. cut, but the Japanese version clearly embraces (albeit subtly) the prior chapter: one Frankenstein offspring (Sanda, the brown) being good, the other (Gaira, the green) being bad, and as was the intended case of "Kong vs Frank", the apish Kane and Abel eventually battle, though as much due to philosophical dispositions as instinctual ones. (Allegedly, Toho fleetingly considered pitting Godzilla against one of the Gargantuas in '78: a throwback to Toho's original intent of having Godzilla battle a Frankenstein.)

After the success of Peter Jackson's Kong remake, website sources reported that a writer named Rock Baker was pitching a variation on O'Brien's concept to Universal, but such was promptly rejected: the angle, in this instance, making the Monster a mutated man who grows, in the "War of the Colossal Beast"/"Conquers the World" vein, to towering, violent heights, only then to confront a new Kong. (Oh, how I'd love to read the script for this one, let alone feast my eyes on an extensive O'Brien outline, if such ever even existed, which alas, seems unlikely.)

I must confess, more than a "Kong vs Godzilla" remake (which Toho fleetingly considered in the '90s) or even the long-awaited "Godzilla vs Gamera" movie (which sooner or later must be made), a variation on O'Brien's vision would be a treat-and-a-half to behold, but hey, one can't blame one for dreaming. The best and most one can hope for is now relegated to the imagination, but mark my words: O'Brien's concept will some day become reality, and when that day comes, it's bound to send ripples of jubilation through every giant-monster aficionado's heart!

In any event, it's indisputable that O'Brien's dream has already blossomed in ways he could have never imagined. Without its genesis, one can only speculate how prolific and profitable Toho would have become and how many terrific men-in-monster-suit ventures may have otherwise passed us by.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #11: Werewolf vs Vampire Woman

Though the official fifth in Paul Naschy’s Waldemar Daninsky series, “The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman” (aka, “La Noche de Walpurgis”, “Blood Moon” and “Werewolf Shadow”) remains prominently lodged in many fans’ memories, if only due to the affluent exposure it’s received over the years. By title alone, it invokes pure exploitation (like “Werewolves on Wheels”, which was also in successful circulation during the early ‘70s), but in truth, this ’71 epic is more an excursion in subdued creepiness than extreme flamboyance.

The film, (directed by Leon Klimovsky, who would later helm “Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf”, and written by Naschy and Hans Mukel), focuses on a couple of sight-seeing lovelies (Gaby Fuchs and Barbara Capell), who are seeking the castle of legendary Countess Wandesa Darvula de Nadasdy (Patty Shepard): a character based on Elizabeth Bathory (the real-life Countess Dracula). While attempting to get directions, the women stumble upon Daninsky, who graciously lets them stay in his castle, where (much to their torment), his weird and violent sister (Yelena Samarina) also resides.

When one of the women (Capell) injures herself by pulling a cross from out the Countess’ disinterred corpse—and profusely bleeds upon it—matters quickly turn surreal. Wandesa, now magically revived, proceeds to transform her unintentional resurrectionist into a faithful, parasitic companion: an act punctuated by implied lesbianism, which was a common motif in horror films of the period (e.g., “Daughters of Darkness”, “Vampire Lovers”, “Vampyros Lesbos”). As a consequence, the altered victim becomes as much an occupying force in the storyline as Wandesa.

With the exception of the prologue and two midway transformation scenes, Daninsky basically haunts the sidelines, only significantly intervening toward the tale’s conclusion, and then when the inevitable confrontation with the Countess occurs, he again predictably turns lupine, while she does little more than swoop down upon him, so that they may briefly roll around the dirt: alas, a far cry from cinema’s best monster brawl. (Clips from the “fight” can also be viewed in the film’s opening credits.)

However, what makes “Werewolf vs Vampire” worth watching is its lush, visual ambiance, thanks to cinematographer Leo Williams. Arguably more than any other early Daninsky vehicle (with the possible exception of “Jekyll vs Werewolf”), “Werewolf vs Vampire” exudes the Hammer Studios flow and feel, remaining engrossingly atmospheric and ethereally alluring throughout and does an exemplary job catering to the fanged females, who are so magnetically photographed that it’s understandable why one might willing offer one’s neck to them.

“Werewolf vs Vampire” is also another fine example of how sensuality and splatter can successfully blend: a feature that would be further pronounced a few years later in Naschy’s “Night of the Howling Beast”/”Werewolf and Yeti”.

Because of its impressive box-office gross and its easy access via VHS and disc, “Werewolf vs Vampire” has become Naschy’s most referenced film (though some might justly argue “Mark of the Wolfman”/”Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror” rivals such). Also like other drive-in staples over the decades, such as “Giant Leeches” and “Killer Shrews”, “Werewolf vs Vampire” has certainly gained pop-cultural status in various eclectic circles, and on that basis alone should be particularly sought among Naschy’s extensive work. It also aptly grants one a hardy glimpse into Naschy’s story-telling style: an undeniable blueprint for why his films, particularly the werewolf ones, continue to enthrall.

Monster Team-up Reflection #10: Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf

Some claim that Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is, in fact, the first mainstream werewolf story. Sorry, but I've never bought into this, even with "Werewolf of London" distinctly grazing upon the notion. The way I see it, there are many shape-shifting elements among various monsters, and Edward Hyde is but one result.

However, there is justification in making the werewolf connection to the Stevenson classic when it comes to horror icon, Paul Naschy, for he concocted such an official cinematic mix in "Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf (aka, "Dr. Jekyll el Hombre Lobo", "Night of the Blood Wolf"), directed by Leon Klimovsky (who previously helmed "Werewolf vs Vampire Woman". penned by Naschy, released in '72 and the sixth in the Waldemar Daninsky franchise.

"Jekyll and Werewolf" is not a traditional monster-meets-monster merging, in that Naschy's werewolf never battles Hyde, but rather it's through an ill-fated cure that Hyde temporarily manifests in lieu of Daninisky's famous, furry alter-ego.

The first half of the modern-day yarn actually deals with a couple visiting the "old country" and the husband (Jose Marco) being murdered by thugs, leaving his fetching wife (Shirley Corrigan) to be rescued by Daninsky just before a potential rape. Daninsky grants her sanctuary, and from there, she falls for her gallant host, even though she is well aware of his lycanthropic affliction.

Angry villagers wish to do Daninsky in, but ultimately he flees with his lady fair to London, where she pleadingly approaches the grandson of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Euro-horror star, Jack Taylor) to remedy her man of his bestial tendencies.

Jekyll agrees and with the help of his lovely but jealous assistant (Mirta Miller, who also costars in Naschy's "Count Dracula's Great Love") proceeds to do just that. As such, when the moon turns full, Daninisky's wolf guise is replaced by the sinister scowl of a new Mr. Hyde!

Waldemar Hyde aptly captures all the crass behavior we'd expect from Stevenson's incorrigible fiend, and Naschy gets a fair sum of contemptuous mileage out the part, at least until Jekyll meets an untimely end and Daninsky's lycanthropy returns full force.
"Jekyll and Werewolf" is one of the best looking Daninsky efforts, with splendid cinematography by Franciscus Fraile, in both the rural and hip London scenes. Also, Corrigan and Miller offer an ample amount of eye-candy throughout the story. It's really hard not to gawk at them whenever they grace the screen.

On the other hand, the film may have benefited by being a bit longer, particularly when it comes to the actual monster footage, but overall, "Jekyll and Werewolf" is a solid try and at least grants quality moments to the antagonists. The scene where Daninsky grows furry alongside a nurse in an elevator, as well turning from Hyde to Wolfman in a psychedelic disco, are memorable and certainly two of the best moments in the entire franchise.

Above all, the atmospheric Hyde segments make one wonder what Naschy may have accomplished if he had simply concentrated on a straight-forward retelling of the Stevenson tale. If only rendered, there's a strong chance it would have gone down as one of the best film adaptations, but at least we get a taste of what he could do with the subject matter via this particular fun-filled merger.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #9: Night of the Howling Beast/Werewolf and the Yeti

Recently I reflected upon Paul Naschy’s “Assignment Terror” and thought it might be fun to bring another of his monster mergers to the blog spotlight: “Night of the Howling Beast” (aka, “La Maldicion de la Bestia”, “Werewolf and the Yeti”, “Hall of the Mountain King”, et al), the eighth entry in the Waldemar Daninsky series, directed by Miguel Iglesias and scripted by Naschy (as Jacinto Molina).

The film was released in ’75 (though not officially in the U.S. until ’77, and then only limitedly) and has since gained greater exposure through VHS and disc. It’s generally considered one of the most violent installments in the Daninsky franchise and was even relegated to Britain’s banned “Video Nasties”, thus furthering its notoriety. In truth, “Howling Beast” is probably no more extreme than others of its kind made during the same period: graced by several gruesome moments and some brief nudity within its 80-minute time frame.

The film is also another specialized re-imagining of Daninsky’s affliction, for in this instance, he obtains his lycanthropy through vampiric means. (For what it’s worth, “Fury of the Wolfman” and "Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman" reference a yeti bite as the cause of Daninsky’s physiological change, leaving “Howling Beast” in opposition to what was an already widely embraced origin.) There’s also, of course, the anticipated match between Naschy’s werewolf and a wandering abominable snowman, who is otherwise seen momentarily in the pre-credit prologue, where the creature mercilessly attacks an expedition, but then remains unseen until the ending.

Naschy’s script is basic, though seemingly unconnected in parts: Daninsky, who holds an interest in yeti lore, learns of the ill-fated expedition and embarks to verify its details. He gets lost in the process and is given shelter by two, beautiful cave-dwellers, who just happen to be vampires (or at least a flesh-eating variation of such). Daninsky slays them, but not before they inexplicably infect him with the lycanthropic strain. Daninsky frantically flees the dwelling, ultimately transforming into a werewolf and mutilating a few local rogues, until the spell temporarily subsides.

Meanwhile, Daninsky’s expedition members are seized, tortured and slain by bandits led by a Tibetan tyrant named Sekkar Khan (Luis Induni), who is plagued by a skin disease (his back frequently blisters, though the rest of him remains illogically unblemished). He is, in fact, receiving “treatment” from a Dragon Lady-type named Wandesa (Silvia Solar), who sadistically skins captive, young women and places their hides upon thug’s wounds in a questionable attempt to heal him. Daninsky eventually combats Khan, while Wandesa’s captives rebel, and no sooner do the villains meet defeat, Daninsky resumes bestial form, just as the yeti conveniently returns, granting us the long awaited monster melee (as well as a surprising turn regarding Daninsky’s condition).

Except for a few fleeting facial shots, the yeti is never distinctly defined (whether in the prologue or the brawl), most often resembling an elongated blur, with the werewolf staying fairly succinct throughout all sequences. Also, none of the proceedings take place in just one day or night, which considerably skews the “Night of…” designation. Daninsky also transforms initially during what appears to be dusk, only later to morph under the full moon. Unfortunately, such unexplained causes-and-effects give “Howling Beast” an uneven mythological flow.

On the plus side, the Himalayan setting gives the film a prevailing, exotic look, distinguishing it from other Daninsky ventures (including “Fury of the Wolfman”, which contains only a few murky Tibetan flashbacks, and Universal’s classic, “Werewolf of London”, which also makes effective use of such terrain, in addition to founding several “Howling Beast” plot points).  Naschy’s make-up, though certainly in sync with his previous applications, looks strikingly more devilish in this outing, his ears often horn-like, his mouth messily blood-drenched. Seeing his dark form sprint about the stark snow also presents an intriguing visual contrast, creating one of the movie’s most atmospheric, recurring attributes.

There are certainly superior Daninsky entries, but “Howling Beast” more than adequately holds its own, if only for its edgy violence and unapologetic adult content. As far as monster team-ups go, it’s a far stretch from “Assignment Terror” (or even “Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf” and “Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman”, which spend better time blending their monstrous mixes), but in the end, after watching the hairy beasts go claw-to-claw, one can’t help but feel ferociously empowered.

Monster Team-up Reflection #8: Assignment Terror

My favorite "House of Frankentstein"/"House of Dracula" knock-off is "Assignment Terror" (aka, "Los Monstruos del Terror" and "Dracula vs Frankenstein", though the latter shouldn't be confused with the Sam Sherman/Al Adamson drive-in staple of the same name).

For the record, "Assignment Terror" is a German, Italian, Spanish co-production, directed by Tulio Demicheli, Hugo Fregonese and Eberard Michensner) and written by Paul Naschy (under his real name, Jacinto Molina), under the working title, "The Man Who Came from Ummo". It was released in '70, but made its U.S. debut via syndicated television.

It was also the first Naschy sequel released after "Mark of the Wolf Man"/"La Marca del Hombre Lobo" (with a more immediate, alleged French follow-up never reaching actual circulation.) Nonetheless, "Assignment Terror" swings Naschy's Waldemar Daninsky character back into action, delivering him into a modern world (graced by a  hip, jazz score), and (joy of joys) surrounded by fellow monsters.

The story is actually not only a monster gathering (or rather an impression of their legendary counterparts), but includes a plot that could have been spliced from Edward D. Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and Joseph M. Newman's "This Island Earth": Extra-terrestrials from the Planet Ummo wish populate Earth and promptly resurrect three, brilliant scientists to assist with the scheme. The catch is: the scientists will first re-animate a group of monsters (and from there, evidently, make more of the same, after the creatures' physiological constitutions have been thoroughly evaluated) to ensure the invasion's success.

On this basis, Naschy's anti-hero werewolf, Walemar Daninsky, is resurrected purely through scientific means, along with a Frankenstein Monster, in this instance named the Franken-Science Monster (interestingly enough, portrayed in most part by Naschy, or is it really Ferdinando Murlo? You got me), a mummy named Tau-Tet (Gene Reyes), and a vampire named Count de Meirhoff (Manuel de Bilas). (Reference to a golem is made earlier in the story, which as it stands, comes off as a lead-in to the Franken-Science Monster's genesis, but in truth, funding dissipated on the production, and so the clay creature was dropped from the plot, along with some potential, alien craft footage.)

For cinema traditionalists (particularly Universal fans), it may be nice to know that the monsters are essentially represented as one might expect, featuring only subtle changes, with Naschy's Daninsky again resembling Lon Chaney Jr.'s famous lycanthrope; the Franken-Science Monster having a distinct Karloffian flair; while the Tau-Tet's face is gray-skinned and dark-eyed, with de Meirhoff sporting a slightly modern Barry Atwater/"Night Stalker" flair.

Playing the lead scientist/alien confidant, Dr. Odo Warnoff, is none other than Michael Rennie (known to film fans as Klaatu in the original "Day the Earth Stood Still" and the mechanized time-traveler in "Cyborg 2087"), who adds an irrefutable element of class to the proceedings, while further enhancing the film's permeating science-fiction angle.

During the yarn, Daninsky and one of the scientists (Maleva Kerstein, who resembles the lovely lady in the film's primary poster) become smitten with each other, which does momentarily slow the pacing, and the proceedings are ultimately investigated by a police inspector (Craig Hill), but in the end, all hell expectantly and thankfully breaks loose, leading to the various crossings of the monsters, though not actually between the Franken-Science Monster and de Meirhoff (as one of the alternate titles would otherwise suggest). Hands-down, the best confrontation is between the Daninsky and Tau-Tet, which concludes in a most memorable way. In truth, it may be the film's best moment.

Some claim "Assignment Terror" would have been better off without the alien-invasion concept, and indeed, it could have merely revolved around Warnoff gathering the monsters for an evil, earth-bound crusade. On the other hand, the invasion backdrop does spice the tale, allowing it not only to pay homage to Universal monster flicks, but to '50s science-fiction jaunts. On this basis, it's really too bad that the budget didn't allow for more insight into Planet Ummo, since it's largely dialogue, and some occasional high-tech, Kenneth Strickfaden-type equipment, that stands in lieu of such.

Also, its proves disconcerting that Rennie's voice is apparently dubbed, when the need was utterly unnecessary for the American version, as does the scientists subplot, which ultimately goes nowhere. There's also a carnival-front motif at the film's start, which could have been atmospherically effective if stretched, but for whatever reason, was inexplicably shortened.

Overall, "Assignment Terror" does at least take itself seriously, and its script (even though awkwardly altered along the way of filming) certainly shows Naschy's love for classic monsters.

Sam Sherman, who had a chance to help distribute the film more effectively, chose instead to alter "Mark of the Wolf Man", so that it became "Frankenstein's Bloody Terror", due to a contractual agreement to deliver a Frankenstein movie, thus relegating this particular team-up film almost to obscurity. Though Sherman evidently didn't find "Assignment Terror" engaging, the film nevertheless possesses the right exploitative elements to have surely done well on the U.S. theatrical circuit. (Of course, its wider release may have only proven competition for Sherman's own "Drac vs Frank", which was soon to dominate the drive-in scene.)

Incidentally, a Spanish-language edition can be presently found on YouTube, and though it isn't graced by subtitles, one shouldn't have too much trouble following the story, even if one doesn't wish to view the English-dubbed edition first. Indeed, in its purest form, "Assignment Terror" should have absolutely no trouble entangling one into its masterfully macabre web, but in either form is highly recommended and should surely satisfy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #7: Robot vs Aztec Mummy

Since I've gone somewhat "international" with my monster team-up overviews, I thought it might be nice to swing on over to Mexico and direct your attention to "The Robot vs the Aztec Mummy" ("La Momia Azteca Contra El Robot Humano"): a relatively simple-in-plot entry, but to say the least, offering a most memorable pairing.

In truth, Rafael Portillo's "Robot vs Mummy" (1958) is the third in a series, having kicked off with "The Aztec Mummy" (aka, "Attack of the Aztec Mummy") and "Curse of the Aztec Mummy" (both released in '57), and would later be quasi-sequelized with a different preserved "protagonist" in "Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy" ('64).

With "Robot vs Mummy", our old, bandaged friend, Popoca (Angel Di Stefani), is back on the shambling trail (accompanied by loads of previous chapter footage to pad his new tale) and again challenges his movie-serial-styled adversary, Dr. Krupp (aka, the Bat, played with powerful panache by Luis Aceves Castaneda), who wants to nab some precious Aztec treasure. To ensure success, Dr. Krupp fashions (with all the necessary Frankenstein-inspired equipment) a robot: though more of a cyborg, in that the towering device contains a reanimated corpse, its deadpan couintenance visible through its face plate. In the end (surprise, surprise), the mega monsters clash!

Be warned: the film's Aztec historical background is inaccurate. For one thing, the Aztecs didn't mummify, so what we're offered here is basically a splicing of Inca and Egyptian elements, but in the realm of imaginative, monster mythology, I guess it's all quite permissible.

Also, as in the franchise's previous installments, this one has a distinct Universal Studios feel to it, so fans of the Imhotep/Kharis flicks (and those who fancy rollicking romps like Gene Autry's "Phantom Empire") should feel right at home.

If you just relax with it, "Robot vs Mummy" can prove an engaging experience, especially when its story fully unfolds about halfway through (and it conveniently runs only 64 minutes). It's also a swell way to get acquainted with Mexican monster cinema, which was just gaining traction when this particular entry was released.

Go on--don't be shy. Check it out. It certainly won't hurt to give it a try...


PS: I highly recommend the "Aztec Mummy Collection", which includes the first three Popoca films and can be readily captured for a reasonable price through any number of DVD retailers. (Oh, also available is a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" edition of "Robot vs Mummy", if you're in the mood for some snide fun.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #6: Erotic Rites of Frankenstein; Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein

Jess Franco is arguably the most prolific film director of all time, with over 200 movies under his belt, having bravely covered a variety of genres with his energetic, camera-zooming style. However, he's generally favored experimental horror and pulp-type stories for his cinematic ventures and distinguished them with such stately performers as Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski, Howard Vernon and Denis Price.

To horror fans, he more than made his mark with his chilling Dr. Orloff movies, the first released in '62, injecting these entries with an affluent dose of Universal and Hammer elements, while at the same time, making these efforts distinctly his own.

Based his macabre track record, it only seemed fitting that Franco eventually took a stab at such legendary monsters as Dracula and Frankenstein. (In fact, with the former, he offered a popular remake, "Count Dracula", starring Lee in '70.) It was, however, in a crossing-over of horror characters that he ventured roughly two years later, giving the monster team-up formula a strange, mind-bending twist in two distinct instances: "The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein"
("La Maldicon de Frankenstein"), evidently the first of the set released, and "Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein" ("Dracula contra Frankenstein"), which I'll save for the climatic cap of this double-feature review, if only due to its more blatantly geared, monster participants.

"Erotic Rites" (which sometimes appears without "erotic" in the title, and in this instance, it's essentially the primary Spanish version that I'll reference), details real-life, purported mystic, Alessandro Cagliostro, who in the context of this yarn, and in apt mad-genius style, intends to forge an evil master race to take over the world, of which the Frankenstein Monster (Fernando Bilbao) stands as its illustrious forerunner. (On a side note, Bilbao's Monster resembles Dave Prowse's in  "Horror of Frankenstein", albeit with silver body paint and the occasional power of speech.)

In that the Monster is still in Frankenstein (Denis Price)'s possession, Cagliostro dispatches a strange, blood-sucking bird woman named Melisa (Anne Libert), whose sports eerie, green feathers upon her hands, to slay Frankenstein and his assistant Morpho (a name familiar to Orloff fans, and in this instance portrayed by Franco), thus leading the Monster away from his creator and giving Cagliostro the chance to control him hypnotically: a common plot device of the Orloff movies, as well as in the silent classic, "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", which appears to have greatly influenced Franco's storytelling style.

Cagliostro determines that to implement his master race, he must make the Monster a mate, and abetted by Melisa's intuitive skills, and the Monster's lumbering aid, a beautiful woman (Britt Nichols, as Madame Orloff) is seized from her mansion, carted to Cagliostro's lair and decapitated before a sect of weird creatures: her head the first part of an intended, supreme "bride".  

Just a tad prior to the latter, Dr. Seward (yes, the one of Dracula fame and here portrayed by Alberto Dalbes) teams with Frankenstein's daughter, Vera (Beatriz Savon) to unravel her father's death, while Cagliostro takes time out to psychically entice a gypsy girl, named appropriately enough, Esmeralda (Lina Romay: a most endearing presence in Franco's movies). Sadly, Esmeralda's contribution to the proceedings leaves her meandering about the countryside without apparent cause: her purpose only succinctly defined in the film's final seconds.

Much of the story's center caters to the perpetuation of Cagliostro's demented plan, while Vera eventually ends up in his castle. This leaves Seward and a police inspector (Daniel Gerome) to track her down, culminating in a shootout and a quick but intense confrontation between Cagliostro and the Monster.

The overall performances in "Erotic Rites" are effective, though Price's screen time is far too brief; in fact, his characterization of an affable "body snatcher" in "Horror of Frankenstein" is virtually as lengthy as that in "Erotic Rites": the latter of which even includes a few additional scenes where the doctor is fleetingly reanimated by Vera and Seward.

This leaves Vernon to compensate for Price's lack of screen time, and he makes good use of such, injecting Cagliostro with an invigorating Dracula-like aura. That Vernon also resembles "Dark Shadows'" Jonathan Frid (or vice-versa) clearly accentuates Cagliostro's vampire-ish stance, though the mesmerist thankfully never indulges in vampire king's parasitic pastime, leaving Melisa exclusive dibs on all blood-lapping.

In the end, "Erotic Rites" emerges as a decent enough Frankenstein romp: never daring to enter tongue-in-cheek, even though the atmosphere sometimes proves heavily surreal and due to its overlapping elements, a tad confusing, at least for the first viewing.


While some will criticize "Erotic Rites" as too complex, "Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein" has often been denounced as an incoherent visual romp, perhaps due to its scarcity of chatter.

Its story is basic (and virtually the same as "Erotic Rites"): Dr. Frankenstein (again Price, though otherwise unconnected to his "Erotic Rites" portrayal, mainly due to the modern timeline) wishes to rule the world by assembling a dark army (how Cagliostro-esque!), which will include his Monster (again played by Fernando Bilbao, but here appearing more Karloffian in form) and a hypnotized Count Dracula (Vernon, aptly cast, though like Lee in "Dracula: Prince of Darkness", never verbalizing). Frankenstein again has an assistant named Morpho (though this time portrayed by Luis Barboo, who also has a smaller, though more articulate role in "Erotic Rites"), who weaves through the movie like an eerie bit of window dressing.

The odd thing here is, one might otherwise expect Dracula to initiate the command for destructive conquest (like Lee in "Satanic Rites of Dracula"), but instead it's Frankenstein who captures the Count (somehow or other in bat form), while keeping a striking female vampire (portrayed by Britt Nichols of "Erotic Rites") nearby to ensure his diabolical success. As to how exactly, Dracula, the lady vampire and the Monster are to help Frankenstein gain the upper hand is never fully explained (though it appears Frankenstein may have enlisted them to dispatch a vampire plague onto the world and from there intends to pull its dictatorial strings). Whatever the case, all explanations lie somewhere among the film's surreal implications. (In other words, to make sense of it, one must rely solely upon one's imagination.)

Later in the yarn, a werewolf (portrayed by an actor named "Brandy") ferociously surfaces, summoned by an intuitive gypsy (Genevieve Deloir) in a peculiar move to set evil against evil. Though the werewolf's precise origin is at best ambiguous, his presence nicely enhances the monster team-up component, and by the time he recklessly stumbles into the bizarre proceedings, one can easily embrace him with a good-natured shrug. Hey, the more the merrier, right? (For what it's worth, the lycanthrope's fight with the Monster is not only a nod to "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman", but also feels atmospherically similar to scenes from various entries in Paul Naschy's Spanish werewolf franchise, which was in full swing around this very time.)

Earlier in the film, Dr. Seward (again, Alberto Dalbes) tenaciously tries to stop Dracula's infectious spread prior to the Count being captured, and this leads to one of his patients (Para Galbaldon, aka Mary Francis) being turned into a vampire bride (and she, unlike Nichol's character, becomes inseparably linked to the Count). Seward then virtually falls out of sight, only to return considerably later among the gypsies.

The big set-back to "Drac, Prisoner of Frank" is that Frankenstein's control over Dracula is never convincing. What gives the doctor the immense telepathic power to override Dracula's? It would seem that the vampire lord would have easily thwarted Frankenstein's intervention, then effortlessly turned the tables on him. (Some day-for-night scenes also prove a tad distracting, as do the painfully fake bats.)

Still, overall, the film is entrancingly engaging: not so much a sequel to "Erotic Rites", but rather a companion piece. (Please note: European horror follow-ups rarely sport much continuity anyway, as one can easily witness from Naschy's popular films.)


For those hankering an initial taste of Franco's horror pictures, "Awful Dr. Orloff" and "Dr. Orloff's Monster" might be better bets, but for those who enjoy monster pairings and legendary mixes, these two installments wouldn't be a half-bad way to become accustomed to the director's dizzying skills.

Make a double feature of them, or for good measure, kick them off with Franco's "Count Dracula", just to get into the right, lurid mindset.You're certainly guaranteed a most unforgettable experience!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #5: Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks

By popular demand (that is, a friend requested such in passing), I'm offering a review of the 1974's Italian epic, Dick Randall (aka, Robert Oliver)'s "Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks" ("Terror! Il castello delle donne maledette"): a period piece that may have otherwise have descended into the pit of obscurity, if not for Elvira hosting it in the '80s and that it co-stars the legendary Michael Dunn (Dr. Miguelito Loveless, to all those "Wild, Wild West" fans out there).

"Castle" is reminiscent of many such films during its release time: a crossover of Universal and Hammer styles, with the latter being slightly more influential in this instance, in that Hammer--via such entries as "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde", "Vampire Lovers","Twins of Evil"--had begun injecting nudity into its story lines. (It should also be acknowledged that "Castle'"s plot mirrors Hammer's "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell", which was made the year previous and depicts its monster as an apish, genetic throwback.)

"Castle" immediately commences with a towering caveman (Loren Ewing) fighting off angry villagers, in an ambiguous, seemingly out-of-time prologue. (It's later explained that Neanderthals may be secretly coexisting with "modern man", evidently ascending from their caves for occasional sojourns.) Nonetheless, the poor brute is bludgeoned to death by the myopic villagers, his body then seized by Count Frankenstein (Rossano Brazzi) and carted back to his lab.

Naturally, Frankenstein wishes to revive the caveman for further study, and with the help of his assistants, who include the mischievous Genz (Dunn), Hans (the Lorre-like, Luciano Pigozzi) and Igor (famed muscle-man/actor, Gordon Mitchell), he does just that, though not without altering the ape man's appearance with an impressively high forehead. The regenerated caveman also acquires the apt name, Goliath.

In the meantime, Frankenstein is visited by two Playmate-ish blondes, one his daughter (Simonetta Vitelli) and the other her friend (Laura De Benedittis), with whom the doctor soon swoons. This leads to an interlude that feels more like James Whale's "Old Dark House" than a traditional Frankenstein film, with hints of strange occurrences fluttering throughout the castle, but once Genz is cast from the premises, the story adapts a steadier pace, with the alienated assistant befriending yet another Neanderthal, named Ook (played by Salvatore Baccaro, who is otherwise labeled as Boris Lugosi, in the Americanized credits).

One can only assume that Ook is wandering about the countryside in hopes of locating Goliath, though this is never actually confirmed. Instead, we're treated to a heartwarming scene, where Genz teaches Ook the benefits of cooking his prey. Genz also has a murderous side and begins to demonstrate it to the otherwise innocent caveman, from which one ghastly deed leads the police to question Count Frankenstein, who is already under suspicion by the edgy villagers.

In the end, Goliath escapes and in his muddled state combats Ook, making the Neanderthal vs modified-Neanderthal melee the movie's most memorable moment.

Though the villagers claim to have seen other strange creatures lurking around Castle Frankenstein, one can only assume such appeared in the past, for the only "freaks" who otherwise populate in the film are Frankenstein's eccentric entourage. (Perhaps, in this regard, "Castle" may have benefited from, for the sake of its more generally known title, a brief procession of monsters in the vein of Richard Raaphorst's "found-footage" epic, "Frankenstein's Army".)

"Castle" is not typically embraced by Frankenstein aficionados as a stand-out, and to the "Mystery Science Theater" crowd, the film seems suitably ripe for ridicule; however, casual viewers may find it more offbeat than substandard. Also, to those who know Frankenstein '70s reinterpreted lore, any cringing the film might invoke will probably spring from those scenes where "Castle" tries too hard to imitate its cinematic contemporaries.

Though a far cry from a classic, "Castle" has ironically stood the test of time and certainly tends to be frequently rediscovered: indication enough that, for better or worse, this one's not likely to disappear any time soon.