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.
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!