Growing up in Wisconsin in the early ’70s, I would get home from school, drop my bag, park myself in front of the TV and tune in The Early Show. Every weekday between three and five-thirty, a local station aired sometimes shockingly uncut films, and it was there my cinematic education began. I don’t know who was programming The Early Show, but I would like to shake his hand. The focus was decidedly on genre films,especially horror and recent drive-in hits. Along with scattered Westerns, war movies and mysteries, there were regular week-long Toho and Hammer fests, without a single stupid musical or romantic comedy tossed in to muck things up.
It was through The Early Show that I was introduced to Roger Corman, William Castle, and Herschel Gordon Lewis, the Walking Tall and Billy Jack franchises, Macon County Line, The Legend of Boggy Creek, Klaus Kinski in The Blue Hand, and Frankie Avalon in the unusually bloody The Haunted House. Although every day was a surprise and usually something new, a couple of movies, like Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, were in heavy rotation. I don’t know exactly how Al Adamson’s 1971 wonderment Dracula vs. Frankenstein made it into the rotation as often as it did, but again I’d like to shake that programmer’s hand.
Originally titled The Blood Seekers (and sometimes Blood Freaks) when it went into production in 1969, Adamson and his co-producer Sam Sherman envisioned the film to be a sort-of follow-up to their recently-completed Russ Tamblyn biker picture, Satan’s Sadists, but with more of a horror angle. Adamson’s wife, nightclub singer Regina Carrol, starred as, well, a nightclub singer looking for her missing sister, who was last seen at a seedy boardwalk carnival frequented by lowlifes and drug-crazed hippies. She eventually learns her sister was one of several young women kidnapped by a mad scientist, Dr. Diryea, who runs the carnival’s House of Horrors and conducts fiendish experiments in the basement. Russ Tamblyn was brought back to play the leader of a shabby biker gang, but no one seems to remember how they worked into the plot.
Adamson and Sherman signed B-film legends J. Carrol Naish and Lon Chaney Jr. (who arrived as a package deal), to play the evil Dr. Duryea and his hulking brute of an assistant. They also brought in the equally legendary Angelo Rossitto to play the requisite creepy dwarf. Hell, they even rented (as Mel Brooks would soon thereafter) all the electrified gizmos and lab equipment Ken Strickfaden designed for the original 1931 Frankenstein to decorate Dr. Duryea’s lab. With future Orson Welles cinematographer Gary Graver behind the camera and very little money left in the budget, shooting got underway in March of 1969 and wrapped about a month later.
After looking at the first edit, however, everyone realized it was kind of a mess. They nearly dumped the film completely and moved on, but Sherman thought there must be some way to salvage it.
Then he and Adamson had an epiphany. Together or separately, Naish and Chaney had been in pretty much every classic Universal horror film of the 1940s. Okay, so maybe Naish only had that one role in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, but everybody thinks he waas in everything else and that’s what matters. He’d certainly co-starred with Bela Lugosi in a bunch of low-budget horror pictures for PRC. Think about it, Karloff was dead, Lugosi was dead, Dwight Frye was dead, even Lionel Atwill was dead. These two were the last survivors of Universal Horror’s golden era. And for godsakes Rossitto had been in Freaks, The Corpse Vanishes, Invasion of the Saucer Men, and a hundred other horror movies.
They’d even shelled out for all that whiz-bang Strickfaden junk! What the hell were they thinking, wasting all those resources on a stupid sort-of biker film?
Thing was, there clearly wasn’t much time if they wanted to capitalize on the picture’s classic horror pedigree. Chaney was dying of throat cancer and could no longer speak (they made his character a mute) and Naish was dying of, well, pretty much everything at that point, but mostly emphysema. Contrary to the long-circulated rumor, he wasn’t confined to the wheelchair he uses in the film, but he had false teeth, a glass eye, and had to read his lines off cue cards. They had to get a move on.
Adamson also realized (and he was as shocked as anyone by this) that as common and simple and obvious as it seems, no one had ever called a film Dracula vs. Frankenstein before. What the hell? So there you go. There’s the new title.
(Coincidentally enough, the same moment Adamson had that revelation, no-budget hack Paul Naschy had the same one, and rushed his own version of Dracula vs, Frankenstein into production, and before either film was released, Jess Franco would have the same thought himself and get to work on his own Dracula vs, Frankenstein. But neither of them had Chaney, Naish, Rossitto or all that Strickfaden equipment, so there.)
Now that they had a sure-fire title, they had to figure out a way to work Dracula and Frankenstein into the story somehow. Sherman gave the script a major (if hurried) overhaul. Suddenly the biker gang was gone, sort of, and Naish’s Dr. Duryea suddenly became the last direct descendant of Dr. Frankenstein. While still hard at work on his fiendish experiments on young hippie chicks, Duryea is visited at the sideshow by, yes, Dracula himself, who knows all about the old man’s family tree. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, Dracula offers to trade him the body of the original Frankenstein monster for reanimation purposes, in exchange for a serum that would make him eternal. (“But I thought…Oh, never mind.”)
Adamson and Sherman, just to bolster that pedigree, acquired the rights to some musical snippets from classic Universal monster movies, most recognizably Creature from the Black Lagoon. They also gave a small but pivital role to Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forry Ackerman, who offered a good deal of help on the story and marketing. Forry would play Dr. Beaumont, who was despised by both Frankenstein and Dracula. Beaumont had publicly disgraced Duryea, ruining his career before stealing the original monster to conduct some experiments of his own. So it makes sense Duryea would hate him. Why Dracula hates him is never made clear (maybe his fashion sense), but boy, does he ever. Then Adamson and Sherman set about trying to find a Dracula and a Frankenstein monster.
With no money left to hire, say, John Carradine (Sherman’s choice) or Christopher Lee, and with everyone else dead, they would have to take what they could get for the two titular roles. The monster was less an issue, given it had no lines and would be in heavy, lumpy misshapen makeup anyway (in the end their monster would more closely resemble Hammer’s than Universal’s). They hired an accountant named John Bloom, who stood over seven feet tall and would play monsters in a few other Adamson films down the line. But professionally he was, yes, an accountant.
Dracula was trickier, as he had plenty of lines and lots of screen time. Since they already had an accountant playing Frankenstein’s monster, it only made sense then they should hire a stock broker to play the King of the Vampires. So Adamson signed stock broker Roger Engle, who for the sake of the credits and marketing department was re-dubbed “Zandor Vorkov” by Forry Ackerman. Engle actually wasn’t that bad a choice. In those early post-Manson years, low-budget filmmakers everywhere were scrambling to find Manson lookalikes to play assorted crazy messianic types, hippie cult leaders and vampires, and he fit the bill well enough with his beard and piercing eyes. Bathe him in a blue filter and put a ton of echo on his voice, and it won’t much matter if he can act or not.
They brought back Naish, Chaney, and most of the Blood Seekers cast and began shooting the new scenes early in 1971. Although an early draft of the new script had Dracula biting the monster, turning him into a vampire, the fangs kept falling out of the heavy monster makeup, so they abandoned that idea. A few lines of dialogue referring to the newly vampiric monster remain in the final edit, but, well, maybe no one will notice.
Likewise, while most of the biker gang scenes were cut, not all of them were, leaving Tamblyn and his boys puttering in and out of assorted scenes for no reason at all. We also get an anti-war protest, some bad hippie music, and an LSD freakout scene, though some have argued the whole film plays like a bad trip. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering it was essentially an amalgam in the end of four very different scripts and two completely different films all mashed together willy-nilly, but who cares? It’s ugly and creepy and bloody and mind boggling and funny, and from those very early viewings as a kid, two scenes will stick with me forever. The first is Angelo Rositto falling on an axe. The other is the climactic battle between Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, poorly lit as it is. Without giving anything away to those who’ve yet to have the pleasure, let’s just say Monty Python and the Holy Grail wouldn’t have been what it was if not for Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
It did indeed turn out to be the last film made by both Naish and Chaney, and even if both actors made much better films, it’s still, well…um, it’s still some kind of legacy, that’s for damn sure.