“Any fool who thinks bad films are uproarious fun would be cured if locked in a cinema during an all-night Al Adamson retrospective.” Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies
I’ve lately been obsessed over American vampire films of the ‘70s, a transitional era for the undead of the US. Audiences weren’t ready to accept a vampire without a widow’s peak and a cape, but producers didn’t have easy access to dusty old castles and couldn’t afford to recreate them realistically. So what do we get? Count Yorga busting in on necking teens in their van, Blacula going after a pair of gay interior designers, Kolchak hunting down a Las Vegas vampire named Janos Skorzeny, and Caleb Croft from Grave of the Vampire (1972) teaching night classes at community college. Vampires were old world creatures with European backstories, even the enigmatic Martin (1978) had an old world vs new world theme; we didn’t get a vampire that seemed to fully occupy a contemporary setting until 1983 when David Bowie stalked the goth nightclubs of New York in The Hunger. I should point out here that I’m discussing MALE vampires, the paternal pimp figures that keep a harem of desperate undead ladies in the basement. Female vampires have been doing their best to assert themselves as modern, with-it women since all the way back to Dracula’s Daughter (1936) when Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska hires a shrink to cure her blood cravings. Those boy vampires just need to have their fine European threads and luxury lifestyles, even though wearing a cape to a social function in the ‘70s made you look like an orgymaster from a porno magazine. Like Richard Pryor says in his hilarious routine Wino Dealing With Dracula, “It’s 1975, boy! Get your shit together!”
Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (1971) is Al Adamson’s anti-counterculture attempt to keep vampires buried in the dust of the grave, stuck in the film world of his childhood. Made for his Independent International Pictures, nothing gets me pumped for disappointment more than the bold I-I logo filling the screen. When I decided to publicly display affection for this film, I went to my stacks of VHS, but remembered that I sold it to some sucker years ago when I realized that people were paying real money for VHS on eBay. I’d like to say I watched this on Fandor, the streaming service that caters to film lovers of all types, but no, I watched it on my phone in the YouTube app during bathroom breaks at work. Don’t give me that look.
After a pseudo-psychedelic credit sequence we find Count Dracula lurking around in the shadows of a graveyard. He opens a crypt to find Frankenstein’s monster (played by the 7 foot tall John Bloom) bound in chains and an old caretaker stumbles across them. The camera takes a good, long look at Zandor Vorkov as Dracula and no matter how many shadows obscure him, he looks ridiculous. Sporting white facepaint, a sculpted goatee and booga-booga fangs, Zandor Vorkov is the pseudonym of Robert Engel, Adamson’s stock broker. After Drac takes care of the caretaker, we are treated to a scene at a carnival where a young woman has her head chopped off with an axe. As soon as her head stops rolling, we cut to the Las Vegas strip where Judith (played by Adamson’s wife and muse, Regina Carrol) is in the middle of a musical number. This is all within the 10 minute mark, but don’t worry, it gets boring.
Dr. Duryea hosts a Venice Beach carnival spook show with vampires, guillotines, gorillas, and Lon Chaney Jr as “Groton” hopping around in a rubber Halloween mask. Groton is the doctor’s homicidal assistant and he’s the one that decapitated the girl, sadly Chaney appears bloated, sweating, and quite well pickled in the role. It turns out, the wheelchair bound Dr. Durea (played by J. Carrol Naish) is the last descendant of the Frankenstein family and has been working on a mystery serum that uses a fear enzyme that can only be found in the blood of murdered people. Dracula shows up to make a deal with the doctor: he wants a taste of the serum (which will make him immune to sunlight) and in return he’ll deliver the body of Frankenstein’s monster (who will enact vengeance on those that crippled Dr. Durea). Adamson crams in as many weird details as he can – a biker gang led by Russ Tamblyn, a cop that blames hippies for white slavery (played by veteran western actor Jim Davis), LSD, a few axe murders, a carnival barker named Grazbo (played by the 2’11” sensation, Angelo Rossitto), a cameo by Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine creator Forrest J Ackerman, and a climactic battle between the titular characters. Unfortunately, the story can’t keep up with all of these ideas and in order to make sense of it, characters are given pages and pages of expositional dialogue like when Dracula tells Durea to “get your revenge on doctors Beaumont, Steadman, and Markey, who ruined your career and caused the accidental fire which left you crippled as you are now.” The climactic battle is so poorly lit, shot against a dark forest in silhouette, that it would be easy to miss the highlight of the film where Dracula rips the arms and head off of the monster. Don’t think of that as a spoiler, think of it as a handy tip for your enjoyment.
No exploitation filmmaker of the 70s was more stuck in the past than Al Adamson. Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower explains his style, “Adamson made a career of pilfering horror motifs from the thirties, forties and fifties, bolting them all together without a spark of ingenuity, and stranding the viewer somewhere between failed pastiche and hoary nostalgia.” Now, the brilliant Mr. Thrower may be mainly correct, but to say there isn’t a “spark of ingenuity” takes away from Adamson’s quixotic casting. The dimly lit world of Dracula Vs. Frankenstein seems to shine a spotlight only on the most wrinkled and wrecked cast members with the younger generation serving only as bystanders and victims. Adamson allows Naish, Chaney, Davis, and Rossitto to go nuts, like an unattended old folks home spook show.
At his peak, J. Carrol Naish was an Academy Award nominated character actor, known to horror fans for playing Daniel the hunchback in House of Frankenstein (1944). Despite his glass eye, wheelchair, and what seem to be a large set of dentures, Adamson cast Naish as the lead and trusted him with long monologues which he had to read off of cue cards. It’s no wonder he had trouble remembering lines like, “Did you not realize that reality itself is the grandest illusion of all? And that human blood is the essence from which future illusions may be created?” Dracula Vs. Frankenstein was the final film for both Naish and Chaney; in happier times the pair were in a handful of mid-40s Universal thrillers, Calling Dr. Death (1943), the aforementioned House of Frankenstein (1944), and Strange Confession (1945). Maybe casting all these old-timers was Al’s way of trying to impress his father Victor Adamson, a director and star of countless Poverty Row westerns. Supposedly, the elder Adamson can be seen in cameos for many of his son’s films, but this would be his final role, appearing briefly alongside Angelo Rossitto. For those keeping score, this was the final film role for Naish, Chaney, and the elder Adamson, BUT THE CARNAGE ISN’T OVER! The film’s blaring, clattering orchestral music was the swan song for William Lava, a prolific TV composer. He had a long career working on shows like Zorro (1957-1959) and Bonanza (1959-1973), but in Adamson’s mind Lava represented the sound of Republic serials like The Lone Ranger Rides Again or Dick Tracy’s G-Men (both 1939) and Universal monster sequels like The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).
When he wasn’t casting his childhood heroes, Adamson liked reusing cast and crew like Russ Tamblyn, John Bloom, or Greydon Clark. His wife Regina Carrol appeared in almost all of Al’s films, from Psycho a-Go-Go (1967) all the way to Carnival Magic (1981). Cinematographer Gary Graver had a dual life of working on low budget films like Dracula Vs. Frankenstein and Black Heat (1976) with Adamson, while spending weekends with Orson Welles as cinematographer on the Other Side of the Wind (2018?). Independent International Pictures co-founder Sam Sherman was a full collaborator on nearly all of Adamson’s films, even going so far as to help co-direct from time to time. Adamson’s tragic and gruesome death in 1995 made him known in true crime circles; his body was found buried under cement, hidden by the handyman that had murdered him.