I know, I know, I know I said I’d do Black Widow. But that was before I realised a couple of very important things:
- Not doing a horror themed post on Halloween is super lame.
- In the 1980s Toei animation did two animé movies based on Marvel’s versions of Dracula and Frankenstein.
- One of these movies is regarded as one of the worst animé ever made, which, as you can imagine, is a title with competition that is not merely “stiff” but positively turgid.
- Both of these movies are just sitting on YouTube, misshapen shambling things made and then abandoned by their creators to the cruelties of an uncaring world like…someone…I can’t think of a good analogy right now.
I mean c’mon! A crappy animated Marvel Bats versus Bolts on Halloween? How could I not?! I was BORN for this post. Seriously, this is what it’s all been leading to. My magnum opus. My masterpiece.
Our story begins in the late seventies when Toei Animation acquired the rights to the Marvel comics horror series Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell buys the rights to a property based on Dracula or Frankenstein? That’s like paying for a Pornhub Account. They’re public domain for chrissakes! Why not just do your own version of the characters? Well, friends, you’re missing a crucial piece of relevant context, namely that Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein were the mutt’s nuts. TOD in particular was one of the very best comics produced by Marvel in the seventies, with one of the all time great portrayals of the Count in any medium. From this acquisition came today’s movies Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned and Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein. They are…my God. Words fail me…
These movies are special. They are dear to me. Come, come.
Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein (named in some English language publicity as The Monster of Frankenstein but never officially registered as such) is a fairly straightforward retelling of Frankenstein or, perhaps more accurately, the version of Frankenstein that everyone has had in their heads since James Whale’s iconic and still-never-topped version in 1931.
Doctor Victor Frankenstein is about to begin his experiment but just before he flips the switch his assistant Zuckel pleads with him to reconsider for he is tampering in God’s domain and so forth. Victor brushes him off and, in fairness, if Zuckel had objections he really should have raised them in the planning stages. The monster comes to life, shit goes south, Zuckel loses an eye to the monster and Frankenstein flees back home and tries to forget any of this happened. The monster follows him home and soon people and farm animals are being torn apart like soft baguettes and Victor tries to track him down, all while dealing with Zuckel who’s trying to blackmail him. Credit where credit’s due, the movie makes some interesting story choices. The old blind man is now Frankenstein’s father and it’s hinted that Victor is continuing research that his old man began. The little girl (who is killed by the monster in most version) is now Frankenstein’s daughter and is ironically one of the few people to make it through the movie alive (seriously, this thing is like Hamlet by the end). The movie also shows some originality in its depiction of Victor’s lingering trauma over the process of creating the monster, and showing the monster seeking religious solace in a church after being spurned by its original creator. So, is the movie good? Oh fuck no. First, we need to talk about Harmony Gold.
“Harmony Gold” sounds like a name that would precede the words “…alleges that the former president…” but they were actually a production company that specialised in dubbing Japanese animation and dragging it to the West in chains to be gawped at. They are, to put it mildly, not particularly well regarded in the animé community. If you’ve ever seen an old animé dub from the eighties where everyone is talking in a way that seems like they had money for words but not for punctuation, chances are it was Harmony Gold that did it. They dubbed both of today’s movies and, if you can imagine a spectrum with Disney’s dub of Princess Mononoke on one end, these are the movies that would be on the opposite side. But the movie’s problems aren’t just with the dub. I’ve seen a lot of cheap eighties animé and this is some of the cheapest and eightiest I’ve come across. The animation’s stiff and ugly, the backgrounds are simplistic and the tone veers wildly from horror to treacly saccharine. It also lacks the vital ingredient for any good Frankenstein adaptation: a sense of black comedy. Frankenstein (and this is a problem going right back to the original novel) is a fundamentally bleak and dour tale. It’s just endless cruelty and suffering and misery and unless you have an adaptation that is able to ring a bit of humour out of all these grisly goings on, any adaptation can become an awful slog. That said, I don’t want to shit on Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein too much because, for all its flaws, it has a story with a beginning middle and end and it tells it coherently. Which is more than can be said for Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned which is a mad, mad, drunken slut of a film.
Now, I’m not saying that you could make a great Dracula movie based on Tomb of Dracula. I’m saying you could make seven or eight great Dracula movies based on Tomb of Dracula. Dracula’s last living human descendant is recruited into a group of vampire hunters to track down the Count? There’s a movie. Dracula and Satan engage in a war for control of the underworld? Sign me up. Dracula is de-powered and has to face an array of human and supernatural foes using only his wits and fighting skill? Sounds awesome. Dracula returns to Transylvania and has to defeat a pretender to his throne? Who ain’t down for that, nobody that’s who. Dracula falls in love with a human woman and fathers a son who is then used by Heaven itself as a weapon against him? WHAT DRAMA. The trouble with Sovereign of the Damned is that it tries to do ALL OF THESE IN ONE MOVIE (clearly Toei felt they had paid for 70 issues and they were going to get their money’s worth). But here’s the thing, despite being absolutely crammed with plotlines, SOD somehow manages to be glacially paced and filled with scenes that go nowhere and accomplish nothing. This is one of the most gloriously inept screenplays I have witnessed in…well, I reviewed Felix the Cat in June so yeah. This is the worst screenplay I’ve seen in four months. But trust me, it’s a world beater. A scene with Dracula stalking and feeding on a woman is followed by another scene of Dracula stalking and feeding on a different woman. Literally the same story beat repeated. There are scenes of characters just wandering aimlessly looking for Dracula for minutes on end. There is a scene of a Satanic ritual where we stop the movie dead to watch the cultists painstakingly chisel a pentagram (actually a really inept Star Of David) into the floor and then we get the entire ritual. I have been to actual religious services in real life that took less time than this scene. Like, guys, you’re trying to squeeze 70 issues into 90 minutes: padding your time is not a priority. The sheer insanity of the plot would take too long to summarise here so let me just say if you’re asked at a table quiz: “What is the movie where Satan gets cucked by Dracula?”
This. This is that movie.
It is mind-bogglingly, catastrophically, hilariously, gloriously bad in every possible way. I love it and I strongly recommend you watch it without delay.
WINNER: BOLTS (Objectively. Bats in my heart)
Sovereign of the Damned has one ace up its deranged sleeve, its main character has enough of Gene Colan’s original Dracula design that he looks like an absolute boss.
By contrast, Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein’s monster “Franken” is just a warmed over version of Karloff’s monster, complete with flat head and neck bolts. He’s probably one of the more innocent and child-like depictions of the monster, never becoming verbal beyond a few garbled words. Honestly the only thing that really sets this monster apart from other depictions is his size, standing at around 11 feet.
By contrast, this Dracula has a real “One Eyed King in the Valley of the Blind” thing going on. He’s honestly kind of a dumbass but he’s fortunate enough to live in a world where everyone else acts like they’re in some kind of surrealist improv troupe. He’s still capable of some spectacularly poor decision making, however.
For example: the movie begins with the previously mentioned Cucking of the Devil where Dracula gatecrashes a Satanic summoning and the head priest says “Oh you must be the devil, we’ve been expecting you, here is a hot lady for you to sire the Anti-Christ” and Dracula’s all “Kaaaaaay…” and then he takes the woman, falls in love with her and fathers a child. With me so far? Okay, so then Dracula gets a letter that basically says:
“Dear Mr Dracula. Hello! It’s us, the Satanists. We know you stole our Dark Lord’s side piece and fathered a child with her but hey, it’s all cool, no hard feelings. Why don’t you bring the baby to our secret hideout so we can throw you a baby shower? Lots of love, the Satanists.”
And…he does it. He takes the baby to meet the Satanists and the baby ends up getting shot. Oh yeah, this movie has zero swearing and almost no nudity but a fucking toddler still catches a bullet. So sometimes this Dracula is really dumb. And other times he’s stunningly perceptive. Like, okay, they bury baby Janus in the cemetery…
And then, in the distance, Dracula sees a mysterious light over his son’s grave and we get this line of dialogue:
DRACULA: “It’s shining directly over the place that Janus was buried, eh? Now I understand it! The enemy is going to bring him back to life in an attempt to bring about my downfall by making me confront my own son in a test of His heavenly powers against the black powers given to me by Satan! I must stop it!”
As will be a running theme, the contrast between the monsters is one of bare competence versus absolutely hilarious travesty. But damn it, this Dracula still has a dim smouldering ember of his comic predecessor’s greatness and that’s enough for me.
Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein’s Victor Frankenstein is probably the best element in his film. Set your expectations to the “cheap eighties animé” setting and there’s a pretty compelling story here of a man haunted by trauma as his past sins close in on him. Plus, he’s a dead ringer for Ned Flanders and that never stops being funny.
Sovereign of the Damned has Hans Harker, (renamed for some reason from Quincey Harker in the comics) who is the now elderly and wheelchair-bound son of Johnathan and Mina Harker and who fulfils the Van Helsing role in this story. There’s some cool little touches from the comics, like his wheelchair being a mobile anti-vampire arsenal. But he has has a very bad case of “eighties animé dialogue”. You know what I’m talking about:
“Yes my boy you might think that vampires are mere fairy tales but I know better for you see I have been waging a never ending war against these foul creatures of the night for many years and in fact that is why I am confined to this wheelchair as you can see it is filled with many weapons which I use to fight vampires but allow me to introduce you to the greatest weapon of all in our arsenal this is Elijah a dog who was lived for many years in a church before he was kicked out for drinking holy water and stealing from the church collection plate but it is he that we shall use to track down Dracula who is in fact your long lost ancestor!”
“Professor would you like a sandwich?”
“Yes a sandwich will provide me with the sustenance I need to continue my eternal war against the forces of darkness!”
The Dashing Young Men
Sovereign of the Damned has Frank Drake, who is the actual worst. He’s Dracula’s last living descendant and doesn’t believe vampires are real. Or, he does believe vampires are real and thinks that Harker has no chance against Dracula. Or he thinks that Dracula is real but that he’s no big deal and will be easily defeated. He is consistent only in the fact that he remains, throughout the movie, a complete douche. He never actually says “Well excuse me Princess!” but I could swear I can remember him saying it which speaks volumes. You know how often in a movie there’ll be a scene where the older mentor suddenly attacks the young hero to test whether he’s ready? They do that here but, as I’ve already mentioned, Hans Harker is a parapalegic so this scene consists of Drake being chased around a park by an elderly man in a wheelchair.
So when Drake does a back flip and almost chokes Harker out…it’s somewhat less impressive than I think it’s supposed to be.
Oh, but what I really can’t stand is Drake’s whole “woe is me” schtick over having to change his name because of the stigma of being related to Dracula. Like, come the fuck on, any guy with the surname “Dracula” is going to be beating off sexy goth chicks with a broom handle, get the fuck outta here.
Kyōfu Densetsu Kaiki! Frankenstein (gettin’ reeeeal tired of typing that out) also has a dashing young man, with emphasis on the “young” part. Philip is the crush of Frankenstein’s daughter Emily who decides to go hunt down the monster himself, a staggeringly stupid decision somewhat excusable by the fact that he’s like eight years old.
Rest in peaee, buddy. Rest in peaee.
The Perpetually Imperilled Ladies
Poor Elizabeth “Fridgebait” Frankenstein, always a thankless role. There’s really not much to say about her in this movie, she’s just there in the background, staring forlornly out the window and worrying about her husband’s slow descent into madness with an air of nondescript melancholy.
That said, her inevitable death is a little more proactive than usual, as she perishes trying to rescue her father in law from a forest fire.
In Sovereign of the Damned, we get Dolores. Dolores was a young woman who liked partying and dancing late at night which, of course, inevitably led to her becoming the intended bride of Satan.
But the name though. The name. Dolores. I’m just picturing her neighbours back home…
I mean, there’s some dodgy gender politics at play here but engaging with that would mean taking this movie seriously and there’s just no goddamned way I can do that.
I will say that this movie ably demonstrates my rule that Ladies Love Playing Vampires. There’s a female vampire named Layla who is legitimately the only character in this thing performed with any skill and written with any wit.
Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?
No. No. Not even a little. Not at all. Non. Nein. Nyet. Níl. Frankenstein at least seems to be trying to be scary whereas Dracula is just sitting in the corner eating paste.
“Best” in this context means “line so bad it had me howling with laughter” so there is stiff competition.
I will always cherish the sight of Frankenstein searching for the monster in a forest while screaming:
“WHERE ARE YOU?! YOU MUST BE DESTROYED FOR THE GOOD OF ALL MANKIND! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND!?” *FIRES SHOTGUN WILDLY*
But then Dracula comes along with this beauty:
“Dolores, there’s a shameful secret about myself which I have kept hidden from you all this time. While it’s true I’m not a mortal man, I am not your beloved Lucifer Lord of Darkness whom you and your fellow disciples worshipped at the Black Mass. I lied to you.”
I hereby resign, and I urge all my fellow writers to do the same. We will never top this. It is folly to try.
FINAL SCORE: Bats 2, Bolts 5
Seriously, you need to see these. Here, go, go. Thank me later. Happy Halloween.
NEXT UPDATE: November 18th 2021
NEXT TIME: Okay, this time I’ll review Black Widow.