❉ Matthew Sweet takes the Vampire’s Oath of Blood and meets the mysterious Zandor Vorkov.
“Dracula vs Frankenstein will boggle your mind… Lurid, incoherent, violent and amateurish, but fifty years on, the film’s ramshackle extremity now looks almost Warholian.”
Zandor Vorkov wants the blood of healthy young Americans; the kind that go to drive-in movie theatres. As they sit in their cars, enjoying the only form of cinema that fits the conventions of social distancing, he’ll loom up in his cloak and fangs and exhort them to take the Vampire’s Oath of Blood.
Only on film, at first – before a screening of his 1971 movie Dracula vs Frankenstein at the Circle Drive-In in Dickson City, Pennsylvania. (It took place on 26 May.) But he has a Corona-sensitive plan to manifest in person and do his bit for the blood banks of America. “We can construct a ticket booth out of Plexiglass and decorate it as a coffin with black outside and the inside red,” he says, in his rich, booming voice. “Then I can come out and greet everybody.”
COVID-19 has brought the drive-in back – but as a forum for well-loved classics such as Grease and Back to the Future. The original drive-in circuit wasn’t quite so fastidious about its repertoire. The movies made for its screens didn’t have to be good. They just required an eye-popping, transgressive title calculated to appeal to teenagers. Many in the audience were more interested in each other than what was on the screen. In 1970, Al Adamson, director of Psycho-a-Go-Go (1966), Satan’s Sadists (1969) and Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970) decided that the drive-in audience needed its own Dracula.
The son of silent movie actors, Adamson loved old Hollywood, and liked to use the stars he could afford – veterans at the ends of their tethers. Dracula vs Frankenstein already had two in the cast. Twice Oscar-nominated J Carroll Naish, who read his script from cue-cards, with his glass eye static, his good eye hovering from left to right, and his false teeth clattering audibly; Lon Chaney Jr, the great Wolf Man of the 1940s, who, dying of cancer of the larynx, swigged vodka from a thermos flask, and proved unable to deliver a line.
There was an obvious choice for the Count. John Carradine, who had played the Count in Universal’s House of Dracula (1945), was part of Adamson’s rep company of old-timers. But in the end the director chose someone younger, fitter and even cheaper: Raphael Engel, a shock-haired Army veteran employed in a record store in Greenwich Village. Engel had done a little acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, but it was his fundraising abilities that brought him into contact with Adamson and his producer, Sam Sherman – his mother knew a Wall Street stockbroker who he thought might be interested in investing in the movie.
His Transylvanian screen name – devised by Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of the fan mag Famous Monsters of Filmland – echoed that of Anton Szandor LaVey, a media-friendly Satanist and Wurlitzer virtuoso of the period, and Boris Karloff, the horror master born in Peckham Rye as William Henry Pratt. “Al paid me one-ninth of what Carradine’s agent wanted for the same role,” says Engel. “One-tenth, maybe.” And Zandor Vorkov materialised.
Until recently, Raphael Engel was one of the minor mysteries of horror. Nobody knew his whereabouts. Or his age. (He’s 76.) Or his real name. (Roger? Peter? Marvin?) Fan forums speculated that he’d joined a cult. They were also unkind about his performance. (“One of the screen’s worst Draculas,” pronounced Kim Newman, the FR Leavis of horror scholarship.) But then he was tracked down by David Gregory, director of a documentary about the life of Al Adamson, and there he was, sitting on the sofa, telling anecdotes about his cheap pair of Halloween teeth, and the difficulty of ripping the head off a monster.
The documentary brought Engel back to Dracula: he’s now devising a multimedia theatre performance about vampires with the help of an academic from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. It will involve live piano, back projection, his own presence in full vampire regalia, and contributions from members of the audience invited up on the stage. “I have quite a stunning ending,” says Engel, “which, unfortunately for you and others who’ve asked me, I’m not going to reveal it because I have to get permission from an author who has a totally different slant on the whole Dracula myth.”
A resurgence of interest in his drive-in work should help him find an audience. “It’s such a wild and crazy film,” says Engel. “It boggles my mind, it really does.” It will boggle yours, if you watch it. Dracula vs Frankenstein is lurid, incoherent, violent and amateurish. Engel cuts a bizarre spectacle – in white face make-up and Frank Zappa hair, he staggers over the endless rolling clauses of terrible expository dialogue. (“… and get your revenge on Doctors Beaumont, Steadman and Marky who ruined your career and caused the accidental fire, which crippled you as you are now.”) But fifty years on, the film’s ramshackle extremity now looks almost Warholian. “It hasn’t so much matured,” reflects Engel, “but it has flowed with the times and taken on a particular persona of its own.”
Engel has good stories from the set, but his life before and after Dracula is where the real drama lies. “I was decompressing after Vietnam,” he recalls, describing his call-up, his training as a military policeman, his transfer to Cam Ranh Bay, where his ship was fired on by Viet Cong fighters the moment it arrived. The bay, he recalls, was a zone of tension and rumour. Special forces, the stories went, were training with wild tigers on a nearby island. “We had electricity generators in Cam Ranh,” he says. “That’s how everything was run. They made this constant hum like an electric bass. It had your spine up. It affected you. One day, all of a sudden, they stopped and there was total silence. It turned out sand had got into them, but for an hour or so, everybody was walking around with rifles, looking for the enemy.”
After Dracula vs Frankenstein, Engel was persuaded back for one more another Adamson guignol, Brain of Blood (1971), for which he received no fee at all. (“My resistance had been lowered,” he explains.) Later he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he founded on a New Age newspaper, ran an improv theatre group that performed in prisons, and received an ordination from Universal Brotherhood Inc., a non-profit group that recognises charitable work in the community. His period with Al Adamson’s cheerful band of schlock merchants remained a pleasant memory, until the day in 1995 when Sam Sherman called to tell him that Adamson’s body had been discovered buried under the Jacuzzi of a house in Indio, California.
The story is related in David Gregory’s 2019 documentary, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, but it is so weird and labyrinthine that the film can barely contain it. Sam Sherman had commissioned his old friend to make a docudrama about UFOS. Adamson was sceptical, but became a believer after meeting a man who claimed to be an alien-human hybrid – and possessed documents that seemed to corroborate the story. Work on the film was slow, partly because Adamson was more interested in making money from property development than movies. He had purchased a house in Indio and taken on a handyman, Fred Fulford, to help him make improvements. Like his actors, Fulford was employed on an absurdly low rate. He began to supplement his income using Adamson’s credit card. He also started mimicking his employer’s hairstyle and dress – to the extent that the two men were sometimes mistaken for each other. It was Fulford, a jury decided in November 1999, who had killed Adamson and buried his body beneath the cement and the tiles.
“Al was a good guy, reflects Engel. “I never saw him get harsh with anybody.” But his New Age interests give him a purchase on the extra-terrestrial element of the story. “I know a lot of people who have had experiences that don’t have any reality as the human mind knows it,” he says, in his basso profundo voice. “Being a human being is a curious thing, wouldn’t you say?”
It’s true. And would seem even more so, if delivered from a blood-slaked screen on a hot American night.
❉ ‘Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson’ was released on Blu-ray on 1 June 2020. ‘Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection’, a limited edition, 14-disc Blu-ray set is available to order now. The next screening of ‘Dracula Vs. Frankenstein’ is July 29 and July 30 at the Family Drive In in Stephens City, Virginia. In addition, the event also including a showing of ‘Brain Of Blood’, both starring Raphael Engel.
❉ Matthew Sweet is author of Inventing the Victorians (2001), Shepperton Babylon (2005) and The West End Front (2011). A familiar voice in British broadcasting, he presents Free Thinking and Sound of Cinema on BBC Radio 3 and The Philosopher’s Arms on BBC Radio 4. In the BBC2 drama An Adventure in Space and Time he played a moth from the planet Vortis. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMatthewSweet