Merlin and Baron Frankenstein assemble the creatures of the netherworld to crown Count Downe as their new king. Downe is Dracula’s son, but he has human tendencies and seems more interested in rock ‘n’ roll than anything else…
Many musicians made shed loads of money in the 1960s and some chose to put their cash into movies. One of these was Ringo Starr; the Beatles drummer bankrolling this strange ill-conceived rock ‘n’ roll horror starring his friend Harry Nilsson in the title role. Ringo also gets plenty of screen time as the wizard Merlin and the two musicians are surrounded by a cast of reputable acting talent from the UK film industry, including Dennis Price and Freddie Jones. The presence of Jones as the Baron is a nice touch as he’d appeared memorably as one of the good doctor’s experiments in Hammer’s excellent ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ (1969). Director Freddie Francis also had previous with that series, helming ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ (1964) and was also behind other middling horrors of the era such as ‘The Skull’ (1965) and ‘The Deadly Bees’ (1966).
The script was the second – and last – screenwriting exploit of actress Jennifer Jayne who was a well-known face on TV as well as playing heroines in films like ‘The Trollenberg Terror’ (1958) and ‘They Came From Beyond Space’ (1967). And the script is a problem. Is the film supposed to be a comedy? Ringo does swan around in a pointy hat and Father Xmas beard delivering his lines in a Liverpudlian monotone, but where are the other jokes? Director Francis certainly didn’t know and the film lacks focus and direction.
Nilsson plays it completely straight but who’s ever heard of a red-headed and bearded Dracula? At first he does seem to have some ability as an actor but, as the film progresses, his lack of experience is cruelly exposed and the audience never invests in his sappy love affair with Suzanna Leigh (‘The Lost Continent’ (1968), ‘Lust For A Vampire’ (1971)). There are some musical numbers of course and he looks more comfortable on stage (ironic as he never toured in real life!) but these sequences seem to belong in a film called ‘Harry Nilsson In Concert’ rather than here. Actually, his band (‘The Count Downes’ – oh my aching ribs) boasts some stellar talent, including Peter Frampton, Keith Moon, Leon Russell and John Bonham (but not all at the same time).
The film’s best moment has Nilsson going to sleep in a coffin but waking up on a bed, neatly symbolising the struggle between his human and vampire sides, but that’s as good as things get. After the film was completed, Starr hired Python Graham Chapman and ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ author Douglas Adams to write a new script to be dubbed over the existing dialogue, because no distributor was interested in releasing it. This idea was abandoned and the movie crawled out on to screens a couple of years later and vanished almost immediately.
A few miscellaneous points of interest: this is one of Dennis Price’s last films and he acts out of a wheelchair, Suzanna Leigh never made another movie, Michael Caine’s wife Shakira appears in one of her few acting roles as a feline housekeeper, Frankenstein’s dwarf assistant is played by Skip Martin, who was excellent as Hop Toad in Roger Corman’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1964), Jennifer Jayne’s other screenwriting credit was Amicus Studio’s portmanteau horror ‘Tales That Witness Madness’ (1973), Francis also directed the woeful ‘Trog’ (1970), which was Joan Crawford’s last film.
Odd facts like those are far more interesting than sitting through this film; a largely forgotten enterprise that will appeal only to fans of the musical talent involved.