Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

It’s always at least a little frustrating when all a movie does is affirm things you already know. For instance, I already knew from the first film in William Beaudine’s career-concluding Weird West double bill, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, that I wasn’t likely to enjoy its marquee mate Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Indeed, my second trip to that well was even less rewarding than the first and I had to question exactly why I even do these things to myself, especially since I already knew going in that its title was bound to be its best attribute. That wasn’t my most depressing reaffirmation watching Frankenstein’s Daughter, however. What really got to me was once again facing a truth about myself as an audience that never goes away: I will greedily gobble up any scraps of horror genre schlock put in front of me, but most Westerns put me to sleep, regardless of quality.

Of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, I wrote that the Western end of the film’s horror-Western divide felt like a Halloween-themed episode of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter similarly mirrors the lifeless, going-through-the-motions tedium of televised Western serials whenever its titular horror villain is offscreen. It also makes the problem worse by stretching out these gun-slinging adventures to much longer extremes than Beaudine’s other Weird West picture. At the opening of the film I was foolishly excited that it may be an improvement from Billy the Kid Versus Dracula because it begins in Lady Frankenstein’s lab as she experiments on a dead body using her grandfather’s ancient recipe. That excitement soon faded as I realized this is more so a picture about Jesse James’s travels as a pistol-shootin’ romantic.

Two scientists from Vienna, including the titular Lady Frankenstein, set up shop in a small Mexican village to take advantage of two of their most precious resources: electrical storms & disposable laborers (you know, human children). Lady Frankenstein’s experiments in the old abandoned mission she converts to a lab packed with sciency bleep bloop machines have no concern for conquering death, but rather create a strong, mind-controlled slave out of the local undead. Unfortunately, the cruelty in her preposterous form of sci-fi colonialism is abandoned for most of the film’s (very short) runtime to follow the American man who eventually does her in: Jesse James. James’s story is split between planning a bank robbery and getting stuck between the romantic intentions of a local Mexican woman & Lady Frankenstein herself. Neither end of that divide is half as interesting as Lady Frankenstein’s experiments, cheap thrills that have been better pulled off in countless films that are far more entertaining than this one.

If there’s any delight to be found in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, it’s in the film’s disinterest in maintaining its own sense of world-building. Just like how the vampire in Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is never once referred to as Dracula, Frankenstein’s “daughter” in the film is actually the mad scientist’s granddaughter. Also, when Lady Frankenstein finally creates a successful undead mind-slave out of Jesse James’s hunky buddy, she names the monster Igor for some unknown reason. I guess the production design or the line delivery or a classic “Why? Why?! WHY?!!!!!” reaction made stray moments of the movie humorous, but it never lived up to the potential of its real life outlaw meets supernatural threat premise. I suppose my familiarity with its sister film should’ve meant I already knew that it wouldn’t. I got tricked, once again, into thinking the delights of its schlocky horror elements or its ridiculous title could outweigh the tedium of watching a tedious mid-60s Western. I sorta already knew better, but I watched it anyway and learned nothing in the process.

-Brandon Ledet

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)

I don’t know why I’m suddenly fascinated by the schlocky career of William Beaudine. The only two films I’ve previously seen from the professionaly subpar director, The Ape Man & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, both tested my usual unending patience for poverty row garbage starring Bela Lugosi, who I love dearly. Yet, there’s an undeniable draw to Beaudine’s schlocky frivolity, no matter how often the promise of his films’ premises fail to pay off. Take, for instance, his final two productions before retirement/death. Filming both titles in just eight days on the same Californian ranch, Beaudine capped off his career with the “Weird West” double bill of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. There’s no way either film could live up to the full schlock potential of their titles, thanks to Beaudine’s passionless workman sense of craft. Just the mere fact that films exist on the market with such preposterous titles is enough to draw me in as an audience, though, no matter how many times I’ve been burned before. In that way William Beaudine may just have been a movie/money-making genius.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is that it was filmed in 1960s color instead of 1950s black & white. Otherwise, it’s the exact unimpressive mashup of supernatural action & lackluster romance you might expect from the title. Billy the Kid is a real life historical figure, placing the prestige & plausibility of this work somewhere around the heights of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the film, he’s posited as a retired gunfighter, an outlaw made good. His determination to live a quiet life is jeapordized when his young fiancee is hypnotized and quarantined by a vampire (never once referred to as Dracula in the script) who arrives in their small Old West town posing as her uncle. Everyone else seems to ignore the improbability that this oddly incestuous European man would be this teenage woman’s uncle and accepts him as her new guardian after he drains her parents of their blood. Only Billy the Kid senses that something is afoul and must murder the vampire invader in a way that both doesn’t arouse suspicion from the law and trades in his pistol-shooting tactics for a traditional heart-staking. It’s all very silly.

Unfortunately, the silliness at the core of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula has all the urgency of a Halloween-themed episode of Bonanza or Gunsmoke. When the vampire hypnotizes women he glows red and closely resembles an illustration of Satan. His bat form is also adorably shoddy, like a Party City decoration, and is used as silhouetted screen wipes during the opening credits. The rest of the movie is on the most boring end of cheap Western media, however, and it’s not at all surprising that this “Weird West” double bill was financed by television producers. I’m much more in tune with the campy pleasures of cheap horror than whatever people see in cheap Westerns, so maybe the Cowboys & Indians gunplay of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula would play better for audiences who never tire of grizzled men with six shooters who uniformly refer to Native Americans as “savages.” I guess since my interest in watching the film was only piqued during its few stray vampire attacks, I might have been better off watching a different Dracula film altogether, but I will admit the absurdity of the setting has an endearing novelty to it that a 70min feature can easily sustain while remaining moderately charming.

As tickled as I am by the Billy the Kid Versus Dracula‘s titular premise, the movie has no excuse to be as dull or as uninventive as it is, especially considering its mid-60s release date. I like to imagine an alternate universe where William Beaudine were more passionate about his absurdist schlock. A version of this film made in the 1950s by a fired up Ed Wood could easily have been an all-time​ cult classic, maybe even with Bela Lugosi in the villainous lead. Beaudine manages to reduce something so wonderfully outlandish to a by the numbers, television-esque work of supernatural tedium. I was only moderately entertained by it for a few isolated stretches, but I still can’t resist the urge to watch its sister film, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein‘s Daughter anyway. Who could pass up a title like that, no matter who’s behind the camera? I am my own worst enemy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Ape Man (1943)

When looking back to the heights of Old Hollywood, what we’re really getting nostalgic for is the glut & extravagance of the old studio system. The high production values & workman sense of craft that went into each studio production in that era are missing from modern cinema’s more routine, mundane releases. For a brief, glorious time, even horror had its day in the sun during that studio era, particularly thanks to Universal’s Famous Monsters brand. This, of course, birthed the iconic career if Bela Lugosi, who starred in prestigious horror productions like The Black Cat & Todd Browning’s Dracula early in his career. Horror was treated as a flash-in-the-pan trend by the Hollywood studio system, however, and Lugosi’s leading man work eventually dried up. Shortly after putting in his final top-bill performance for a major studio in Columbia Pictures’ Return of the Vampire (which is widely considered to be an unofficial sequel to Dracula), Lugosi was nudged out of the major studio system and into B-picture work in the less nostalgia-worthy territory of Old Hollywood’s so-called “poverty row” studios, purveyors of schlock. The step down from Universal horror to poverty row B-pictures was exactly as drastic as it sounds and Lugosi’s first work for Monogram Pictures, The Ape Man, was clearly the actor’s first major “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” moment.

Although far from the worst, The Ape Man may be the first major embarrassment of Bela Lugosi’s career. It was also one of the few instances of his earlier works where he wasn’t asked to play a vampire. Instead, the Hungarian-born icon plays the titular ape man, the monstrous result of a failed experiment by the other horror movie staple he was often typecast as: a mad scientist. Weirdly enough, the film begins after the scientist has already transformed to his hideous ape man visage (which just looks like an especially hairy member of The Monkees). In later works like Alligator People or The Fly, that kind of introduction would mean that his failed experiment downfall would then be portrayed in a longform flashback. Instead, we’re simply told that he was once fully human and are asked to watch in horror as he hunts down innocent victims for their spinal fluid, which he shoots directly into his arm like heroin as a makeshift, temporary cure for his ape-ificiation (an image that would be just as shocking in the 40s as it is now, given heroin addiction’s prominence at the time). The ape man scientist dresses like a typical gangster when venturing out for these kills, equipped with a fedora and a cape. The difference is that instead of using a gun to slay his spinal fluid-providing victims, he uses his accomplice, an actual ape. The film’s main conflict is in following two news reporters as they get to the bottom of these mysterious killings, increasingly getting hot on the ape & ape man’s metaphorical tails. (Apes don’t have tails.)

The basic plot of The Ape Man has promise to it as a Bela Lugosi cheapie, but the film itself is a total embarrassment. The score is punishingly repetitive; Lugosi’s given nothing interesting to do outside donning the ape make-up; his primate accomplice is clearly just a dude in a costume shop gorilla suit; and the two reporters who chase them down cynically poke fun at the frivolity of the film’s premise, since horror had become something of a derided fad by the time of the film’s production. It probably doesn’t help that Monogram Pictures allowed The Ape Man to fall into public domain status, so the only commercially available prints are horrifically shoddy DVD transfers with nearly incomprehensible visual & aural clarity. I might’ve been better off streaming the film from YouTube than watching my bargain bin physical copy (purchased from a yard sale), but at least I got to exercise my rudimentary lip-reading skills?

The worst part about all of this is knowing that things only got worse for Bela Lugosi’s career. He might’ve had a couple decent Universal productions left in him as second fiddle to rival Boris Karloff (1945’s The Body Snatcher is especially great), but the rest of his career as a leading man would be relegated to works exactly like this slice of poverty row dreck. Even though The Ape Man was a nothing of a film, that wouldn’t stop Lugosi & Monogram from teaming up again for its sequel, Return of the Ape Man. Lugosi would even work again with The Ape Man director William Beaudine, whose prestigious credits include titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula & Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, on the infamously terrible Martin & Lewis knockoff Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At least that poorly-remembered gem is notably terrible, though. It’s possibly the most shrill & aggressively unfunny film I’ve ever seen, but The Ape Man is an even worse kind of awful: the unforgivably bland kind. It’s the first truly sour note in a career that had outworn its welcome in the Old Hollywood studio system, even if that career persisted endearingly in horror fans’ hearts in the more forgiving decades since. Yet, its worst offense is in being an entirely forgettable bore.

-Brandon Ledet