Before Iron Man, before Blade, and even before Howard the Duck… there was Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned and The Monster of Frankenstein.
Conventional wisdom says that the age of the Marvel Comics movie began not with Iron Man, not with Spider-Man, and not even with Blade… but with the notorious Lucasfilm box office dud Howard the Duck, way back in 1986.
But there is sometimes a difference between “conventional” wisdom and “actual” wisdom. Because although Howard the Duck was the first live-action theatrical film based on a Marvel superhero, there were several other motion pictures that predate the Howard by several years. They just didn’t go to theaters.
Many recall that, back in the 1970s, Marvel Comics fans were treated to live-action TV movies based (sometimes loosely) on Captain America, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. But few, if any, seem to remember or talk about two of the strangest Marvel adaptations ever made: the early ’80s straight-to-video anime horror movies Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned and The Monster of Frankenstein (based on, respectively and kinda/sorta, Marvel’s comics The Tomb of Dracula and The Monster of Frankenstein).
And the reason why nobody talks about these movies has a little to do with the fact that they aren’t officially available on home video, and a lot to do with the fact that they’re completely insane.
Animated by Toei and released in America by Harmony Gold (the studio that also imported and re-dubbed the influential Robotech series), these two animated films adapted the Marvel Comics series Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein. They skew more adult than most other Marvel movies, and feature morbid storylines and sometimes gruesome violence. And yes, in one of them Dracula steals Satan’s fiancée and chows down on a hamburger.
Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned
Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned opens with a whole bunch of voice-over mumbo jumbo about the everlasting battle of good against evil, light against darkness and – just for good measure “heat against cold.” It then cuts to a group of Satan worshipers in a church who perform a ritual to raise Satan from the underworld and offer him a new bride named Dolores.
“Dolores Bride of Satan!” they chant. “Hail Dolores! Hail Dolores!” But instead of Satan, Dracula shows up, pretends to be Satan, and absconds with Dolores. He plans to bite her and really stick it to Satan for making him a vampire in the first place, but he just can’t do it. He puts away his glowing fangs and bellows, “How can it be possible for a creature such as I to feel such a tender emotion as love?!”
While Dracula and Dolores settle down and raise a family, a guy named Frank Drake (a descendant of Dracula) gets enlisted in a gang of vampire hunters: Quincy Harker, a wheelchair-bound fencing expert, Rachel Van Helsing, and a dog who was ex-communicated from the church for drinking holy water. The dog allegedly has a nose for vampires but spends the better part of a year finding nothing whatsoever. Still, it’s not his fault because – as they probably should have mentioned earlier – “Dracula can disappear,” and at least the dog showed them where Dracula wasn’t. Right? (Right?)
Meanwhile, Dracula and Dolores have a son named Janus, and Dracula reveals (finally) that he isn’t Satan after all. Dolores, being rather observant, says she knew all the time. She just didn’t care. The Satanists invite Dracula and Dolores to some sort of occult baby shower and they just go, not suspecting anything. In fact, when they arrive and find nobody there, Dracula assumes they’ve just been pranked. But no, it’s vengeance time, and they shoot Dracula’s freakin’ baby.
But wait! There’s more! After Dracula forces all of nature to mourn the death of his son, Dracula’s wife goes to the baby’s grave to kill herself… but then God stops her by resurrecting the baby, aging it by about 20 years, and sending it on a mission to kill Dracula. They fight, Dracula gets cured of being a vampire, and then wanders the Earth trying to get other vampires to bite him.
Oh yeah, this is the part where he has his first cheeseburger. He seems to dig it.
Anyway, Dracula walks from New England to Transylvania – apparently – and fights the new king of the vampires, then teams up with a bunch of kids to fortify their house before finally coming face-to-face with Quincy Harker. (And before we go any further it’s worth noting that Harker, Drake, Van Helsing and their ex-communicated dog have literally accomplished nothing throughout the entire movie, and have never once had any impact on the plot).
Harker gets up from his wheelchair, which apparently he could always do but didn’t tell anyone just in case it would one day be an awesome dramatic reveal to Dracula (who he has apparently never met before anyway), and kills Dracula by stabbing him with a spoke from one of his wheelchair wheels, which by the way was made of silver, which he never mentioned before either. Also the wheelchair explodes and Janus becomes a baby again (having also accomplished literally nothing).
And that’s it, and if that isn’t the craziest danged Dracula movie ever you’d better let the world know, because that’s one crazy freakin’ Dracula movie.
The Monster of Frankenstein
By comparison, The Monster of Frankenstein is a relatively straightforward adaptation. Which is really saying something because The Monster of Frankenstein is also super weird.
The Monster of Frankenstein actually bothers to tell a story that kind of resembles Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original novel. Kind of. It opens with a detective yelling at the audience for no reason and mispronouncing “Frankenstein” as though the actor only ever heard the name in a Mel Brooks movie before. If you didn’t know better, you might almost think The Monster of Frankenstein is a reinterpretation of Young Frankenstein, but no, that would be silly.
The film opens with Doctor Frankenstein bringing the monster to life over the objections of his assistant, Zuckel. When the monster flips out, Dr. Frankenstein gives Zuckel a gun and tells him to sort it out, and then flees for his life. Zuckel puts some effort into disposing of the beast but gets his eye gouged out anyway, and the Monster of Frankenstein escapes.
Later, Dr. Frankenstein returns home to his wife and daughter while a series of mysterious cattle mutilations plague the countryside. Chief Inspector Bellbeau – who yelled at the audience in the beginning because “why not” apparently – is on the case, and eventually comes to suspect that Dr. Frankenstein has something to do with it.
Surprise! It turns out that a lot of the damage was done by Zuckel, who is trying to exploit Dr. Frankenstein’s post-traumatic stress over raising the dead, and who now wants to blackmail him for “five hundred thousand.” Never mind five hundred thousand of what, he just wants “five hundred thousand.” And when Dr. Frankenstein tries to pay him, the monster shows up and kills Zuckel, framing Doctor Frankenstein in the process. Oh yeah, and the monster scares Frankenstein’s housekeeper to death and then gatecrashes a wedding, so there’s that too.
And the blind guy who teaches the Frankenstein Monster how to be a decent human being, the one who shows up in pretty much every version of Frankenstein? He’s the father of Dr. Frankenstein in this version, and originally came up with the formula to create life out of corpses. So yeah, it really is kind of a reinterpretation of Young Frankenstein, and yeah, it really is silly.
So the Monster of Frankenstein bakes bread with Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter and fights a bear (and the bear fights dirty too). But then Dr. Frankenstein shows up and shoots the monster, they all get caught in a forest fire, and Dr. Frankenstein’s wife gets burned alive while the monster tries to save the grandfather. The monster also accidentally kills a local boy who’s trying to protect Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter. The Monster of Frankenstein is nothing if not a victim of circumstance.
It all ends with the Monster facing off against the cops with his back against a cliff. He’s about to die but then Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter explains everything, and for once, it looks like a Frankenstein movie is actually going to have a happy ending.
AND THEN THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER KILLS HIMSELF FOR NO REASON.
Like, no reason at all. It’s all turning out okay. Everyone realizes he’s innocent, he’s got people who love him, and for the first time life is actually looking up. But he just flings himself off of a cliff right in front of a little girl who just said she loved him.
AND THEN DR. FRANKENSTEIN KILLS HIMSELF IN FRONT OF HIS DAUGHTER.
Like, he literally puts a gun to his head and presses the trigger in front of her. The two people she loved most in the world just commit suicide in front of her, one right after the other, completely messing her up for life. This would be like if at the end of Rocky, everyone was celebrating, and then Rocky and Paulie killed themselves right there in the ring, right in front of Adrian. It comes out of nowhere and it’s NUTS.
So that’s Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned and The Monster of Frankenstein. Two completely baffling, unexpectedly captivating anime Marvel Comics adaptations that have mostly been swept under the rug by history. Occasionally you’ll see some deep cut comics, anime or movie site mention them but they’re almost completely forgotten by the mainstream… if the mainstream ever knew they existed in the first place.
And you know what? That’s a shame. These two films, absurd and off-key though they are, represent a very interesting footnote in the history of Marvel movies. They deserve to be remembered and they deserve to be seen. Maybe one day they’ll finally get another official home video release, but let’s be honest… that probably won’t happen.
Not unless we ask for them, that is…