Count Dracula
Spain - Germany - Italy | 1970
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring
Christopher Lee
Herbert Lom
Klaus Kinski
Color
| 97 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Dark Sky Films
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Bram Stoker's original novel
 
 
Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
5
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
Jess Franco's Count Dracula is certainly the most faithful screen rendering of the vampire's physical appearance as conceived by creator Bram Stoker, but in terms of story it falls short of the 'literary authenticity' claim despite the filmmakers' professed goal of sticking as close to the novel as possible. An attempt to shoot the Victorian horror classic as originally written was what drew Christopher Lee, then in the midst of his Dracula series for Britain's Hammer Films, to the project in the first place. Nonetheless, significant events and characters depicted by Stoker are altered. Part of the reason for this was budgetary; the production, upon the signing of its stellar Euro-Cult cast, found itself chronically short of funds. But with such an iconoclast as Franco at the helm, could the result have been any different regardless?
    The basic story remains intact. Lawyer-in-training Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams, The Devil Came from Akasava) travels to the wilds of Transylvania on the invitation of Count Dracula, a nobleman purchasing real estate in England. Harker is puzzled by the frightened reaction of locals who learn of his destination; a spooky nighttime coach ride to Dracula's castle would seem to justify their superstitious fears. As for the Count, the tall, white-haired figure who welcomes Harker seems cordial enough, if a bit odd. But soon after arriving the young Englishman finds himself imprisoned within the castle his host is one of the Undead, a vampire, as are the trio of Dracula's 'brides' who thirst for his blood. Harker must find a way to escape... Otherwise his fate is sealed. Driven to the brink of madness he leaps from a high window, in all likelihood to his death.
    It's at this point that the script starts taking significant liberties with the source material. Harker awakens in a private clinic outside London, where he's being treated by the eminent physician/psychiatrist Prof. Van Helsing (Mark of the Devil's Herbert Lom). Van Helsing explains that Harker was pulled from a river in a demented state, raving about giant bats, and thus transported home to be placed in his care. Arriving at the clinic to aid in his convalescence is Harker's lovely fiancée Mina Murray (Maria Rohm, The Girl from Rio, Justine) and her best friend, Lucy Westenra (the bewitching Soledad Miranda of Vampyros Lesbos). That very night Lucy is victimized by Dracula, who has completed his move to England and made his home in the dilapidated manse abutting the clinic grounds. (It is never referred to as "Carfax Abbey".) Mina's presence helps speed Harker's recovery even as Lucy grows sicker and eventually dies. Van Helsing, who has made a study of the "black arts" in addition to his more conventional skills, realizes that a vampire is at work the King Vampire himself, Dracula. From his protégé Dr. Seward (Franco regular Paul Müller) he learns that one of his patients, the demented Renfield (Slaughter Hotel's Klaus Kinski), is somehow psychically attuned to the Count's activities. While Seward tries to get Renfield to reveal what he knows, Van Helsing makes plans with Harker and Lucy's grieving suitor, Quincy Morris (Jack Taylor of Succubus), to hunt Dracula down and destroy him.
    Quincy Morris, a Texan in the book, is presented here as an Englishman, an amalgam of the Morris and Arthur Holmwood characters. Van Helsing (played with stately authority by Lom) suffers a mild stroke and is unable to accompany them to Transylvania to finish off the Count. Nor does Mina make the journey; after being attacked by Dracula at a London opera house she remains in England with the professor. And it is not she who provides the vital clue to Dracula's escape route, but Renfield. Given these changes setting aside all the material from Stoker's novel omitted for budgetary reasons (such as the sea voyage to England and the final pursuit through Transylvania) Count Dracula must rank second on the list of most faithful adaptations. Considering the multitude of Drac flicks made over the years that's no small thing, I suppose. A 1977 BBC telefilm starring Louis Jourdan, also entitled Count Dracula, claims the prize for hewing closest to the book, although Jourdan is not portrayed as a mustachioed old man who gradually becomes younger. To my knowledge this 'reverse aging' has only been used in one other film, 1992's lavish misfire Bram Stoker's Dracula. (I haven't seen the 2006 BBC version, aired on American PBS stations only a few weeks ago, so I don't know whether or not it, too, uses this theme.)
    Sadly the film had a malnourished budget, and it shows. Wolves, those "children of the night" which threaten Harker's coach during the journey to the castle, are portrayed by German shepherd police dogs. Special effects are pathetically cheap, notably the stiff, completely immobile bat (dangled on a string, wisely shown only in silhouette through frosted glass) and the styrofoam boulders hurled down on the Count's gypsy servants. Some of the simple optical effects are decent, such as Dracula's disappearing shadow, but the monster's destruction at film's end is badly bungled. A bizarre sequence in which Harker, Morris and Seward are 'attacked' by stuffed hunting trophies which laughably growl and move in lieu of the novel's horde of rats is just plain silly. Even so, these faux pas do less cumulative damage to the movie than the manner in which it was filmed. There are too many wobbly handheld shots when a smooth, gliding camera would have worked much better. Most of the day-for-night photography is rather poor. Worst of all, Franco goes absolutely bat-shit crazy with the zoom lens, detracting and distracting from the narrative again and again. For my tastes this technique is questionable at best; it certainly fares poorly when applied to a period piece such as this. In a movie with psychedelic sitar music and chicks in go-go boots, yeah. But the 19th Century? No. (Unless perhaps you're Mario Bava.)
    There's a lot to complain about with this film for sure, yet it still has things to offer. Franco drops the ball on numerous occasions vis a vis technique but he nails the gothic atmosphere handily the scene with Mina following the 'sleepwalking' Lucy to a nocturnal rendezvous with the Count is a real standout. Composer Bruno Nicolai (The Bloody Judge, Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion) provides an eerie orchestral score in all ways appropriate for a 'traditional' Dracula film. The cast, of course, is a Euro-Cult enthusiast's dream. Christopher Lee is a magnificent Dracula, clearly relishing the opportunity to play the character as conceived by Stoker and speaking the dialog ported directly from the book with solemn conviction. That he even has significant dialog marks a change from his better-known Dracula vehicles for Hammer, in which he purposefully kept his lines to a minimum because he often found them dreadful. Kinski's Renfield may be oddly detached from the story (he never speaks, never interacts with the Count) but I can't think of a better actor to play a quirky madman. And although clothed from neck to ankle throughout (typically not the case in her other Franco-helmed films), Soledad Miranda is an arresting presence as both victim and vampiress, even though her doomed Lucy is given very little to do in either mode.
    Upon weighing these pros and cons Count Dracula emerges a substantially flawed film. But I can still recommend it to any fan of Lee, Franco, Miranda and even of Stoker's novel. If you happen fit into all of these categories (like me), then so much the better.

This new release from Dark Sky has generated quite a bit of discussion on the web. The disc apparently uses the Italo-French cut of the film (Les Nuits de Dracula, with the rest of the credits in Italian), missing a minute-long scene in which a distraught mother pleads for her baby's life at the door of Drac's castle. (The Count later feeds the child to his undead concubines.) I've only seen Count Dracula once before, almost 20 years ago via the Republic VHS tape, and quite frankly don't remember this scene at all. I do recall that the Republic tape looked really, really crappy, so I'm satisfied to have an alternate cut Jess Franco's films are notorious for this anyhow with much improved visuals.
    Presented 1.33:1 full-frame (the way Franco says it was shot), the transfer is taken from a nearly pristine source. Colors are vivid and bold; detail surprisingly sharp save for the foggy 'night' scenes during Harker's coach ride. Print damage is negligible. Audio fares less well, with the English 2.0 mono track occasionally exhibiting a bit of hiss or background noise, but at all times the dialog and music are strong and clear-sounding.
    A very nice slate of extras is provided. The 26-minute featurette Beloved Count interviews director Franco about his recollections of the project as well as his thoughts on other Dracula films. As usual he has some interesting stories to tell about the cast; he claims, for example, that Kinski ate real flies on camera for his role as the zoophagus Renfield. (Talk about method acting!) An 82-minute audio feature, Christopher Lee Reads Bram Stoker's Dracula, is sure to delight the venerable actor's fans. Recorded many years ago, it's a radio play-style performance of a heavily abridged adaptation of the novel enhanced with sound effects and dramatic music. Lee performs all the roles, using many different accents, with verve and great gusto. It's really good and a lot of fun I'm planning on ripping this to MP3 for long car trips around Halloween time. (On the DVD, a montage of promotional artwork and movie stills is shown during the reading.) An image gallery and a step-through text essay on Soledad Miranda (by Amy Brown, webmistress of soledadmiranda.com) complete this handsome package. 3/03/07

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