Judge Brett Cullum sinks his fangs into this oft-forgotten Christopher Lee Dracula effort.
Undead…and loving it! And getting younger by the minute.
Originally known under many names including the German title Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht (loosely translated as Nights, when Dracula awakes), the French Les Nuits de Dracula (The Nights of Dracula) or the Spanish Il Conde Dracula (The Count Dracula). This is the Jess Franco adaptation of the immortal horror classic Dracula. Christopher Lee entered into the European funded project because he was promised this would be a more faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel than any previous incarnation (including those he had done with Hammer Studios in London). It does stick pretty close to Stoker's novel…well, at least for the first third of it. Kinky master of European shock horror Jess Franco can't resist the urge to put his own spin on the classic story once the plot takes us out of Transylvania. The man who brought to the screen an unrecognizable yet still brilliant Venus in Furs decides to make Count Dracula owe as much to his own Vampyros Lesbos or Succubus as it does to any literary heritage. Dark Sky Films brings film buffs the first U.S. release of this 1970 production on DVD with a full fledged Special Edition. Forget all those other classic adaptations, it's time for Jess Franco's Count Dracula starring the unmatchable Christopher Lee. Most Franco fans expect a certain amount of sex and trippy visuals, but the Spanish director avoids those elements with Count Dracula. Instead he wrangles together a stellar cast, invests in some nice looking sets, and tries to play a movie straight for once in his life.
In the titular role is Christopher Lee donning his familiar cape and fangs, Hebert Lom (known mainly as Chief Inspector Dreyfus from The Pink Panther movies) appears as Van Helsing, Klaus Kinski (Cobra Verde) plays a mute Renfield, Soledad Miranda (Vampyros Lesbos) vamps out as Lucy, and Maria Rohm (99 Women) stays chaste as Mina. It's a great cast, and they pull off the roles exactly as you would expect. Lee plays the Count reverently, and has a blast visiting the reverse aging sequences that most of the movies skip (save for Coppola's 1992 effort). Like the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula only appears briefly and his presence is more predominant than his screen time. He is more a presence and menace than the star of the film. Klaus Kinski has no lines as Renfield, and yet he turns in a definitive performance that sells the idea the man has been driven insane with only his eyes and actions. Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm simply add drama, looking fetching and swooning at the right moments. Fred Williams stands out as Harker, and Jack Taylor gets to play the amalgam of Mina's suitors as Quincey Morris. The rest of the cast is filled out by nondescript European thespians who are fine in the moments they carry the film.
Count Dracula was mainly filmed in Spain with a couple of sequences completed in Germany. Spain doesn't look much like Transylvania or London, but physically this is one of the most handsome productions Jess Franco released. They used real castles, and only resorted to sets for the all white insane asylum sequences with Renfield (Jess Franco claimed he worried any real asylum would keep Klaus Kinski after filming wrapped). The whole thing looks amazing considering the limited budget which often included whatever Franco could afford from his own bank account. It's also astonishing that none of the leads ever met. Lee, Lom, and Kinski were filmed at different times thanks to the schedule, and only through some nice editing do they seem to be in the same story reacting to each other. It makes little difference since the literary source rarely has Van Helsing, Dracula, or Renfield all together or facing each other in pairs. There is one notable scene where Van Helsing defends Lucy from the Count, but somehow the two thespians pull it off without a hitch. Franco was always the inventive sort when it came to these challenges.
It's always admirable when a filmmaker claims a desire to "return a title to the literary roots," but it seems they never quite succeed. Jess Franco stated his problem with Coppola's Dracula was the director turned a monster tale into a love story when the book had no basis for that. You can see his point, but does this adaptation ring any truer? Scenes are added for effect, characters are flipped or merged, and in the end Bram Stoker's original tale remains yearning for a definitive version (perhaps a BBC mini-series would be the way to go). Still, this Count Dracula is more faithful than most and has its heart in the right place. Nobody's going to place it in the classic cannon of Bela Lugosi strutting through the Universal sets, but it is a good chance to see Christopher Lee take a stab at his favorite character.
The biggest problem is the whole thing comes off low budget. Franco had received a little financing from his usual routes, but as the shoot went on he ran out of funding. The big effects just aren't there. Wolves were cost prohibitive, so German Shepherds stand in for them. The bat on a string is laughable every time it shows up. The biggest unintentional giggle comes when two horses are struck by boulders that are obviously made of Styrofoam. Makeup and blood come off as false in every instance, and the whole thing could be trumped technically by a well done high school production. Franco also can't resist using his "crazy cam" technique where he zooms in on faces at opportune moments. He's a little out of his league taking this one on without studio backing.
Dark Sky Films does an admirable job with this DVD release, especially when the VHS versions that came before it were nearly unwatchable. The full frame transfer is a touch murky, but that comes from the source. This is the best the film has ever looked, and the restoration efforts pay off. The soundtrack retains the original mono. Extras include a half hour interview with Jess Franco which is in English, but subtitles are provided to penetrate his thick Spanish accent. There is an audio feature with Christopher Lee reading selections from Bram Stoker's novel, and it runs nearly an hour and a half with pictures of the posters to accompany it. There is an excellent text essay on the life of actress Soledad Miranda as well. To top things off, we get a nice still gallery of the production. It's a nicely loaded DVD for an oft ignored title.
For curious Dracula fans, Jess Franco's Count Dracula is a neat find. It's a stellar cast working under a low budget, and it comes off entertaining if not a classic. It's a B-movie treatment at best, but it's nice to finally have this version on DVD. There's an excellent scene with Christopher Lee recounting his family history to Jonathan Harker in his castle that seems to be worth the price of admission. Lee comes off fiery and committed to making this Count one that will be noticed. Very little of the film lives up to his promise, but then who could? He shakes the foundations of this low dollar retread effectively, and you wonder what could have been done with more money. Too bad we'll never know for sure, but we have a nice Jess Franco movie out of the deal.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
• Featurette: Beloved Count
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