Count Dracula (1970) Count Dracula / Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula / El Conde Dracula / Nachts, Wenn Dracula Erwacht (1970/1973) *½

     By 1969, Hammer Film Productions boss James Carreras had had it up to here with Christopher Lee; the feeling was mutual. Money was a factor, as it usually is when producers and actors are at loggerheads, but the root of the matter was Count Dracula. When Hammer cast Lee as the arch-vampire in Horror of Dracula eleven years earlier, it had been a boon for both parties. On the one hand, the film cemented the studio’s emergent position as the dominant force in international horror cinema, and on the other, playing Dracula led to Lee becoming a bona fide star, instead of the guy you cast to play Thug #2 on the grounds that he’s unreasonably tall. But as the years wore on, that one role came to define Lee’s public image in exactly the way he’d sought to avoid by sitting out Hammer’s first Dracula sequel, and the ones in which he did appear strayed ever further from anything Bram Stoker might have recognized, in ways that Lee found obnoxious. If Hammer were going to crank out movie after movie about Dracula until the sun went cold, then surely they could at least do it right! Nor was Lee the slightest bit shy about making his feelings known, whether on the set or in interviews with the entertainment press— which was the main source of Carreras’s annoyance, since the last thing a studio head wants is the star of his movies telling everyone who’ll listen how much they suck.

     And yet you’ll notice that Lee kept right on appearing in Hammer’s Dracula pictures. After all, a steady, reliable paycheck is a steady, reliable paycheck, even if it is smaller than one would like, and comes at a perceived cost to one’s dignity. So, for that matter, did Carreras keep hiring Lee to play Dracula, since a bankable star is a bankable star, even if he grouses about his wages and regularly says embarrassing things to reporters. Still, something was bound to give eventually, and at the turn of the 70’s, it gave in both directions almost at once. Carreras tried to escape the Dracula disgruntlement doom loop by replacing Lee with Ralph Bates in Taste the Blood of Dracula, but US distributors (and more importantly, co-funders) Seven Arts-Warner Brothers put a stop to the plan the second they got wind of it. As for Lee, his well publicized dissatisfaction with Hammer created a unique opportunity for British film industry bottom-feeder Harry Alan Towers, who was developing a Dracula movie of his own to be directed by Jesus Franco, Euro-horror’s inimitable Imp of the Perverse. Count Dracula and Christopher Lee were synonymous in the eyes of fright-film fans too young to give a shit about Bela Lugosi, right? And Lee was always bitching about never getting to play the character properly, right? And most of all, Dracula the novel was in the public domain now, wasn’t it? So why not make a big noise about the Towers-Franco Count Dracula being the first-ever book-faithful Dracula picture, and seduce Lee (and all the name recognition that went with him) away from Hammer for a little one-film stand by promising him the chance to play the vampire of his dreams? Those well acquainted with the works of Towers and Franco, whether singly or together, will already suspect that that’s not quite how things turned out.

     Rather surprisingly, though, if we make allowances for the myriad small changes that are unavoidable in any adaptation, Count Dracula is indeed extremely close to the novel— until suddenly it isn’t anymore. Lawyer’s apprentice Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams, from She Killed in Ecstasy and The Red Nights of the Gestapo) is on his way across Europe, bound for a remote region of Transylvania. His business there is to sell an English manor house to a nobleman by the name of Count Dracula (Lee, obviously). Everyone Jonathan meets en route, though— a fellow passenger on his eastbound train (Jose Martinez Blanco, of The Bloody Judge and Vampyros Lesbos), an innkeeper’s wife (Collette Giacobine, from Versatile Lovers and Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey into Perversion), seemingly every dirt farmer in the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire— is of the opinion that he should steer clear of both his customer and the dilapidated castle he calls home. Naturally none of them will say why, but their manner consistently suggests that the count’s bad reputation is rooted more in superstition than in, say, a well known habit of buggering houseguests uninvited or ruining pleasant dinners by launching off onto spittle-flecked tirades about Jews. And one must admit that the coachman (also Lee— hint, hint) whom Dracula sends to pick Harker up at the Borgos Pass shortly after sunset is an alarming sort of fellow— especially when he dismounts to frighten off an entire pack of wolves (well… Alsatians, anyway) with nothing more than a wave of his arms. Nevertheless, the count seems a gracious, if imperious, host once Harker actually meets him. It is a little weird, though, that he doesn’t seem to cast any reflection in the mirror that takes up most of one wall in the bedroom which Jonathan is to occupy during his visit.

     As I’m sure you realize, Harker’s stay at Castle Dracula is not, in fact, a pleasant one after that first evening. The count locks him in whenever they aren’t actively conversing. Jonathan’s room is plagued the night through by big plastic spiders and little rubber bats. By day, a disconsolate village woman (Teresa Gimpera, from The People Who Own the Dark and Macabre) pounds on the castle gate, begging at the top of her lungs for the return of her baby. Harker’s sleep is troubled by dreams of three beautiful women (two of them are Let Sleeping Corpses Lie’s Jeanine Mestre and Emma Cohen, of Two Males for Alexa and Horror Rises from the Tomb, but your guess is as good as anybody’s for the third) who materialize out of coffins hidden in the castle basement, and attempt to drink Harker’s blood before being bought off by Dracula with the offer of an infant presumably stolen from the aforementioned frantic mother. After these dreams, Jonathan awakens weak and woozy, his throat marred by strange, deep puncture wounds for which he can’t account. Eventually, Harker has quite enough, and makes a daring escape through his bedroom window. Searching for a way out of the castle altogether, he finds the coffin-strewn cellar of his nightmares, including a detail which his subconscious never noticed— a stone sarcophagus engraved with the name, “Dracula.” And when Jonathan works up the nerve to open that sarcophagus, he finds his host lying in peaceful slumber beneath the lid, looking about fifteen years younger than when Harker first arrived. That’s the final straw. Harker is getting the fuck out of this castle, even if he has to climb the curtain wall and jump straight off the battlements!

     Harry Alan Towers was too cheap for docksides, plague ships, or sea voyages, and so Count Dracula makes its own leap into the void here, landing at a mental health clinic somewhere in England, run by Dr. Van Helsing (Herbert Lom, from 99 Women and The Phantom of the Opera), to which Harker was eventually brought after he was found unconscious beside a Transylvanian riverbank, and somehow identified. The fact that Jonathan is under treatment for madness should tell you that he is now considerably the worse for his sojourn at Castle Dracula. Rarely does he come awake without ranting about being chased by bats and wolves intent upon drinking his blood. Van Helsing has entrusted most of Harker’s care to his junior partner, Dr. Seward (Paul Müller, from Fangs of the Living Dead and Venus in Furs), and Seward has the clever idea that it might speed the patient’s recovery to have some of his friends around. He sends an assistant (director Franco himself) to London to collect Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray (Maria Rohm, of Ten Little Indians and Deadly Sanctuary), together with Mina’s best gal-pal, Lucy Westenra (Soledad Miranda, from Sound of Horror and Nightmares Come at Night). Unfortunately, Lucy is a frail girl, and the rigors of the journey, combined with the shock of seeing Jonathan in his current state, leave her in need of a few days’ bed rest. At least the ladies’ presence does indeed seem to have a calming influence on Harker.

     You know who isn’t calm in the least, though? Another of Van Helsing’s patients by the name of Renfield (Klaus Kinski, of Schizoid and The Secret of the Red Orchid). He’s an odd case, incidentally. Years ago, he took his family traveling through Eastern Europe, but he was the only one who made it home alive. Wife and kids disappeared without a trace somewhere in Transylvania, and when Renfield himself was found, he was a totally nonverbal nutter obsessed with eating bugs. Some curious parallels to that Harker fellow, but Van Helsing finds them disturbing to think about, and does his level best not to. The point is, Renfield’s been wilder than usual ever since some Continental chap nobody’s ever seen bought the big, old house across the way from the clinic, visible from the window in Renfield’s padded cell. There’s probably something to it— there usually is with these poor sods— but Van Helsing is at a loss to imagine what it might be. Renfield will just have to be kept under closer observation until the doctors have some idea what’s up with him. In the meantime, Van Helsing and Seward have the Westenra girl to worry about. Sickly or not, she ought to be getting better by now, and she simply isn’t.

     Yeah, Van Helsing’s mysterious new neighbor is indeed Count Dracula, and the reason why Renfield is pitching more fits than usual is because they’ve met before. And yes again, Dracula is also the reason for Lucy’s strangely persistent illness, as the vampire has taken to visiting her in her room at the hospital. As Lucy continues to deteriorate, the doctors call for her fiancé, Quincy Morris (Jack Taylor, from Horror of the Zombies and Vicious in the Nude)— who despite his name is really more of an Arthur Holmwood type. Quincy arrives just in time to volunteer his plasma for a life-saving blood transfusion, but when vampires are on the loose, transfusions can only delay the inevitable. Lucy dies before Van Helsing (who, it turns out, has studied these things enough that he really should know better) is ready to see what’s right in front of his face. However, when inhabitants of the nearest town begin reporting children abducted and killed by a young woman matching Lucy’s description, the doctor admits to himself at last the true nature of the problem. Harker, meanwhile, makes a miraculous recovery now that his chief shrink is prepared to believe him about what he experienced in Transylvania— enough so that he’s well enough to accompany Van Helsing and Morris to Lucy’s crypt in order to do what must now be done. Then, of course, they’ll have to do something about Dracula, who has just noticed that Lucy wasn’t the only pretty girl hanging around Van Helsing’s place.

     I joked to Juniper, the first time Dracula’s brides emerged from their coffins, that you could tell Franco hadn’t fully become Franco yet, because the vampire women were all wearing clothes. The more I ponder Count Dracula, though, the less of a joke I think that seems. This was one of the last times Franco ever made a movie with anybody’s tastes, interests, or desires but his own in mind, and it increasingly shows how bored he was getting with that whole routine. He was always a screwy choice to direct an ostensibly book-faithful Dracula, and he was on the verge of becoming an insane one. What’s surprising, though, is that for as long as the material holds his attention, he’s actually kind of good at it— certainly better at it than Francis Ford Coppola would subsequently prove, absurd as that sounds! Even cantankerous old Christopher Lee had nice things to say about this film in his memoirs decades later, although I think he overstates the case considerably. Basically, Count Dracula is alright so long as we’re in Transylvania, or so long as Lee is directly visible within the frame. Franco starts off with a decent enough version of the ominous buildup, never quite going too far over the top with the “superstitious peasants” business, and seeming to realize that the movie’s numerous writers have given him an interesting variation to play by adding the guy on the train. This Dracula is such bad news that even townsfolk have some inkling of his reputation. And Franco seems to relish nearly as much as Lee the chance to show elements of the novel that earlier Dracula movies had spurned or neglected. That’s especially apparent in what follows the aforementioned introduction of the brides, which is easily Count Dracula’s single most transgressive scene despite the lack of significant erotic content. No previous film adaptation of Dracula had ever had the nerve to take Harker’s confrontation with the vampire’s harem all the way to Stoker’s own conclusion, and you can practically hear Franco fidgeting gleefully in his folding chair as he works his way up to “HARKER IS MINE— but enjoy this farm-raised, milk-fed baby instead, certified free from antibiotics and synthetic hormones!” The bit with the wolf pack almost works, too, and might actually have if Towers had been willing to spring for some convincingly lupine dogs. Even the simple trick of making Lee up to look younger every time Dracula reappears after a prolonged absence from the screen has some real impact, perhaps because it appealed sufficiently to Franco’s taste for the irrational to make him treat it with the care that it deserved.

     Franco visibly checks out, though, once the action shifts to England, and from that point on, Count Dracula becomes plodding and dull, enlivened only by the occasional outburst of raw silliness. I suppose there’s a case to be made that that’s the most book-faithful thing about the entire film. In every other sense, however, Count Dracula and Dracula part company entirely the moment Harker awakens in Van Helsing’s sanitarium. I knew that was coming, but what surprised me was that the movie’s wholesale abandonment of its stated mission did not herald Franco running feral, the way I’d been looking forward to throughout the competent but staid first act. Except during the heroes’ raid on the house by the Van Helsing clinic, which is indeed primo Franco bullshit, the director does the worst possible thing that he might have under the circumstances: he behaves himself! He does nothing whatsoever to distract us as Count Dracula limps along past pathetically soggy renditions of the vampirization and destruction of Lucy, the coming together of “God’s madmen,” and the defense of Mina, made distinct from their predecessors only by being more boring than any of them. He leaves his cast completely to their own devices against their bizarrely mischaracterized roles. (Lucy as a wan and fragile nonentity? Van Helsing as a pig-headed skeptic?! Quincy Morris as a Eurofop?!?!) And he completely wastes the movie’s second-best performance, rendering Klaus Kinski’s Renfield even more useless and irrelevant than in the novel.

     The one thing that’s definitely worth seeing in the whole second and third acts of Count Dracula is the aforementioned raid on Dracula’s British lair. To begin with, his British lair is very obviously his Italian lair instead. Granted that no building in the country where the movie was shot would have been convincing as an English country manor, but surely Towers could have found some villa of the appropriate size and age that wasn’t completely surrounded by gigantic fucking palm trees? The real joy of this sequence, however, is the booby trap that the vampire has installed to thwart uninvited guests. You see, Dracula has filled his new home with taxidermy animals of every species from fox to ostrich, and has somehow enchanted them all so that they will come to life and attack any intruder. It’s kind of a neat idea on its face, even if it doesn’t comport with any vampire lore I’ve ever heard of, let alone anything that happens in that book we’re supposed to be adapting with unheard-of fidelity here. But if you’ve ever seen a single movie that either Jesus Franco or Harry Alan Towers made in their entire lives, I’m sure you’ve already spotted a rather serious problem: how, exactly, is this image to be created for the price of a box-seat ticket at one of the more down-market West End playhouses? Franco’s answer was to have one of his patented zoom lens seizures while gamboling about the taxidermy room, and then to dub every animal call he could get his hands on onto the soundtrack in post-production. It’s difficult at first even to tell what you’re supposed to be seeing! That’s exactly the kind of crap I’d been hoping for ever since I learned that Count Dracula existed, and the most damning thing I can say about this movie is that I sorely wish there had been more of it.



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