Sunday, February 25, 2007

Count Dracula (1970) – review


Directed by: Jess Franco

Release Date: 1970

Contains spoilers

This is Franco’s version of Stoker’s novel and he attempted, he claimed, to make a straight re-telling of the story. Now in this he failed, the film veers from the story and misplaces characters. Like all versions of Dracula the actual roles of the characters change. This is not necessarily a bad thing in theory, as very few film versions keep it anywhere near straight.

Being a Franco film one fears the worst and yet this is one of the straightest A brideplayed Franco movies I’ve seen, with only one scene of real psychedelic excess. Yet it does suffer from some of Franco’s idosyncrasities. Franco, and don’t get me wrong a dark part of me loves his films; he never bothers with ensuring whether it is day or night, in this (like some of his movies) he needs to find a camera man with a steady hand and his pacing can be off. As always, with Dracula based movies, I am going to look at the plot in depth.

The film begins with Jonathon Harker (Fred Williams) travelling to meet his client Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). His journey begins by train and a traveller (José Martínez Blanco), on hearing his destination, warns him by saying God preserve him. He reaches Bistritz and takes an inn for the night, where he is warned by innkeeper’s wife Greta (Colette Giacobine) that the next night is St George’s day (rather than St George’s eve). Gaining a coach the next day, the traveller warns him of the same. Now it is here than I can illustrate Franco’s lack of concern of day and night. In the coach it is clearly night time when Harker asks how long until we reach the Borgo pass, we will be there by nightfall is the reply!

He is left at the pass and a coach picks him up. There are wolves (actually German Shepherds!) and the coachman (clearly to us Dracula as there is no mistaking Lee’s voice) stops and steps before them. He raises his arms and the wolves run away. They reach the castle, Jonathon knocks and the Count bids him enter. The look of the Count is marvellous and this is the first film version where the Count visibly becomes younger (by his hair turning from grey to dyed black, but never the less it is novel accurate) through the film.

Christopher Lee as DraculaDracula takes Harker to his room to freshen up and we notice the first of two interesting things regarding this version. Firstly there is a mirror and Dracula has no reflection, yet he does not break it – he couldn’t care less. Secondly, as we see at the dinner scene which follows, Dracula always has fangs. The fangs are subtle, seen when he speaks, but they are always there.

Said dinner scene was one of the highlights of the film for me. After concluding business Dracula explains his past – a standard Dracula scene – but it is done almost as a soliloquy and Lee is marvellous. After this, however, the Dracula castle section becomes lost in itself. Harker is taken to his room and finds himself locked in. There is a panic moment and he opens a window to be attacked by a bat. A note on the bats: we only see silhouettes and not the bats, a neat way of avoiding CBS (crap bat syndrome).

The BridesHarker falls asleep and then we see the brides emerge from their coffins and for some reason Harker is on the floor of the crypt. They approach him and we get standard dividing the kill dialogue when Dracula enters and says that Harker is his and offers them a baby in a sack. Harker awakes in his a room with fang marks. How did he get down to the crypt in the first place? It turns the scene into a senseless set piece.

Harker climbs from his window and goes through another. He enters the crypt and finds Dracula in his coffin, legs it and leaps from a window. It felt, to me, that ten to twenty minutes of exposition was lost in the scene. Other than the shaky cameras the film had been on track up to and including the dinner and then it just crumbled.

Harker awakes in hospital near London. He was found in a stream and shipped there. He is in Van Helsing’s (Herbert Lom) private clinic under the care of Dr Seward (Paul Muller). He tells Seward that Dracula, along with his brides, pursued him after his escape as giant, man sized bats – so Seward drugs him up. Van Helsing enters the room and, as Seward goes to look after Renfield (Klaus Kinski), he notices the fang marks on his neck. Mina (Maria Rohm) has been summoned and Lucy (Soledad Miranda) travels with her.

Klaus Kinski as RenfieldA note about some of the characters now. There is some excellent back story regarding Renfield. He was travelling in Transylvania with his daughter. She became ill and then died (from Drac attack) and that is what broke his mind. However Kinski is woefully under-used and has little dialogue. Kinski still manages to command a presence but the under use of the actor is almost criminal.

Herbert Lom as Van HelsingVan Helsing is a strange one. He is a long time student of the dark arts and yet refuses to believe Harker until it is too late and Lucy has been killed. He is the hesitant version of Van Helsing and his role is somewhat curtailed by the fact that the character has a stroke part way through the film.

Lucy has no parents but is engaged, to barrister Quincy Morris (Jack Taylor)!

Vampire LucyWe get a story mostly familiar. Dracula is in an old house close to the asylum. He preys on Lucy and kills her. Lucy returns and we actually get a blooferlady moment (though never called so) although, in this, she kills the child. Van Helsing stakes her and Quincy removes her head with a shovel (although it actually just a too red ‘blood’ mark on her neck). It is after this Van Helsing suffers a stroke.

the red eyes of Count DraculaSeward, Harker and Quincy go to Carfax whilst Mina questions Renfield. Dracula’s coffin is gone but the heroes end up in the coffin room which is full of taxidermy animals. Meanwhile Dracula orders Renfield, by mental control, to attack Mina. As Renfield attacks the men are faced with moving, growling stuffed animals – I kid you not. Quincy fires his gun to no effect and so Harker holds up a cross. The cross affects Dracula, wherever he is, Renfield ceases his attack and the animals quieten.

Suddenly we are at the opera and Mina is attending. The men go to see the Home Secretary (Van Helsing is now in a wheelchair) who is watching the ports for Dracula's coffin. Harker gets a note to say that Mina got his ticket for the opera – he sent no ticket. By the time they reach the opera Mina is on the floor, fang marks in the neck.

cross scored in flameDracula books passage to Varna, but Renfield is able to tell the heroes where the Count is going. Quincy and Harker set off in pursuit leaving Mina with Van Helsing. Dracula hasn’t left yet though and returns to the asylum to get Mina. Van Helsing stands, despite being in a wheelchair, and grabs a poker from the fire. He scores a flaming cross in the floorboards and Dracula retreats.

Harker stakes a brideHarker and Quincy reach the castle. They kill the brides and then sanctify Dracula’s coffin. A procession of gypsies approach with a crate on a cart. They drop rocks, killing several gypsies and causing the others to flee. Opening the crate they see Dracula and set him alight. In the flames he ages, turning to a corpse (which has no fangs), and they toss him over a battlement for good measure.

This film had some great ideas but lost it by being quite slow in places, with bad pacing and by not flowing well. I mentioned the problems in the castle at the beginning but the jump to the theatre was jarring as well.

When I say it had good ideas, however, I do not mean the stuffed animal bit which just did not work in any way, shape or form. Dracula master of the stuffed animals doesn’t do it for me. That said, in the hands of another director it might have been an interesting scene. This was just silly.

Dracula has become youngThe film is dubbed, even Lee seems to have dubbed himself, and the acting is a little lack lustre. Kinski commands the screen but is under-used as I said. Lee is marvellous when he makes his soliloquy and yet did not seem to be as a commanding figure as he was in the Hammer films. The rest of the cast did little for me.

The score is very melodramatic but seems to fit.

All in all, a disappointing version that I’ll hold to 3 out of 10 and yet, strangely, it is a version that should be compulsory for all genre students/hardcore fans as it is a great historical curiosity with some interesting ideas lurking in the film.

The imdb page is here.

Highlight of the DVD, and an extra, is Lee’s reading of Dracula. Okay, it is not the full book but a paraphrased version that comes in at 1 hour 24 minutes, but Lee has a marvellous voice.


Edna Sweetlove said...

Did you like the attack of the stuffed animals?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

There was some form of kitsch value to it, that might have worked if he wasn't playing the rest of the film so seriously - but no, Dracula master of the stuffed animals and Lord of Taxidermy doesn't quite cut it!

Anonymous said...

I actually found the stuffed animals scene quite chilling.. I enjoyed Herbert Lom as Van Helsing.. I thought the scenes of Harker in Dracula's castle were superb, although I HATED the Borgo Pass scene (it seemed more like a tropical rainforest than Transylvania).. I would go so far as to say Lee's portrayal of Drac in this movie is the best--and truest to the spirit of the novel..

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Anonymous - many thanks for commenting.

Lee's soliliquey is magnificent and I can buy the ieda that his performance is the truest to the novel... I don't think, however, it was his personal best performance in the role - I'm still sold on Horror of Dracula for that.

I can appreciate that you saw the value in the stuffed animal scene - didn't work for me I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

I just thought the scene was cleverly filmed.. were the animals moving.. weren't they.. of course I was about 9 years old at the time ha ha

I did not like the soundtrack much, and I did not like Kinski's interpretation of Renfield at all.

I think Lee and Lom and the great atmospherics made the film.

The girls were gorgeous but lifeless--even before they were bitten. Did you know the girl who played Lucy died tragically before the movie was released (auto accident)

I would hesitatingly include this film with the "classics" (1931 Dracula, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Horror of Dracula, Nosferatu) but would surely place it at the bottom of the pack.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Anon - fair comment - for some reason I still love the "moving statues" in the Cure's Hanging Garden video - even though it is painfully comedic and silly... hit the mark when I first viewed it, though.

I felt Kinski was qwoefully underused and I agree it should be listed alonside the classics (despite its lower overall quality), I think this is what I meant when I said , strangely, it is a version that should be compulsory for all genre students/hardcore fans as it is a great historical curiosity with some interesting ideas lurking in the film.... if only for Lee's soliloquy scene when explaining his history to Harker.

Again thanks for commenting, its appreciated

NerdyWillowTree said...

The film definitely suffers from a way too small budget and Franco's sloppy direction and camerawork (I'm absolutely sure he did it himself, he loved to abuse the zoom lenses), but still had its moments. I quite like the scenes where Dracula bites Lucy, especially the second one. The slow pace and the paleness of the lighting and Soledad Miranda's face almost antedate the visual style of Herzog's Nosferatu. Though a dishonorable mention should also be made of the moment when Franco ruins the decent atmosphere of the castle scenes by suddenly zooming on a plastic spider. Oh Jesus (Franco Manera)!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey NerdyWillowTree, thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it. There are definitely moments, I personally love Lee's soliloquy, but overall it struggles :)

personally, the best aspect of this isn't in the film but is the film of the film Cuadecuc Vampir

NerdyWillowTree said...

@Taliesin_ttlg Oh yes, I definitely have to see that one too, especially now that there is a DVD of it.