“Count Dracula” (1970)
First, I want to say this- I really have no idea how to explain my feelings about this movie. Horrorotica director extraordinaire Jesus Franco’s take on Dracula starts off as a very respectable take on Stoker’s prose only to descend into what can only be described as whacky madness. I… I guess it was entertaining, but this film is not without a massive dose of WTF-ery as the run time clocked forward.
Jesus Franco is a director who I enjoy generally, and he has made some of my favourite films, all of them with a heady note of sexuality. There are some people out there who would argue that his films are glorified soft porn, and to an extent that could be true, but softcore porn doesn’t come (Freudian slip, sorry) with fascinating characters, gorgeous camera work, eclectic soundtrack (I love the almost insectile nature of the music his chooses), and intense visuals all the while being part of a story. Franco’s films are usually embued with a distinct sense of European erotica with a major sensation of the disturbed underneath. His view of sex isn’t idealised, but it should be no means be taken as the real. His ‘Eugenie De Sade’and ‘Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion’ are the best examples of Franco mixing sex with classic literature all the while retaining a distinct sense of class and sensibility.
Or at least, that’s how I view his work. That being said, when I watched ‘Count Dracula’ I was a little taken aback about how mainly chaste the film was. Now, given this is Franco trying to be genuine, I wasn’t expecting his token psychedelic version of sexuality, but I almost felt as if Franco wasn’t the right person to direct this picture, at least for the first hour or so. Franco plays it almost down the middle, trying to tell the story as it happened- young green-thumb solicitor Jonathan Harker sets out to meet with Dracula (Christopher Lee- AGAIN! The man could play Dracula for a free sandwich as long as it was a tasty one), just as it was written in the novel, complete with featured dialogue. However, as soon as Dracula hits London, that is where Franco starts to lose his load. It’s not that he drops the magic completely, but the transition from traditional story-telling to dreamy and whacked out hits you like a freight train. I guess you could attribute this change of pace to Dracula’s supernatural ways and his means of influence, but it still feels incredibly out of place. On top of that, despite this craziness, Franco’s token sexuality is mysteriously absent. I’m not criticizing the movie because it doesn’t have sex, but if Franco wanted to make his take on the story, it would have been far suitable if he did it in the style he was comfortable with rather than resorting to pretense.
That being said, that’s not to say it is without it’s merits. Aside from Franco’s token visual splendors and trippy soundtrack, you have Christopher Lee playing a far closer to the book interpretation of Dracula than his Hammer equivalent (or as I like to call him, Count RapeFace). When you first see him, he is an old man, with a long iron-coloured beard and a deeply forboding presence. He doesn’t leap around, snarling and behaving like an animal like Lee’s alternate Dracula did. Here, he retains a lot of the novel Dracula’s characterization and he comes off like a champion. Lee himself said he was proud to have taken part in the movie because he felt that Franco didn’t cheapen the character the way Hammer in the later years had and that pride comes through.
Another actor that shines is the gale force that is Klaus Kinski as Renfield. Rather than go all out in his insanity, Kinski’s Renfield comes off as a little quieter and despite those Manson Lamp Eyes of his, his version of everybody’s favourite lunatic comes off as a little more honest to the original character. A quick aside here, nine years later, Kinski would be playing a very different version of Dracula in Werner Herzog’s remake/retooling of ‘Nosferatu’.
I would also be foolish if I did not mention the illuminating Soledad Miranda as Lucy. Soledad Miranda was not a conventional classic beauty by anybody’s standards, but she had a mystifying aura about her that far surpassed her looks. She was an exotic and intriguing woman with a suitably Gothic look, much like Barbara Steele, who could say so much with her eyes in every role she had. Here she embues Lucy with a sense of fragility as well as ethereal wonder. Her sequences with Lee are nothing short of hypnotizing and I think her Lucy was far more compelling than Maria Rohm’s Mina in terms of performance.
Okay, so what happened that made me ultimately less enjoy this movie? Aside from my previous statements with regards to Franco’s preferred method of film making and some throwaway character casting, there are some scenes that really have no right to be there. Case in point- in one scene that is meant to be frightening, the stuffed heads of animal game comes alive in a room then menaces Dracula’s pursuers complete with some ADD camera work. Now, what movie does that remind you of? If you answered ‘Evil Dead II’ you would be utterly correct.
I have nothing against trying to go outside the norm, but in saying that, the moment Franco whipped that sequence out of his bent top hat I was shaking my head, grinning. Not with the sheer absurdity of the sequence but at it. What was Franco smoking when he came up with that? Most ironic thing is though is that Count Dracula’ was made before ‘Evil Dead II’. Oh, Franco, what were you thinking-o?
Also, the pacing. This film does have a brief run time all things considered, but sometimes, and this isn’t the only movie guilty of this, Franco doesn’t quite know when to quit-o. He has a tendency to spend a lot of time focusing on one frame even when there really isn’t a lot happening and when the action does happen, it gets drawn out to an almost tenuous length at times that you just want Monty Python to pop up and say “Get on with it.”.
Done and dusted, Franco’s “Count Dracula” genuinely tries to be respectable to the source, and that I can very much appreciate, but it’s greatest foil is the fact the film maker isn’t being true to his values. If he had wanted to make his very own spin of Dracula complete with his signature sexuality, I would have been all for it, because Franco’s mastery lay within that arena. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a gorgeous European stud style Dracula charm his way under many a babealicious underskirt as long as Franco had did it his way. Then again, if I wanted to see that, I could just imagine Hugh Jackman crawling up under my sheets, his hands removing my bodice as I reach for his… oops, sorry. Overshare?
Review written by Bea Harper