COUNT DRACULA (1970)
Director: Jess Franco
Dark Sky Films/MPI

Having already been identified worldwide for his vampire roles, Christopher Lee took a break from the ongoing Hammer Films Dracula series to play the character closer to what Bram Stroker depicted. This opportunity came in 1969 when he went to Spain to play the Count in a film mounted by London-born producer Harry Alan Towers and prolific Spanish-born exploitation director Jess Franco. The resulting film, COUNT DRACULA, attempts to be faithful to Stoker, but still strays from the original literary source as the plot unfolds.

Despite the warnings from the locals, young Jonathan Harker journeys to the castle of Count Dracula discussing business about an estate the nobleman has purchased in England. Dracula is actually a bloodthirsty vampire with a trio of undead vixens – Harker is bitten on the neck and later ends up in the sanatorium of Dr. Seward and fellow doctor, Van Helsing, both who have a hard time believing the wild stories of his macabre ordeal in Transylvania. Harker’s bride-to-be, Lucy, visits him there along with her friend Mina, but Lucy falls under the spell of Dracula, now residing in England. Her Texan-born beau Quincey Morris arrives to be by her side, but he, along with Harker and Van Helsing, finds himself hunting vampires with stakes and crucifixes.

Much different than the previous Hammer Dracula films he appeared in (with four more to follow after shooting this one), Lee appears with a bushy mustache and grows younger (as he gets more nourishment) through the miracle of different color wigs (he also sports occasional red eye contacts and the standard canines familiar from the Hammer efforts). In the earlier part of the film, especially in his initial meeting with Harker, Lee is given the opportunity to speak lines torn right from the pages of Stoker’s novel, and the actor does so with gusto, leaving the viewer with the impression that he really believes in what he’s doing, while maintaining his status as one of filmdom’s greatest screen vampires.

COUNT DRACULA is flawed in many ways, but for fans of gothic horror, it’s still irresistible and one of the most long-awaited DVD releases of its kind. In spite of the production's resourceful budget, Barcelona naturally allows for some truly handsome scenery and an appropriate castle for Dracula to dwell in, and the performances of the international cast are above average. But the draggy pacing, Franco’s constant use of the zoom lens, some sloppy day-for-night shooting and several sorry attempts at special effects (a phony bat’s silhouette dangling behind a window) tarnish the film a great deal. One effect which has Dracula’s brides as transparent apparitions arising from their coffins and then fully appearing – is very effective and a sign of what this film could have been had there been more time and money.

The cast is made up mostly of regulars in Franco films (Maria Rohm as Mina, Soledad Miranda as Lucy, Jack Taylor as Quincey, Fred Williams as Harker, Paul Mueller as Dr. Seward) with the added attraction of Herbert Lom as Van Helsing and Klaus Kinski as Renfield. Lom, one of the greatest character actors who ever lived, does a fine, convincing job, though ironically he has no real scenes with Lee (their single onscreen confrontation was shot at different times). Perfectly cast as Renfield, Kinki is mostly limited to bits of odd business (including collecting and eating dead insects) in his padded cell, and he has no lines to boot, but he’s always interesting to watch. Emma Cohen, soon to be an oft-nude fixture in Spanish horror films, appears uncredited as a vampire woman, and Franco himself plays Van Helsing’s servant.

Dark Sky Films presents COUNT DRACULA on DVD for the first time in the U.S. in a full frame edition. Franco confirmed that the film was shot this way, and any matting would have been a disaster (as it must have been when it played in theaters) as the framing is really tight. This is no doubt the best the film has ever looked, and despite some grain and darkness in several scenes, the visuals look very crisp. Colors are bold, fleshtones appear really natural and detail is sharp. The mono audio track has clear English dialogue though some background noise and hiss can be heard (nothing too distracting). Optional English subtitles are included. This version of the film carries the Spanish credits, which run much longer at the end than in the U.S. release.

Extras include “Beloved Count,” an excellent 26-minute video interview with director Franco (speaking in English) who discusses COUNT DRACULA and tells some amusing stories about its production (he originally wanted Vincent Price to play Van Helsing, but his AIP contract wouldn't allow it). Also here is some brief interview footage (from Blue Underground’s JUSTINE release) with producer Towers claiming that Kinski didn’t know he was making a “Dracula” film while shooting his scenes, but Franco contradicts this by stating that he knew very well what he was acting in. There’s an 84-minute audio segment (accompanied by photos and poster art from COUNT DRACULA) of Lee reciting Stoker’s Dracula, as the actor shows his range by interpreting all the different characters with various inflections. There’s a well-written essay on the late Soledad Miranda by Amy Brown, webmaster of soledadmiranda.com, and there’s also a still/poster gallery. (George R. Reis)

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