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 Stoker depicted. This opportunity came in 1969 when he went to Spain to appear as 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 (Fred Williams, THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAVA) journeys to the castle of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee, THE CREEPING FLESH) to discuss business about an estate that 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 (Paul Mueller, NIGHTMARE CASTLE) and fellow doctor, Van Helsing (Herbert Lom, MARK OF THE DEVIL), both who have a hard time believing the wild stories of his macabre ordeal in Transylvania. Harker’s bride-to-be, Mina (Maria Rohm, THE BLOODY JUDGE), visits him there along with her friend Lucy (Soledad Miranda, VAMPYROS LESBOS) but Lucy falls under the spell of Dracula, now residing in England. Her Texan-born beau Quincey Morris (Jack Taylor, THE MUMMY’S REVENGE) 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.
With many diehard Hammer fans weaned on the British company’s traditionally classic vampire outings and Francophiles on the other end wanting something more risqué and outrageous (like much of the director’s 1970s output), COUNT DRACULA is acceptably flawed, but for followers of gothic horror, it would be hard not to find this one irresistible. 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, and some German Shepherds substituting as a pack of wolves) 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 with the added attraction of Lom as Van Helsing and 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, Kinski 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 (HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB), soon to be an oft-nude fixture in Spanish horror films, appears uncredited as a vampire woman, as does THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE star Jeannine Mestre, and Franco himself plays Van Helsing’s servant.
Previously available on a full frame DVD from MPI/Dark Sky Films in the United Stales, Severin Films now presents COUNT DRACULA on Blu-ray, also in a full frame edition. Franco had 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. The 1080p HD transfer, actually presented pillarboxed at 1.33:1, is no doubt the best the film has ever looked, and despite some grain and over-darkness in several night scenes, the visuals look very crisp. Colors are bold, fleshtones appear really natural (especially in close-ups) and detail is mostly sharp with only occasional softer shots. This version restores a scene which was not present in the Dark Sky DVD: a short sequence where a mother is begging at the doors of Castle Dracula to get her baby back. Thankfully, the scene has been seamlessly put back in from a 16mm Spanish print source, with the expected brief drop in quality. Although the transfer was taken from an Italian element source, there appears to be newly-generated yellow titles in French which spell Jack Taylor’s name wrong at the beginning (“Jack Tailor”) but get it right for the credit scroll at the end. There is only one audio option: the preferred English variant (which features the real voices of Lee, Lom and Mel Welles, who dubs several different characters) and the LPCM 2.0 mono track audio has clear dialogue and Bruno Nicolai’s score also has nice range. There are no subtitle options on the disc.
A gem of an extra, “Cuadecuc, Vampir” is Pere Portabella’s experimental film made on the set of COUNT DRACULA. Shot in black and white with no sync sound (that is until the very end), the film features an array of bizarre sound effects and music by Carles Santos (including an unforgettable romantic piano theme). Portabella basically shot numerous sequences from the film from different angles, editing them his own way, and he also incorporated lots of behind-the-scenes bits focusing on all the main cast members (including the lovely and ill-fated Miranda), except for Klaus Kinski who is nowhere to be seen (which helps prove that his scenes were shot separately). It’s great to see such special effects being composed such as the use of fog machines and web-making fans, as well as the phony bat flying from his “invisible” wires. And Christopher Lee fans will love seeing the actor smiling and being playful in front of the camera (and showing up on the set in sunglasses in full vampire get-up). Towards the end of the film, live sound is heard for Lee's enthusiastically reading of an excerpt from the climax of Stoker’s novel, following the removal of his blood-red contacts and vampire fangs. Fascinating stuff for fans. Oddly enough, the opening credits state that Franco’s film, for which they were allowed to shoot this avant-garde pseudo documentary around, was a Hammer Films production! “Cuadecuc, Vampir” is presented here in HD, and although grain can be heavy at times and the image is full of inconsistent filmmaking techniques which impair the visual quality, the transfer has deep black levels and is a perfectly solid rendering of such a rare film. The back of the packing lists the film at 75 minutes, but it actually runs about 66 minutes.
Included is an audio commentary with actress Maria Rohm, widow of producer Harry Alan Towers and the star of the film, moderated by David Del Valle. Rohm provides some insight on her late husband, including that his father (who knew Bram Stoker) influenced his like of literary characters, as well as insight on Franco as a director (and the working relationship between the two). Rohm has wonderful things to say about Lom, she describes Miranda as sweet and professional but quiet, and she backs up her husband’s claim that Kinski didn’t want to be in a Dracula movie, and that he didn’t know he was acting in such a film. Del Valle, who has a nice rapport with Rohm and does a great job of moderating here (he also asks her about some of her other films such as VENUS IN FURS and HOUSE OF 1000 DOLLS), rightly states that fans should observe the film for what is rather than what it could have been.
“A Conversation with Jack Taylor” (10:00) has the actor talking about meeting Franco and then getting the role in SUCCUBUS. He discusses the eroticism in the Franco films he did, and says he had fun making his eight films for him, at least for the most part. He describes Miranda as a “divine creature” and admits he’s surprised but happy at being considered a “cult figure” (he also touches upon working with Roman Polanski as well as Paul Naschy). “Handsome Harker” (26:14) is an interview with actor Fred Williams who tells the story of how he met Franco and working on COUNT DRACULA, describing what it was like on the set and how well he got along well with his director (“an all-around genius”). Williams also shares anecdotes about Rohm, Towers, Miranda, Taylor, Lom and Lee (“a god-like figure during shooting") and says, not surprisingly, that he never got to meet Kinski (the actor also talks about some of the other films he did with Franco). “Stake Holders: An appreciation of Jess Franco’s COUNT DRACULA By French director Christophe Gans” (7:32) has the filmmaker describing COUNT DRACULA as a strange “free style” film and theorizes how Towers and Franco talked Lee into doing the film, describing it as “more of a production stunt”. A pick-up from the Dark Sky Films DVD, “Beloved Count” is an excellent 26-minute video interview with the late 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. Rounding out the extras are different alternate title sequences (German, French, Italian and Spanish) and the rare German theatrical trailer (in German with English subtitles). (George R. Reis)
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