Normally I would have run screaming from the prospect of reviewing another Jess Franco flick... those familiar with my writing are well aware of my allergic aversion to nearly any substance emanating from that infamous Spanish hack. Loved and hated in equal portions among genre fans (I?m being generous here), this wildly prolific exploitation director with art-house delusions is certainly an interesting piece of work himself, and his films are often pieces of... well, something else. Still, I gotta credit his enthusiasm, and the fact that he?s still pounding ?em out at age 76.
In all fairness, there are actually a few... yes, I said it, a few Franco titles I enjoy enough to include in my DVD collection. Vampyros Lesbos and Eugenie, for example. I'd also include this surprisingly elegant (if kinda cheap) and mostly faithful (up to a point) adaptation of Bram Stoker?s oft-told tale - known by many titles, including my personal favorite, At Night, Dracula Awakens! It's actually rather endearing, in its own crusty, three-legged-dog sort of way.
Still, it seems hard to believe, in view of Franco?s oeuvre, that his pitch for a version of Dracula that hews closely to the source material was effective enough to sway the venerable Christopher Lee - who by that point was pretty damn tired of rehashing the role for Hammer Films and was surely reluctant to don the cape and the bloodshot contacts and start hissing again, for any price. (I won't even begin to ponder how he felt about donning platform shoes and a Burger King hat to play Fu Manchu for Franco... twice.) But something obviously convinced him, as he pours his all into the role ? indeed, it?s one of his most interesting and intense portrayals, and he gets to sport a pretty groovy mustache.
Another selling point (for me, at least) is the presence of my all-time favorite Teutonic nutbar Klaus Kinski as Renfield. Apparently, Kinski - who famously derided nearly all film directors as talentless excrement who soiled his artistry by giving him (gasp) direction - was quite fond of working with Franco, who claims that their creative relationship was one of mutual respect. Well, now I know the man was insane. Unless, in fact, K2 was impressed by Franco?s admittedly admirable talent for finding incredibly hot women to populate nearly all his films.
Which leads me to another high point of Dracula a la Franco: the luminous presence of Soledad Miranda, a wide-eyed, moon-faced gypsy goddess whose rapid rise to popularity in ?70s European cinema came to a tragic halt with her sudden death ? but not before she appeared in several Franco projects, of which Count Dracula is the first. In the role of Lucy Westenra, she conveys the perfect balance of waifish innocence and intense sensuality. Did I mention she was hot?
So, you ask, what of the film itself? Well, slap my fanny and call me Susan... it?s really not bad. That is, if you overlook signature Franco touches like shoddy day-for-night photography, camera set-ups which reveal the crew?s shadow on the wall (or on the actors), rampant snap-zooms guaranteed to bruise your eyeballs, or a vampire bat that flies so crooked you'd think it just finished feeding on Oliver Reed. The Spanish & German locations, though filmed in a fairly pedestrian manner, are drenched in rain and Gothic atmosphere, and the period-specific score by Bruno Nicolai adds to the Gothic mood, notwithstanding the loudest damn dulcimer ever recorded for a film - at least until Goblin took him down with their mad-hot licks in Suspiria.
All the principal actors turn in strong performances: Lee is excellent as expected, and infuses Stoker?s staid dialogue with menace, lending a certain Shakespearean quality to the Count; the scene where he relates the doom of his bloodline to Jonathan Harker ranks among his best work. We also get to see Lee become younger as he draws blood and youth from his victims, as in the novel. Kinski, all of whose scenes take place in a padded sanitarium cell, opted to play Renfield as a mute; despite a fair amount of screen time, he has only one word of dialogue. This at first seemed to be one of many eccentric revisions born out of K2?s general boredom with film acting, but actually lends a tragic note to a character usually portrayed as a gibbering freak. Franco regular Maria Rohm is lovely as always, but has little to do in the role of Mina. The intense Herbert Lom plays Dr. Van Helsing with an air of world-weariness, instead of the mad intensity brought to the role by the likes of Edward Van Sloan and Peter Cushing. Oddly enough, Lom and Lee never actually met each other during filming; scenes between Dracula and his nemesis are achieved through editing and body doubles.
It?s not exactly art, but I can say this is a pretty entertaining take on the Dracula canon, and Franco shows remarkable good taste (I can't believe I just wrote that) in his approach to the source material. He even dug into his own pockets for completion funds when the financiers? cash ran out. This dedication does show onscreen most of the time, and when it does, the film is fun and pretty to look at ? yes, even when Miranda?s not onscreen. I?ll give the nutty old Franco some props... this time.
Dark Sky Films deserve their own slice of praise for rolling out Count Dracula?s DVD debut with a top-notch Special Edition. The image is presented full-frame (1.33:1), but it?s indicated that this was the original aspect ratio; I?ve never seen this film in any other format, and the compositions (including Franco?s frame-crowding close-ups on characters' T-zones) don?t appear to be compromised, so I?ll take their word on it. The print is in good condition, considering a bit of edge softness that I suspect comes from the source print itself, and the muted color palette (pretty unusual given Franco?s penchant for psychedelic super freak-outs) suits the Gothic ambiance well. The mono soundtrack is serviceable, and lends powerful low-end chunk to Lee?s commanding voice, but the aforementioned blasts of dulcimer and other musical cues are overdriven, and pushed my speakers to distortion.
Extras are befitting a special edition, and include a lengthy Franco interview (in broken English, with helpful subtitles) filled with amusing anecdotes - some no doubt of dubious accuracy, but all entertaining nonetheless. I particularly liked his recollections about Kinski (he claims the actor actually ate live bugs while in character as Renfield - which is kind of surprising, since Kinski hated even getting his hands dirty) and his fond reminiscence about Soledad Miranda, who died in a car accident just before she was to sign a lucrative film contract with Franco.
Another high point is an audio recording of Lee reading excerpts from Bram Stoker?s novel, to the accompaniment of sound effects and promotional images for the film. It?s surprisingly lengthy at 90 minutes, and fun to listen to in a darkened room... then again, I?d pretty much enjoy dimming the lights and hearing Lee read the directions on a box of macaroni and cheese. We also get a large gallery of promotional art, and a detailed text essay on the life and appeal of Soledad Miranda.
There?s much fun to be had here for Dracula fans, Jess Francophiles (don't worry, I won't tell them your dirty secret), or just connoisseurs of throwaway Gothic nonsense. I guess I'm probably in there somewhere.