Color, 1970, 98m.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Fred Williams, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, Jack Taylor, Paul Muller
Severin (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Dark Sky (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
You could make a good argument that no film did more damage to Jess Franco's reputation in the '70s and '80s than this much-touted adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel, which was touted as the only truly faithful one at the time with star Christopher Lee finally living his dream of playing the bloodsucker with all of his famous dialogue intact. All of that is actually true; Lee gets ten times more dialogue here than any of his Hammer Dracula titles, and the film adheres to its source far more closely than any prior version with all of its various vampire-hunting characters intact. However, the low budget, motley European cast, and Franco's penchant for zoom lenses confounded most English-speaking viewers when the film hit theaters, with many dismissing it as a pale attempt to cash in on the waning Hammer horror cycle.
However, a funny thing happened. More and more Franco films started turning up on home video in the DVD era, and it all started to make a lot more sense. Franco's use of atmosphere as a character made the Barcelona (and, to a lesser degree, Italian) location shooting helped the film fit in far more snugly with the rest of his filmography, and it was much easier to appreciate the presence of the great, tragic beauty Soledad Miranda, who teamed up here with Franco for the first of seven collaborations. She isn't the star here, but her uncanny beauty shines through so clearly that Franco brought her back the next year to craft his own modern, female-oriented spin on Stoker's novel with the superb Vampyros Lesbos.
The film is also easier to appreciate now as a swan song of sorts to Franco's collaboration with producer Harry Alan Towers, who gave him some of the biggest budgets and highest-caliber casts the director ever enjoyed. The cast here is essentially a greatest hits of Franco faces (albeit minus Howard Vernon) with virtually every face on screen carrying echoes of other Franco roles into their performances. The surprising lack of sexual electricity in the film seems a bit odd, as does its relatively restrained violence, but the gallery of actors and ancient, beautifully decayed settings make it a unique spin on the world's most famous vampire tale.
A plot synopsis is probably unnecessary, but just in case, here goes. Naive nice guy Jonathan Harker (Williams) travels to Transylvania to broker the sale of Carfax Abbey to Count Dracula (Lee), who inspires fear and dread among the local villagers. Harker barely escapes with his life after tangling with the count and his three vampire brides, with Dracula soon following him to prey on Harker's fiancée, Mina (Rohm), and her best friend, Lucy (Miranda). Meanwhile the crazed Renfield (Kinski) munches on flies in his cell while Professor Van Helsing (Lom) amasses a vampire-killing squad including Dr. Seward (Muller) and Quincey (Taylor).
Count Dracula was released in almost every major country at one point or another, though its American release via Crystal Pictures was less than respectful. All of the actors spoke English on the set, though most of them ended up being looped by other actors. (Thankfully Lee and Lom keep their own unmistakable vocal performances intact.) Interestingly, the film makes no pretense at all of passing off its actors or locations as British; instead it exists in some kind of odd European netherworld similar to what Dario Argento would attempt years later with his much campier Dracula 3-D. Despite the lack of explicit material, no two film prints seemed to be exactly the same with little bits here and there varying depending on the country of origin. The film eventually fell into the Republic Pictures library in America for its VHS release, but the first American DVD instead came from MPI's Dark Sky Pictures in 2007. That disc featured an open matte 1.33:1 transfer, a smart choice given the tightness of the compositions otherwise hampered when projectionists tried to frame it anywhere from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1. Extras for the release included a fun 26-minute featurette, "Beloved Count," with Franco (and, briefly, Harry Alan Towers) covering the production, with Franco's borderline indecipherable English chat presented with optional English subtitles. There's a lot of entertaining material here including conflicting accounts of whether Kinski realized he was acting in a vampire film and how much he really tried to throttle Rohm in their sole scene together. Also included is an 84-minute reading of the source novel by Lee, who gives it his usual gusto (with lobby cards and poster art providing visual accompaniment), along with an image gallery and essay about Miranda.
Six years later, Severin Films (who oversaw the Franco featurette on that DVD) nabbed the film for a reissue on both Blu-ray and DVD. The transfer's a bit of a puzzler; as with the Dark Sky release, it comes from a French visual source complete with the title Les Nuits de Dracula. However, this time the credits (which still unspool over a more subdued composition by composer Bruno Nicolai instead of his fantastic main theme heard in most other countries) are digitally generated, as are the closing ones, presumably because this was sourced from a textless negative. Perhaps it's due to the murky shooting conditions, the source material, some digital filtering, or a mixture of all of the above, but there's really no uptick at all in visual detail; click on this frame grab from the DVD compared to the one on the left and you'll see the exact same amount of image detail is present in both, with identical framing. However, the colors on the Blu-ray are a bit cooler, and it's brighter as well (which means you can see more in the image in darker scenes); just don't expect a substantial visual leap. However, you'll definitely still want this one since it restores an entire scene missing from the prior DVD, showing a distraught mother outside the castle wailing for the stolen baby inside being offered as compensation to the vampire brides. The scene is in much rougher shape but nice to have here, bringing the running time up almost a full minute in the process. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio sounds fine given the limited nature of the original source material.
The release also beefs up the slate of extras by a wide margin, in addition to porting over the "Beloved Count" featurette and Christopher Lee novel reading (though the English subtitles aren't here, so prepare to strain your ears a bit to figure out what Franco's saying). The biggest new bonus here is easily Cuadecuc, Vampire, the infamous and formerly difficult-to-see art film by Pere Portabella, who was present during the entire production of Franco's film shooting from alternate angles. Dropping any pretense at plot (or significant dialogue), the film instead tells a similar story augmented with modern automobiles and very different presentations of familiar scenes accentuated by an experimental music score. It's still a pretty bizarre footnote in the history of Franco's film, and it's great to finally have the two together in one official release. The intentionally grainy, monochrome photography looks fine here, much better than the bootleg copies floating around.
The main feature also contains a new audio commentary with Rohm and David Del Valle, who spend as much time dissecting the appeal of Stoker's novel and the artistic and literary echoes of its themes as the film at hand. She reels off some fun stories, most notably when she's talking about Kinski (of whom she wasn't particularly fond), and there are some good anecdotes about Herbert Lom as well both during this film and later in life living in Beverly Hills. On the video side you also get the 10-minute "A Conversation with Jack Taylor," with the articulate actor chatting in English about his collaborations with Franco (saying he likes all but the last two of the films they made) and explaining where he personally drew the line about the director's penchant for eroticism on screen. Perhaps the most candid and rewarding of the new extras is the 26-minute "Handsome Harker," with Fred Williams alternating between English and German as he goes into great detail about the making of this film and his other work with Franco (including The Devil Came from Akasava and She Killed in Ecstasy). His frank memories of snappy exchanges between Franco and some of the cast (as well as Portabella) contrast with his own warm rapport with the director, and he also goes into detail about Lee's insistence on getting each word right for the entire cast. Great stuff, and be sure to watch all the way through. The 7-minute "Stake Holders" offers a French-language appreciation of the film (with English subs) by director Christophe Gans (The Brotherhood of the Wolf), who's very energetic as he offers his own take on how the film came to be, which portions seemed to interest the director most, and how it went on to inform the creation of Vampyros Lesbos. Finally the packed disc rounds out with the German trailer (with English subs) and a reel of alternate opening credit sequences from the German, French, Italian and Spanish releases.