Jess Franco’s Dracula (1970) aka Count Dracula
Dir. Jesus Franco
Written by Augusto Finocchi
Starring Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, Fred Williams
Jesus “Jess” Franco did not make good movies. Let’s just put that out there to start with; this is not a good director, this is not even an interesting director, this is a guy who put his name on multiple films which were just incoherent Frankenmovies composed of grafted-together bits of unrelated footage. And that was in his prime, before he moved on to no-budget shot-on-video softcore pornos. But he was prolific. George Carlin once quipped, "I never fucked a ten... but one night, I fucked five twos." Well, Jesus Franco never directed a ten-star movie... but in 1970 alone, he made at least five twos. Surprisingly, though, this isn’t one of them. I mean, it’s not a ten, obviously, oh dear god no. But it’s a solid five, maybe even a six if you’re feeling generous. As my buddy Dan P put it, that in itself makes this “possibly Jess Franco’s least terrible movie.”
This becomes somewhat miraculous when I mention that not only is a Franco movie, it’s also a Dracula movie. And Dracula movies are, as a rule, not good. Considering the ubiquity of the character, he’s got an absolutely dismal track record of appearing in good movies, especially when they’re directly based on the original Bram Stoker novel. Which is sort of understandable, because Stoker’s novel is nigh-on unadaptable; its epistolary structure, army of minor characters (just how many fuckin’ suitors need to get involved in a plot about an amorous vampire for fuck’s sake?!), and somewhat lackluster ending have defeated everyone from Dario Argento to Guy Maddin over the years. I’ve never seen the Martin Landau or Jack Palance versions, but judging from the apparent consensus on them, I’m prepared to suggest that Hammer’s 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA might well be the only adaptation which could legitimately be called great, or close to it.*
Franco’s version is not close to great, because if it was it would not be a Jesus Franco film. But it is a surprisingly effective retelling of the classic tale, this time with Christopher Lee reinventing his definitive role by wearing a mustache. I’m not really sure why Lee would take this part --for all intents and purposes, a remake of the film that kicked off his career as a horror icon-- especially while he was still appearing in Hammer’s Dracula series (it came out the same year as SCARS OF DRACULA). But perhaps it had something to do with making an attempt at a slightly more faithful version to Stoker’s original novel. I’ve read a few accounts which suggest the movie was sold that way, though I can find no primary confirmation of that. There are a few details which are more faithful -- the mustache, Drac’s history as a warrior, his appearance getting more youthful as he drinks blood-- but overall it’s not so much more rigorously faithful that it stands out amongst its many peers. Like all adaptations, some consolidation of characters and locations becomes necessary, but, unexpectedly, herein lies its strength. Of all the Dracula adaptations, this may well have one of the best narrative structures. I know that's a weird thing to say about a Franco movie, but there you have it.
The screenplay, by Augusto Finocchi (EMMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND, the Ruggero Deodato-directed Spaghetti Western I quattro del pater noster) actually does something rather smart. After the initial confrontation in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle --inevitably a highlight of any Dracula adaptation, and one which doesn’t disappoint here-- Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams, minor parts in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS and A BRIDGE TOO FAR, good for him!) is taken to a sanitarium, where he is confined when no one believes his story. At this very same sanitarium is one R. M. Renfield (Klaus Kinski, who himself would play the Count a decade later in Herzog’s NOSFERATU), who is cared for by Dr. Seward (Paul Mueller, NIGHTMARE CASTLE, I VAMPIRI, FANGS OF THE LIVING DEAD, VAMPYROS LESBOS). And of course, Harker’s fiancé Mina (Maria Rohm, the 1972 Orson Welles TREASURE ISLAND, which now that I look also featured Mueller) would want to come and visit the poor fellow, and she brings along her friend Lucy (Franco muse Soledad Miranda, VAMPYROS LESBOS) and eventually Lucy’s fiancé, Quincey Morris (Jack Taylor, how cow, Mr. Sporting Apparel Magnate himself from GHOST GALLEON!). And would you believe the whole place is run by none other than Mr. Abraham Van Helsing (Herbert Lom, ASYLUM, THE PINK PANTHER)? And you’ll never guess who ends up moving in across the street.
See what happened there? All the main characters, save the omitted Arthur Holmwood, have been transplanted to the same location! This nifty little bit of story economy makes it infinitely easier to organize our many protagonists and corrall Stoker’s meandering narrative into something a little more direct. I’m not saying this is a work of genius or anything, but it really streamlines the whole narrative in a way which naturally includes all the major players and events (though alas, it necessarily omits my favorite part, the tale of the doomed vessel Demeter). As an effective synthesis of a very tricky winding work of literature, I really find it a rather astounding success. The dialogue itself is nothing too special, of course, but it also smartly avoids dialogue when it can, particularly in the character of Renfield. Kinski gets second billing here with only one spoken word of dialogue, but he earns it through his intense, sensitive portrayal of the bug-eating madman, driven insane by a previous encounter with Dracula. Where other actors have gone gleefully mega --see the manic Tom Waits in Coppola’s version or the giggling Roland Topor in Herzog’s-- here, Kinski, an actor who could out-mega anyone, instead goes small, inward; his Renfield is a man who’s stormy inner life is unknowable to us, but his big, haunted blue eyes scream out his wordless torment. It’s a rather magnificently tragic performance, particularly notable in that he interacts with the main characters virtually not at all, and spends the entire movie in a single padded room, mostly alone, silently immersed in an all-consuming alternate reality entirely in his own head.
As is customary for a Dracula movie, the first act, at Dracula’s castle, is the strongest. The leadup is pure atmosphere, and the tiny budget actually works to its benefit, resulting in a stark minimalism that highlights the coldness and agoraphobic enormity of the nearly-empty castle rooms. Fred Williams does about as well with the generally useless Jonathan Harker role as anyone ever has (which is to say, he’s not actively bad) and Lee is obviously enjoying his older, somewhat chattier version of the Count, who expounds at length about his ancestral history in a great dinner sequence. Once Harker heads back to civilization --closely followed by Drac-- things very gradually kinda peter out, as the predictable notes of the vampiric visits on Lucy and eventually Mina are played out in serviceable but hardly inspired standard form. Lom seems half-asleep as Van Helsing, and though Kinski is mesmerizing, he’s a small part and quite isolated from the main plot. But at least there’s enough going on to keep the story moving along at a decent pace. Meanwhile, expect plenty of dated zooms in and out; no new fact can pass without Franco individually zooming in on each actor’s disarmingly placid non-reaction.
But the movie does have one other high point: Drac, it seems, had a penchant for decorating his new digs with poorly-mounted taxidermied animals of every variety, which results in the movie’s best scene when our heroes arrive at his castle to have the morbid menagerie begin twitching and caterwauling at them. It’s possible the movie intends to suggest the animals actually come to life and incorrectly believes this can be communicated by jiggling clearly stuffed animals in front of the camera, but I prefer to believe its exactly what it looks like: the sawdust-saturated animals skins just start shaking and squawking stationary in place, maybe less aggressive than they are simply horrified at their own unnatural half-life. At any rate, Franco does much better with his approach to dead animals than he does with “live” ones; the bat puppets that occasionally crop up could not look more comical. Say what you want about CG, but flying animals are not a great medium for puppetry.
Like all Dracula films, this one struggles with Stoker’s finale, which always suffers from a strange sense of deflation. One minute, Drac is exsanguinating pretty women at his leisure and our heroes are powerless to stop him (here, he even drops by Van Helsing's study to gloat) and the next minute, he’s fleeing London in terror and getting dispatched in his sleep. He kinda goes out like a chump, and there’s never a satisfying sense of when the balance of power shifts. At least in this case they also throw his flaming corpse off a huge cliff, which demonstrates some hustle. It’s no surprise a Franco movie has a less-than-inspired ending, but at least there’s a little hustle here. That’s not exactly high praise, but it’s unexpected enough it’s worth pointing out. Considering the sheer volume of Dracula adaptations out there, I cannot, in good conscience, call this anywhere close to essential viewing. That much was pretty well assumed going in; the fact that it actually does offer the Dracula completist a few genuine pleasures is a welcome surprise. If you absolutely must watch just one Spanish Dracula adaptation where Christopher Lee has a mustache, you could do a lot worse.
*Excluding, of course, the two NOSFERATUs, which adapt a good bit of the Dracula story but clearly have their own thing going.