Count Dracula (1970)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 20, 2011  | 
Dark Sky Films (USA) | Region 1, NTSC | 4:3 | English DD 2.0 | 97 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Jess Franco
Starring: Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, Maria Rohm, Fred Williams, Paul Muller, Jack Taylor
Screenplay: Augusto Finocchi, Jess Franco, Harry Alan Towers
Country: Spain
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The name "Dracula" is one that makes meaning for just about anyone in the world. You don't need to have read the novel, the comic book adaptations, seen any of the multiple hundred films that feature the character, and so forth – people have an understanding that the name equates with evil, and especially vampires. Now in a day and age when vampires have become non-threatening boyfriends for timid emo fag-hags, it's nice to see someone depict a vampire, and especially this particular vampire, as a ruthless killing machine bent on badness, seeing the female of the species as a means by which despair can be caused in the male, and as a means to do further evil upon the living.

Bram Stoker's novel Dracula has been adapted for the screen, both large and small, numerous times, with actors as diverse as Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jordan, Frank Langella, Klaus Kinski and Gary Oldman all having had a bash at being the bloodsucking fiend, but for me it's Christopher Lee's portrayal of the Count in both this Jess Franco-directed effort, and in Hammer's Horror Of Dracula and Scars Of Dracula that stand head and shoulders over the others (and not just because at 6 foot 5, Lee is the physically intimidating presence the Count should be).

The film you're about to read about is not, as the poster ads used to say, "We Tell It Exactly As Stoker Wrote It!", because given the length of the average genre feature film back in 1970, that would be impossible. It is however a worthy addition to the Dracula canon (if with some slightly embarrassing moments – and one grossly embarrassing one), and also worth comparing Lee's rather understated portrayal here, against some of the more lurid turns he did for Hammer at around the same time (Taste The Blood Of Dracula, which had not long been completed before this, for example). Matter of fact, in his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee has this to say about the experience, versus the diminishing returns of the Hammer Dracula franchise: "Count Dracula, made against the grain of this decline by Jess Franco in Spain, and outside the Hammer aegis, was a damn good try at doing the Count as Stoker meant him to be. It was made with the deepest of bows to the theatre manager who invented the character. In the whole vast Dracula industry it was virtually unique in that."

Jonathan Harker is an English lawyer (almost), who's been sent to Transylvania (in reality, France – similarly, at later points of the film, Barcelona doubles for Victorian London, and an Italian set for Van Helsing's clinic) to close a deal with one of his law firm's foreign customers, the reclusive Count Dracula, whose name has the assorted peasantry and townsfolk alike struck with fear (first crash zoom, a Franco staple, to a frightened villagers' face is within the first two minutes!), warning Harker not to venture to the Count's castle, and praying for his safety. Harker, a child of the nascent technological age is dismayed by their superstitious reactions, but gives them no credence.

Harker is met at the Borgo Pass, which leads to Castle Dracula, by the Count's mysterious coachman, who drives at frankly unsafe speeds and has an uncanny power over wolves (in reality, police dogs, and the "dubbing" they receive certainly doesn't match how their muzzles are moving, but anyway…), but delivering our now quite uneasy lawyer-to-be safe and sound to the bloody impressive-looking Castle Dracula.

I'll just briefly mention the location shooting: looking past the day-for-night camerawork during Harker's journey to the castle, the actual locations throughout the film are superb, basically because they're authentic 14th and 15th century castles in France, and the Grand Palace in Barcelona (where Felangist dictator General Franco had his seat of power at the time of the filming), amongst other historical buildings. It's actually only when any kind of set dressing is attempted that the film betrays its micro-budgetary restraints – for example the incongruity of a cobwebbed candelabra on the table of an otherwise spotless room. The money itself ran out towards the end of the shoot, leaving Franco (never a rich man by his own admission) having to fund the final weeks of the shoot out of his own pocket.

Harker is met by the Count, who looks authentic to the description Stoker gave us in his original novel – "a tall, thin man clad in black", with grey hair and drooping moustaches – without the opera cape, dickey and medals of Lugosi's portrayal, or the frankly hilarious freak-show of Oldman's. Now before I get the usual argument of how you shouldn't compare a book to a film, when Coppola named his film Bram Stoker's "Dracula", he was obviously making an attempt at claiming authenticity – the definitive version of a novel, best representing the author's vision (something for example that Stanley Kubrick didn't do with The Shining, which was billed with his own name, not Stephen King's – it was his vision, not the original vision of the author that he was representing). He failed dismally, changing the story from frame one, with all that romantic gumph set in the past. Franco might make some changes to the story despite the film being touted as being faithful, but as Christopher Lee points out again: "It was a shadow of what it might have been, but nevertheless it had the right outlook on the protagonists." Lee himself tried for years to get Hammer's various screenwriters to go back to the source material (most famously in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, where he claimed that the dialogue was so awful, and more to the point, so untrue to the character as Stoker had written him, that he spoke not one word while in character; Dracula spends much of that film snarling or pointing imperiously), to be more authentic to it, but blood, cleavage and sensationalism got in the way (and to these eyes, that was sometimes no bad thing, despite the ludicrous nature of some of the stories), and so the Dracula we're presented with here (as well as the Renfield, but more of that later…) is about as authentic a portrayal as you're likely to get.

Lee's performance as the exsanguinating Count is superb. He's understated, cold, measured and calculating, and he makes the most of his size and the looks of sheer animal fury of which he's capable. Gone is the action villain of Horror Of Dracula, replaced thirteen years later with a more restrained, textured performance. His opening monologue to Harker about his family's history is one of the best things Lee has ever done, and one of the best performances Franco has ever got from an actor, dignified and laden with pathos at the same time. Some of the elements of dialogue (the first time by Lugosi clever, then relentlessly clichéd, "And I never drink…wine.") have been dropped in order to make the film seem fresh, not to mention to keep the run-time down – and thankfully Dracula doesn't react to Harker's locket picture of Mina like a masturbating schoolboy as usual (I'm looking at you, Oldman, Kinski and Schreck), and with the exception of his habit of not showing up in mirrors, he simply seems like a lonely and slightly detached old man, not tipping his hand too early.

Harker starts to become a bit disconcerted when he finds himself locked in his room, and when trying to open a window is attacked by the least believable rubber bat EVER. But when he wakes up in a large strange chamber (in reality the feasting hall of the Grand Palace in Barcelona) and three coffins containing Dracula's vampire brides open up, you do get the impression that he wishes he'd listened to the fella with the dodgy moustache in the carriage in the opening scene. The brides fall on Harker, but Dracula repels them, claiming Harker as his own, offering them instead, and for the first time in a filmed adaptation of the novel, a baby on which to slake their thirst. You don't see the baby, nor do you see the brides feeding on it – the sounds of the cries are enough. Sometimes less is more.

But then, we have to question if it all really happened – although the two nasty hickies Harker's woken up with would suggest that it did. Harker explores the castle, makes a few nasty discoveries and sort of accidentally makes good his escape. He somehow winds up in the care of Dr Jack Seward, in the exclusive clinic of one Dr Abraham Van Helsing (Herbert Lom – apparently Franco wanted Vincent Price for the role, but Price was otherwise engaged shooting something for AIP; the hospital, particularly Renfield's cell, were sets built on a soundstage in Italy; when Kinski complained about the lack of realism, Franco pointed out to him that if they'd filmed Kinski inside a real asylum, the staff wouldn't've let him out!). This is one of those cuts of expedience that has been made to the original plot, and I guess it's not too awful, although it is a little too convenient in some regards – imagine that! You escape from vampires to find yourself in the care of one of the greatest occult scholars in Europe! Fancy!

Enter: Renfield, a patient in the clinic, who specialises in howling and screeching (and not being the first legal clerk sent to Dracula's castle by Harker's firm – instead, he and his daughter were holidaying in Transylvania; she got vampirised, and his mind snapped). Klaus Kinski grabbed hold of this role with both hands and played it for all he was worth, despite all the effete concert-pianist style hair flicking he does. It probably won't be much of a surprise to any of you that Kinski does psycho rather well. Renfield spends his days and nights in a padded cell, and when he's not in his strait-jacket, likes to eat flies and other insects he captures and secretes in a box in his toilet. By the way, the insects Kinski eats – yes, even the flies – are real. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if Kinski ate flies in real life by choice. His performance, whereby he demanded his lines be cut (his reasoning to Franco was if he could show the character's madness, then why the need to talk about it? It was a good decision) is probably the definitive Renfield, certainly better than Tom Waits or Dwight Frye, who would be the only two other actors to give him a run for his money. Renfield perches in his window watching everything that's going on around the asylum – and we're back with Franco's pet obsession of voyeurism and watching, a staple of his oeuvre – things like the large wooden boxes being moved into the large deserted house next door. Why, they could almost be coffins…

Mina, Harker's fiancée (Maria 99 Women Rohm, wife of producer Harry Alan Towers who worked with Franco on many lucrative productions), and her best friend Lucy Westenra (Soledad She Killed In Ecstasy Miranda, a woman so radiantly beautiful she looks lit from within) turn up to Van Helsing's clinic to see Jonathan after his weeks of being missing (watch out for Jess Franco in a small and atrociously dubbed role as a servant). Due to the fact that he can't be moved, rooms are prepared for the women – which ends up being not so smart a move, as Lucy is seduced by Dracula and bitten for the first time. Seward pronounces her unknown ailment to be serious, and tells Mina to telegram Lucy's fiancée, Quincey Morris, a young barrister (and so the three suitors subplot is another victim of expediency – Dr Seward becomes a much older man, poor old Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming is done away with altogether, even though his role is pivotal to the outcome of the novel, and Quincey changes inexplicably from a Texan adventurer to Franco regular and Euro-exploitation mainstay Jack Taylor as an English barrister – this is the one part of the novel Coppola actually managed to do well in his version), who promptly gives her a much-needed blood transfusion.

But the rubber bat returns, turns into Christopher Lee after a mysterious cutaway to nothing in particular, and chomps Lucy a second time, but we notice that Dracula's hair and moustache have changed to a much darker colour – he's getting younger through regular intake of blood. Very regular, in fact – he turns up again the next night, after willing Renfield to hurl himself from a fourth floor window. The third time is the charm, even though Mina walks in to the room mid-chomp, and Lucy dies. Sort of. Y'see, never one to let a decent burial get in the way of a good time, Lucy decides to get out of her grave every night and bleed small children, who she can get to trust her, being so pretty and all. Having the vampire power of suggestion is just a bonus, I guess.

Van Helsing convinces Harker and Quincey to join him in visiting Lucy's grave, and a grave old time they have of it there. Mina decides that Renfield might know more than he's letting on, and goes to talk with him at the same time that Seward, Harker and Quincey head to Dracula's lair to see if he's at home to visitors, leaving Van Helsing alone to suffer a mild stroke brought on by Dracula's influence in privacy, but also leading to a scene so excruciatingly poor in execution, I nearly turned the film off in embarrassment for all concerned. Seward, Harker and Quincey have to pretend to be frightened of *sighs* stuffed animals. There! I said it. Crew members are manipulating Dracula's collection of stuffed critters the way you would if you were trying to entertain a small child, while stock sound of bird songs and growling plays on the soundtrack, even if the sound you're hearing is inappropriate to the critter concerned – I mean, would a marlin, stuffed or not, roar? I'm not making this up. The apogee of incompetence is reached with the stuffed owl, which some out-of-shot stagehand is bobbing up and down nonsensically. In your mind, I think you're meant to see this as per the creepy laughing deer-head in Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, or maybe the mounted marlin that thrashes about in House, but honestly, when I watch this film now and the scene starts, I just close my eyes and wait for the sounds to stop.

Oddly enough, Mina decides to take in a bit of close harmony singing at the local music hall after having been half choked to death by Renfield – not the reaction most people would have had; but who bought her the ticket? The men have *ahem* overcome the Terror Of The Stuffed Animals, but Dracula, now with lustrous black hair and 'tache, still has a few cards up his sleeves, and is more than a couple of steps ahead of our fearless vampire killers – making plans to high-tail it back to Transylvania, after paying a visit to Van Helsing and Mina... Which of course, is where the synopsis leaves you.

Franco's adaptation does make changes to the second half of the novel – seeming in some places like a synopsis of it, it moves along at such a clip – and despite some cringe-worthy special effects does actually generate a genuinely creepy atmosphere (courtesy in part of Bruno Nicolai's excellent score), particularly at the beginning. Some of the changes are ill-advised, and the ending itself is rushed far too quickly, but to me there's a lot to like about Jess Franco's Count Dracula. That said, the definitive version of this much abused via the medium of film novel is yet to be made, in my opinion.

One thing that I did find odd in Count Dracula is the absence of much of the symbolism and the thematic concerns of the parent text. I ended up wondering if that was purely because of the fact that the film was made by a Spaniard for a European audience, starring mainly European actors. In the novel itself, Stoker displays a casual Victorian xenophobia towards the continent, displaying anyone not English (and that includes Quincey and Van Helsing) as being either incoherent, backwards or contemptible – the threat of Dracula is symbolically a sexual one, because he's a foreigner unable to control his urges. When he "claims" Harker from his brides, he's a predatory homosexual (remember when Stoker was writing this, homosexuality was a crime that carried a sentence of hard labour, as poet and playwright Oscar Wilde discovered the hard way, and Stoker's wife was a friend of Wilde's), when he arrives in England determined to attack the virginal Lucy and Mina, he's one of them damned foreigners, over here to rape and despoil our women, and leave them with horrible venereal diseases (in this instance: vampirism, with the oral rape of the two women being the symbolic rather than literal penetration that would entail). Oddly enough for a director who became better known for his sleazy displays of female flesh and sexploitation fare – Eugenie: The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion, The Marquis de Sade's "Justine", Female Vampire and A Virgin Among The Living Dead to name but a few, before really letting go and getting down and VERY dirty with Love Camp and Ilsa: The Wicked Warden, this is a remarkably tepid affair, in that department. Similarly, the violence that we later see in Jack The Ripper, the WIP films mentioned above, or sleazy slasher Bloody Moon are not present. As the novel of Dracula is a heaving bodice with the twin boobies of sex and violence at the fore-front, it's remarkable to me that Jess Franco, sleaze-grinder extraordinaire missed out on such an opportunity to do what he does best.

Plus, if you have a read of the novel, one thing that will become rapidly intrusive is the style in which it is written. As an epistolary novel, it's written with multiple narrative viewpoints told on different forms of technology, another of the very few things that Coppola got right in his version, despite a slew of atrocious comic-opera accents and pointless references to vampire films past. Also, the emergent technology. There is a MASSIVE spoiler here, so you might just want to scroll down to the Extras and the A/V stuff. Still with me? Effectively, in the novel Dracula is killed by a railway and shipping timetable, and a telegram, enabled by Holmwood's social status as a Lord; the vampire hunters are able to get to Dracula's castle on time to stake him at the crossroads despite his substantial head-start because of the technology available to them. By excising Holmwood's role and making the whole thing a bit more egalitarian, Franco seems to have beaten the whole "ra-ra" Britishness out of the story. By not making overt reference to the technology of the day as it referred to the tale (transport – we lose the whole sequence aboard the Demeter, one of my favourites from the novel – modern psychiatry, which appears even more backwards here than it did in From Hell; trepanning for all! Then telecommunications and science generally, when you remember that Seward records his entries on wax cylinder and Mina uses a typewriter, as well as the beginnings of the end to both the class system and the role of women in society. I found it funny here that Lucy's first act in Count Dracula is to faint), it does tend to weaken the final act somewhat.
Presented in its OAR of 1.33:1, Count Dracula looks pretty good, although a bit soft. That said, this being a Dark Sky transfer, print damage is not a concern, although you might, if you look hard enough, find one or two moments of shimmer, given a white background, as in Renfield's cell towards the end – but that really is nitpicking. Like I said, this looks pretty darned good.
Can I just begin by giving a big shout out to Bruno Nicolai's impressive score – truly epic stuff, and very effective at building genuine tension. Although the train whistles at the beginning particularly and any other top end sounds seemed painfully loud in the extreme. Apart from that the 2.0 track works just fine.
Extra Features
Not a bad package at all. There is of course the inevitable stills gallery, as well as an essay on the life and career of actress, dancer, model and pop chanteuse Soledad Miranda, who went on to star in a number of Franco films after Count Dracula, including his signature work Vampyros Lesbos, before tragically dying young at the age of 27 in a car crash. Christopher Lee gives a dramatic reading of a condensed version of Bram Stoker's novel (with that distinctive aristocratic voice of his conveying his genuine love for the novel; the sound effects in the background I suppose are meant to add to the atmosphere, but they didn't really work for me – the only visuals you get are stills and promotional artwork) which goes for nearly 90 minutes, and most substantially, there's a featurette, "Beloved Count". This 27 minute documentary delivers some very interesting factoids about the filming of Count Dracula, much of which comes straight from the Franco's mouth himself. A shame that Christopher Lee wasn't involved, but still this is definitely worth a watch for Franco laughing at Coppola's big budget adaptation turning the story from an epic battle between good and evil into a love story; as well as his recollections of working with Lee and Kinski, his enthusiasm for the film is surprising, too, as he is quite often dismissive of his own work, and his flat-out contradiction of an anecdote by Harry Alan Towers again simply shows his praiseworthy habit of calling a spade a fucking shovel – he's always totally blunt and quite honest in these kind of interviews. Apparently there was a documentary about the filming of Count Dracula (Cuadecuc/Vampir) shot alongside the film, but unfortunately that doesn't appear here.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This is most definitely worth a look for fans of Dracula, fans of Christopher Lee, and fans of 60s/70s Euro-horror in general. No, it is by no means perfect, with some very dodgy special effects, some dialogue - especially that of Van Helsing - which will raise an eyebrow, and a rather laissez-faire attitude towards the second half of the text it's meant to be a faithful adaptation of, but Jess Franco's Count Dracula is nevertheless an interesting take on a story that is yet to find its definitive version. Don't feed the stuffed animals.

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