BR: Count Dracula / Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht (1970)

March 25, 2016 | By

CountDracula1970_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Severin

Region: A, B, C

Released:  December 15, 2015

Genre:  Horror

Synopsis: A more faithful retelling of Bram Stoker’s classic novel of the blood-sucking Count who moves to Britain and wreaks havoc on upscale snobs.

Special Features: Audio Commentary with horror historian David Del Valle and Actress Maria Rohm / Pere Portabello’s 1971 experimental making-of documentary “Cuadecuc, vampire” (66 mins.) / 2007 Jess Franco interview: “Beloved Count” (26:32) / Interview with actor Jack Taylor (10:00) / Interview with actor Fred Williams: “Handsome Harker: (24:13) / “Stake Holders: An Appreciation By Filmmaker Christophe Gans” (7:31) / 1966: “Christopher Lee Reads Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (84 mins.) / Alternate German, French, Italian, and Spanish Main Titles / German Trailer.

 


 

Review:

Jess Franco’s Count Dracula is an example of what happens when certain parameters designed to bolster a production’s salability reduce a filmmaker, known for sex and violence and trippy perversions, to a hired gun, and a bored one at that.

Many subjective stories are relayed in Severin’s definitive edition of Count Dracula, a movie packed with a decent cast, and a film known for being more faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel than the countless variants. This adaptation shows Dracula’s three vixens feasting (off-screen) on a newly snatched infant; it’s reportedly the only film containing the character of Quincey; and it depicts Dracula’s progression from an old man to a youthful bloodsucker after feeding on healthy British babes, but what emerges from the disc’s plethora of special features is a production backstory more colourful than the final work.

Franco fans have every reason to rejoice at the contextual extras that fill in one more grey spot in the director’s enormous filmography, but whether Count Dracula works as reverent, atmospheric and inventive retelling of Stoker’s oft-filmed story is also subjective; some fans will dig it, while others may feel a need to revisits Vampyros Lesbos for trippier real fun.

The blatant nudity and gore typical of the director’s work are nowhere to be found, largely because Franco was contracted to deliver a film free from risqué elements. Ostensibly classical and kid-friendly in nature, the sometimes deadly pacing is occasionally goosed with blood sprays, some throat gashes, women in poofy sixties hairdos and pretty nighties, and a rubber vampire bat bobbing behind a frosted window.

Franco’s main financier, producer / legendary schlockmeister Harry Alan Towers, promised him money and the freedom to make a genre classic, but when star Christopher Lee left the production after completing his contracted work, so did the part of the budget needed for the final scenes, adversely affecting the scope of the ending where townspeople converge with torches at Dracula’s crumbling castle.

Lee and co-star Herbert Lom (playing Van Helsing) never filmed scenes together, mandating some clever editing to create the illusion of a confrontation, and Klaus Kinski as Renfield feels like a fast one day shoot because that’s what it was; as inspired as casting Kinski may be, he’s too clean, too neat, and lacks the nuanced mania that made Tom Waits one of the few real casting gems in Francis Ford Coppola’s deeply flawed 1992 extravaganza.

The film’s esteemed commentators David Del Valle and actress Maria Rohm (Towers’ wife) also make note of Lee’s rather stagey approach to the titular character which had to be pruned to ensure the film didn’t become too talky, but one can argue Lee’s take on Dracula gives the film some needed gravitas, which even Franco recognized, later fighting to retain Lee’s early speeches on the history of his clan.

Franco was either thrilled to take a crack at making a faithful literary adaptation, or by other accounts, fell into his ‘usual’ behaviour pattern and became bored after initial filming had commenced before regaining his mojo and wrapping up the film under financial duress. That reported boredom may explain the film’s often blatant continuity issues.

Jonathan Harker’s carriage ride to the castle uses a variable group of shots comprised of passable nighttime footage, weak day for night footage, and blatantly unconvincing dimmed day shots. There’s also the variable lighting by cinematographers Manuel Merino and Luciano Trasatti. Besides focus issues, Jonathan Harker’s use of the candelabra is logical when in dark catacombs, unconvincing in well-lit castle hallways, and ludicrous in his assigned bedroom that’s bathed in bright red-orange-yellow lights.

Bruno Nicolai’s music is quite lush and elegant, but it doesn’t always match the film’s scenes, as though intended cues were recut and moved around. The music as heard in the mono soundtrack reflects a hastiness by the filmmakers in getting the film cut, mixed, and ready to be shipped to exhibitors. As a contrast, Franco creates some interesting voice effects when Dracula coaxes Lucy (Soledad Miranda) from her bed in a half-asleep state before ravishing her with a bloodless bite.

Rohm is also fine as Mina, clearly enjoying a role where she’s not cast for her figure and genuine cinematic mystique. Miranda’s rendering of Lucy remains an essentially puzzled creature, as the role was always limited in the film versions, whereas Fred Williams is perhaps too tall, dark and handsome for Jonathan Harker, a character that even in Stoker’s novel had a slightly nebbish quality.

Part of the film’s draw is seeing Franco’s stock company of actors and actresses, many of whom were teamed in several films, and Franco also appears as a butler, with a redubbed cockney voice.

The production made use of some excellent locations, especially Dracula’s creepy castle exterior, the catacombs beneath, and the ‘British’ locations which seem more cosmopolitan Spanish / Italian (especially the exterior of Van Helsing’s clinic).

Count Dracula may not be the mini masterpiece fans had hoped for, but it has its merits as a rare effort by Franco in classical filmmaking under a tight budget, which arguably a lesser filmmaker may have found more challenging.

Severin’s Blu-ray ports over some of the extras from the prior 2007 Dark Sky DVD, which include an interview in English with Franco (un-subtitled in the Severin disc) and Lee reading passages from Stoker’s Dracula. According to a piece at Openculture.com, this mono recording was commissioned in 1966 by the publisher of a graphic novelization to which Lee contributed an introduction. Unique to the Dark Sky release is a Soledad Miranda essay and a stills gallery.

Whereas the Dark Sky disc featured an Italian-titled print with English audio and English subtitles, the Severin release sports a new HD transfer from a French source, with new digital French Main and End Titles. Both films are in 1.33:1 (billed as Franco’s preferred ratio), and the Severin disc includes alternate German, French, Italian, and Spanish Main Titles, of which the first three feature Nicolai’s more kinetic music. The Italian and Spanish titles also feature darkened footage evoking nighttime instead of a grey midday.

The new goodies is the aforementioned commentary track with Del Valle and Rohm, cleverly edited as Rohm was Skyping in Toronto (hence the occasional digital compression in her voice). The pair are fairly candid in their thoughts of the film and its substantive cast, but it’s clear Del Valle loves the film dearly, hence a tangible defensive stance against critiques of the film’s serious shortcomings. The love-fest in the commentary is contrasted by two differently timbered interviews with actors Jack Taylor (Quincey) and Fred Williams (Harker). Taylor’s very supportive of his early work with Franco but felt the director’s later films showed a lack of interest and care for even attempting to make a film than transcends the exploitation genre, to which Franco was a massive contributor.

Williams (who speaks in German and is subtitled in English) is more engaging for being a frank and bemused mensch, admitting he took roles because he loved to travel and enjoy the company and fine food typical of a Franco production, but he’s less glowing towards Franco, adding the director was often quite cruel to Taylor, treating him like the production’s official whipping boy.

Deliberate or not, the spirit of Soledad Miranda haunts even the extras, as almost everyone remarks on her beauty, natural acting talent, and the tragedy in being killed in a car accident just as her career was poised to rise. Her role in the film is very modest, but she’s a vital element to the film’s mystique.

French director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolves) provides an idiosyncratic view of Franco’s canon as a finely detailed reflection of its director, with each film and recurring motif (casting, music, zoom-happy shots, etc.) being part of an elaborate puzzle.

 

A Making-Of Doc Like No Other: Cuadecuc, vampir

The disc’s last extra may be its most unique: Cuadecuc, vampir (1971), an hour-long making-of documentary done in an usual experimental style. Pere Portabella’s approach was perhaps to capture an alternate reality of Franco’s movie, filming moments from the edge of sets yet making sure he still got standard coverage of close-ups, alternate angles, and wide shots, which are assembled like conventional scenes, but with a twist.

The B&W footage often flips between positive, negative, and video-like solarized with blown-out high contrast moments that bleed in and out within singular shots. On several occasions Portabello’s material come close to resembling moments from Franco’s movie, like an alternate otherworldly cut. The editing is razor sharp and quite riveting, and Portabella’s fluid camerawork is arguably superior to Franco’s own pair of cinematographers.

The minimal sound design is equally clever, cutting from a lounge music track to Carles Santos’ sound design of disparate taps, creaks, and knocks that over several minutes coalesce into a movement of sorts. Sometimes playful, eerie, and just plain weird, vampir is a unique alternative to the banal making-of featurettes standard to modern home video, although whoever commissioned this short may have been baffled by the final results.

Portabello’s narrative does follow the chronology of Franco’s film, and his documentary lens captures the filming of scenes from a distance and hovering around the actors between takes or during blocking rehearsals. Unique minutia include an effects man adding cobwebs to doors and smothering a coffin-nestled Lee with the spun / fan-blown material, the staking of the three vixens in Transylvania, and Lee removing his bloody contacts, fanged teeth, and moustache.

Portabello wraps up the film with Lee reading Dracula from his dressing room, and one suspects that moment may have inspired the director to engage / cajole Lee into starring in a related film that appears to have been shot in tandem with Vampir, the fragmented and political Umbracle (1970).

Severin transfer of Vampir may be the film’s first in HD – a 7 disc, 22-film compendium was released a few years ago in a region-free, English-French-Spanish subtitled DVDV set – but this version does contain new English credits that are more evocative of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead than the original Spanish titles, which featured text that slips and glides off the screen in a more ‘handcrafted’ style.

Christopher Lee starring in several Franco films, including The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), 1970’s Eugenie, Count Dracula, The Bloody Judge, The Columbian Connection (1988), and Fall of the Eagles (1989).

Note: although originally announced for a December 2015 release, David Mitchell’s 2013 documentary The Trail of Dracula is slated for an April 2016 release via Severin’s Intervision label.

 

 

© 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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