Jess Franco's Count Dracula (or, if you prefer, El Conde Dracula) is definitely one of the more literal adaptations of Bram Stoker's original novel. It benefits from a fantastic cast and some nice atmosphere – but is it really any good? Yes and no.
The story follows a young man named Jonathon Harker (Fred Williams of The Red Nights Of The Gestapo) who works for a law firm in London. He's been tasked with traveling to a remote area of Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Christopher Lee, who needs no introduction!) who is in the midst of purchasing a gloomy old building in London where he intends to relocate to. Harker's journey starts to get odd when some of the townsfolk that he meets along the way warn him against going to that old castle outside of town that the Count calls home. Harker, of course, pays their warnings no mind.
After a rather shaky coach trip to the castle, Harker meets the Count, a noble looking grey haired man who seems nice enough despite some quirks. That night, after dinner, Harker finds that he's been locked inside his bedroom and he knows that something is amiss. Soon, Harker finds out that Dracula is in fact a vampire and that he drinks the blood of the living. Harker manages to escape from the castle alive and get back to England in one piece where he rests in a sanitarium run by Dr. Seward (Paul Muller of Lady Frankenstein). Once he's recovered, he meets with a man named Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Herbert Lom of Mark Of The Devil) and the two of them discover that Dracula has already made the move and is operating in the area. His first victims? Harker's fiancée Mina (Maria Rohm of Venus In Furs) and her friend Lucy (Soledad Miranda of She Killed In Ecstasy). If that weren't bad enough, another patient in the sanitarium where Harker was recovering, Renfield (Klaus Kinski of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God), has been exhibiting some truly strange behavior.
Franco's film follows Stoker's novel quite closely and in fact it was this idea, to stick so close to the novel, that won Lee over to the project. The film starts off very strongly, with a lot of great mood and a truly sinister atmosphere. When we finally do meet the Count Lee is fantastic in the role, aging in reverse as the film plays out. The very obviously Spanish locations (with some interiors shot in Italy) don't double well for London or Transylvania but they do add an interesting vibe to the picture that gives it some flair and Franco makes the most of the castle and the surrounding area.
The cast list for the film reads like a 'who's who' of Franco's better movies, with Kinski, Muller and Rohm having starred in Venus In Furs (definitely one of his better and more accomplished efforts), Miranda having starred in more than a few of his films before her death and Lee having appeared in The Bloody Judge, The Castle Of Fu Manchu and Eugenie by the time this film was made. These were people who were familiar with Franco's aesthetic and his style as a director and who, by this point, would have had a rough idea of what to expect from the project. As such, their performances are uniformly quite good (with Kinski and Lee stealing the show).
It's unfortunate then that Count Dracula isn't as good as it could have been. A few too many of the irregularities associated with Franco's work creep into the picture – unnecessary zooms, cheap effects (the bat at the window is laughable), cameras appearing in the frame from time to time and pacing issues all wreak havoc with the movie and hurt what should have been an exceptional film. As it stands, not all of the blame has to fall on Franco as some of it stems back to the source – Stoker. There are slower portions of the book where Dracula really doesn't have much of a presence and the choice to adapt the novel literally means that these slower stretches, which work fine as a book but not so well in a movie, are carried over. The result is a Dracula film where we don't have a whole lot of Dracula to digest.
Thankfully, the good definitely outweighs the bad here. Despite some shoddy direction in spots and the slower moments in the movie, Franco's film succeeds more than it fails thanks to some great locations and a fantastic cast. There are moments here where Franco really nails it – the coach ride, the scene where Dracula deals with a hypnotized Mina towards the end of the movie – and they stand out more so than the flaws. Kinski, though filmed separately from much of the cast (the same can be said about Lee and Lom who never appear on screen together!), is perfect as Renfield going as over the top as you'd expect and hope he would in such a part. Bruno Nicolai's unusually eerie score also really goes a long way towards adding some atmosphere and mood to specific parts of the movie. Not the masterpiece that it should have been, Count Dracula isn't the turkey that many critics have made it out to be either and if it falters in spots, at least it does so in an unusual and interesting manner.
The 1.33.1 fullframe transfer presents the film in its original aspect ratio and in reasonably good shape. Franco fans know that this film has pretty much always looked like crap on home video and the fact that this DVD doesn't is in and of itself a big step up. There is some moderate grain in scenes and print damage is present from time to time but thankfully it's fairly minor. There are a few scenes in the film that are a little bit too dark but this looks to be a flaw in the lighting rather than in the transfer. As far as edge enhancement goes, there's little to complain about and there aren't any mpeg compression artifacts worth noting either. Color reproduction is just a little flat compared to more modern movies (perhaps not a fair comparison to make) but for the most part it is decent enough and the black levels stay fairly consistent throughout.
Count Dracula lands on DVD with an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track with optional English subtitles. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and if there is some minor hiss present in spots it's easy enough to overlook this, as it never gets in the way of the presentation. Bruno Nicolai's score sounds nice and lively and there's little to complain about here, the movie sounds nice.
First up, in terms of extra features, is an interesting twenty-six minute interview with director Jess Franco entitled Beloved Count, who speaks at some length about the production and the cast and crew who worked on the movie with him. Jess speaks in English but optional subs are there for those who have trouble with his accent. Smoke in hand, Franco talks about how Lee was the one who came up with the idea in the first place, and the problems that were inherent in adapting the book. Franco talks about how other versions of the book were 'primitive' and how his film is more faithful even than Coppola's take. He talks about the puzzling sequence with the dead birds and animals and why it's there. Harry Alan Towers also shows up here, talking about Kinski's work on the project though interestingly enough Franco discounts what Towers says about Kinski here. Franco seems to be really appreciative of Kinski's work here, referring to him as a good friend. All in all, this is a pretty comprehensive examination of the picture and those who made it, and fans of the movie and of Franco's work in general should be very pleased with this featurette.
Also worth checking out is an eighty-four minute recording of Christopher Lee performing sections of Bram Stoker's Dracula. This plays out with some dramatic background music and over top of a wealth of stills and promotional images from the film. Lee does a great job here, getting into character for a few different parts and reading the material with great enthusiasm.
Rounding out the extra features are a fairly extensive essay on Soledad Miranda by Amy Brown of Soledadmiranda.com, a nice still gallery of promotional material (twenty-four images in total) animated menus and chapter stops for the feature.
Despite the obvious flaws in the picture, Jess Franco's Count Dracula is an interesting movie with a great cast and some truly remarkable moments. The film has long been neglected on home video in North America but Dark Sky films has corrected that with this re-mastered release, providing fans the chance to enjoy the film in a very nice presentation and with a few interesting extra features as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.