Title: Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970)
Director: Jesus Franco
Cast: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda
When you read about Christopher Lee’s work on the Hammer Dracula films, you get the idea that he didn’t really like working on them, from his comments and reactions, you get the impression that he was never really happy with the final product. Lee’s main concern was that none of the films he made with Hammer were faithful adaptations of Bram Stokers book. He’s also gone down as saying that the dialog written for him was so atrocious that he refused to say the lines. Still, he went on to play the character on countless occasions for Hammer films. But for all his bitchin’ and moaning about these films, I think he is the best Dracula ever and I also think most of those Hammer films were excellent horror films; save for Dracula 1972 A.D. (1972) which I think was a failed attempt to bring Dracula to the modern age; but all other Hammer Dracula films? Pretty much exquisite for me, I love the old school atmosphere in them.
Out of all those Hammer Dracula films, the only one to attempt an adaptation of Stoker’s book was the first one they ever made: Horror of Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing. For all its twists and turns with Stokers story, Horror of Dracula ended up being a decent adaptation of the book, it hits all the important moments and the resulting film was a truly effective horror film, with some really memorable images. All other Hammer Dracula films played within the universe that Stoker created, but never tried to be an adaptation of the book, they were kind of like sequels that played with the idea of Dracula coming back from the dead, in every single film! But what Christopher Lee always wanted was to be a part of a truly faithful adaptation of Dracula, so when Spaniard filmmaker Jesus Franco proposed the idea of making a Dracula film that was faithful to the book, Lee accepted. How did it turn out? Was it as faithful as Franco promised?
In my opinion, this Jesus Franco version of Dracula deviates just as much as any other version of Dracula, but with one added ingredient: boredom. I don’t know what it is about Jesus Franco’s style of filmmaking, but I just find his films to be incredibly dull. This was my main problem with this film, and by the way, many other Jesus Franco films suffer from this ailment; check out Oasis of the Zombies (1983) if you don’t believe me. I mean, here are films with premises that beg for something interesting to be made yet end up being boring anyways, and I chalk it all up to Jesus Franco’s style of storytelling. Here’s an example. The good guys open up a coffin to kill Dracula’s vampire brides, the brides see the good guys holding a stake and a hammer up in the air and what do they do? Do they fight their way out of the coffin? Do they fight for their lives? I mean, can’t they see that someone is about to put a wooden stake through their hearts? Apparently not, because all they do is lay there in the most peaceful manner, waiting to be hammered to death. I mean, Franco just didn’t bother doing something exciting or interesting. Now, I can take a slow paced movie, for example, I enjoy Jean Rollin’s vampire films because even though they are slow paced, they compensate with the beautiful imagery, the composition of the shots, the visual poetry or the shocking proceedings. But not so with a Jesus Franco film, well, at least this particular one which crawled at a snail’s pace.
I compare Jesus Franco to Jean Rollin because they both have a similar ways of making films: they both shoot in real locations, they very rarely use sets, they’ve both dabbled in porn and they are used to working with modest budgets. Actually, they even worked together on some films, but where Rollin surpasses Franco is in the sheer artistry he infuses his films with, he can make a low budget film look better simply because of the way he composes a shot. Franco is just dull, dull, dull. I’ve yet to see more Jesus Franco films, but so far, he hasn’t impressed me much. This is not to say that this Dracula film is a total waste of your time. I did like the fact that they shot a lot of the film in real castles, the cast is actually pretty impressive. What kept me watching this one till the end was my interest in seeing what twists and turns Franco would bring to his version of Dracula because this is the one delight of watching the same tale told by a different director, each gives their film their own flavor. Sadly, one of the things that distinguishes this version is how cheap it looks. For example, there is this one set they built in which Reinfeld is held captive, that is supposed to look like a padded cell in a looney bin, but I swear to god it looks like they made it with cardboard paper; completely unconvincing. You can have Klaus Kinski giving it his all as a silent version of Reinfeld, but the fake padded cell takes you out of the movie! Sorry!
On the dvd features Jesus Franco says he doesn’t like the Hammer Draculas because “they didn’t take the subject matter seriously” but how can he say that when his film is filled with paper cut outs of bats hanging from strings to give us the “illusion” of flying vampire bats? I truly hate this about old vampire films, when they use the fake bat hanging from the strings trick, it just looks too freaking fake! Even for a low budget movie, this is inexcusable for me! Arrrgh! And Franco uses that cheap trick so much on this film. It’s so lazy, so unconvincing, this was yet another element that completely took me out of the movie. Sure Christopher Lee can deliver a good performance as Count Dracula, he plays it really serious for the most part, but then that seriousness fades away when he transforms into a fake bat hanging from strings. It’s kind of insulting to have these actors delivering their lines with such candor, and then having cheap sets or cheap props. Here’s another example: there’s this scene where the good guys throw this giant bolder at Dracula’s coffin, when it hits the ground you can just tell the rock is made of paper mache or something! It’s actually kind of hilarious, unfortunately, it breaks the illusion.
On to the cast which is good. Too bad they couldn’t be in a better production! Christopher Lee has got his Dracula performance down flat, by the time he did this one; he’d already played Dracula around three times for Hammer! The one thing that is different about this Dracula is that he speaks a whole lot more than on any Hammer film. I’m guessing he agreed to say the lines because they are taken mostly directly from the book, a luxury he never had with the Hammer films. Klaus Kinski plays Reinfeld, which is kind of appropriate considering Kinski was apparently, according to Franco and also according to German director Werner Herzog, truly insane. So it was fitting he played the bloodthirsty, and demented Reinfeld. The strange thing about this version of Reinfeld is that he played it completely silent! So on this film we get a talkative Christopher Lee but a silent Reinfeld! How ‘bout that! Finally, the other stand out performance was Herbert Lom as Professor Van Helsing, he delivers, what is in my opinion the most solid performance in the whole movie. Too bad they are all in such a dull movie, there’s no tension on this thing! And save for a few minutes in the opening where Dracula picks up Jonathan Harker at Burgo Pass, there’s not much atmosphere on this one! It’s a Dracula movie sans atmosphere! Sans horror! Sans all the things that matter in a Dracula movie; so I guess now I know why this film is not as popular as all the other Dracula adaptations. It’s just not very engaging. It hits all the important beats required of a Dracula adaptation, only in a really dull manner, so if you want to venture into this particular version of Dracula, just be ready for a slow paced film.
Rating: 3 out of 5