Close, but…

Jesus Franco’s “Count Dracula” (“El Conde Dracula”) was promoted as an authentic filming of Bram Stoker’s novel–and to an extent it is, taking budgetary restraints into account. The first portion of the film, which details Jonathan Harker’s experiences as a “guest” of Count Dracula, works fairly well. Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers deliver on their promise to star Christopher Lee to allow him to appear pretty much as Stoker describes him–hairy palms and pointed fingernails aside–and allow him to deliver some of Stoker’s dialogue. There is one unaccountable screw-up in which Harker’s room is adorned with a wall mirror and Harker seems not unduly alarmed by the fact that the mirror does not reflect the image of his host. But other things are presented just right. As Lee’s speaks we become aware of his enlarged canine teeth, but it’s treated as though it were a physical oddity and nothing more. When Dracula’s wives emerge from their coffins they are wraith-like and only gradually assume solid form, which is another nice touch. The business about the infant stolen by Dracula and given to the brides to feed on is also presented, probably for the first time in a theatrical feature.

One thing that works against Franco’s film is the existence of Philip Saville’s three-part BBC mini-series–also called “Count Dracula” which includes all of the above and more. The Saville version is clearly the most authentic version of the novel that we are likely to see, but its excellence has little to do with the merits or demerits of Franco’s film. (For one thing, Saville had a generous three-hour running time to tell his tale while Franco had just over 90 minutes for his.)

The real problem with Franco’s film begins after Harker’s dramatic escape from Castle Dracula by leaping through a window into the abyss below. Once the action shifts to a sanitarium/asylum outside London, the budgetary restraints really begin to bite. Dracula’s voyage to England on the doomed schooner “Demeter” is dropped completely. Harker, his fiancée Mina and her friend Lucy all have to be corralled into the asylum setting to facilitate the plot. Dr. Seward is demoted from the asylum’s owner and director to a mere staff member and, in another move to gather everyone under one roof, the asylum now becomes the property of Prof. Van Helsing, no longer a friend of Seward’s called in as a consultant.

It’s been suggested by critics and commentators that Franco lost interest in the project and that may well have been the case. From this point on things seem to proceed by the numbers, enlivened only by Klaus Kinski’s largely wordless interpretation of the asylum’s star patient Renfield. By the time that Dracula decamps for his homeland we’re definitely in the presence of a low budget movie. The gypsies trudging alongside the wagon bearing Dracula in his earth-box are a far cry from the fierce, heavily-armed galloping gypsies in the Saville version. There’s no real confrontation between those gypsies and Harker and Quincy (Holmwood having been dropped from this treatment) and the death of the Count is just plain bizarre. Rather than the staking and decapitation described by Stoker, Harker and Quincy simply set his earth box on fire. This is odd in that it was nowhere suggested than fire is fatal to vampires, but here, the flames cause the now-youthful Count to revert back to his aged self, then further deteriorate into a withered corpse, after which they unceremoniously dump the flaming box into a ravine–a rather undignified end for Stoker’s vampire-king, going out like a dumpster-fire.

Still, if we take unto account the film’s handicaps–the budget, Barcelona standing in for both Transylvania and England, the necessary compromises involved in turning an 1890s novel into a 1970s film–Franco didn’t do so badly. It’s a pity that Warner Brothers didn’t put a bit more effort into promoting the film, which apparently received only a limited number of theatrical showings and was subsequently used a tax write-off, a fate similar to that of another Christopher Lee film released by Warner Brothers in the early 1970s, “The Wicker Man.”

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