I first watched Jess Franco’s polarizing EL CONDE DRACULA (aka COUNT DRACULA) ages ago when we did our tribute to Klaus Kinski – memorable here as perhaps cinema’s most tortured Renfield. And while that old Republic Video VHS tape wasn’t the greatest presentation of this admired and loathed adaptation of the Bram Stoker story it must have had some type of subliminal hidden message that made me remember it more fondly than it truly deserves.
One would expect that infamous Eurotrash scoundrel Franco would have a hell of a time with the Dracula legend, taking full advantage of the erotic, violent and overtly sexual nature of the tale. Surprisingly, Franco's 1969 feature starring an aristocratic-looking Christopher Lee as the Count, Herbert Lom as vampire hunter Van Helsing and the aforementioned Kinski is a surprisingly-restrained and frequently-faithful rendering of Stoker's novel, sans the blood and boobs that have been trademarks of the director’s over-analyzed career.
Opening in 1897 Transylvania (actually Barcelona), we’re introduced to young Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams) as he travels by train to meet up with a new client. When Harker shares the name of his client with his fellow passenger (“Maybe you know him, Count Dracula?”), Franco trots out the first use of his Power-Zoom, a technique ostensibly meant to convey drama and terror. Unfortunately, what it actually conveys here is an overwhelming hack-factor that I’d somehow overlooked – or didn’t want to admit to – during previous viewings.
Naturally, the villagers greet Jonathan with typical Old World superstition, and he must take a carriage to Drac's castle where he finally meets the titular Count. Regally portrayed by Lee, this Dracula is a far cry from his turns in the Hammer flicks that made him a household name to fright fans. Growing younger as the film progresses, this faithful representation of Dracula was reportedly what drew Lee to the project in the first place.
After discovering that his host is actually a bloodthirsty vampire, Harker escapes from the castle and makes his way back to London where he teams up with Dr. Seward (Paul Muller), Van Helsing (Lom, also in Franco’s 99 WOMEN) and Quincy Morris (trashfilm mainstay Jack Taylor in a performance so wooden I worried about dry rot) to battle the lord of the undead.
Admittedly, Franco does succeed in creating a surprising amount of atmosphere (at least for a Franco film), especially in a scene where three female vampires eye up Harker, only to have their attention diverted by the cries of an infant Dracula has acquired for them, and again when a vamped-out Lucy abducts a child from the park (only to end up on a milk canister I guess). Unfortunately, for all the goodwill that such flourishes engender, Franco has no idea how to handle the story’s long stretches where Dracula is absent and the flick suffers in without Lee’s presence.
As for Kinski, he delivers a memorable, moving performance in a role where he could have acted as loony as he wished. Those expecting a sniveling, over-the-top Renfield crawling at the Count's feet will be amazed at the surprising restraint that the actor brings to the part, and it works! I’ve watched a lot of Kinski flicks in my life and it’s hard to recall a role where I felt more sympathy for his character. One just wishes he had some interaction with Lee, who also co-starred with Kinski in the underrated krimi CIRCUS OF FEAR.
I’m disappointed that Franco’s ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Stoker novel didn’t live up to my memory. Though moody and carried by a couple memorable performances, EL CONDE DRACULA has to be considered a failure due to one of the least memorable endings in vampire film history, a Dracula that ends up being surprisingly easy to dispatch, stretches that strain interest not to mention credibility, and a lack of interaction from the best actors involved with the project.
While the Dark Sky disc delivers the best-looking version of the film we’ll probably ever see (gone is the green fireplace familiar to viewers of the cheapie VHS versions), it’s missing a dramatic scene of a tortured mother looking for her child.
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