Directed by: Jess Franco
Written by: Augusto Finocchi, Jess Franco & Harry Alan Towers
Starring: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, Herbert Lom & Fred Williams
Reviewed by: Brett H.
ďListen to them. The children of the night. What wonderful music they make.Ē
When I first heard that Christopher Lee was a veteran of Jess Franco movies, I did a double take. When it turned out that one film in question was a movie involving Count Dracula, I immediately sought it out. At the time the film wasnít easily available, but eventually it hit DVD courtesy of Dark Sky. Jess Franco is a very sexual and jaw-dropping filmmaker in his own right, but the idea of him making a straightforward gothic film is as queer as you can get. Itís important to point out that Jess Franco very much understands Dracula and does his homework as he knows the ins-and-outs of the character from the book to the Universal classic to Hammerís offerings. When Jess Franco did his version of Dracula, he decided to stick as faithful to the book as possible and the main attraction of his interpretation is the fact that Christopher Lee gets increasingly younger scene by scene as he begins to consume more and more blood. With this information in tow, itís time to once again take a journey to Transylvania by train with a young man whom horror fans know very, very wellÖ
Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams) arrives at his stop and spends the night before taking a carriage to the Borgoís Pass where he is to be met by a carriage sent by Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). He is expecting Harker as they have business to attend to involving a move to London he has decided to take after spending his entire life in his family castle. Superstition runs rampant and the locals fear for him, but Harker dismisses this poppycock and is wished good will from his coach before Draculaís carriage arrives to pick him up. Jonathan meets his chauffeur who wears scarf over his face who proceeds to take him to Castle Dracula. On the way, the howling of dogs is heard and they encounter a pack of them in the frothy fog. The masked man shoes them away as if by magic and they continue on their journey. Upon arrival, Jonathan knocks on a large wooden door, which is swimming in cobwebs as though itís not been touched in decades.
Answering the door is the grey haired Count who invites him in and shortly after, Jonathan notices that Dracula casts no reflection in the mirror. They have a short chat where Dracula lays out his fiery and expansive family history on the line. In doing so, he proudly and eerily informs Harker that the blood of Atilla runs through his veins. That night, Jonathan dreams that he is being attacked by a coven of female vampires who desperately want him for their pleasure before the Count sends them off. Jonathan Harker is Draculaís for the taking. The next day, Harker wakes up and realizes that he has bite marks on his neck and escapes from the castle, eventually winding up in Professor Van Helsingís (Herbert Lom) private mental clinic where he tells his story. An expert in the black arts, Van Helsing realizes Harker is telling the truth. Evil is quickly approaching, however, as the Countís new abode is just a stoneís throw awayÖ
Jess Francoís Count Dracula is very visual more so than lyrical and a bit dull, despite its attempt to be faithful to the original novel. Thatís fine, itís hard to compress a novel into a 97-minute film (especially on a budget), but what is a problem is when you donít take the time to develop the characters to the level they deserve. The actorsí eyes portray some great emotion, but I would have preferred it to have a bit more dialogue. The film features an all-star horror cast; other than Bela Lugosi, there is no better Dracula portrayer than Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom has the look and skills to be a very adequate Van Helsing. Even the supporting cast including Soledad Miranda and Jack Taylor put on a good show. The problem is the script doesnít always give them a chance to show it off, and as much as Christopher Lee is as good as ever (albeit he doesnít have nearly enough lines), genre veteran Klaus Kinski is absolutely wasted here in the role of Renfield, the insane bug-eating mental case that just may be my favorite supporting character of all time.
In Bram Stokerís novel and most of its adaptations, Renfield is a great connection between the Count and the protagonists. He is a frequent passer of information that not only advances the plot and builds interest, but also shows just how much appeal Dracula and his powers possess. Renfield is generally stark-raving mad and eats bugs for their blood, but in Jess Francoís Count Dracula, Renfield utters one word in the entire film. Legend has it that Klaus Kinski was crazy as a rat in a tin shithouse and I think Renfield had potential to be his greatest role. Instead, he is diminished into merely eating a fly (which was a real one!) as well as deviously capturing a dragonfly, showing much pride and accomplishment in doing so. Quite frankly, Kinskiís Renfield was the performance I was looking forward to most and I was really disappointed with the direction taken with the character, but Klaus still manages to make this boring Renfield a worthwhile spectacle. As a man who wanted to show emotion with his acting rather than say it with words, Kinski surely accomplishes this here. Christopher Lee is great as always, and hearing him utter quotes straight from the novel is incredibly pleasing, I donít think even the great Bela Lugosi could top him in that respect. The film maintains a solid gothic appeal with castles, bats, shadows and howls and in that respect it is as moody as any film out there. The Brides of Dracula are quite eerie when they emerge from their coffins and fade into existence in a dark basement that serves as Draculaís tomb. The stakings are fun (thereís even a nice splash of blood during one) and the ending strays from the book a tad, but itís forgivable.
The Dark Sky DVD is presented in its original full frame ratio with a good transfer that has a slight amount of grain and there is a bit of a blurring effect in one scene. The 2.0 mono track sounds nice as all the dialogue is easily heard, but in some scenes there is a bit of a hiss, which disappears in others. The special features on the disc include a Soledad Miranda essay, Christopher Lee reading Bram Stokerís novel for around 90 minutes accompanied by posters and stills from the movie and the main event is the great 26 minute featurette, Beloved Count. Franco speaks candidly about the various film incarnations of Dracula and Stokerís novel as well as an in-depth history of his film. Of special importance is his tragic telling of Soledad Mirandaís death in which he says she was on her way to sign a six film contract with him and died in a car accident during the commute. Jess Francoís Count Dracula features mediocre characterization vocally, but has to be commended and witnessed for portraying Dracula as he was originally intended. For that reason alone, it stands apart from so many classic-era Dracula fodder and is sure to get better with repeated viewings. Rent it!
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