I maintain that every actor who has portrayed Dracula on screen or stage since 1931 has had to act around Bela Lugosi's iconic performance. While purists may take issue with the Todd Browning-directed film's faithfulness to the Bram Stoker novel, there's no denying that Lugosi's Eastern European accent, intense stare, and elegant carriage have defined the modern image of the vampire. A close second in the Dracula Stakes* is Christopher Lee, who first appeared in the role in the 1958 Hammer production, "Horror of Dracula," portraying a more monstrous, physically intimidating version of the Count.
*I'm accidentally punning this early in my musings. This can only go downhill from here...
Neither of these depictions of Dracula truly mirror Stoker's vision, and it would take the polarizing genre director Jess Franco to create what's arguably one of the more faithful versions of the novel in his 1970 film, "Count Dracula." Allow me to start out by saying that "Count Dracula" has a dream cast: Christopher Lee appears in the titular role, Klaus Kinski plays Renfield, Herbert Lom plays Van Helsing, Soledad Miranda appears as Lucy, and notable Franco regulars round out the remainder of the roles. Alas, now is the time for administering the harsh smelling salts of reality, as I will tell you that this is a solid film that should have been a transcendently marvelous film--it never really achieves the promise of its potential.
One of the challenges of a screen adaptation of "Dracula" is the fact that it's an epistolatory novel (relying on letters, diary entries, and news clippings to construct its story) with a whole mess of characters (there are seven distinctive protagonists without the convenient kind of stalk 'n' slash structure that more modern stories of a similar nature usually employ) and a large number of settings (including a castle, a ship, a decrepit abbey, and several distinguished English sitting rooms). The structure just doesn't lend itself to a ninety-minute horror movie! The trick is finding what can be removed and what's inherent to the tension of the story. Franco's "Count Dracula" keeps the number of characters, though he casts them in slightly different functions, and maintains the majority of the settings, but the result is simultaneously cramped and oddly slow.
The movie starts out at a fine clip, spending its first thirty minutes on Jonathan Harker's arrival in Transylvania and his subsequent encounters with Dracula. As played by Fred Williams, Harker's transformation from practical man of the modern age to terror-stricken victim of vampires is one of the best depictions of the character. Harker's struggle to maintain his propriety in the face of Dracula's increasingly bizarre behavior works well in this film. Another element that stays true to the source material is Dracula's appearance--he sports facial hair that evokes woodcut portraits of Vlad Tepes, the historical inspiration for the character. As the film progresses, Dracula looks more hale and hearty (but never once does he sport the infamous "butthead updo" from the Coppola film, a decision for which I think we can all thank Jess Franco). Once Harker winds up back in England (under circumstances that are frankly not explained in the film), the remaining two thirds of the movie are set in the insane asylum run by Dr. Van Helsing and the characters' growing realization that Harker is not mad, and that vampires are not mythical creatures.
Significant portions of the movie are filmed on location in Spain, with the beautiful plazas, historical churches, and verdant landscape lending a sumptuous texture to the modest production. Seeing the period-attired characters walk through vaulted lobbies and pass under gothic arches adds a realness to the proceedings that's in contrast to the stagey (but no less magical) indoor sets of the Hammer and Universal movies. The costuming is adequate, though never stunning, but there are some wonderful surprises in the mise en scene, such as the vintage horse-drawn hearse employed during Lucy's funeral.
What's missing from the execution is the kind of clever camerawork that Franco displayed in his other films from this period. There are some crash-zooms and some fisheye lens, but otherwise the cinematography is straightforward and narrative. The most evocative camerawork occurs in the scenes in which Kinski's Renfield is shown acting out his largely-silent madness inside of a padded room. And really--you could pretty much just point a camera at Kinski and catch something interesting, so it's difficult to tell if the effectiveness of these scenes is more due to the skill of the actor or of the director.
Franco's Fu Manchu epics go off the rails into craziness, his female vampire tales are overwhelmingly erotic, and his earlier mad science films are stylish and provocative with their sexualize violence. Sadly, Franco's "Count Dracula" has more raw acting talent in its favor than all of those films combined, and yet it's not as compelling as any of them individually. It's just an incredibly literal film, pointing its attention at scenes and stitching them together to make a cohesive narrative. There's very little of the subversive joy that exists in Franco's best efforts.
Don't get me wrong--"Count Dracula" isn't a waste of time for vampire fans or for Eurotrash enthusiasts. In addition to the fun of seeing so many familiar faces in a single film, there are some truly bizarro moments. One tidbit not found in Stoker's novel that's added here is Dracula's fondness for taxidermy, and his ability to control said taxidermy with his vampiric brainpower.
It would've been great if "Count Dracula" was an unsung classic and I could unconditionally sing its praises. Sadly, though, its flaws outweigh its not-insignificant merits. It's an interesting take on Bram Stoker's novel, and makes a nice companion piece to the iconic Universal and Hammer adaptations, but in no way does it dethrone those superior films.