Supposedly as Hammer’s Dracula films progressed, Christopher Lee began to detest them more and more. The scripts, as he claimed, never stood up to Bram Stoker’s novel. You get then why the idea of being in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula would appeal to him. Here, a filmmaker wanted to faithfully and finally adapt Stoker’s text into a film. Recruiting Lee, the most iconic Dracula actor since Bela Lugosi, to play the lead would be a major get. However faithful the film is (and there are still liberties taken), the final film falls short of both Christopher Lee’s best performances and the novel itself.
Count Dracula, for the most part, follows Bram Stoker’s novel. Young lawyer Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula. His hope is to secure his future success with the mysterious Count Dracula. Upon arriving, strange things occur around him until he learns Dracula is a vampire. He escapes the castle but only to learn Dracula now lives in London. With the help of Dr. Van Helsing, Harker must bring an end to Dracula’s terror before he kills Harker’s fiancée Mina.
All of this said Franco and his army of screenwriters don’t entirely adapt the novel. For instance, the filmmakers excise the sequence where Dracula slowly kills all the crew of The Demeter on his way to London. Not all of Lucy Westerna’s suitors make it into the film. Here she’s already engaged to Quincey Morris, who is British and not American. Klaus Kinski’s Renfield is almost an entirely different character. Dracula, as in most adaptations, only owns one residence and not two. Finally, Dracula’s death in the novel definitely does not involve the Count being set on fire and thrown off a cliff.
For what’s supposed to be a definitive adaptation, this is is very low budget affair. The best description is early 70s BBC production. A lot of night scenes were clearly shot at day for night. Probably the first film depicting Dracula getting younger with each victim, the old age make up consists solely of white hair. Dracula traveling as a bat is just a bat on a wire. The less said about a “rampage of attacking animals” at the end the better. For a director known for his exploitation films, Franco’s adaptation is a pretty bloodless affair. Still this production contains moments worth mentioning. The opening scenes set in Castle Dracula possess a dream like quality. Despite the low budget, Franco and his two cinematographers know how to cultivate gothic atmosphere. The brides awake one by one as if ghosts returning to life in a surreal optical effect. Klaus Kinski’s Renfield may say nothing but the legendary actor puts the much needed pathos into the film. His Renfield might be the most tragic one on film. Even the death of Dracula, as ridiculous as it is, shows the memorable image of Dracula decaying as he burn metaphorically burns in hell with flames superimposed on his face. They are few but the moments that work in here really do.
For someone who seemed key to finally portray Dracula in a faithful adaptation, Christopher Lee doesn’t seem particularly invested or bring anything of the novel in his performance. He mostly stands without emotion or moving in most of his scenes. He comes across as a little pissy in the Castle Dracula scenes but after that he mostly just haunts the proceedings. The only acting where he really commits happens when he feeds on victims. There’s brief moments of sensuality between him and Soledad Miranda right before he chomps her neck. Lee clearly wants to differentiate this from his work for Hammer films. However his performance in this lacks what made his Dracula for Hammer so unique. There’s none of the aristocratic or animal energy present in his Hammer performances. He still remains a striking physical presence but really that’s all he is here.
More than 50 years later, Jess Franco’s Count Dracula remains more a curiosity than essential viewing. The prospect of legendary exploitation director Franco collaborating with legendary Dracula actor Christopher Lee on a more or less faithful adaptation sounds like a promising idea of a film. The problem though is the end product, with a few exceptions, turns into a staid affair. Little life pulses through this film. The blood may be life but that also has to go into the filmmaking too.
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