Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jess Franco does good!

Count Dracula (1970) (aka "The Nights of Dracula" and "Night: When Dracula Awakens")
Starring: Christopher Lee, Fred Williams, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda, Maria Rohm, and Klaus Kinski
Director: Jess Franco
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The immortal vampire Count Dracula (Lee) leaves his Transylvanian home for the fresh hunting grounds of London, preying upon women connected to his attorney, Jonathan Harker (Williams).

There is little question that Jess Franco is a hack of small talent. Even at his best, he ends up showing off how inept he is as a director, producer, what have you. So, to say that "Count Dracula" ranks among the very best of Jess Franco pictures sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise.

I am not, however. "Count Dracula" not only ranks among Jess Franco's best pictures, but it should be counted among the most faithful adaptations of Stoker's "Dracula" that has ever been committed to film. (In fact, the only one I've seen that's more faithful is John Johnson's oddly titled "Alucard"... which I just discovered I never posted a review of. I'll have to fix that ASAP.) Although it appears to be based on the stage play rather than novel, as was the famous Bela Lugosi flick for Universal 40 years earlier, this film captures the tone and intent of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" with far greater accuracy than the Lugosi vehicle or the film from Francis Ford Coppala that falsely passed itself off as "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

Christopher Lee is especially excellent in this film, portraying Dracula as the coldhearted, barely human maniac that he should be portrayed as--a being where humanity is a badly maintained mask that is barely skin deep. There is no romance surrounding this Dracula... only evil. Franco promised Lee that he would get to play Dracula as Stoker wrote him, and Franco was true to his word... Lee even gets to deliver the "children of the night" lines word-for-word, and with greater power than any other film actor before or since. The only complaint I can level against Lee's grand performance is that he comes out of the starting box a little too strong. The film maintains the creepy bits from the novel where Dracula gets younger as he feeds on the life-force and blood of innocent young English women, but the viewer doesn't get the full impact of Dracula's rejuvenation, because the transformation from old to young is little more than a make-up job, because Lee plays Dracula the same way.

Another shining performance in the film is delivered by Soledad Miranda. She literally commands every scene that she's in, being not only beautiful but also possessed with immense charisma. And when she goes from victim to vampire, she shows that she can be cute as easily as she can be creepy. It is one of film history's great tragedies that she was killed in a car accident on literally the very day when she was going to sign the contract that would have been her big breakthrough. If she had lived, perhaps even Jess Franco would have left a less foul legacy, as Miranda seems to be the common element between some of Franco's best pictures; the five-picture deal Miranda was about to sign would have seen Franco come along as the director on the films.

As for the rest of the cast, there isn't much to say other than that they showed up, they did their lines, and no one embarrassed themselves. Herbert Lom is an okay Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski is a decent Renfield, but everyone else is perfectly forgettable... including Fred Williams' bland Jonathan Harker. (In fairness to Williams, though, anyone would look bland in comparison to Lee's Dracula in this flick.)

With the actors being excellent to okay, and the film being as faithful-as-can-be-excepted adaptation of "Dracula" within an 100-minute running time, why am I only giving it an Average rating, you might ask? Well, that's because despite everything that's good about the film, it is STILL a Jess Franco production.

Like most Franco films, he is working with a budget that is very small. And like most Franco films, Franco doesn't appear capable of judging where the money is best spent, or he is incapable of devising ways to hide the lack of budget. For example, when Terrence Fisher did his "Dracula" in 1958, the final battle between Dracula and the vampire hunters was completely revised to reflect the limitations of budget and production realities. Franco, doing a more faithful rendering of the source material couldn't be as radical as Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster, but a more skilled director and manager could have devised a better solution than fake boulders being dropped on horsemen in a badly staged stunt sequence... and he certainly could have done better than the tragically anti-climactic demise of Dracula at the very end. (It's not only lame, it's barely within the "faithful" zone.)

The bonus features on the disc contain an interview with Franco that sheds a little light on why the ending to the film is so weak, but it really boils down to bad management on his part. That said, the interview also shows how committed he was to making this film, and, despite my describing him as a hack, gives me respect for him and this film.

The Franco interview is one of those rare DVD extras that is actually more than just filler... it's worth the time it takes to sit through. The same can be said about the dramatic reading of a condensed version of "Dracula" by Christopher Lee that's also included, as well as the essay about Soledad Miranda. All in all, the bonus features on the "Special Edition" disc that formed the basis of this review add real value to the package.

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