Jacinto Molina Álvarez aka Paul Naschy is one of those horror genre figures who is passionately beloved by fans — deservedly so, in my opinion — and remains, alongside Jess Franco, perhaps the most well-known and prolific figure of Spanish genre cinema. As an actor, director, and screenwriter, he’s primarily known for his El Hombre Lobo (or Wolf Man) series, featuring the sensitive, tragic Waldemar Daninsky, a gentleman werewolf who longs to be put out of his misery, but who can’t seem to stay dead. The majority of these plots involve Naschy as a sympathetic monster whose salvation is dependent on the love of a woman, typically a virgin (though he happily has a number of dalliances with non-virgins).
An obsessive Universal horror fan, Naschy may have starred as his rendition of the Wolfman more than a dozen times (I believe more than any other actor in history), but he didn’t fail to explore other monsters and villains throughout his busy career: he took turns as a mummy, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (sort of), a zombie, Frankenstein’s monster, a warlock, serial killers, and so much more, effectively creating a one-man golden age of Spanish horror. Which brings me to Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973), recently restored in eye-popping detail from Vinegar Syndrome with an array of delightful extras. It should come as no surprise that Naschy would play a vampire at least once, that the plot of his vampire film would involve a hefty dose of romance, and that it would result in some sort of tragic conclusion.
El gran amor del Conde Drácula follows four young women — Karen (Haydee Politoff), Senta (Rossana Yanni), Marlene (Ingrid Garbo), and Elke (Mirta Miller) — who are involved in a carriage accident in the countryside near the Carpathian Mountains (like you do) and must seek refuge in an old, castle-like sanitarium run by the mysterious Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Paul Naschy). If you’ve seen even one Naschy film, you already know where this is going. One by one, they are captivated by his charms, despite being creeped out by the castle itself, and the girl who is the purest of heart, Karen, falls genuinely in love with Marlowe. As he gradually turns her unsuspecting friends into vampires, he has a much more unpleasant fate in store for Karen, but doesn’t know if he can go through with it because of the mutual feelings he has developed for her…
Scripted by Naschy himself, with some help from regular collaborators Alberto Insúa and Javier Aguirre, who also directed the film, this is yet another interpretation of Naschy as Byronic hunk and the cockamamie plot — which involves Dracula’s plan to resurrect his daughter and then maybe also his intention to marry Karen — has nothing to do with Bram Stoker’s novel. But, as all Naschy fans already know, his films often work despite themselves and are charming because of their flaws, and because of the obvious love that went into their production. The narrative non sequiturs add an element of surrealism that was such a mainstay of Spanish cinema in the ‘70s; this is no A Bell from Hell (1973) — though what is — but Naschy and Aguirre manage to throw plenty of surprises into the loose framework of Stoker’s beloved plot.
And like a lot of European vampire films from the ‘70s, this puts more of an emphasis on sex than horror and is one of the most explicit Naschy films; at least, there’s a hell of a lot of cleavage and some nudity (along with some of the weirdest nipples I’ve ever seen), though the emphasis is more on spooky erotica than full-on softcore sex. There’s some mild lesbianism, a fantastic whipping sequence, and the film makes any excuse to show blood running down a woman’s throat. The female vampires add a lot of atmosphere to the film, particularly moments where they wander through the foggy crypts in slow motion, wearing gauzy nightgowns. They perform a few convincing attacks, but are mostly dreamy, erotic creatures with some predictably silly fangs. The upside of restoring this film is that the lush atmosphere has improved by leaps and bounds, but it also draws hilarious attention to the cheap costumes. All four women look like they’ve been shopping in the Disney princess castoff section of a thrift store. And those nightgowns are frankly embarrassing enough that Jean Rollin is probably having nightmares about them somewhere in the afterlife. But there is, of course, something charming and endearing about their ridiculousness.
There’s also an odd level of restraint from Naschy himself and he avoids chewing the scenery with as much gusto as he does in my favorite of his films, though, ladies, don’t worry, the smarm is still there in full effect. His interpretation of Dracula is admittedly a bit strange — in the sense that he gets his ass kicked — and though I won’t ruin the conclusion for you, it has sort of a more extreme take on similar themes found in films that depict Dracula as a romantic hero, like Blacula (1972), the Frank Langella Dracula (1979), or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). As with nearly all of his films, he has trouble deciding if he wants to be the monster or the protagonist, which is part of his charm, even taking that abysmal cape into account; not even that would be enough to come between me and my devotion for Naschy (and his wardrobe as Marlowe more than makes up for it).
And last, but not least, are the film’s numerous nonsensical moments that I just can’t help but love, beginning right from the opening credits sequence. When two men break in and try to rob the castle’s crypt, they find an unpleasant surprise (also known as Dracula) and a fight breaks out, which results in a lengthy, slow motion tumble down a staircase. A tumble that repeats over and over and over and over for the entire credits sequence. It’s amazing. (And this is not the last use of that particular set piece or gag in the film.) And not to be outdone is a hilarious sequence when the young ladies go for a walk in the woods and Senta steps on a bear track, but can’t seem to decide if this is a life threatening injury or just a scratch. And if you’ve never seen what an actual bear trap wound looks like, I challenge you to Google it.
Whether or not you’re a Naschy fan — trust me, give it some time and you will be — this release is well worth picking up. Vinegar Syndrome have given the film the royal treatment and it looks better than it ever has (or arguably ever needed to). The special features are particularly astounding: in addition to the 2K restoration, an interview with Mirta Miller, a theatrical trailer, a still gallery, reversible artwork, and a booklet with an essay from Mirek Lipinski, it has — drumroll — the English dub and the original Spanish-language soundtrack (maybe I’m the only one excited about that, though) and a commentary track from Aguirre and Naschy. Yes, you read that right.
Its release a few weeks before Halloween makes it an essential part of this year’s holiday viewing and though it’s not quite on the level of one of my favorite Naschy films, The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973), which he also made with Aguirre, it’s one of those strange, campy efforts that seems to get more delightful with each viewing. And, considering the special features, if you’re a Naschy fan and you don’t pick this up, you’re an embarrassment to the rest of us. Although, Vinegar Syndrome, if you’d like to get me something for Christmas, a restored, special edition Blu-ray of The Hunchback of the Morgue film would be a fantastic gift and would make a great companion piece to Count Dracula’s Great Love. Just saying.