By 1969, Bram Stoker’s most celebrated creation had appeared in countless films, some loosely based on the novel from whence he came, some so wildly divergent that they almost beggar belief. Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), I’m looking at you. However, while Tod Browning’s 1931 version and Terence Fisher’s 1958 colour revamp did the job of defining the character for millions of moviegoers around the world, they were a long way from depicting the character as he appeared in the source material; as “a tall old man, clean-shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a speck of colour about him anywhere.” The window’s peak and dashing silk-lined cape of Bela Lugosi defined the look of the character and to a large extent they still do, with this likeness even today appearing on the covers of reissues of the novel and, of course, in the form of a million dime-store Halloween costumes.
That other iconic Dracula, Christopher Lee, had by 1970 played the character in three highly successful Hammer outings. As a time-served admirer and expert when it came to all things Stoker, the actor publicly proclaimed on several occasions that he desired to play the character “exactly as Stoker described him” in an adaptation of the novel exactly as it appeared on the page. Enter British producer Harry Alan Towers and ‘love him/hate him’ Spanish director Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco (born Jesús Franco Manera), who came to him with this very proposition. Lee had worked with both before on several occasions, including two slapdash but mildly diverting Fu Manchu sequels (’68 and ’69) and the sublime sleaze masterpiece Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970).
While the resultant opus would indeed allow Lee to represent the character visually as described in Stoker’s novel, it would also, like previous versions, take enormous liberties in its adaptation of that already somewhat broken-backed and awkward narrative. However, it would nevertheless be the closest yet, making it, as Donald F. Glut puts it in his 1975 The Dracula Book, “of extreme importance in the history of the Dracula film.” Sadly, it would also be, for the most part, a bit of a damp squib.
A Spanish/West German/Italian co-production, El Conde Drácula (1970) was filmed in Barcelona, Alicante and Munich with interiors shot at Barcelona’s Estudios Cinematográficos Balcázar. Scripted by Towers under his oft-used pseudonym ‘Peter Welbeck’, it opens, like the novel, with trainee lawyer Jonathan Harker (as played by Munich-born Friedrich Wilhelm ‘Fred Williams’ Löcherer) catching a train to Bistritz from Munich. A fellow passenger (not in the novel) is alarmed to hear who his client is: “Maybe you know him… Count Dracula.” Said fellow passenger’s face remains completely stony throughout this exchange, in time-honoured Jess Franco fashion, so his alarm needs to be communicated via another Franco mainstay; a clumsy zoom-to-close-up.
Despite this, the opening is reasonable enough, drenched as it is in psuedo-Eastern European atmosphere, just like its literary source. Although hampered by some unconvincing day-for-night shooting and German Shepherds standing in for wolves, the scene where Dracula’s carriage takes Harker across the mist-shrouded woodland of the Borgo Pass stands as one of the eeriest and best cinematic depictions of this iconic sequence.
Also of note, mostly for its fidelity to Stoker’s novel, is where Harker arrives at the castle and for the first time (knowingly) meets the Count (Lee, of course) for the first time. True to their words, Franco and Towers have allowed Lee’s appearance to be as described in the passage cited above, although, unlike in the novel, his eyebrows are not “very massive, almost meeting over the nose”, as they are described a few pages later. Soon after we have the pleasure of hearing the actor deliver a condensed, reordered version of the lengthy monologue from the novel in which Dracula speaks of “one of my own race who […] crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground.” Apparently, this was not in Towers’ original script. “I did at least manage to get a bit of one of the great speeches in,” says Lee in an interview with MJ Simpson, “because I insisted. And I did at least – and I think it’s the only time it’s ever happened – portray the character exactly as Stoker described him.” Not quite exactly, but certainly the nearest yet. For the first time in a cinematic version, Dracula appears younger as the narrative progresses, as he does in the later Francis Ford Coppola version.
According to Franco (interviewed in 1996 for the late, lamented European Trash Cinema), Lee was far from the warmest personality he’d ever worked with: “At first I thought he was a great professional, a very good actor, serious, knowing his lines perfectly; but, just like the Hammer films which he was often in, he was cold, he was distant, there was a wall between him and me. You know?” However, the British actor is kinder to the controversial and insanely prolific Spanish director, stating (in the M.J Simpson interview) that, “I think he’s under-rated, I’ve always said so, because he’s not just a hack director. It’s always a question of material; the same thing applies to actors.” Perhaps it was simply a case of cultural misunderstanding on Franco’s part – if any British actor could be said to embody the ‘stiff upper lip’ then Lee would be a prime contender.
As with many international productions of the day, the name stars were flown in for a couple of days; but not necessarily at the same time if the gaps in their schedules didn’t coincide exactly. It must be said that while Lom is a fine actor, his performance never rises above the merely serviceable here.
Making the cast even more impressive – at least on paper – is the presence of iconoclastic German nutbag Klaus Kinski, essaying the role of Renfield, billed above Lom. In another deviation from the novel, the character has no dialogue whatsoever, one suspects due mostly to the fact that, being no fan of Dracula or horror movies in general, Kinski was tricked into appearing in the movie by Towers and Franco, who slipped him a fake script bearing no mention of Renfield or the Count whatsoever. As one might expect, he’s suitably deranged in the role, insisting on eating real flies for added verisimilitude and looking like he’s having a whale of a time doing so. As Tim Lucas puts it (in Video Watchdog #121), “Unlike Dwight Frye, he doesn’t ‘play’ mad; he simply is mad.” Of course, Kinski himself would appear in Stoker’s milieu again, as the Count himself in Werner Herzog’s beautiful Nosferatu remake (1979) and Augusto Caminito’s bizarre-but-not-very-good psuedo-sequel, Vampire in Venice (Nosferatu a Venezia, 1988).
The usually pivotal roles of Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra are essayed by Maria Rohm (Towers’ wife, who had also appeared in Eugenie and The Blood of Fu Manchu) and tragic beauty Soledad Miranda (who would die in a car crash in the same year, aged 27) respectively, although in this version they seem to very much take a back seat to the male characters, becoming absolutely interchangeable in the process. Franco mainstays Jack Taylor and Paul Müller (also both Eugenie alumni) are present and correct, in the roles of Quincey Morris and Doctor Seward. However, Morris here is not the romanticised American we read about in Stoker’s novel; here the character has been merged with Arthur Holmwood / Lord Godalming, and Taylor, himself an American actor, is dubbed in clipped British tones. Seward has been similarly demoted, becoming simply an employee of Van Helsing, who is now director of the asylum instead of the eccentric doctor called in from Holland we remember from the source text. While such alterations are understandable in the name of narrative economy, here they do nothing to aid the film’s cause. The fact that ‘London’ looks unmistakeably Spanish doesn’t help either.
The Count’s famous passage to England on the Demeter is completely excised, presumably because the budget was already blown on Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. A scene from the novel that does make the cut, where our team of vampire hunters seek Dracula at his new home of Carfax Abbey, is nothing short of laughable, with Franco going zoom crazy on a collection of stuffed animals for reasons known only to himself, and the less said about the ‘opera scene’, the better. It’s appallingly handled.
The score from the often-excellent Bruno Nicolai is effective on occasion, with a pleasing mandolin motif, but is a little too repetitive to be really of note. The film is edited by another Bruno – the late Bruno Mattei, later to become infamous for the likes of Hell of the Living Dead (1980) and Rats: Night of Terror (1984). The film also suffers badly from a wet fart of an ending that has the titular villain far too easily despatched, although one could just as easily level this criticism at some Hammer outings. Ultimately, aside from a generally pleasing first 25 minutes and a great (if hampered) performance from Lee, Count Dracula emerges as an irreparably dull affair, a well-meaning but resounding failure. Franco’s ‘sexedelic’ Vampyros Lesbos, released in the following year starring Miranda and Müller, would be a hell of a lot more fun, and the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula (with Louis Jordan in the title role), although taking similar liberties, would be by far the superior adaptation of Stoker’s classic.
In Little Shoppe of Horrors #19, Colin Cowie fondly recalls viewing Franco’s film with none other than Terence Fisher himself at a convention: “When it finished he turned to Sue (Cowie’s wife) with a conspirator’s grin and said, “For the first ten minutes I thought, my God, it’s better than mine – and then I thought no it’s not!” And Fisher was right, of course. However, when Franco declares (in the ETC interview) that, “I think my treatment of the book is much more close to the spirit of Bram Stoker than Coppola’s”, in some ways, so is he.