Count Dracula AKA El Conde Drácula AKA Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Severin Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (14th December 2015).
The Film

Although it fell short of being the truest adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, Catalan enfant terrible Jess Franco's Count Dracula is to fans and critics either a triumphant (if imperfect) or sad conclusion to the collaboration between Franco and globe-hopping, tax break-finding producer Harry Alan Towers (who scripted under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck) which was preceded by Marquis de Sade: Justine, The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Castle of Fu Manchu, the trend-setting women in prison film 99 Women, Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, Venus in Furs, and The Bloody Judge. The first thirty-odd minutes of the film is fairly faithful to Stoker as London solicitor Jonathan Harker (She Killed in Ecstasy's Fred Williams) travels to Transylvania to close the sale of a long derelict London property (rather than Whitby's Carfax Abbey in the novel and most adaptations) to Count Dracula (Horror of Dracula's Christopher Lee) despite the warnings of superstitious locals (including The Bloody Judge's José Martínez Blanco as a fellow traveler and Nightmares Come at Night's Colette Giacobine as the innkeeper's wife). He finds himself a prisoner of his host – after the obligatory mirror scene and "children of the night" speech – and the prey of the count's brides (two of which are Let Sleeping Corpses Lie's Jeannine Mestre and Al Otro Lado del Espejo's Emma Cohen). The film starts to diverge form the source with Harker's escape from the castle as he subsequently ends up in the clinic of Dr. Van Helsing (A Shot in the Dark's Herbert Lom, later a Towers regular) outside London where much of the film is set since it is across the lawn from Dracula's new old home and Harker's fiancée Mina (The Vengeance of Fu Manchu's Maria Rohm) arrives with her friend Lucy (Franco's subsequent first muse Soledad Miranda). Once Dracula puts the bite on Lucy, her fiancé Quincey Morris (Succubus's Jack Taylor) – an English gentleman in the mold of the novel's Arthur Holmwood who does not appear here rather than the novel's clichéd Texan – is summoned to her bedside. After Lucy dies and comes back as a vampire, Van Helsing slowly realizes that the vampire Count Dracula is responsible, and the men race to destroy him before he can make Mina another of the undead. In a movie unto himself is future Nosferatu the Vampyre Herzog-headache Klaus Kinski as fly-eating mental patient Renfield (in scenes shot in Italy while the rest was shot in Spain) who has a psychic link with Dracula because of a previous encounter with the vampire that left him insane and his daughter dead.

While there is much to savor for the converted Franco fan (and those of us who saw this film early on as a Dracula film without prior knowledge of the director), Count Dracula may seem a cheap (dodgy make-up, papier-mâché stones, German Shepherds in place of wolves), zoom-ridden, sloppy vampire film despite the respectability the actors try to bring to it (particularly Lee playing Dracula as depicted in the novel rather than filtered through the Hamilton Deane play and Tod Browning film). Cinematographer Manuel Merino (Horror Rises from the Tomb) and Franco start with some elegant compositions but pan and zoom the camera through extended takes for maximum coverage during the rushed shooting schedule (Lee shares the screen with Williams, Miranda, and Rohm but never Kinski or Lom). As prolific as Ennio Morricone – for whom he conducted many of his scores throughout the sixties and early seventies – Bruno Nicolai (All the Colors of the Dark) aids the atmosphere of the authentic locations with a mix of lush orchestral and atonal pieces. Kinski and Miranda are equally effective as passive victims of the vampire turned aggressors while the rest of the cast gets by respectably (later Franco regular Paul Muller has little to do as Dr. Seward, and even less to do as Seward without Van Helsing in Franco's Vampyros Lesbos). The problem is that Franco just was not interested in a faithful adaptation (and less so as the money ran out once Lee's scenes were finished). While Count Dracula was in post-production (without his involvement), Franco would mount Vampyros Lesbos in Turkey for prolific German producer Artur Brauner (Europa Europa) with Miranda's vampire countess and Ewa Strömberg's (The College Girl Murders) estate agent/seduced victim two of the many inversions of vampire and Dracula tropes Franco would undertake in the film (daylight dwelling vampires, a modern seaside villa in lieu of a moldering castle, kites instead of bats, fishing nets in place of spider webs, scorpions substituting for wolves), with the exploratory moves of Merino's camera suited to the looser scripting and accompanied by the psychedelic scoring of Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab (augmented by cues by Nicolai and jazz musician Franco himself in the tamer Spanish cut). This star vehicle for the mesmerizing Miranda lead to a handful of subsequent collaborations with Franco cut short by her tragic death in a car crash before she was to be signed by Brauner to a multi-film contract.

Video

Count Dracula first arrived on VHS stateside courtesy of NTA Home Video who were distributing the Republic Pictures library. This was followed up by a sell-through edition from Republic. Dark Sky's American DVD release featured a brighter and more colorful fullscreen master but it was problematic in other respects. Licensed from Italian owners Variety utilizing a French print under the title Les Nuits des Dracula but Italian credits, this version lopped off the opening build-up of the title sequence and music and was also missing the sequence in which a mother tries to get into the castle to get back her baby which the count has taken to feed his brides. The Italian opening and closing credits were also riddled with Italian quota names of people who either did not work on the film or only worked on the Kinski sequences shot in Italy (cinematography credit is given jointly on French and Italian prints to Merino and Luciano Trasatti (who shot Antonio Margheriti's And God Said to Cain with Kinski just before) while the German version gives quota credit to Erich Kröhnke (also credited in some prints of Towers' 1974 version of Ten Little Indians and the Welbeck-scripted What the Peeper Saw). Kröhnke may have written the German dialogue, and he is also credited wth the story on the French and German prints while the script is credited to Augusto Finocchi (Yellow: Le Cugine). Future sleaze auteur Bruno Mattei (Zombie Creeping Flesh/Hell of the Living Dead) is credited with the editing on the foreign versions and likely performed this task since post-production was performed in Italy. The uncut version was available on DVD in Spain, but from an extremely old tape master in Spanish only (a Japanese release was English-friendly but apparently only ran seventy minutes). A two-disc edition popped up in Germany restoring the missing footage from a German master which also included the German title sequence animation. An optional English audio track was included but the extras – including a commentary track by actor Williams and a thirty-three minute 8mm abridgement – were not subtitled.

Severin's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed transfer is sourced from an Italian master but it features newly-created French-language credits with some errors ("Jack Tailor") that may originate with the French credit sequence. It didn't take much for Dark Sky's DVD to improve on the Spanish disc, and the same can be said for Severin's transfer which features more naturalistic skintones (while revealing some of the artifice of Lee's make-up, the younger make-up looking more ridiculous than the old age make-up), revealing the spun sugar cobwebs lurking in the corners and foregrounds of every shot in Dracula's castle, the tinting of the day for night scenes is better judged (though never convincing), and the fog-shrouded scenes of Harker waiting for Dracula's coach look as they should with the fog actually on the set rather than a horrifically smudged lens as it did on the Dark Sky at times. The missing scene with the mother has been included here from a 16mm Spanish print and is in poorer but acceptable quality. While the new transfer does not make the film look any less low-budget, it does convey more of cinematographer Merino's touches in the lighting and framing beyond the zooms and occasional camera shadow. Although the film was licensed from Italian owners Variety Communications, the newly-created opening and closing credits are in French although it does not appear to have been a master prepared for the French (where it was released in both French-dubbed and English-language/French-subtitled versions) since the translated credits cite the Italian version's dubbing facilities.

Audio

While it would have been nice if Severin had included the Spanish track with subtitles as an extra, the sole audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono English track which is workable since Lee and Lom dubbed themselves and the other actors spoke English on the set. The track is uneven thanks to the compositing of audio for the missing scene but generally quite clean with the piercing strings of Nicolai's score given a bit more presence than the more operatic passages.

Extras

Extras start off with an audio commentary by actress Maria Rohm, moderated by David Del Valle. They take a little time to establish a rapport with Rohm proud but initially defensive of Towers' career and Del Valle racing to couch the film in the history of Dracula screen adaptations and his theories of the allure of vampire cinema. In discussing the faults of the film, Del Valle contextualizes them in terms of how the film was highly anticipated for purporting to be the most faithful screen adaptation, the opportunity for audiences to see Lee playing Dracula outside of his Hammer Films (in which he had been increasingly relegated to cameo status despite top billing), and the opportunity for Lee to perform Dracula as written. Rohm discusses her husband Towers' beginnings in radio (including the Harry Lime radio series with Orson Welles with whom Franco later worked on Chimes at Midnight), his interest in literary properties including the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels and Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (which he adapted three times in 1965 in Switzerland by George Pollock, the aforementioned 1974 version in Iran by Peter Collinson, and 1989 in South Africa by Alan Birkinshaw for Canon) in addition to De Sade and Oscar Wilde (with the Massimo Dallamano swinging seventies update The Secret of Dorian Gray). Having been married to him for forty-five years until his death – during which he produced at least ninety films – she conveys Towers' disappointment with how his big ideas at the scripting stage shrunk with the budgets and how he hoped to do better with "the next project" and then the next after that. She also discusses her relationships with the cast and is diplomatic when discussing someone she did not connect with, as well as working with Kinski (who she considered suing for libel for statements he made about a relationship between her and Venus in Furs/The Secret of Dorian Gray co-star Margaret Lee). Del Valle discusses interpretations of the Stoker novel gleaned from The Annotated Dracula scholar Leonard Wolf, Lee's aspirations to be a theatrical actor (and how his style differed from that of Vincent Price, Franco's lack of interest in a "straight" telling of Stoker's novel (the lack of eroticism and gore was a demand of the distributors) and how Vampyros Lesbos represented his interpretation of the tale.

Ported over from the Dark Sky DVD are the featurettes "Beloved Count" (26:22), an interview with director Jess Franco, and "Christopher Lee reads Bram Stoker's Dracula" (84:06). Franco discusses his working relationship with Towers and his admiration of Lee. He reveals that Towers was concerned that the audience would lose interest in the film during Dracula's monologue about his heritage. Franco and Lee decided to film it even if it might end up cut. He also refutes Towers' anecdote about tricking Kinski into doing the film by convincing him it was not a Dracula film only for the actor to reveal the jig was up during the scene in which he was strangling Rohm's Mina (Franco suggests that Kinski was well-read and savvy enough to realize what he was working on even without any dialogue to give it away). A Conversation with Jack Taylor (9:59) finds the American-born actor (who went to Mexico after a brief appearance on The Jack Benny Show and then to Spain) discussing how Franco was a big part of his career despite only doing ten films with Franco as director. Taylor does not go into his behind the scenes work for Franco as set decorator and dialogue coach, but it is mentioned in Handsome Harker (26:14), an interview with actor Williams who is less charitable (but perhaps pragmatic) about his impressions of Franco and Towers but more than a little ungallant in his anecdote about Rohm. The interview includes footage from a 2004 reunion with Franco and Lina Romay (whose relationship parallels the creative one between Rohm and Towers). Stake Holders (7:32), an appreciation of Jess Franco's Count Dracula by French director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf), is no hollow tribute à la Tarentino or Eli Roth. The filmmaker enthusiastically conveys his admiration for Franco and the film, describing how Franco's love of jazz translated into an interest in "filming music" rather than scenes with Kinski as a musical instrument rather than an actor. A series of alternate title sequences is also included. The German sequence (1:35) features the blood-dripping animated title card Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht while the French sequence (1:23) is the one we are familiar with from the Dark Sky DVD with the Les Nuits des Dracula title and Italian credits. The Italian sequence (1:35) features the same content but the presentation card appears over the action rather than on black and the title card reads Il Conte Dracula in red. The Spanish sequence (1:34) – obviously taken from the Spanish DVD – is the title sequence that most American and British viewers saw (albeit with English credits) starting with a slow build-up of the score and separate cards for Lee, Lom, and Kinski. The included German theatrical trailer (3:08) is subtitled in English.

During the shooting of the film, Spanish experimental filmmaker Pere Portabella was on the set covering the shoot but, rather than compiling the footage into a standard making of, he created Cuadecuc, Vampir, a shuffling of footage avant-garde enough to suggest what Franco himself might have preferred in an adaptation (and filmic storytelling in general as his subsequent films would reveal). To the rhythms of jazz, lush orchestral pieces, atonal instrumentations, and musique concrete, alternate angles of scene in production as captured from Portabella's camera as well as behind the scenes preparation (including the application of make-up and spun-sugar cobwebs), the actors (including Lee) mugging for the camera, and the presence of more lighting instruments and crew than one expects to find on a Franco film (actually the later ones, since the Towers and earlier productions were low budget but more conventionally crewed). The film also reveals the more baroque architectural features of the location used for the interior of Van Helsing's asylum than seen in the film (since a different exterior is used), the artifice of some sets built at the Estudios Cinematográficos Balcázar, more impressive views of Queen Isabella's Segovia Castle used for the interiors of Castle Dracula (the exteriors were second unit footage of a French castle), and more coverage of third bride Cohen than one sees in the finished cut. The only spoken audio on the track comes at the end as Lee discusses Dracula's death as depicted in the book and reads the relevant paragraph. The titles (newly created but directly translated from the original ones) erroneously cite the film as a Hammer production while the El Proceso might be a Welles in-joke while disguising the production from publicity or it may just be left over from the earlier Towers/Franco/Lee/DP Merino collaboration The Bloody Judge, the Spanish title of which was El proceso de las brujas. Long unavailable apart from grey market offerings, Cuadecuc, Vampir became available simultaneously in France and Spain in an English-friendly twenty-two film, seven DVD complete works sets of the director's works (from boutique labels Blaq Out and Intermedio, respectively). The Cuadecuc, Vampir disc (with its two short films Play Back and Acció Santos) was also released separately by Blaq Out. The HD master used for this release is available here (66:15) as a substantial extra. Although 1080i (the timing is in line with the PAL-sourced bootlegs and suggests that film might have been shot at 25fps for European television or at least mastered in 1080i50). Severin will also be releasing the Portabella film separately on DVD-only, but the Count Dracula Blu-ray release is the only way to see it in high definition.

Overall

Despite some minor annoyances that some fans of the film and Franco completists may find maddening, Severin's package seems more than definitive.

 


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