Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: COUNT DRACULA (1970)

(Italy/Spain/West Germany - 1970)

Directed by Jess Franco. Written by Augusto Finocchi. Cast: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Fred Williams, Soledad Miranda, Jack Taylor, Paul Muller, Franco Castellani, Jesus Puente, Jeannine Mestre, Emma Cohen, Jess Franco, Colette Giacobine. (Unrated, 97 mins)

He seems more at peace with it now, but for many years, Sir Christopher Lee openly despised his reputation as a horror icon, specifically his inextricable link with Dracula. Right on the heels of playing Frankenstein's monster in Hammer Films' THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957, 36-year-old Lee had his breakout role in the studio's HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), and while Dracula films only make up a tiny percentage of the now 92-year-old actor's nearly 300 credits over a storied and versatile career that's still trucking along in its eighth decade, it's indeed Dracula that will always be the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the name "Christopher Lee." After HORROR OF DRACULA established Lee as a bona fide horror star, it didn't take long for him to spoof that image in the 1959 Italian comedy UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, but he didn't actually reprise his Dracula role in Hammer's official series until 1965's DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. That was followed by 1968's DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and two films in 1970: TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and SCARS OF DRACULA. Lee was growing disillusioned with Hammer's Dracula films and the writers' refusal to stick to Bram Stoker's novel, instead concocting what Lee thought were absurd ideas that had nothing to do with Stoker's vision of the character. After resurrecting Dracula in mod, swinging London with 1972's DRACULA A.D. 1972 and 1973's THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, which had Dracula masquerading as a wealthy real estate mogul attempting to unleash a deadly virus upon the world, Lee reached his breaking point. By this time, he was openly bashing Hammer and the DRACULA films to the press and when Hammer announced a co-production deal with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers for THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, which would pit Dracula against a team of Bruce Lee-inspired kung-fu fighters, Lee refused to have anything to do with it and was replaced by a bland and ineffective John Forbes-Robertson. The film was eventually released in the US as THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, and marked the end of Hammer's DRACULA series.

Before his frustration reached critical mass, Lee did enjoy spoofing his Dracula image in cameos in the Peter Sellers-Ringo Starr film THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969) and in the Sammy Davis Jr-Peter Lawford post-Rat Pack comedy ONE MORE TIME (1970), the latter at the personal request of horror aficionado and Lee superfan Davis. Even after his acrimonious departure from Hammer's series, Lee would play Dracula one last time in the 1976 French comedy DRACULA AND SON, directed by Eduardo Molinaro, who would go on to make the 1978 smash LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. In addition to appearing in two Hammer DRACULAs in 1970, Lee also made a Dracula film outside of the studio, almost as an open act of rebellion. Lee had done several films with producer Harry Alan Towers and Spanish exploitation legend Jess Franco in the preceding few years, including five FU MANCHU films (Franco directed the final two) as well as the softcore porn outing EUGENIE: THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1970), a film in which Lee has maintained the racier elements were added after his scenes were shot. Lee was upset with Franco and Towers, but when they offered him a chance to star in a Dracula adaptation with the promise to remain faithful to Stoker's novel, the disgruntled actor couldn't resist.

To put it in era-appropriate terms, Lee making COUNT DRACULA in 1970 is akin to Sean Connery making a 007 film for a rival studio while still starring in the official Bond series. Shot in Barcelona, COUNT DRACULA is a low-key affair with a script (credited to Augusto Finocchi in the print on Dark Sky's DVD, though Franco and Towers worked on it, and the US ads gave sole writing credit to Towers, under his screenwriting pseudonym "Peter Welbeck") that takes whole chunks of dialogue directly from Stoker's novel. Dracula is even introduced as an old man who gets progressively younger as the film proceeds and he gets a fresh supply of new blood from his victims. Intending to sell his decaying residence, an aged Dracula is visited at his castle by young lawyer Jonathan Harker (German actor Fred Williams). Dracula promptly puts the bite on Harker, who escapes from the castle and is transported back to a sanitarium in London, where he's treated by Dr. Seward (Paul Muller). His situation attracts the attention of clinic head Dr. Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) as a spry and younger-looking Dracula has followed Harker back to London to buy a neighboring castle so he can stalk and vampirize his fiancee Mina (Towers' wife Maria Rohm) and her friend Lucy (Franco muse Soledad Miranda). Dracula has also established a psychic hold on crazed asylum inmate Renfield (Klaus Kinski), who lost his mind after his family had a fateful encounter with the vampire years earlier.

While staying generally faithful to Stoker in spirit, COUNT DRACULA takes some liberties in its execution, especially in the way it takes elements of the book's Van Helsing's backstory and transfers them over to Renfield. The film is very slowly-paced and, like most Franco efforts, budget-deprived. Many of the sets look like they belong in a high school play, with some interiors appearing ready to topple over at any second. At times, the cheap, sparse look of Dracula's castle adds to the sense of gloomy despair looming over the elderly vampire (a happy accident I'm sure, given Franco's track record). Elsewhere, dangling rubber bats are laughably phony-looking, the camera occasionally doesn't seem to be pointed in the right direction, and the day-for-night work is atrocious, with one scene taking place at night when it's obvious it was shot in the middle of a bright, sunny day. Lee underplays it for the most part, but you can see his commitment, especially in one epic monologue to Harker early on that's delivered directly into the camera in a way that only Lee can. Lee absolutely nails this long sequence ("This was a Dracula indeed!") and it ranks with the finest acting of his career.

Franco did some of his most professional work during his years with Towers, a veteran exploitation huckster who was great at corralling money to lure name actors who maybe weren't at their pinnacle of their career (like a visibly drunk Jack Palance in Franco's 1969 De Sade chronicle JUSTINE) or were just cool with whatever as long as the check cleared (Lee and Lom, the latter having just appeared in Franco's sleazy 1969 women-in-prison classic 99 WOMEN and would continue slumming in Eurotrash until Blake Edwards rescued him to reprise his role as the perpetually-flustered Dreyfus when he restarted the PINK PANTHER franchise in 1975). Towers managed to get Lee, Lom, and Kinski together for COUNT DRACULA, but the three headliners are never seen together and were never on the set with one another. Franco leaves a lot of the plot's heavy lifting to Harker and Lucy's fiance Quincy Morris (played by American expat and Franco regular Jack Taylor), while Lee, Lom, and Kinski only worked on the film for a few days each. Dracula and Van Helsing's sole scene together is shot in a way that makes it quite apparent Lee and Lom were not there at the same time. It's worth noting that there is the possibility that Dracula and Van Helsing were meant to interact more than they do--Lom was a last-minute replacement after Vincent Price backed out just before shooting began. Perhaps his hasty casting and limited availability necessitated changes, which may explain why Van Helsing doesn't even take part in the final ambush of Dracula, instead sending Harker and Morris to deal with it after suffering a stroke from which he's apparently recovered two scenes later. Kinski's Renfield never leaves his asylum cell, where he makes funny noises, smears food on the walls, and eats flies, which may have just been Franco filming Kinski's lunch break. As an actor, Kinski only interacts with Muller, Franco Castellani (as an abusive guard) and, for one scene, Rohm, who's said that Kinski initially refused to appear in a Dracula movie and Towers had to convince him that his scenes were for another project. According to legend (and Rohm, who perhaps embellishes somewhat but it's still amusing and, considering Kinski's volatile personality, quite plausible) when Renfield attempts to choke Mina, Kinski had his hands around her neck and whispered "Maria, I think that husband of yours has me in a fucking Dracula film." Interestingly, Kinski would star in two Dracula adaptation years later, with Werner Herzog's NOSFERATU: THE VAMPYRE (1979) and its unofficial sequel, NOSFERATU IN VENICE (1988).

Even with its flaws and cut corners, COUNT DRACULA is an unusually ambitious project for Franco and Towers, and one that makes a good pairing with the same year's THE BLOODY JUDGE, released in the US in 1972 as the misleading NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER (it would be 1973 before COUNT DRACULA managed to find a US distributor). THE BLOODY JUDGE is obviously inspired by Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL, itself ripped off in 1969 with the West German tongue-ripper MARK OF THE DEVIL, starring (wait for it) Herbert Lom, but like COUNT DRACULA, it features one of Lee's best performances as puritanical Judge Jeffreys, yet another in a long line of impotent, sexually-frustrated witchfinders taking their penile inadequacy issues out on accused witches and assorted wenches, harlots, and other undesirables of dubious moral standing. Both films catch Franco just before 27-year-old Soledad Miranda's tragic death in a car accident would, for better or worse, completely alter the course of his career. Franco could hold his own as a journeyman gun-for-hire, but he was starting to explore his auteur impulses, which usually meant plotless fever dreams and constant crotch-zooms, an artistic shift that would reach its apex when he met his next muse and eventual life partner Lina Romay. There's a fine line between auteur and perv, and as Franco aged into the emeritus raconteur phase of his career in the years before his death in 2013, his work was reconsidered as that of a legitimate trail-blazer and cinematic genius. I'm not entirely onboard with that--there's some interesting films there in his post-Towers dive into horror erotica, but a large chunk of it is clearly the work of an often sloppy filmmaker who just had a fond appreciation for naked women.  Not that there's anything wrong with that...

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