Monday, February 13, 2012

1969 - Jess Franco's Count Dracula

Italian Poster for Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1969)

We know the story.

The young lawyer, the sinister nobleman, his mad acolyte, one woman in danger, one woman dammed and the old man with secret knowledge who leads the war against the dark.

In 1969 director Jess Franco took his turn at the well, with Count Dracula, a dark and violent adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, which advertised itself as an exact version of the original, though of course, it isn’t anything of the kind.

Christopher Lee is simply ferocious as Dracula, obviously relishing the material which gives him far more character development and to be blunt, things to do than in the majority of his Hammer films appearances as the Count which by this point had devolved into what were a series of extended cameos in his own films.
Christopher Lee as an old but still scary Dracula in Count Dracula (1969)

With a fantastic supporting cast including the great Herbert Lom as Van Helsing and an as always scenery chewing Klaus Kinski, who of course would go on a few year later to make his own mark as the count in Herzog’s brilliant remake of Nosferatu,  as Reinfield, Franco gives us a take on the story that goes its own way, while still managing to capture some of the best moments from Stokers book.

Klaus Kinski as Reinfield, Count Dracula (1969)

The early sections with Harker inside of Castle Dracula are familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Dracula movie, with the scared peasants, the creepy castle and the hot vampire babes. But Lee’s Dracula, even as the old man he appears to be in the early parts of the film, carries himself like a tiger, ready to pounce at any moment, but having some fun first, calmly playing with his food. At one point Lee gives a wonderful speech about what it is to be a member of the family Dracula and why even though he is so very old he is still ever restless.

It's just not a Dracula film without his brides

Actually early on Dracula gets several great little monologues where Lee gets to demonstrate that as an actor he is so much more than red glowing eyes and bared fangs. It’s obvious every time that Lee is on screen that he has something to prove and to his credit the actor succeeds marvelously.

The story veers off from Stoker when Harker after escaping from the castle finds himself as a patient inside of Dr Van Helsings insane asylum, under the care of the good Doctor Seward. Of course no one believes him at first about Count Dracula, even his fiancĂ© Mina and her friend Lucy, played by Franco’s muse, the tragically short lived, Soledad Miranda, think Harker is mad, everyone that is but Van Helsing, who seems to recognize the name of Harker’s monstrous Count.

Another patient at the clinic, a Mr. Reinfield has taken to eating bugs and other small creatures that he can get his hands on. Erratic and completely mad Reinfield seems to be waiting for something or someone and his bug fetish clearly has something to do with it.

A somewhat younger Dracula, again Christopher Lee, Count Dracula (1969)

One evening soon after arriving, in a scene that would be echoed years later in Coppola’s version, Mina follows, her friend Lucy as she wanders off into the night, and after walking forever through a series of old ruins, finds her collapsed and unconscious on the ground after seeing for just a split second what appears to be a middle aged man with bloody red eyes caressing the girl.

Soledad Miranda as Lucy in Count Dracula (1969)

Joining the group Lucy’s fiancĂ© Quincy Morris, here an Englishman instead of the American from the book,  gives the ill woman a transfusion of his own blood, but a transfusion isn’t enough to stop a creature of the night like Dracula and that night Lucy invites the Lord of the Undead into her room, leaving the girl at deaths door.

The next night obeying his masters call Reinfield attempts to escape from the asylum, breaking the bars from his window and leaping several stories below. While everyone is distracted looking for the escaped lunatic, Dracula calls on Lucy for a final time.

Christopher Lee, Count Dracula (1969)

With Lucy dead, Van Helsing finally tells everyone what he had suspected, that what they are dealing with is a vampire. When Van Helsing tells the group that Lucy must have a stake driven through her heart they react with revulsion and horror.

Lucy finds a victim, Count Dracula (1969)

But Van Helsing is right, Lucy rises, now also a vampire and murders a little girl

Herbert Lom as Van Helsing, Count Dracula (1969)

Van Helsing convinces Morris and Seward to go to Lucy’s tomb where they find an empty coffin. The trio lie in wait and when Lucy arrives back just before sunrise they trap her in her coffin, stake her and take her head.

Lucy in her tomb, Count Dracula (1969)

As Lucy died, a severely injured Reinfield, back in his cell had a seizure but then at least temporally freed of the Count, he tells Seward where they can find the Counts resting place.

Reinfeld and Seward, Count Dracula (1969)

Now convinced that everything Harker has said is true, the young lawyer joins the group in their pursuit of the Count, and Harker. Morris and Seward head off in pursuit of the Vampire King, while Mina goes to speak to Reinfield. However while the vampire hunters are off on their quest, Van Helsing suffers from a devastating stroke, that leaves him severely weakened and confined to a wheelchair.

When Harker, Morris and Seward arrive at Dracula’s London estate they find no sign of the Count, only a collection of mounted hunting trophies, that begin to come to life and attack the trio, who flee for their lives. As they leave we see Dracula standing in the distance watching, young and vigorous.

 Dracula also orders Reinfield to kill Mina who is inside of his cell, but the madman finds the strength to resist, sending Dracula reeling in pain.

Mina and Reinfeld, Count Dracula (1969)

Dracula now turns his attentions to Mina and begins to feed on the young woman making her into his newest servant. Fortunately the others quickly figure out what is going on and redouble their efforts to destroy the Count.

As Morris and Harker begin making their way toward Transylvania with the plan of heading the vampire off before he reaches his castle, the count arranges passage back home on a boat owned by a group of shady characters. With his passage set and the night left before the ship sails, Dracula heads to Van Helsings clinic where he confronts the doctor and after mocking his weakness, attempts to attack Mina.

A now young Count Dracula, Christopher Lee, Count Dracula (1969)

But Van Helsing is a tricky old bird and he repels Dracula with a burning cross he has set up in the floor. Having failed in his attempt at vengeance, Dracula flees to the ship and begins his journey home.

Unfortunately for Dracula, Harker and Morris are already there and after killing his undead brides, the pair make their way down the Borgo Pass in an attempt to head the vampire count off before he can reach the safety of home.

After a hard chase and with the sun quickly setting in the distance, Morris and Harker find the gypsy band carrying Dracula’s coffin back to the castle, and after a quick battle the two set the coffin on fire trapping Dracula inside and burning the undead creature to ash.

Dracula meets his end, Count Dracula (1969)

To the casual viewer Count Dracula has quite a bit in common with the Hammer horror films being made at the time, mostly starring none other than Christopher Lee. The sets are huge and spooky the costumes are perfect for their period, the girls are beautiful and the blood flows. But with its German, Spanish and Italian actors and crew, Count Dracula feels much more European then the Hammer films.

Now there is nobody who loves Hammer films as much as I do, but in their later era they did have several films come out that were a little too cheap and a little too quickly made and the lack of quality showed. Companies like Amicus and Tigon stepped in to a degree with their take on British horror, but for a time in the late 1960’s Hammer itself was in a rut.

Which is why this movie is so much fun to watch.

Shot on a very low budget with almost no special effects and very little actual gore, Count Dracula still manages to succeed in almost every level.

Cheers to director Jess Franco, for making a film filled with marvelous performances all around and especially for giving one of the great screen Dracula’s a chance to BE a great screen Dracula.

Above is the scene where Dracula and Van Helsing meet. 

Two actors having a ball, enjoy.