Director: Jess Franco
There's a line in a song which goes, "What a difference a day makes," and we could transpose that to the film medium and remark "what a difference picture quality makes." With the advent of DVD, a film can be channeled into a smooth, clear wonderland of delectable images and colors, overcoming immediately the dismal hints of such possibilities that were offered by previous video or TV incarnations and even theatrical showings. The difference between old and new mediums can be striking, invalidating old opinions and compelling new ones.
What does the above have to do with EL CONDE DRACULA, particularly as this film has only received one early DVD representation (from the Orient and reportedly of inferior quality) that is not under consideration here? Well, I can see the future of such a DVD, and the future is based on the recent Spanish video release of this title from Divisa, which I've watched for this review. Though the element used is not consistent, I've never seen this film awakened to such bright rich colors and dimensional textures. Even the theatrical showings in the States exhibited non-committal, dreary prints. Without doubt a DVD presentation, mastered from superior elements, will alter previous conceptions and enlighten. Up to a point, of course. We are dealing, after all, with Jess Franco's EL CONDE DRACULA, a steady disappointment to fans of horror, Dracula, Christopher Lee and, yes, even fans of Jess Franco.
EL CONDE DRACULA started as a high concept--relatively so, as we are speaking of a horror film made at the tail end of the 1960s when major studios did not pay much attention to the genre. The idea was to make a film that would be true to the Stoker novel and employ some of the best talents in horror to make this a reality. Christopher Lee, the Dracula of the time, was solicited, and guided by his dream of making a definite Dracula film, true to the Stoker novel, he accepted the role. Horror magazines reported the possibility of Vincent Price appearing as Dracula's nemesis, Van Helsing. This latter, tantalizing casting never happened, unfortunately, and the role was taken by Herbert Lom, a good actor but whose range was no match for flashiness and wicked undercurrent that Price could have brought to the role.
The choice of Franco as director, however, was a signal even then that something was amiss. Though he had secured a decent reputation beginning with THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF in 1961, by 1969 many horror fans were already familiar with the evolving sloppy journeyman aspect to Franco (and his growing need for using zoom shots), an aspect set in motion by such Harry Alan Towers productions as the final Fu Manchu pictures (THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU), which, though unwarrantedly savaged by critics, are perhaps Franco's worst films from the 1960s. That both Towers and Franco were to be the chief forces behind this film did not bode well for it, though a hopeful candle was burning. After all, assurances were made that the film would be true to the Stoker novel (not necessarily a good thing) and that Lee was going to be playing the title role with fidelity to the character Stoker had created, adorning his generally clean-shaven face with a droopy mustache and dying his hair white for a later, gradual transformation to black.
Once the film was seen, however, that candle was extinguished, to be used for a better day and a better film. Critics and fans were not kind, and thirty-plus years later certain deficiencies remain evident, despite the potent upgrading of the print element. Even one of the film's most lauded sequences, the coach ride to Castle Dracula, is marred by hasty decisions and mistakes. Jets of fake fog gush their streams unnaturally and obtrusively from the ground, the worst use of a fog machine (if that's what was responsible for those jets) I have so far seen in film. Furthermore, German Shepherds do not threatening wolves make. Adding to these distractions is the reflection of camera lights off the coach. More mistakes are to come, the worst being the on-screen shadow of a camera that follows Klaus Kinski in the tight space of his padded cell as he tries to memorialize a performance of the Renfield character. There are some outré theories of cinema that can dismiss these gaffes and turn them into pluses, but back in 1969 (or rather a couple of years later when the film received theatrical exhibition in the States) these very obvious errors elicited groans, and now they still remain disheartening, even on a small TV monitor.
The slipshod nature of the production becomes more evident when one begins to realize that several of the major actors probably never saw each other on the set, as they never share frames in the footage. Forget seeing Kinski interact with Lee: he just rants, raves, gazes wistfully out his padded cell, and eats captured vermin. He's there, does his bit, then he jumps out of a window and dies, never meeting the undead lord who commands him from afar. Herbert Lom shot his scenes separately from Lee, and although a false attempt is made to merge the two in one scene, the battling duo of Van Helsing and Dracula do not appear together in a single frame. Worse, the pivotal Van Helsing character is kept out of the action for the finale of the film, no doubt due to the budget deficiency of employing Lom for only a limited amount of time.
Many familiar faces highlight the landscape of this film, a who's who cast of Euro and Spanish horror, in fact: Soledad Miranda, Teresa Gimpera, Emma Cohen, Paul Muller, Jack Taylor, Fred Williams, Maria Rohm. Regrettably, Franco makes himself a part of his acting ensemble. As the coach-driver/servant, he is awful here: self-aware, perhaps appearing as an in-joke; his Spanish sensual face and body, already fleshing out with dissipation, can be perfect for a film like EXORCISM, but in EL CONDE DRACULA they are at odds with the crisp Victorian nature of the original source material. Perhaps Michael Ripper (or Victor Israel) was unavailable.
As for Lee's performance as Dracula, it is subdued and carries none of the melodrama that was invested in his Hammer outings as the Prince of Darkness. His interpretation here can be a commendable, if not brave, yet a part of me wishes, because of the overall lack of gusto of the film, that Lee had let himself loose and gone for, pardon, the jugular. He seems to be inhabiting another picture, one better suited toward his temperament and artistic goals. The Franco film, with its financially-induced sloppiness and lack of clarity and creative concentration, simply does not support his performance.
Which is not to say that the film is worthless outside of its performances. As with almost every disappointing film that Franco has made, there is something to be found within that exposes the natural talent of the man, some say his genius. This "something" is not the aforementioned coach sequence, but the few minutes in which Lucy (Soledad Miranda) is seduced by Dracula's coaxing voice to leave her room and meet him under dark archways of nearby building, while her concerned friend, Mina (Maria Rohm), follows her in secret. These minutes offer a superb, thrilling evocation of mood, sensuality, mystery, release and awe. Everything merges into brilliance here--Franco's atmospheric, instinctual direction, Manuel Merino's luminescent cinematography, Bruno Nicolai's insistent and hypnotic music. This sequence is so perfect that one nearly forgives the misguided rest and returns to these precious moments to imbibe in them as one would divine nectar and a sampling of a dream never meant to be.
Had this level of inspiration and skill been attained throughout, EL CONDE DRACULA would have been a masterpiece, and while the film is sprinkled with bursts of energy and inspiration (made more evident now in this glowing print), it lacks the creative filament and monetary resources that would have made the entirety memorable or, using a different operational basis, it lacks the freedom that Franco needed to let his personal obsessions take over. Indeed, Franco is not satisfied with the film precisely because he had to follow the source material, and rightly evaluates his subsequent foray into the Dracula myth, DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN (1971), as a much better and more personal work and, in an interesting bit of opine, Howard Vernon as a better Dracula.
Much better, too, is VAMPIR, the documentary shot by Pedro Portabella while EL CONDE DRACULA was being made. In stark black-and-white, the film is a non-judgmental cinematic journal and meditation on the Franco film and the dark Gothic world it attempted to inhabit. Most cherished are the behind-the-scenes views of Christopher Lee (we actually see him clown around and smile broadly a few times--he really seemed to be enjoying himself) and an end-bit of Lee reading a concluding passage from the Stoker novel in his dressing room. It is telling and sad that Lee's reading provides more thrills and artistic grace than much of the film that Franco was trying to craft from the meager resources at his disposal.
Bearing in mind what I've written, it may seem madness to say so, but I eagerly await a quality DVD presentation of this film simply on the basis of the new Spanish video release, which opened my eyes and my heart toward re-evaluating this film once again. It is a fascinating film, despite its major shortcomings. Commentary must be solicited from Lee and Franco before it's too late; bountiful supplemental material has to be added, to include the Portabella film; and an extra audio disc that features Lee's reading of key passages from the Stoker novel can at least make amends for the lack of solid, impacting Stoker material in the film. All this can be done. But who will do it? In the States, I think only Blue Underground has the capacity and passion for such a release. So do send your e-mails and letters.