International Horror Review: Count Dracula (dir by Jess Franco)


Christopher Lee played Dracula in seven horror films and he often said that he hated almost every single one of them.

Christopher Lee, you have to understand, was a fan of Bram Stoker’s original novel and he always wanted to play Dracula the way that Stoker wrote him, as a member of the old nobility who got younger each time he drank blood.  As Lee often explained it, he spent years vainly trying to convince Hammer to do a Dracula film that was faithful to Stoker’s novel but Hammer instead preferred to use Dracula as an almost generic villain, one who was frequently plugged into equally generic films.

At some point, in the late 60s, producer Harry Alan Towers approached Christopher Lee and asked him to play Dracula in a non-Hammer film about the world’s most famous vampire.  At first, Lee refused.  If he was bored with playing Dracula for Hammer, why would he want to play him for someone else?  However, Towers then explained that his version of Dracula would be the first Dracula film to actually be faithful to Stoker’s book.  In fact, along with the presence of Christopher Lee, that would be the film’s major selling point!  Hearing this, Lee agreed.

The resulting film was 1970’s Count Dracula, a German-Spanish-British co-production that was directed by none other than Jess Franco.  Jess Franco, of course, is a beloved figure among many fans of Eurohorror and a bit of a controversial filmmaker.  Some people admired him for his ability to direct atmospheric films while spending very little money.  Others complained that Franco’s films were frequently amateurish and narratively incoherent.  When it comes to Franco, both camps can make a compelling argument.  Personally, I tend to come down on the pro-Franco side of things, particularly when it comes to the films that he made with Towers in the 70s.  For his part, Christopher Lee said he enjoyed working with Franco and they would go on to collaborate on several more films together.

So, what type of film is Jess Franco’s Count Dracula?  Well, Towers did not lie to Lee.  For the most part, Count Dracula remains faithful to plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  There’s a few minor differences, of course.  A few characters are combined, which is understandable given that you sometimes need a scorecard to keep up with everyone in the novel.  The ending is a bit more abrupt in the film than it is in the book.  This probably has something to do with the fact that Franco ran out of money before he finished the film.  That was a fairly frequent occurrence on Franco’s films.

That said, film sticks close to the novel.  Jonathan Harker (Frederick Williams) goes to Transylvania and meets Dracula (Christopher Lee, with a mustache), an aging nobleman.  Harker soon finds himself being held prisoner in the castle, a victim of Dracula and his brides.  Though Harker does manage to escape (though not before finding Dracula asleep in his coffin), he ends up at a psychiatric hospital in London.  He meets Dr. Seward (Paul Muller) and Prof. Van Helsing (Herbert Lom).  Eventually, his fiancee Mina (Maria Rohm) and her best friend, Lucy (Soledad Miranda, who was Franco’s muse until he tragic death in a car accident) come to visit him.  Accompanying Lucy is Quincy Morris (Franco regular Jack Taylor), who, in the film, is a combination of two of the novel’s characters, Quincy and Arthur Holmwood.  Meanwhile, a madman named Renfield (Klaus Kinski) babbles about his master and eats bugs.

That said, while the story may stick close to Stoker, this is definitely a Franco film.  The action plays out at its own deliberate pace.  Depending on how much tolerance you have for Franco’s aesthetic, you’ll find this film to be either dream-like or slow.  Personally, I liked the amospheric images and the somewhat ragged editing style.  Whether it was Franco’s intention or not, they gave the film a hallucinatory feel, as if one was watching a nightmare being dreamt by Stoker himself.  At the same time, I can imagine others getting frustrated by the film and I can understand where they’re coming from.  Franco, with his habit of mixing the sensual with a deep sense of ennui, is not for everyone.

Still, it was interesting to see Lee giving a much a different performance as Dracula than he did in the Hammer films.  The Hammer films portrayed Dracula as being animalistic, driven by only his craving for blood.  In Count Dracula, Lee plays with the idea of Dracula being a relic of the old world, someone who has no choice but to watch as civilization changes around him.  While Dracula is undoubtedly evil, Lee plays him with hints of dignity.  Gone is the snarling and growling monster of the Hammer films and instead, this movie features a Dracula who takes an almost Calvinistic approach to his affliction.  He’s accepted his fate.  As he tells Harker, Harker can either choose to enter the castle or not.  In the end, it makes no difference because eventually, someone will enter.  The film also retains the idea of Dracula growing younger in appearance as he drinks blood, which adds a whole other dimension to Dracula’s cravings.  Blood is life and youth, two things that Dracula no longer possesses.

As for the rest of the cast, Klaus Kinski, not surprisingly, throws himself into the role of Renfield.  Reportedly, he ate real bugs for the role.  Herbert Lom seems a bit bored with the role of Van Helsing.  He doesn’t have any of the eccentric energy that we typically associate with the role.  Of course, some of that is due to the fact that, because of scheduling conflicts, Lom and Lee were never on set at the same time.  The scenes where Dracula and Van Helsing confront each other were created through some editing sleight-of-hand.  As is typical with Franco films, sometimes it works and sometimes, it’s extremely obvious that Lom wasn’t actually looking at Lee (or anyone other than the cameraman) when he delivered his lines.

Count Dracula is an interesting take on the story.  It’s a bit uneven, though that’s perhaps not a surprise considering that the production was apparently beset by budgetary problems from the start.  This film is Franco at his least lurid and it’s hard not to miss some Franco’s more sordid impulses.  Watching the film, you get the feeling that Franco was holding back.  But, the visuals are wonderfully dreamy, Kinski is compelling in his insane way, and Lee finally appears to be enjoying the role of Dracula.  It’s actually kind of nice to see.

International Horror Review: A Virgin Among The Living Dead (dir by Jess Franco)


This 1973 Spanish-French-Italian production’s title is both its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness.

On the one hand, it’s impossible to forget a title like A Virgin Among the Living Dead.  It’s a title that mixes both horror and sex, which are two things of which audiences simply cannot get enough.  On the other hand, this is a a Jess Franco film and the title — which is so blatant and over-the-top — sounds like it could almost be a parody of Franco’s “unique” style of film-making.  If you were coming up with a fake Franco film, you would probably give it a title that sounded a lot like “A Virgin Among the Living Dead.”  A Virgin In The Castle of Dr. Orloff, perhaps.

Interestingly enough, Franco absolutely hated the film’s title.  It, and quite a few other titles, were slapped onto the film by distributors who were apparently unconcerned with the fact that the film was not meant to be one of Franco’s typical, give-me-my-paycheck exploitation films.  Franco’s title for the film was Night of the Shooting Stars, which is a bit bland but perhaps also a bit more honest.  Incidentally, the film was also released under the titles Christina, Princess of Eroticism and The Erotic Dreams of Christina, which again were titles that Franco disliked.

In the version I saw (and, admittedly, there’s several versions floating around), it’s never even stated that the film’s frequently unclothed protagonist, Christina (Christina von Blanc), is a virgin.  When compared to the other decadent members of her family, she certainly is innocent.  For instance, she doesn’t drink blood or engage in strange purification rituals.  When the cheerfully cynical Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon, because this is a Franco film, after all) plays a waltz while another member of the family is dying upstairs, Christina is properly shocked.  But, at no point, is Christina identified as being a virgin.

In fact, Christina is rather uninhibited, nonchalantly greeting strangers (and a rather creepy servant, played by Franco himself) in her underwear, sleeping naked in a room with an unlocked door, and later casually skinny dipping in a nearby swamp.  (When she’s informed that two wide-eyed townspeople were watching her from a nearby hill, she shrugs it off.)  Perhaps she’s meant to be an Eve-like character, unaware of sex or her nudity until she eats from the tree of knowledge.  Am I giving too much credit to Jess Franco?  As is often the case with Franco, it’s hard to say.

As far as the film itself goes …. well, the plot isn’t always easy to follow.  Christina has come to her family’s ancestral home for the reading of her dead father’s will.  Her father hanged himself and, though he’s dead, he keeps showing up.  Christina immediately discovers that the other members of her family are collection of rogues, eccentrics, and blood drinkers.  She also eventually learns that all the members of her family are the living dead and that they’re all worried that Christina will make them leave the estate.  Or are they?  Is Christina just dreaming all of this or is it really happening?  Is the Queen of Night really coming to claim everyone’s soul or is that just a part of Christina’s hallucinations?

A Virgin Among The Living Dead features all of Franco’s usual directorial quirks.  The story rambles.  Franco alternates between scenes of surreal beauty and scenes of almost indifferent framing.  At times, the score is hauntingly ominous and then, at other times, it sounds like it was lifted from a 70s porno.  Christina comes across as being a beautiful blank but Howard Vernon is memorably perverse as Uncle Howard and all the members of the family are amusingly decadent.  For once, though, all these quirks work to the film’s advantage, creating a surreal dreamscape that truly does seem to exist in a land between life and death.  A Virgin Among The Living Dead truly does become a work of pure cinema, one in which the the visuals and the mood become the narrative as opposed to the film’s story itself.

Franco may have hated the title that was slapped on it but this is actually one of his better films.  Unfortunately, how you react to the film will probably depend on which version you see.  There are several floating around, some of which feature hardcore inserts that were filmed by other directors.  There’s another version that features extra zombie footage that was filmed by Jean Rollin.  The Redemption Blu-ray features Franco’s cut of the film, with no hardcore or extra zombie footage.  That said, the scenes that Rollin shot are included as an extra.  Personally, I like Rollin’s zombie footage but, at the same time, I can also see how its inclusion would have destroyed the film’s already deliberate pace.

(And, of course, it goes without saying that I’m opposed to producers inserting extra scenes into any film, especially when that footage wasn’t directed by the original director.)

Anyway, A Virgin Among The Living Dead never reaches the existential heights of Female Vampire but it’s still one of Franco’s “good” films.  Even if he did hate the title….

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #34: Nightmares Come At Night (dir by Jess Franco)


nightmarescome2big For the past two weeks, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 126 cinematic melodramas.  Embracing the Melodrama Part Two started in 1927 with a look at Sunrise and now, 33 reviews later, we’ve finally reached the 70s.  And what else can I say about that other than to exclaim, “Yay!”

Seriously, a lot of good films were released in the 1970s.

We begin the 70s by taking a look at a film from the iconic and (to some people) infamous Spanish director Jess Franco.  Over the course of 54 years, director Jesus Franco Manera was credited with directing 203 films.  In all probability, the workaholic Franco directed a lot more than he’s been credited with.  As I wrote about Franco in my previous review of Female Vampire: “Among critics, Franco is usually either dismissed as a total hack (and/or pervert) or embraced as the living embodiment of the auteur theory.  Though no one’s quite sure how many films Franco has directed, Franco himself has estimated that he’s directed more than 200 films and, for the most part, he has financed and distributed them all on his own.  Franco has worked in every genre from thriller to comedy to hardcore pornography, but he is probably best known for directing low-budget, occasionally atmospheric erotic horror films.”

Now, I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about using a paragraph from an old review in a new review.  (And, as you may have noticed, I reviewed Female Vampire before Franco passed away in 2013.)  But, then again, it feels somewhat appropriate because Franco was famous for and unapologetic about taking bits and pieces of old and unfinished films and inserting them into new films.  That’s certainly the case with his 1970 film Nightmares Come At Night.

Nightmares Come At Night opens with Anna (Diana Lorys) living in an atmospheric mansion with her lover, Cynthia (Colette Giacobine).  Anna is haunted by frequent nightmares where she sees herself killing strange men with a spear.  Cynthia arranges for Anna to talk to an enigmatic doctor (Paul Muller).  Anna tells the doctor about how she was once a famous erotic dancer until she met Cynthia.  At this point, we get several lengthy flashbacks of Anna dancing in an oddly desolate club, all of which adds to the film’s ennui-drenched atmosphere.

Talking to the doctor doesn’t do Anna much good and she continues to have her nightmares except now the nightmares also seem to feature men giving lengthy monologues.  It soon becomes obvious that the neurotic Anna is being held as a virtual prisoner in the house by the dominating Cynthia.

(It’s a bit like a Lifetime movie, except everyone’s naked for 85% of the film’s running time.)

Meanwhile, we occasionally get shots of two people staring out of an unrelated window.  Eventually, we realize that they’re supposed to be Cynthia’s neighbors.  One of them is played by Franco’s frequent muse, Soledad Miranda.  (Miranda would tragically die in an automobile accident in 1970.)  Anyone who is familiar with Franco’s work will immediately notice that Miranda’s look in Nightmares was later duplicated by Lina Romay in Female Vampire.  The neighbors are obsessed with Anna.  As the film progresses, we discover that, when not looking out the window, they spend most of their time lying on a filthy mattress.  At one point, the camera zooms in for a close-up of the graffiti that’s been written on the wall over the mattress.

LIFE IS ALL SHIT, it reads.

To a certain extent, it’s pointless to say that Nightmares Come At Night is a disjointed film because almost all of Franco’s films were disjointed.  That’s actually what gave even the weakest of his films an odd and memorably dreamlike feel.  But Nightmares Come At Night is even more disjointed than usual.  That’s because Nightmares Come At Night was made out of a mix of footage shot for other films.  The scenes with Soledad Miranda were for an earlier, unfinished film.  Those scenes were combined with the footage of Anna, Cynthia, and the doctor.  The end result is a film that doesn’t necessarily much sense but you still have to admire Franco’s refusal to let any footage go to waste.

Ultimately, as with so many Franco films, Nightmares Come At Night is less about plot and all about atmosphere.  This is a film that is full of ennui and existential decadence.  It’s not one of Franco’s best films but, much like last year’s underrated California Scheming, it’s a bit of a minor existential classic when taken on its own terms.

(Please note: the trailer below is mildly NSFW.  Watch at your own risk.)