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.