Franco’s Count Dracula is the one to see they said. It’s a more faithful version of the original story they said. Okay maybe I’m being a little harsh, but just maybe. While it’s true that Christopher Lee actually gets to speak some of the dialogue that Bram Stoker wrote this time around, there’s more to whether this works or not than just counting how many of the scenes are lifted from the book. It’s marginally better than Lee’s other vampire movie from the same year at least; the title of Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula is definitely the best part. But the film in question here is kind of a mess. Some parts work, some are just bizarre, and there are all kinds of head scratching technical choices and mistakes included. Lee often complained about the sort of lines he got working with the likes of Terence Fisher, but I have to wonder if he was happy with the results here.
Well to get things started let’s take a look at the elements that actually work. Dracula gets to sport a moustache this time, kind of like the one described in the novel. He also slowly gets younger as the story progresses and he’s quenched his thirst. It’s a neat touch which provides a visual clue to his motivations, leaving a dead country for a new live one. Unfortunately most of the parts about the blood in his native home drying up have been dropped along with the whole London invasion plot, so I wonder why they tried at all. He does get to do a classic speech when Jonathan Harker first arrives … before basically vanishing for most of the story.
It’s true that later in the original text his activities were reported second hand with diaries and newspapers, but there isn’t even much of that here. But neither the classic plot structure and the star power assembled in the cast are used very well. The opening castle scenes do all work for the most part, and the woman in white plot is still here, but after the first twenty-five minutes things start to come undone. Renfield, Van Helsing and Lucy are all present and correct, sure. But in general the material either gets truncated or cut out in ways that make it all less far satisfying than it should be.
Like a lot of these adaptations many events are merged to form a briefer narrative. So Mina and Lucy are already visiting Dr. Seward … who’s already working for Van Helsing. It’s efficient at least. Lucy’s other romantic suitors are cut down to Quincy Morris alone. There are many choices like this and they’re nothing new, but other decisions are more odd. Dracula’s castle which is supposed to be stripped of mirrors has one left right in the open, just so they can get the old reflection scene over with quickly. Jonathan’s stay itself is greatly reduced so he can arrive back in London sooner, in the sanatorium where everyone else has conveniently assembled. It’s definitely London, not Spain, pay no attention to the local architecture.
Elsewhere it’s nice to see Herbert Lom cast as Van Helsing, and I was looking forward to his performance. What a great choice. However his ramblings about the ‘black arts’ are pretty strange and feel very out of character. In a scene where he is supposed to suddenly have a stroke (for some reason) he just begins staring right into the camera without any warning. It’s almost laughable because there’s no set up for his illness and the explanation doesn’t come until after when he’s recovered.
But I have to talk about these weird inclusions, the things that are memorable for all the wrong reasons. Once all the usual vampire hunters have figured out what is going on, they of course venture into into Dracula’s newly acquired home. Where they are of course assaulted by a bunch of taxidermy animals. What you were expected the man himself to confront them? Something ominous and dramatic? No, I’m afraid the Count stays somewhere else and uses his… magic powers. I don’t know. The result is that a bunch of stuffed woodland creatures make wacky sounds while they twitch and dance around on their mounts. Your guess is as good as mine at this stage, and the reactions of Harker and friends probably the same as your face reading this. Maybe this is some kind of vampire burglar alarm I’m unaware of.
Some of the technical aspects are also pretty peculiar. The director has an obsession with dramatic zooms which becomes apparent early on. They’re used many times throughout the movie, often during pretty unexciting conversations where no such drama is warranted. Just throw them in wherever, why not. He also has a total lack of care for continuity. Is it night or day? Wasn’t it dark just a few seconds before? Is that sunlight coming in from outside or has more time passed than it appears? Often this happens within shots of the same scene when the cameras change perspective. Day for night is bad enough, but at least it’s to be expected. This is something else entirely — a baffling new world.
Overall I suppose Lee is decent enough for what they actually have him doing, but like Lom it feels like a waste. To have these great adversaries played by such fine actors and not use effectively them is a crime. Interestingly Klaus Kinski plays Renfield in this adaptation, but this version is completely mute and the whole madman act is only passable. Of course he would later portray Dracula himself in Werner Herzog’s classic Nosferatu remake. Now there’s a vampire movie, one of the true greats. If you want an adaptation that does things a little differently but is actually engaging instead of just bemusing be sure to take a look.
In the end this has some mildly interesting parts and it’s sort of entertaining, though often for reasons other than quality. It al looks pretty cheap, and the story often feels rushed which drains it of any real sense of atmosphere and suspense. But perhaps for the curious it’s worth seeing just for some of this total madness, and for those who want to see how a Dracula movie outside the Hammer archives came together. For other more particular bloodsucker fans you’re better off seeing these actors elsewhere.