Here at BOF, we extend the warmest of birthday greetings to Maria Towers, who has been a good friend of this site, and to mark the occasion, Madame BOF and I welcomed the excuse for our umpteenth viewing of Count Dracula (1970). Directed by the prolific Spaniard Jesús (aka Jess) Franco, this is our favorite, at least among those we’ve seen so far, of the eight films she—as Maria Rohm—and Franco made with her then-future husband, producer Harry Alan Towers (1920-2009). The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is credited to Harry’s Peter Welbeck pseudonym, and despite various artistic and financial compromises (e.g., Franco casting himself as Van Helsing’s servant, presumably to save a salary), it is one of the most faithful ever filmed.
Why this admittedly imperfect film doesn’t have a better reputation is beyond us, if only because it allows Christopher Lee more screen time and a more faithful interpretation of the Count—with some authentic Stoker dialogue—than his concurrent Hammer series. Herbert Lom adds one of the screen’s better Van Helsings to his roster of famous genre characters (e.g., Captain Nemo, the Phantom of the Opera), and future Dracula Klaus Kinski, although largely mute, is suitably intense as Renfield. Maria and the ill-fated Soledad Miranda are lovely as, respectively, Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra, for whom we named our shelter cats, and supporting players Paul Müller (as Dr. Seward) and Jack Taylor (as Quincey Morris) are accomplished genre veterans.
Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams) travels to Transylvania to arrange the sale of a London property to Dracula, who sees a photo of his fiancée, Mina, and her best friend, Lucy. After an encounter with Dracula’s wives, which he at first believes to be a nightmare, Harker learns he is a prisoner, until he escapes his locked room through a window and finds the Count asleep in a sarcophagus. Horrified, he plunges into the river below, but when he is fished out near Budapest and taken to Dr. Van Helsing’s clinic outside London—which, unknown to him initially, is adjacent to Count Dracula’s new home—the delirious man is considered by Van Helsing and Dr. Seward to be as loony as their fly-eating patient, Renfield…and then Van Helsing spots those bites on his neck.
Lucy accompanies Mina when she arrives to care for Harker, but soon falls victim to the Count’s attentions, and despite a transfusion from her fiancé, Quincey, she dies, only to rise again and kill a little girl. After staking and beheading Lucy, the vampire hunters finally track down Dracula’s London lair (where they are, oddly enough, menaced by stuffed animals), yet the Count—always one step ahead of them—has already put the bite on Mina, whom Van Helsing protects in a brief face-to-face confrontation, and fled to Varna aboard the Czarina Catherine. Traveling overland, Quincey and Harker reach Dracula’s castle first, and having disposed of his wives, they are ready and waiting when the gypsies arrive with the Count, who is at last destroyed in his box of earth.
Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I last read the original (which I did to compare it with the Richard Matheson version for my book), but I’ve read it several times—it’s actually my favorite novel—and I’m certain those who, like Wikipedia, say this took “huge liberties with the plot” are in error. Okay, Seward’s supposed to have his own clinic, rather than working in Van Helsing’s, but they’re friends and end up working together, so where’s the harm? Okay, Arthur Holmwood is subsumed into Quincey Morris, but we really don’t need one more vampire hunter, and I don’t think it was until Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) that all three of the characters who proposed to Lucy the same day in the novel, including John Seward, were actually depicted in the same film.
There are some oddities, like the decision to give Van Helsing a mild stroke midway through the film, which places him temporarily in a wheelchair, and to have Dracula incinerated in his coffin instead of staked, but these do not strike me as insurmountable. In exchange—and in addition to a fine score by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai that lingers in the mind—we get a Count who at first appears with gray hair and then grows younger as he feeds, just as in the novel, plus the rare pleasure of hearing Lee deliver his speech about the proud history of the Draculas in his commanding tones. Let us not forget that Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958) and Matheson’s 1974 version both turn Harker into a vampire, which most certainly did not happen in the novel.
The Dark Sky Films Special Edition DVD of Count Dracula curiously omits one scene, in which the mother of the baby whom Dracula feeds to his wives pounds on the gate to demand its return, only to have the Count summon his wolves to devour her. The sequence appears in the old VHS release from Republic, which I’ve kept for that reason, but the Dark Sky version is so superior in every other way that it is a veritable revelation after the crappy picture quality in prior television and home-video prints. We can only hope that their pristine version (which has some interesting extras but, alas, no audio commentary; Maria would certainly have been a natural to provide one) will help this much-maligned film to achieve its due as a flawed yet faithful adaptation of Stoker.
Reminds me I’ve gotta watch my Blue Underground DVD of the Franco/Towers/Rohm Blood of Fu Manchu one of these nights…