The Film (3.5/5)
Jess Franco is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. When he died a few years ago I felt it left a hole in the cinematic landscape that will never be filled. Though his career had been in decline for some time he had still been exploring his own personal cinematic visions until the very end. Fortunately, Franco left behind an enormous body of work enough for fans and cinephiles to go over for decades if not centuries. Over the last few years we have seen a near explosion of his work on to the Blu-ray format showcasing his work in the finest quality it has ever seen on home video. In 2015 we have seen excellent releases all around, and some of the finest have come from Severin Films who have put out excellent releases of his most popular films Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy alongside his less loved, but still entertaining Devil Hunter (paired up with another cannibal oddity Cannibal Terror). They have closed the curtain on 2015 with their special edition release of Franco's Count Dracula.
Franco's Count Dracula is the director's attempt to bring Bram Stoker's novel to life in a more literal fashion than had been previously done by prior adaptations. To this end he managed to secure the services of Christopher Lee who had previously acted the part of the nefarious Count in multiple titles for Hammer Films and whose name had pretty much been made by playing the role. Though Lee had been exhausted by playing the part by this point, it would appear the thought of bringing it to life closer to it's literary intentions was of enough interest to the acting powerhouse that it enticed him in front of Franco's camera.
Count Dracula stars Fred Williams (The Devil Came from Akasava) as Jonathan Harker an estate agent that has come to Transylvania to help Count Dracula close a deal on a piece of run down London real estate that the Count has chosen to acquire. Of course, the deal is not as easy as Harker would have liked and he is held prisoner by Dracula and his trio of vampire brides. He is bitten during his capture, but eventually escapes, but not before Dracula makes his home in London. Of course, upon his arrival he is thrown into the asylum of Dr. Seward who does not believe in the wild tales of his adventures back east. Eventually he is visited by his fiancee Mina and her friend Lucy, the latter of whom has been already taken under the thrall of Dracula. With the help of Lucy's beloved the Texas born Quincy Morris, and Doctor Van Helsing, Harker will hunt and help to destroy Dracula.
Count Dracula is not Franco's best film, but no one will ever tell you that. Count Dracula is indicative of the type of film that Jess Franco would make when he tried to play in someone else's proverbial ballpark. Jess Franco could easily be described as a director who like his beloved jazz musicians preferred a free form structure to his own cinema, maybe a template to go off of, but not to be fully restricted. Count Dracula in many ways feels like another film from his Harry Alan Towers period, Justine in that with both films he tried to adhere too closely to the source material making films that are technically well put together, but lackthe pulse of what makes the film truly apart of Jess’ pure cinema. That is not to say it is a bad film, it just doesn't entirely feel like a full force Franco film.
The film's main selling point is that it is meant as an accurate retelling of the Stoker novel, and in many ways it is closer than many of the versions that came before it. However, like Francis Ford Coppola's later "literary adaptation" it would add elements from the book that were unseen in the cinema before while adding newer original elements. However, a full on proper adaptation of the work would take a much larger budget than Franco and Towers could afford, and it appears from the look of the film that while larger than the budget for the typical Franco film, it was much less than the money used by Universal or even Hammer to create their adaptations. What truly makes the film work are the performances by the cast that Franco has managed to put together. The cast is largely drawn from regulars Franco used around the time, but they are of a great pedigree of acting talent and include such luminaries as Klaus Kinski as Renfield (he himself would play Dracula for his friend Werner Herzog a decade later), Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Soledad Miranda, and the aforementioned legendary Christopher Lee.
The film does have issues with pacing, and has a tendency to drag at times, especially during the second act. However, overall it's largely entertaining with solid atmospherics, and performances all around. Franco would use the Dracula template to much greater success with his later Vampyros Lesbos.
Severin have presented Franco's Count Dracula in a very solid 1:33:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer preserving the director's intended aspect ratio. The film looks quite good for the most part with stable colors, accurate flesh tones, and nice detail. Some of the darker night shots have some details that are difficult to discern, and there is a 16mm insert of a previously deleted scene where there is quick, but expected quality drop, but overall the transfer accurately reproduces Franco's intended look for the film. The audio is presented in dubbed English in an LPCM 2.0 track. The dialogue on the track is nice and clear, and Bruno Nicolai’s score comes through nicely.
Severin in keeping with their recent Franco packages have packed their recent release of Count Dracula full of interesting extra features. The Blu-ray kicks off with the experimental making of piece Cuadecuc, Vampir which runs 75 minutes in length, and uses a blend of black and white footate with ambient sound and pop music to craft quite possibly the strangest behind the scenes documentary in cinema history. It is quite possibly worth the price of the disc for this alone. This is followed up by a commentary by actress Maria Rohm who is accompanied by the excellent horror historian David Del Valle who keeps the actress engaged throughout the track. This is followed by a series of interviews including a 10 minute interview with frequent Franco collaborator Jack Taylor and the films star Fred Williams. We also get a holdover from the Dark Sky release a 26 minute interview with Jess Franco himself, and an appreciation of the film by Silent Hill/Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christoph Gans. The disc is rounded off by 84 minutes of audio readings by Christopher Lee from the Stoker source material, alternate openings, and the German trailer.
Not the finest of Jess Franco's efforts, Count Dracula is still a solid film from the Spanish auteur. The Severin Films package makes it look and sound better than ever before and loads the film up with a serious amount of extras sure to please fans of the film and the Franco faithful alike. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.