In Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee appears oncsreen for eight minutes. As a follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the film is a star vehicle for Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Dracula is used sparingly – an antagonist who does his worst standing in dark corners or looming suddenly. Though he deviates wildly from the novel, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was following Bram Stoker in this. The book establishes the villain in early chapters, then keeps him off-page for much of the action. This makes for effective horror but, increasingly, an unhappy actor. In Dracula sequels, Lee was required to do less and less, which made him complain more and more. However, when Hammer (at the actor’s suggestion?) gave the Count more business in Scars of Dracula (1971), the film was far less interesting than Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), in which Dracula is catalyst for the plot rather than a participant in it. In interviews, Lee often stated his preference would be for a faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel.
Among those who took note was Harry Alan Towers, British producer of international co-productions based on a lending library of vintage pulp classics. In a long career, making films all over the world, Towers provided pulpy, haphazard takes on Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Jack London and H.G. Wells. At first, Towers of London worked with a pool of British-based directors – Don Sharp, George Pollock, John Llewellyn Moxey, Jeremy Summers. On The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), which wound up a series starring Lee as Sax Rohmer’s insidious mastermind, Towers allied with Spanish filmmaker Jesús Franco (most commonly billed as Jess Franco). Their collaboration lasted a few busy years, yielding films a little less inhibited than Towers’ usual efforts if not as demented as the movies Franco made under his own steam. Together, Towers and Franco made a couple of de Sade films, the lurid women’s prison extravaganza Der Heisse Tod (99 Women, 1969) and the historical horror Il trono di fuoco (Night of the Blood Monster, 1970). With Count Dracula, Towers and Franco took Lee at his word and pitched the film – even in its opening caption – as the long-promised faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Having said so often that he’d like to see this project, Lee could hardly turn it down – and so he found himself playing Dracula yet again, only not for Hammer.
It wasn’t the first ‘we’re going back to the book’ Dracula and wouldn’t be the last. Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson (Dracula, 1974), Philip Saville and Gerald Savory (Count Dracula, 1977) and Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992) sang the same song, inevitably putting their own spins on the material. In every instance, fidelity means including characters or incidents left out of key Draculas – F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie das Grauens (1922), Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Hammer’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) – while making fresh drastic cuts and quietly snaffling bits and pieces from the earlier adaptations. Count Dracula was scripted by Franco from a ‘screen story’ by Erich Krönke (surely, a faithful-to-the-book Dracula shouldn’t need such a thing). Towers, who usually wrote as ‘Peter Welbeck’, provides dialogue for the English version: most of Lee’s lines come from the novel – little of the rest of it does. One reason for deviations from the text is that the film was shot in several countries with key cast not available for scenes Stoker has them appear in. Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) has a stroke to explain why he doesn’t go on the trip to Castle Dracula to destroy his arch-enemy. Renfield (Klaus Kinski) appears only in asylum scenes shot in Italy, as isolated from the rest of the story as Kinski was as the imprisoned Marquis de Sade in Towers and Franco’s Justine (1969).
Production circumstances override artistic or narrative decisions throughout. The story goes that scenes with Lee were produced and directed with care and a budget, even down to craft services and cast and crew accommodations. Then, when the star departed, everything else was done an inexpensively as possible. This might explain why Count Dracula was the last Harry Alan Towers-Jess Franco movie. Free of Towers (and Lee), Franco fully committed to his own vision, and playfully returned to vampires in the sexier Vampyros Lesbos (1971), with this film’s Lucy (Soledad Miranda) as a female predator, and a couple of eccentric movies with Howard Vernon as Dracula, Dracula contra Frankenstein (Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, 1972) and La Fille de Dracula (Dracula’s Daughter, 1972).
Among the things Towers just can’t pay for: the voyage of the Demeter, much in the way of gore (stakings take place outside the frame), actual British or Romanian locations (in a film shot in four countries), werewolf or bat or mist transformations. Franco’s use of often-impressive borrowed locations aligns him with Murnau and Herzog (who promoted Kinski from Renfield to Dracula in Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht, 1979) rather than Browning and Fisher and their set-dressed soundstages. Sometimes, scenes shot in different countries are intercut to keep Dracula in the movie, as when he exerts an influence over Renfield. But we miss the moment when the heroes catch the Count forcing Mina to drink his blood … and Dracula’s death is a weak compromise. Hammer gave Lee a run of spectacular send-offs, but this has the heroes open his packing crate and set fire to him. We see the Count in various makeups with superimposed flames, finally reduced to a pop-eyed papier-mache mask. Costumes are nice and period-apt, with a Stoker-accurate Count dressed only in black (no scarlet cape lining or purple ascot). Bruno Nicolai’s score is outstanding, suggesting it might have been commissioned in a production phase when funds weren’t entirely spent. The Eastern European feel, using a hammered dulcimer for folksy eeriness, has been elaborated by subsequent vampire movies, but was at the time a break with James Bernard’s thundering approach to Dracula scoring.
Count Dracula isn’t a write-off, but is curiously tame. The opening act sticks mostly to Stoker, with Dracula disguised as a coachman to meet Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams) at Borgo Pass – an idea from the novel atttempted in many film versions (from Nosferatu on), though it tends (as here) to undercut Dracula’s entrance as himself. This is the first film to present Dracula as an old, straight-backed, white-haired, moustached aristocrat who becomes progressively younger as he drinks more blood. Lee delivers abbreviated speeches from the book about Dracula’s ancestry and goes through the ‘this man is mine’ scene with his three wives. The nastiest moment of the novel (often omitted) has the Count toss a peasant baby in a bag to his hungry wives, though the child’s mother (Teresa Gimpera) isn’t eaten by wolves. The sequence of Dracula crawling down the castle wall like a lizard (attempted in Scars of Dracula) isn’t done here, presumably because it’d have been too tricky. Some changes are just silly – in the novel, Jonathan notes there are no mirrors in the castle but catches a glimpse of the Count’s non reflection in his hand-held shaving mirror (which Dracula throws out of a window in rage) … here, for no earthly reason, the vampire keeps a huge wall mirror and obligingly stands next to the unwary guest to flaunt his supernatural status.
Shot prettily with a blueish haze by Manuel Merino and Luciano Trasatti, the film has a distinctive look even if many scenes are staged as static tableaux. A lovely moment, shown in excerpt in the Spanish comedy El Jovencito Dracula (Young Dracula, 1977), has the brides rising from the graves as superimposed spectres; Franco reuses the effect in the feeble afterthought Killer Barbys vs Dracula (2002). Elsewhere, the shadow of a toy bat bobs outside windows and the camera looms at leering, stuffed animals. Once the film departs the castle (locations in Spain and France) for a Victorian London (Barcelona), Lee has blacker hair than he sports in the Hammer films and a twirlable villain moustache. However, his red contact lens glares, fang flashes and neck nuzzles are indistinguishable business done in, say, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) or Dracula AD 1972 (1972) or even joke cameos in The Magic Christian (1969) and One More Time (1970).
Stoker’s cast is pared down. Even characters who make the cut have much reduced roles, with Mina (Maria Rohm) barely registering, Quincey (Jack Taylor) stalwart and stiff (assuming the role of Arthur from the book) and Dr Seward (Paul Muller) demoted to Van Helsing’s assistant (ie: exactly the way he’s played in the Browning and Fisher films). The script veers quite a way from the novel, with Van Helsing getting the backing of the Home Secretary in his campaign against Dracula. Set-pieces like the staking of Lucy are retained. Indeed, that scene is replayed with the three wives, with Quincey getting a squirt of blood in the face as he pounds in a stake and Jonathan overkilling vampires by hammering away sadistically long after they’re impaled. The heroes also drop boulders on gypsies, showing an incipient sadism which might be a theme – as developed in Hans W. Geissendörfer’s Jonathan (1970) – but is here underdeveloped.
A melodramatic attack on Mina at the opera (actually a choral performance) refers to Browning’s film but feels more like an incident from The Phantom of the Opera (which Towers took a bash at in 1989). The producer began in radio, producing a Holmes-Watson series with a splendidly cast John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson (and Orson Welles as Moriarty). Later, he had Christopher Lee as an older Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Sherlock Holmes: Incident at Victoria Falls (1992). This might explain why one Count Dracula features a fresh encounter between Van Helsing and Dracula modelled on the sequence in ‘The Final Problem’ where Moriarty invades 221B Baker St to issue threats to Holmes. The scene is played well by an understated Lom (‘all my life I’ve studied the black arts – it’s strange to finally confront the Prince of Darkness himself’) and a forceful Lee (‘you have learned much, you can do nothing!’) but compromised by the fact that the actors aren’t on set together. The all-powerful, supremely confident Dracula is seen off in a matter of seconds by Van Helsing, who scratches a burning cross on the floor with a fireplace poker.