Monday, September 6, 2010

Wendigo Meets COUNT DRACULA (1970)

Forty years after Tod Browning's seminal film, Dracula needed no introduction to movie fans, but any attempt to film Bram Stoker's novel needs to introduce the Count all over again. Even forty years after Jess Franco's interpretation of the story, writers and directors are looking for different angles from which to show the legend as it's evolved in our collective mythology, quite independently from Stoker or any single filmmaker.

In an interview on the DarkSky DVD of Count Dracula, Franco explains that his objective was to do the most faithful film version of Stoker to date. Looking back, the prolific director scoffs at the notion that Francis Coppola's version was more faithful to Stoker than his. My friend Wendigo, who may count as more of a vampire expert than Jess Franco, claims that the 1970 Count Dracula is really no more faithful, cumulatively speaking, than Coppola's. He admits that Franco is right about how Coppola's romance storyline deviates from Stoker's more simply bloodthirsty intentions, and concedes that Franco doesn't taint his version with like sentimentality. But Franco then proceeds to distort the story in so many different ways of his own that his claim of fidelity becomes ludicrous. He eliminates characters and changes some of the relationships among the survivors, making Dr. Seward an assistant at Van Helsing's clinic and Lucy Westenra the fiancee of a British (not Texan) Quincey Morris. Franco also innovates, giving Renfield a backstory with a daughter who became Dracula's victim during a tour of Transylvania, giving Van Helsing a stroke so Herbert Lom doesn't have to travel to another location with the vampire hunters, and having Dracula attack Mina in a box seat at a theater while a chorus sings Fahoo Dores or some such thing. Most laughably, the director improvises a sort of attack upon the vampire hunters by Dracula's menacing yet immobile collection of taxidermy, and has the gall in retrospect to tell us that that was a nice scene to look at. Wendigo could go on at great length on these deviations, and is talking faster than I can write, but I think his point has been made quite sufficiently.

To be fair, Wendigo acknowledges that Franco did do some bits of Dracula right for the first time in movies. Working closely with Christopher Lee, he gives us a Count in the opening scenes that really resembles the character in the novel, and a speech that is verbatim Stoker. Dracula's brides also get to say their original lines, and the Count offers them a baby in a bag to keep them off Jonathan Harker, as in the novel. Most importantly, Lee enacts the novel's youthening process for the vampire as he gluts himself on fresh blood, going from fake grey to hair dye in dramatic fashion. As a rule, Wendigo says, whenever Lee is on screen Franco lives up to his supposed intention. Otherwise, without Lee looking over his shoulder, the director assumes artistic license, though without much artistry. Franco is off-key in a different way than Coppola is, but both versions strike plenty of false notes, though in different spots.

Men: Are you tired of going grey? You need fresh blood for darker, fuller hair! (Allow several treatments to get the full effect)

Sir Christopher Lee has been privileged (cursed, he might say) with opportunities to offer more than one interpretation of Dracula (the entire Hammer series counting as one), with the Franco film representing his own idea of authenticity as well as the director's. Unfortunately, Wendigo feels that Lee's work here is weaker than in his best Hammers. Even out of elderly makeup, Lee comes across too often as a tired old man, without the energy he enjoyed a dozen years earlier. His speech about his crusading ancestors should be a bombastic, warlike oration -- Gary Oldman actually does better here -- but Lee's delivery is bland and complacent like a retired British general recalling the good old days in camp. Wendigo allows that Lee may have overstated his feebleness the better to sell his rejuvenation in England, but thinks that the star's performance never really recovers from the lackluster first impression. He doesn't invest the character with the uncanny quality Bela Lugosi provides with his eerie slowness, which doesn't project health but isn't feeble, either. Wendigo doesn't really think Lee gives a bad performance here, but feels that Lee has done better in less faithful Dracula films.

Lee's limitations may be obscured by the black hole on screen that is Klaus Kinski as Renfield (or "Reinfierd" in the DVD's Italian closing credits). Wendigo and I have heard Kinski's performance here praised for years after we'd first seen the Franco film, and that's always left us wondering whether something had been cut out of the version we saw, since our recollection was that Kinski did nothing but stare at the padded walls of his cell and grab the occasional insect. Now, having seen a presumably complete DVD, Wendigo says: "I'd criticize his performance if he gave a performance." But there's nothing there. People involved with the production clearly realize that they have to explain something about Kinski. Producer Harry Alan Towers claims that he had to trick Kinski into doing his scenes by telling him he wasn't making a Dracula movie, while Franco says Towers is full of it. But Kinski's is a singularly uncooperative act. We can believe that the great man may have refused to speak lines or even utter sounds for Franco. When he's offscreen, we hear great howls and screams that are attributed to Renfield, but inside the cell sits a mute who plays with bugs or finger paints with gruel flung on his wall. Wendigo sees that Franco and his writers may have had an innovative notion of Renfield as a man who has shut down mentally after losing his daughter to Dracula, only to spring to dangerous life by the vampire's mental commands, but a mute Renfield does nothing for the story. Totally gone is the mania that defines the Stoker character and must be expressed verbally. We're left with a virtual actor's strike on screen, an appearance that can only be praised by Kinski cultists, just as the movie as a whole can be approved only by indiscriminate Franco fanatics.

Kinski's stunt-dummy gives a livelier performance.

I've seen Jess Franco at something closer to his peak form, while Wendigo hasn't. Count Dracula leaves Wendigo doubting whether Franco has any talent as a director. This film has little sense of art direction or Gothic expressionism apart from whatever Franco found on his locations or could apply with a generous use of cobwebs. He does little with composition or camera movement to create atmosphere, with rare exceptions like Dracula's appearance in Mina's box seat. This is one of the films that earned Franco a reputation for a lazy reliance on zooms; a comparison with Tod Browning's use of dolly shots is telling. Franco shows little skill with the actors, leaving Herbert Lom (whom Wendigo thinks a near-ideal Van Helsing) lost while treating the other vampire hunters almost interchangeably. He certainly flatters Maria Rohm and Soledad Miranda, but Count Dracula probably is not his best showcase for either actress.

Junior vampire Soledad Miranda starts small while Dracula hunts the big game (Maria Rohm).

As for special effects, Wendigo did like a few attempts, like the double-exposure materialization of Dracula's brides out of their coffins and the simple yet effective dissolve of Dracula's shadow, a moment straight out of Stoker. Franco makes decent use of simple gimmicks like smoke and mist for appearances and disappearances of characters. On the other hand, Count Dracula may have the worst bat effects ever, exemplified by the Transylvanian Glider Bat that sails unflappably past Lucy's window so often and by the bouncing boulders that the hunters drop on hapless gypsies. One of those giant rocks hits a horse smack on the head, but the animal is almost undisturbed, and after we see them come to rest after scattering the crowd, Franco cuts to a shot of gypsies somehow crushed under these paperweights. Wendigo also objects strenuously to Franco's substitution of police dogs for wolves, something the director apologizes for in his interview. Wendigo's view is, if you don't have the means to do something right, skip it -- just as Franco (probably wisely) skipped anything to do with the Demeter and its voyage to England.

The vampire hunters had staked two of Dracula's brides without a mess before Quincey Morris (Jack Taylor) hit a gusher on the third attempt. Had they missed vital organs before?

Seeing Count Dracula after many years has only decreased Wendigo's opinion of the movie and its director. Speaking for myself, having seen more Francos (including Vampyros Lesbos, which I may get Wendigo to watch someday), it strikes me that the director is only fully engaged and energized when working with his own personal mythology and symbolic iconography, regardless of the genres involved. He may talk big about his ambitions for Dracula now, but the film looks like a work for hire in which he invested little of his own particular creativity. Whatever interest Count Dracula has rests entirely on Christopher Lee's variation on a favorite theme; apart from that, there's little here for vampire fans or Franco fans, though Wendigo can speak only for the former.

Here's a German trailer for Nachts wenn Dracula erwacht uploaded by DocPhnoeker. It's actually pretty easy to follow regardless of language.


dfordoom said...

Franco's two weakest horror movies are also his most conventional - Count Dracula and Jack the Ripper. And you're right - Franco really shines when he's able to pursue his own obsessions and his own visions without being tied down by a conventional horror movie structure.

He's one of my very favourite directors but Count Dracula is definitely a misfire. On the other hand I liked Christopher Lee's performance here a lot more than in any of the Hammer Draculas (which I consider to be Hammer's weakest films).

The Vicar of VHS said...

It is rather incredible that you have Kinski as Renfield here, which almost anyone familiar with the man's body of work would chalk up as the most perfect casting of the role since Dwight Frye and anticipate a performance to give Frye a run for his money as all-time champeen, and then watch Kinski just...sit...there. :( Perhaps the fact that the mania was so expected in this role led Kinski to rebel against it, just so that he would NOT be doing what was expected? Incidentally, I had the same feeling of a wasted performance watching Kinski play The Marquis de Sade in Franco's JUSTINE--I just went into it expecting much more than he delivered. And it's not a question of ability, clearly, so there must have been something else going on.

I always love watching Franco's interviews on the DVDs, even if I didn't enjoy the movie so much, b/c he's just such a passionate, largely engaging character that he often convinces me the movie I watched was actually better than my first-hand experience of it would suggest! :) But it's a maxim by now that Franco misses more often than he hits--however, when he DOES

Incidentally, if you and Wendigo are looking for other interesting versions of the story, here's one (by the BBC, I think) that I saw a few years back that I thought had some intriguing ideas and a few good things going for it, though faithfulness to the source was far down that list:

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

dfordoom said...

Vicar, the strange thing is that none of Kinski's performances for Franco are all that good. I wasn't very impressed by him in Franco's Jack the Ripper either. It's odd because apparently they got on reasonably well.

Actually maybe that was the problem - Kinski seemed to thrive on conflict and perhaps he needed to be motivated by a desire to murder the director in order to give a good performance!

Samuel Wilson said...

Maybe Franco was intimidated by Kinski. I can't think that he desired a performance in which the actor never says a line when the camera's on him. Even at the end, when Renfield is supposed to croak out the word "Varna," Franco cuts to a reverse shot before we hear the line. Do we have Kinski's opinion of Franco on record anywhere? I'd be interested in his version of the making of this film, though it wouldn't necessarily be more truthful than Franco's or Towers's

venoms5 said...

Really good write up, Sam. I must admit I've seen a few of Franco's movies but how many must you sift through before you find a good one? I honestly can't fathom what it is people see in his work. I guess I haven't found the right one yet. I been really curious about this one for a few years till Chris Lee pretty much disowned it.

I would say it was a safe bet Kinski didn't want to really do this movie but took it because of the money only. I mean we're talking about the same man who turned down RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for VENOM because the latter film paid better and the script for RAIDERS was "shit" to use his words.

I absolutely love seeing Kinski on screen and after reading his autobiography, you can tell when he dislikes the movie he is appearing in.