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EL CONDE DRACULA (1970)
[aka Il Conte Dracula aka Nachts Wenn Dracula Erwacht aka Count Dracula aka Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula aka The Nights Of Dracula aka Dracula ’71]

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"Welcome to my house."
"Count Dracula?"
"I am Dracula. Enter freely and of your own will…."

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Director: Jesus Franco

Starring: Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Frederick Williams, Maria Rohm, Soledad Miranda, Klaus Kinski, Jack Taylor, Paul Müller

Screenplay: Jesus Franco, Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers), Milo G. Cuccia, Carlo Fadda, Augusto Finochi

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Synopsis: In 1897, a young English lawyer, Jonathan Harker (Frederick Williams), travels through Transylvania to the castle of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). Harker strikes up a conversation with a fellow traveller, who recoils at hearing his destination. At an inn where he stays the night, Harker is warned against going further by the innkeeper’s wife. Nevertheless, he travels on. Getting out of his coach at the dark, foggy meeting place, Harker is collected by a mysterious coachman and driven to Dracula’s castle. As they go, howling wolves pursue their carriage. The coachman descends and frightens the animals away with a single gesture. At the castle, Harker is admitted by Dracula himself, who shows him to his room. As they enter, Harker is startled to see that the Count seems to cast no reflection in a mirror. Over dinner, of which the Count does not partake, the two men discuss the details of the house that Dracula has leased near London. Questioned by Harker as to the reason for his leaving his home, Dracula recounts the past glories of his family, and speaks bitterly of its fallen fortunes. Escorted back to his room, Harker becomes alarmed at discovering that he has been locked in. Outside the castle, a woman wails for her stolen baby. Three vampire women approach Harker, now lying on a stone slab in a crypt. Dracula appears, driving them away from Harker and giving them the missing baby in his stead. Harker awakes as if from a nightmare in his own room, and finds bite marks upon his throat. Looking out the window, Harker watches in terror as Dracula transforms into a bat. Desperate to escape, Harker climbs out and along a ledge, re-entering the castle through another window. Finding himself in the crypt, Harker discovers Dracula in his coffin, looking younger than before. Dracula calls Harker’s name; panicked, the young man throws himself from the window…. Harker wakes to find himself in the private clinic of Professor Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) just outside London, under the care of Dr Seward (Paul Müller). Seward tells Harker that he was found unconscious about 200 km from Budapest. Harker raves about being pursued by giant bats. Seward repeats Harker’s words to Van Helsing, who is startled by the mention of Dracula. Seward visits one of the clinic’s mental patients, Renfield (Klaus Kinski), who seems fascinated by the large, empty house near the clinic, which Seward tells him has finally been let….

Comments: Christopher Lee agreed to reprise the role of Count Dracula for Jesus Franco’s El Conde Dracula after being promised that the film would be a faithful retelling of Stoker’s tale. However, Lee’s interpretation of Dracula is the only facet of the film in which that promise comes close to being kept. Bewhiskered, his hair an iron-grey, Lee is an imposing presence, with "aristocrat" written into every gesture. As with Stoker’s Count, his Dracula changes over the course of the film, growing younger with every feeding. Unfortunately – although this is also faithful to Stoker – as the story progresses we see less and less of him. Still, Lee’s performance is strong enough to make you wish fervently that it had a better film around it.

For its first third, El Conde Dracula stays reasonably close to its source. However, once the film’s action moves to "Professor Van Helsing’s Private Clinic", the production becomes a jumbled mess, with the novel’s major set-pieces thrown together in a haphazard fashion that adds nothing to the story but confusion. Many scenes are inexplicably tampered with in a manner that robs them of their power, while characters are altered in ways that become increasingly annoying.

Herbert Lom does a competent job as Van Helsing, but his character is depicted as quite unbelievably sceptical. Despite recognising the name "Dracula" and his repeated statements that he has made a lifetime’s study of "the black arts", the Professor refuses to recognise what is happening to Lucy. Obviously, this is to allow her victimisation to continue despite his constant presence, but it has the effect of making him seem criminally negligent.

Strangely, the characters of Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra have been reversed. Whereas in the novel, Lucy was the stronger and more independent of the two (and was thoroughly punished for it, naturally), here she is a total drip. The tone of her role is set with her very first line, when she gasps in horror, "What’s that!?" upon seeing – and I’m not kidding – a dog. Minutes after this, the sound of one of Van Helsing’s patients screaming sends her into a dead faint, from which she emerges so ill that the two women are forced to stay overnight at the clinic. This plot contrivance is really irritating, and all the more unconvincing for having a supposedly fragile and delicate specimen of Victorian womanhood played by the admirably healthy and robust Soledad Miranda.

After Dracula’s first attack on Lucy, the girl’s fiancé is summoned, and we discover that Arthur Holmwood has mutated into Quincy Morris, Lord knows why. The final piece of character tampering concerns Renfield, who has been reduced to little more than set dressing. This is particularly exasperating because, after Christopher Lee, it is probably Klaus Kinski who gives the film’s best performance. However, his dialogue-less scenes do little but pad out the running time to no good purpose.

There is a sad dearth of effective moments in El Conde Dracula. Perhaps the only really memorable scenes are the sight of Dracula’s brides swooping upon the baby he has stolen for them, and later, Mina interrupting Dracula’s attack on Lucy, the vampire bearing bloody fangs to snarl at her. Apart from these brief sequences, the film has little positive to offer. In addition to the shortcomings in its characterisations, El Conde Dracula is also technically poor. Anyone familiar with the work of Jess Franco has seen all this before: the pacing of the film is terrible, the editing worse, while the story is told with a painful lack of subtlety. As we follow Jonathan Harker in his journey to Dracula’s castle, we are immediately assaulted by Franco’s most notorious habit, his zoom fetish. Thus, when Harker reveals his destination, his companion isn’t just shocked: he’s [zzzoooooooomm] SHOCKED!! Wolves (well, German shepherds, but we’ll pretend we didn’t notice) pursue Harker both on his way to the castle and once he is inside. The dubbed-in howling of these beasts is so loud that when Christopher Lee finally delivers the "Children of the night" line, you seriously expect him to do a George Hamilton and add, "Shut up!"

There is also Franco’s habitual carelessness over details. Jonathan Harker, it seems, travels all the way from London to Transylvania and back again without any luggage. Similarly, Mina and Lucy aren’t expecting to stay at Van Helsing’s clinic, and so bring no baggage. Nevertheless, they spend a great deal of their time there wearing fetching nightgowns covered by huge and elaborate dressing-gowns. All of this is amusing, but it is after the band of vampire-hunters has formed and begins pursuing the count that the film becomes silly in good earnest. This starts in a small way, with the staking and decapitation of Lucy. If you squint, or politely avert your eyes, you might just overlook the fact that Lucy breathes following her "decapitation".

At the film’s conclusion, Harker and Quincy Morris attack the team of peasants transporting Dracula’s coffin by pushing boulders off the ramparts of his castle. These "boulders" are so flagrantly foam rubber and/or papier-mâché that it’s embarrassing (mind you, if they weren’t, two men could hardly lift them). As one of them falls, it bonks a horse on the head; the animal looks understandably startled but is otherwise undamaged. Having thus stopped the convoy (and squished a few innocent peasants), Harker and Morris set fire to Dracula as he lies in his coffin. Obviously, old vampires are really, really inflammable: this one goes up like a petrol-soaked paper factory.

Ultimately, however, no matter how dumb these scenes are, they cannot compete with an earlier sequence that reaches heights of sublime risibility. When Harker, Morris and Dr Seward penetrate Dracula’s house to sanctify it, they are attacked by – wait for it – stuffed animals! They enter a dark room, and Harker gasps and falls back in horror as the camera zooms into the face of a moth-eaten, cobwebby stuffed fox. As the camera whizzes around the room, picking out stuffed animal after stuffed animal, someone out of camera range jiggles them slightly to make it seem as though they’re moving, while an effects person helpfully dubs in growling noises. Meanwhile, our intrepid band of heroes cringes in abject terror. Mere words cannot describe how ludicrous this scene really is – particularly when the animals are such terrifying specimens as an ostrich, or – gasp! – a badger. Watching the film, I found myself regretting that I lacked the equipment for adding video clips to this site. This is one scene that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. If you ever get the chance, see El Conde Dracula for this sequence alone. You owe it to yourself. Trust me.