Jesus Franco has become so synonymous with the psychedelic sex-horror weirdness represented by Vampyros Lesbos that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when making that kind of film was a side-venture for him. He spent a lot of time in the latter part of the ‘60s working as a gun-for-hire with producer Harry Alan Towers, doing everything from De Sade adaptations for the sexploitation market to Fu Manchu movies. Franco’s collaboration to Towers came to a close with his controversial Count Dracula, which found him striking an uncomfortable middle ground between traditional gothic horror and his own brand of weirdness.
Count Dracula was promoted as a faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel that would follow the narrative in a way that previous versions never did. It lives up to its word by making Dracula (Christopher Lee) a figure who only appears on screen near the beginning and end, with much of the plot devoted to the travails of Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams), who narrowly escapes death at Dracula’s hands to team up with Quincey (Jack Taylor) and Dr. Van Helsing (Herbert Lom) to stop Dracula’s invasion of the mainland. Caught in the middle are the lovely Mina (Maria Rohm) and Lucy (Soledad Miranda), both of whom Dracula wants to add to his vampire harem.
The resulting film is a curious mixture of battling impulses. On the plus side, Lee gives an inspired performance in the title role and really digs into the extra dialogue he is given. The film further benefits from a rich score by Bruno Nicolai, spooky Spanish locales that create a dreamy netherworld for the story to unfurl in and a good backing cast of Eurocult types with Lom and Miranda standing out. It’s also worth noting that Klaus Kinski appears briefly and gives one of the more unusual interpretations of Renfield.
On the down side, Franco directs the film in an offhand, sometimes careless style that gets the atmosphere right but bungles things like special effects. He’s comfortable with the erotic, seductive side of Dracula’s deeds but tends to rush through the scare setpieces in a careless manner. His developing psychedelic style clashes with the gothic horror, particularly his trademark use of the zoom lens, and being nailed down to a slow, ensemble-driven storyline works against his improvisational, experimental strengths.
As a result, Count Dracula is a noble attempt at doing a fresh Dracula adaptation but its between-two-approaches style will make it hard to like for many horror fans.