24 February, 2007

DVD Review: COUNT DRACULA



A blue tinted shot of Christopher Lee as the title character in the new Dark Sky DVD of Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA. The tinting is just one of a number of differences between this presentation and previous versions on home video. Thanks to Mirek Lipinski for the screenshot.

First, the good news. The Dark Sky DVD of Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA [onscreen title: LES NUITS DE DRACULA] looks absolutely terrific in terms of color and resolution, a significant improvment over the 2003 DIVISA Spanish language DVD and the older REPUBLIC VIDEO presentation, both of which featured film versions supervised through post production by Jess Franco himself. The DS disc has the longest runtime [just under 97m] of any home video version so far released. There's also at least one scene, a shot of gypsies gathered under the window of Jonathan Harker's room at Castle Dracula [followed by a new Bruno Nicolai music cue], that is so darkened in the previous Spanish and US home video versions as to be virtually invisible, but looks crisp and clear here. The DS also includes a final credit scroll which extends its runtime while listing the cast and Italian technical staff, some of whom may have been included for coproduction/quota reasons. The longer runtime is not due to any further Franco footage. The end scroll was simply tacked on by the Italian producers.

According to the opening credits (which appear in Italian after the French main title) this version was edited by Bruno Mattei, who would later become a prolific hack director of Italian exploitation (RATS: NIGHTS OF TERROR; HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD; THE OTHER HELL). And that's where my reservations begin. Two important scenes have been edited in this version: the opening shot of a stark forest at twilight has been abridged by over 10s and the scene of a gypsy woman (Teresa Gimpera) pleading for the return of her child outside the walls of Castle Dracula has been removed altogether. In a fascinating and detailed discussion over at the The Franco Lounge on the LATARNIA MESSAGE BOARDS webmaster Mirek Lipinski has specualted that this may actually be the Italian version, appended with the LES NUITS DE DRACULA main title for exhibition in France, with the English language track overdubbed. One thing is for sure. This version was not the director's cut. I know that because I spoke with Jess Franco in 2005 about this film and he assured me he only supervised the post production of the English language version and then a Spanish language version, adding that he had nothing to do with the final cuts of the Italian, French and all other versions.

As long as one is aware of what is missing and what has been added/altered this first R1 DVD in English of COUNT DRACULA is well worth purchasing for its superior video/sound quality and significant extras. The 1.33:1 transfer from virtually spotless, evocatively colorful elements reveals layers of detail in the sets, performances and Manuel Merino's lighting design heretofore obscured by dirty, worn prints. It also reveals a much more carefully composed film than had been indicated from the previous prints, which have always had rather murky night scenes [the DIVISA disc heavily artifacts during the entire coach sequence]. The REPUBLIC video and the DIVISA disc both have bold colors with the latter oscillating perhaps too much toward the Red end of the color spectrum. The colors are much more modulated in this transfer. For instance, the use of red, a key color in any vampire movie, seems more judicious and subtle, a vase of roses cutting into the frame here or a bright gypsy shawl there signal imminent vampire attacks. In the scene at the Opera house Maria Rohm's Mina is now enclosed in a warm bath of that color which warns of her close call with the Count. There are numerous shades of red here, signifying moods which range from contemplation of an obsession with blood to foreshadowing of danger to complete immersion in crimson fantasy. Also new here are previously unseen filtering effects. Harker's coach ride and most of the night exteriors now unfold under a blue filter which lends them a more spectral effect than they've ever had before. If this was not in Franco's original design it certainly gives the previously murky looking night scenes a much needed facelift. The other primary color is green, which isn't quite as prominent here as in the Spanish and US prints, but it's still vividly registered between the warring reds and blues (the colors of blood outside and inside the human circulatory system).

One thing which really hit me seeing this cleaner, brighter, more color-detailed version was both the "Spanishness" and irreality of Franco's aesthetic approach. "Spanish", not just because this was shot mostly in Barcelona by a Spanish director, but due to the fact that, outside of costuming, there is no attempt to make the action look like it's actually taking place in Transylvania and then London, 1897. In fact, Franco frequently underlines or foregrounds the Mediterranean foilage and topography instead of attempting to mask/transform them. For instance, one notices that the front door of Dracula's castle has potted tropical plants on either side of it, unlikely decorative flora for Transylvania.

The irreality of Franco's presentation is more apparent in the numerous odd set details which are now clearer than ever, like the plastic spiders strung about, fake bats and all too obviously artificial cobwebs (which seem deliberately sculpted around the candelabras and castle pillars). On one level reflecting budgetary restrictions, these elmenents also illustrate Franco's longstanding method of visual stylization just as Tod Browning's smoking fissures and armadillos add to the delirious mise en scene in his classic DRACULA (1931). Then there's the very surreal scene during which stuffed animals appear to come alive and threaten the male protagonists searching Dracula's hideout. The fact that the animals look mostly like cute child's toys and include a mixture of skunks, ostriches, foxes and a shark [!] evoke another Spanish surrealist, Luis Bunuel. Franco deconstructs this scene in the essential David Gregory directed interview extra, BELOVED COUNT (heavily supplemented with pertinent clips, images, finding Uncle Jess in high spirits, full of interesting behind the scenes stories and in full-cigarette-smoking-antics mode--cf our previous blogs on SMOKING WITH JESS FRANCO). He states that he deviated from the concept of following Stoker and created this outre interlude to illustrate how the very concept of Dracula is a violation of Natural Order, something which the Count himself expounds upon in the early scenes with Harker. BTW, watch this disc with the English subtitles on for a fuller level of comprehension and appreciation of the highly literate quality of the dialogue. Interesting that Producer-Scenarist Harry Alan Towers is not listed in the writing credits of this version.

On the two scenes which are missing or altered. The first 12 seconds of the opening shot, the aforementioned shot of a denuded forest which then slowly pans over to castle Dracula as Bruno Nicolai's eerie score gradually fades in is not only a highly effective opening but illustrates the theme of nature stripped bare by the fetish of vampirism while the hysterical presence of the gypsy mother in search of her child just before Dracula gives it to his brides powerfully acts out the relationship of Dracula to Fuedalism. This version now rather awkwardly opens in the middle of the original camera movement, making it seem like the action was meant to begin in media res, which was not originally intended. When you take away or alter a film's opening image it's rather like chopping the topic sentence of a complex essay. It's sure to affect the remainder of the work. If you are not familiar with these scenes then these omissions might be insignificant but it is part of my purpose here to report them.

The definitive DVD presentation of COUNT DRACULA would, imo, be a 2 disc set of the English version which was released by REPUBLIC VIDEO and the Spanish language version with English subtitles, since both were seen through by the director. The loss of several scenes from those versions and inclusion of new images, cues and effects may obscure the issue for now, but this is a more than interesting DVD presentation which gave me some new takes on the film. Recommended.

Special thanks to Squonkmatic, Mirek and the rest of the posters over at the Franco Lounge topic at The Latarnia Forums.

(c) Robert Monell, 2007

6 comments:

CINEBEATS said...

Thanks for the great review of the upcoming Dracula DVD! I'm really looking forward to it's release. It's one of my favorite Franco films and it's also the first Franco movie I saw on late night TV many years ago. All the previous prints of the film that I've seen have been really horrible looking so I can't wait to see this.

Robert Monell said...

And thanks for your comment, Cinebeat> Although it's missing some important footage it's still very much worth having for it's high quality definition and the Franco interview. I've gained some more respect for the film and Franco's work on it. I hope a more complete version will be released in this quality in the future.

Anonymous said...

I checked the Spanish version of EL CONDE DRACULA and Mattei is listed in the end credits as editor (unlike the Italian/French version, the credit in this version may be a co-production quota).

Robert Monell said...

I doubt if Mattei edited the Spanish version, although he did do work in Spain later as a director. It is probably for quota reasons. I just wonder why he cut those particular things out of the Italian version. It's not like he's a good editor or filmmaker. He's really a hack.

Anonymous said...

"I doubt if Mattei edited the Spanish version"

I think Mattei is credited for quota purposes on the Spanish version but the cut is Nicholas Wentworth's English version with the Franco's work on the Spanish version being the dubbing.

Robert Monell said...

I think that's correct. I'm still sure there will be another CD DVD which includes the scenes missing here. I'm sure that DARK SKY didn't know this was missing some footage compared to the US/Spanish edits but just went with it because of the good quality elements.