An unapologetic violator of cultural taboos, Jess Franco is often summarized primarily as a pop artist using sex and violence to convey raw emotion, celebrating style over narrative integrity. Too often this image of his work overshadows another side of his filmmaking. While Franco indeed has devoted much of his career to fetishistic imagery, painting the screen in decay and decadence with a camera valuing feverish imagery over traditional linear storytelling, a fine shadow of subtlety can also be found in his work. On those rare occasions when Franco combines suggestive atmosphere and serious characterization, we see what a fine story teller he can be.

While the mainstream critical establishment often ignores him, devotees of dark and fantastic cinema regard Franco's movies with awe, wonder, and oftentimes confusion. Love him or hate him (and there are plenty who do both!), one thing you simply can't do with Franco is ignore him. One might as well try and dismiss the violent effects of a tidal wave or some other natural element. Little is actually meaningless in his work, although the meanings aren't always to interpret, and even the more ridiculous elements (and occasional failures) maintain a strange degree of honesty.

Identity. This is what Franco's movies offer a world run rampant with insipid popcorn duplex sequels and tired remakes. Identity -- a mark or echo of individuality -- of substance and feeling -- flow like blood in the director's version of Dracula. Franco's creative stamp is apparent throughout every frame of this presentation, from the thematic psycho-sexual emphasis and erotic-laced mood to the decrepitly supernatural atmosphere. And while not faithfully filming the novel, as Franco initially wished, Franco does manage to capture something of the dark romance and terror of the original, albeit translated through the prism of his unique sensibilities.

A fairly uneven if original interpretation of the novel, Jess Franco's Dracula focuses on young Jonathon Harker, travelling in 1897 Transylvania to meet Count Dracula for a land purchase. Taking a cue from both the novel and the Tod Browning film, Harker is met with concern and superstitious fear by the villagers, begged not to go. Of course he dismisses their fears as hog-wash, suggesting the false superiority and self satisfaction of the British Empire. Several Franco zoom-lens shots later, Jonathon embarks upon his fateful ride to Castle Dracula. From the moment he's welcomed in classic dialogue by his host -- "Welcome to my home. Enter freely and of your own will." -- we sense Franco's attempted mingling of the story's traditional atmosphere with his own peculiar fetishistic visual approach, promising a unique if not completely successful gothic experience. The resulting supernatural drama, following a recognizable pattern established by countless variations of the same storyline, features Christopher Lee as the Count, Herbert Lom as Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski as Renfield. A classic confrontation between good and evil, Franco's approach is surprisingly restrained. If this at first confuses those who have only chanced to see the director's more exploitative features, this subtle elegance serves to enhance the period detail and tragedy inherent in this literary classic.

On record as saying that he wished to attempt a faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, Franco's homage to the king of vampires is an uneven and ultimately flawed film as a whole. Yet it is certainly a success as a piece of gothic atmosphere, and a worthy addition to Franco's own diverse body of work. While the result is clearly not a 'faithful' reworking of Stoker's material, eliminating several sub-plots and essential characterizations, and is nowhere as powerful as the Browning or Fisher directed adaptations, the film is clearly a crucial addition to Franco's flexography, essential as a testament to his ability to work in mood instead of blood. Franco's Dracula is a moody blend of dark passion and mystery. A pure, shadow tinted mood of gothic romance is evoked by brooding atmosphere. Tension is achieved through a marriage of restrained performances and pacing. The visual look and feel of the picture goes some way in compensating for the stilted screenplay -- the chief fault of the film.

The script is too fragmented to be truly dramatic, unable to achieve the empathy for characters or dramatic arch required for a meaningful story. Despite this major thematic flaw, Franco's subjective use of the camera, one moment static, almost death-like, the next moment travelling like a predator, becomes its own reason, subverting the need for story. The direction is a caressing hand here, loving the material and punishing characters. A world of nightmare made flesh, Franco's version of Dracula is most notable for what it lacks. The gore and perverse sexuality that permeates much is absent. In fact, this picture feels somewhat conservative, anchoring itself in performances and setting rather than on sensationalism.

Presented by care and affection from Dark Sky Films, Jess Franco's Dracula offers a tantalizing look into Franco's development. This is the cleanest looking transfer of the film to yet appear on DVD. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the picture has been considerably polished, removing much of the grain, speckling, and lines that have long interrupted the purity of the picture. An audio track in 2.0 mono is clean and crisp, with no noticeable hissing or distortion.

Extras for this wonderfully dark romance are scarce but significant. The most notable selection is "Beloved Count," a feature wherein Franco discusses his approach to the material, his career and attitudes at the time, and how he thinks the film has fared. This engaging talk examines the producer's interest in Stoker's novel, his insistence that Franco translate the legendary vampire to screen, and many of the challenges that had to be overcome. Franco is as blunt-spoken as always, and his scathing wit and humor make listening to this interview/monologue extremely enjoyable. Not as significant to the film itself but certainly enjoyable is a section where Lee reads excerpts from Stoker's novel, accompanied by sound effects, poster art, and stills. A visual and audio treat, this feature brought back momentarily the imaginative enjoyment of Old Time Radio. Next comes the informative text essay on Soledad Miranda by Amy Brown, which does a commendable job exploring the actress in both aesthetic and personal terms, examining her career with a nice blend of admiration and objectivity. A satisfying gallery of stills and poster art round out this important package.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Dark Sky
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review