Friday, February 2, 2024

FRANCO FEBRUARY - DAY 2! COUNT DRACULA (1970) (Severin Films 4K Ultra HD Review)

Franco February continues with a look back at Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970) starring Hammer horror icon Christopher Lee returning to the role of the legendary bloodsucker. Lee is joined by Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm,, Soledad Miranda, Jack Taylor and Klaus Kinski for one of Franco's most star-studded and opulent endeavors, produced by the notorious Harry Alan Towers. This is a review for the recent 4K Ultra HD release from Severin Films, which is a must-own. 

4K Ultra HD/BD/CD w. Slipcover Edition 

Label: Severin Films
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 96 Minutes 38 Seconds 
Audio: English or Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 Dual -Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 2160p Ultra HD Full Screen (1.37:1) 
Director: Jess Franco
Cast: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda, Maria Rohm, Paul Muller, Fred Williams

The late-great British horror icon Christopher Lee (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) had taken a years long break portraying the bloodthirsty vampire he made famous with Hammer Films when he was approached by Spanish director Jess Franco to make a vampire movie that more closely followed the original Bram Stoker novel. Franco, along with  notorious producer Harry Towers, assembled quite a cast and brought us a memorable adaptation indeed, though largely devoid of Franco's signature kink and eroticism. We find Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams, She Killed In Ecstasy) travelling to the castle of Count Dracula in Transylvania to oversee the purchase of a new property in London. Along the way he is warned by his stage coach driver of the strange goings on at the castle, but he attributes the warning to local superstition. Once he meets Count Dracula he finds his aged host to be a most welcoming sort, that is until after dinner when he finds himself imprisoned within his room, soon to discover that the Count is a bloodsucking vampire with a trio of vampire brides who also want to feast on his blood. 

Harker manages to escape through a window and returns to London, recovering from his ordeal at a sanitarium run by Dr. Seward (Paul Muller, Barbed Wire Dolls). At the asylum he also encounters Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Herbert Lom, And Now the Screaming Starts). Harker's lovely fiancée Mina (Maria Rohm, Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion) visits him at the sanitarium, along with and her sublime friend Lucy (Soledad Miranda, She Killed in Ecstasy), unfortunately both women become entranced by Count Dracula who has since moved to London and into his newly acquired property. Madman Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) is our bug-eating Renfield, a disturbed patient at the sanitarium, he plays it appropriately unhinged, wordlessly, eating bugs and generally being eccentrically weird, giving Dwight Fry a run for his money. Kinski makes a damn fine Renfield but I feel he gets a bit short-shrift and is not onscreen nearly enough for my own tastes.. 

Harker's wild stories about his trip to Transylvania go largely unheeded by Dr. Seward, a man of science who attributes the tales to a disturbed mind. However, his peer Van Helsing is well aware of the legend of Dracula and soon joins forces with Harker and Lucy's boyfriend Quincey (Jack Taylor, Pieces) to face-off against the threat of Dracula, the trio forming a vampire hunting alliance against the centuries old bloodsucker. Lee is of course fantastic as the titular blood-drinker, to the surprise of no one I would expect. A mustached version of the legendary Count appropriately fanged with bloodshot eyes, the aging make-up looks great, the blood drinker becoming more vital and younger as he drains each victim of the red stuff, Lee is a class act through and through. 

Also terrific is Herbert Lom as the legendary vampire hunter, the man brings deep gravitas to the every role. Fred Williams is quite good in the role of Harker but he does fade a bit into the background when standing in the shadow of Lee and Lom, not to mention a roomful of Franco regulars like Jack Taylor and Paul Muller. Add to that the beauty of Maria Rohm and Soldedad Miranda as Mina and Lucy and the poor guy was bound to get lost a bit in the shuffle, which he does, to no fault of his own. Kinski as the wild-eyed Renfield is wonderful as I have said, a fantastic performance from the madman as a madman, but I wanted more of him and I found it a bit odd that his own connection to Dracula is a bit obscured in this version of the story. 

Shot largely in Spain the exterior shots and wooded locations looks fantastic, Franco makes great use of the Castle location. His work with producer Harry Alan Towers produced some of his best and most lavish work with his biggest budgets, and this one has a great Gothic aesthetic, you can see the production value up on the screen. The story itself does tend to drag in certain parts, which is not unusual for a Franco movie by any means, but it's certainly not enough to derail the production, there's a lot here to love.. 

As much as I enjoy this flick there are some things that don't quite work in it's favor, notably a hokey rubber bat on a string that lingers for far too long, it is laughable, but wasn't usually much better in the Hammer films to be fair. Franco-philes who know his body of work will not be surprised by the copious amount of zoom-lensing present in the movie, a choice that doesn't work for the period piece, but the lensing for the most part looks great with nicely framed composition. Perhaps the biggest cinema-beef I have with the film is that we never get any scenes of Lee with either Lom or Kinski together in one shot, their scenes were filmed separately and assembled, what a missed opportunity, but it still comes together well enough and is easily one of Franco's best flicks! 

Audio/Video: Severin Films take another bite out of Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970) after a less than stellar Blu-ray release back in 2016 that had a problematic source related issues. This new 4K UHD presentation is sourced from the a newly discovered uncut camera negative scanned and restored in 4K and the results are quite lovely, presented here in the original 1.37:1 fullscreen presentation in 1080p HD, with an English language title card, versus the previous releases French titling. The source has been lovingly restored with an intact finely resolved layer of film grain that looks quite nice. Colors look terrific, the 4K WCG tone-mapping  brings new life and vibrancy to the hues, and skin tones look natural throughout. Black levels are also nicely improved with excellent shadow detail, I noticed no signs of problematic encoding or compression. 

Audio comes by way of uncompressed English or Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 dual-mono with optional English subtitles, and this is a nice upgrade because the previous Blu-ray did not have subtitles.  Dialogue and the  Bruno Nicolai (The Case of the Bloody Iris) come through clean and strong, both language tracks are well-balanced and have no source related issues that I picked-up on. 

Onto the extras, disc 1 features the feature film in Dolby Vision 4K Ultra HD alongside the Audio Commentary With Horror Historian David Del Valle And Actress Maria Rohm
and the Trailer for the film. The commentary is excellent, Rohm was married to producer Harry Alan Towers and has unique insight into the making of the movie, sharing some great stories about her experiences on set and behind the scenes making the movie. For his part film historian David Dev Valle does a great job, informative and animated, he keeps the commentary focused and insightful. 

Disc two features the feature films in 1080p HD alongside archival extras that originated from the previous Dark Sky Films DVD and Severin's own the 2016 Blu-ray. These include the same Audio Commentary With Horror Historian David Del Valle And Actress Maria Rohm; the 26-min Beloved Count – Interview With Director Jess Franco, featuring the late Franco, with a cigarette in hand discussing the film in heavily accented English; the 84-minute Christopher Lee Reads Bram Stoker's Dracula over a music score, the hypnotic reading of the source material is fantastic and quite a treat for Lee and Stoker fans. Also present is the 10-min archival Interview with Jack Taylor (The Ninth Gate), plus the twenty-six minute Handsome Harker - Interview with actor Fred Williams, both actors discuss their careers with Franco, commenting on Maria Rohm, Harry Alan Towers, Soledad Miranda, and Christopher Lee. Finishing up the archival extras is an 8-min Stake Holders - An Appreciation By Filmmaker Christophe Gans (The Brotherhood of the Wolf), discussing the movie and offering theories on how Franco and Towers convinced Kinski appear in the movie.  there's also a Trailer for the movie plus the German, French, Italian and Spanish Alternate Title Sequences

Onto disc three, a dedicated bonus features disc, we get new extras by way of the U.S. Premiere of Carles Prats’ 2017 Spanish language (with optional English subtitles) documentary DRÁCULA BARCELONA which runs 90-minutes; Jess Franco's Bram Stoker's Count Dracula – Stephen Thrower on Count Dracula; In The Land Of Franco Bonus Sequence With Alain Petit and Stephen Thrower. The inclusion of the Thrower additions are pretty essential, these days if you're re-releasing Franco on disc and don't get Thrower's input you're just doing it wrong in my opinion - it would be like a terrific cake that hadn't been frosted yet, delicious but not quiet as sweet. The piece with Alain Petit and Stephen Thrower features the pair walking around chatting about how Petit first met Christopher Lee and some amusing anecdotes about Franco.  

Disc four is the CD soundtrack featuring the terrific score from Bruno Nicolai (Marquis de Sade's Justine), which is always appreciated, it's a lush score and having it on disc as part of this set is truly the cherry on top of this eurocult sundae. There are 30-tracks, among them 10 bonus tracks, with a running time of 64 minutes. 

An extra that was present on the 2016 Blu-ray but absent here is Pere Portabella's experimental making of doc Cuadecuc, Vampir, shot in black and white and without sync sound, which makes for a somewhat arty behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie with shots of the effects being composed with many of the main cast, with the exception of Klaus Kinski. The reason for this is that it has been re-released at the same time as Count Dracula by Severin as a double-feature with Portabella’s companion piece Umbracle, both with new HD scans as well as their own set of extras. If you don't plan on snagging that set you might want to hang onto the 2016 Blu-ray just for the sake of completion. 

The 4-disc UHD/BD/CD set arrives in an oversized black keepcase with a dual hub and flipper tray to accommodate the disc. This includes a Single-sided Sleeve of Artwork featuring what looks to be the Italian movie poster with English titling, and tucked away inside is a 2-sided CD Soundtrack Credits and Tracklist Insert. There's also a sturdy, embossed Limited Edition Slipcover featuring another Italian artwork with English title.  

Special Features:
Disc 1: UHD (Feature Films + Special Features)
- Audio Commentary With Horror Historian David Del Valle and Actress Maria Rohm
- Trailer (3:19) 
Disc 2: Blu-ray (Feature Films + Special Features)
- Audio Commentary With Horror Historian David Del Valle and Actress Maria Rohm
- Illustrated 1973 Christopher Lee Audio Interview With Filmmaker Donald Glut (19:50) 
- Beloved Count – Interview With Director Jess Franco (26:35) 
- Handsome Harker – Interview With Actor Fred Williams (26:14) 
- An Interview With Actor Jack Taylor (10:00) 
- Stake Holders – An Appreciation By Filmmaker Christophe Gans (7:32) 
- Trailer (3:19) 
Disc 3: Blu-ray (Special Features)
- DRÁCULA BARCELONA – 2017 Documentary (90:24)
- Jess Franco's BRam Stoker's Count Dracula – Stephen Thrower On Count Dracula (45:21) 
- In The Land Of Franco Bonus Sequence With Alain Petit And Stephen Thrower (6:07)
-Alternate Title Sequences: Spanish (1:40), German (1:36). French (1:22), Italian (1:35) 
Disc 4: Soundtrack CD (30 Songs, 64 Minutes) 

Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970) is not a perfect movie, very few of his movies were to be honest, but it does have an atmospheric Gothic charm and an outstanding cast, including horror icon Christopher Lee returning to the role of the titular blood-drinker after a years long absence, and strong supporting roles from Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski, plus the sultry curves of euro-cult beauties Maria Rohm and Soledad Miranda. On top of that we have Franco regulars Paul Muller and Jack Taylor, if you've seen any of Franco's movies from the 70's you will know their faces, if not their names. The movie is dripping with Gothic atmosphere, and while it gets a bit pacey and a few of the special effects are not os special, for Franco fans and lovers of Eurocult this is a fine time all the way around. The vastly superior A/V presentation and wealth of extras, including a CD soundtrack, and gorgeous packaging and artwork make newly definitive edition an easy upgrade. 

Screenshots from the Severin Films Blu-ray (2023)