Much like Hammer’s Dracula films, the Spanish horror film The Dracula Saga / La saga de los Drácula is a take that explores further possibilities with The Count. With a stretch of the imagination, it kind of works as an unofficial prequel to Stoker's Dracula, but it’s rather more of an alteration of sorts that disregards the events of the original story and takes liberties to imagine what Dracula’s family would be like, with a story told primarily through Dracula’s estranged granddaughter, Berta (Tina Sáinz – I could’ve easily seen Emma Cohen in this role as well). Although there are narrations from Dracula at the beginning and at the end, telling the story at the end as if it was his story all along, while the English trailer is narrated by Berta, who claims this is her story, so it's a bit of a toss up as to whose story this really is.
This was the second vampire film directed by Leon Klimovsky, and it stars Eurobabe favorites Helga Liné and Maria Kosty in seductive vampire roles. It’s gory, silly, nightmarish, gritty, and above all beautifully gothic, a Castilian vampire film from the early ‘70s horror boom. About the only thing that’s missing is the presence of Paul Naschy. I remember coming across this film on the video shelf several years ago and nearly passing on it because Paul Naschy wasn’t in it. I’m glad I didn’t though.
Klimovsky’s vampire films have a certain familiarity to them but are exceptionally unique at the same time and vary quite a bit from one another. They may not be the best paced, with The Dracula Saga being no exception, but they always end up providing me with a special memory, perhaps on account of hitting the sweet spot with their look and feel and also doing something kind of cool and gimmicky, like conceiving a Dracula household in this case. As in The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), The Dracula Saga contains another stimulating vampire seduction scene with Helga liné.
The idea of presenting Dracula with a household family does work out well here, and I think the family has a near Addams Family strangeness to them. There’s definitely something epic about it, and it could’ve made for an appealing serialization or a TV drama. Dracula (Narciso Ibáñez Menta) is married to a predatory seductress, Munia (Liné), and has two granddaughters, Xenia (Maria Kosty) and Irina (Cristina Suriani), who are like giddy teenage trouble makers.
The plot device is that Dracula’s son is inadequate to inherit the Dracula title, and so he is in need of another heir to carry on the cursed bloodline. He has called on his estranged granddaughter, and protagonist of the story, Berta, to visit his castle, which happens to be her childhood castle, and ultimately stay. Berta does not yet know her relatives are vampires. She is accompanied by her husband, Hans (Tony Isbert), and she is pregnant. So you can kind of see where this is going.
There is a hidden member of the family, locked up somewhere remote, giving out child-like whimpers that do remind one of House by the Cemetery (1981). This prisoner is Dracula’s son, Valerio, and he is explained by The Count as representing the excess and degeneration of the Dracula ancestors.
I’m not sure what the mother was like, or who she was, but Dracula’s son is a hunchbacked cyclops monster kid with webbed fingers, who murders women that end up with the misfortune of being locked in his chamber with him. Dracula punishes Valerio by whipping him on his hump. This is some weird monster stuff from Klimovsky, almost distastefully weird. The makeup for Valerio is cool, in a vintage Spanish B-horror sort of way. In fact, the movie has good monster makeup in general, although it is used sparingly. There are also a couple of soft focus dream scenes, one with a memorable gore shock.
The film is mostly taking place at night but shot during the day, with little day-for-night filtering; it’s usually just bright daylight. I suppose the filmmakers trusted in our abilities to suspend our disbelief, or the filtering was just neglected in post-production for the most part. And I’m not sure what Klimovsky was shooting for with the net-like lens cover that occasionally pops up, or if it was just some kind of unintentional artifact from the film negative.
Aside from the dream scenes it does have a slow, low-key startup, with Hans and Berta journeying, via horse and carriage, from London to Dracula’s castle, a la Jonathan Harker’s Journal. They even stop off at a hotel in Bistritz along the way, and essentially become prisoners at the castle. The movie takes its time to set itself up with a full episode at the hotel in Bistritz before even getting to Dracula’s castle or even meeting the family.
Many might remember Tony Isbert from Tragic Ceremony (1972) or Inquisition (1978) with Paul Naschy. He’s generally criticized here for underacting, not showing much enthusiasm or emotion, and I suppose that’s true given some of the situations Hans is in, but it doesn’t harm the film much, and I personally don't find anything unlikable about him. Hans is the one who most of the vampire babes in the film have their eye on.
I did enjoy Tina Sáinz performance as Berta, most particularly her character’s breakdown and unexpected transition from distressed and frightened, as exemplified during the early dream scenes, to a scorned, righteous death deliverer. As an ill, pregnant woman she does spend most of her time in the later parts of the film in a delirious and catatonic state, from mental degradation and weakening from loss of blood, as it is implied that she is losing blood from the inside; I don’t think I've heard of unborn vampire babies before.
The Count here is an elegant, matured nobleman. Narciso Ibáñez Menta has a fantastic look for an aged Dracula. He always seems ready to retire to his quarters. He’s a homebody Dracula who looks like he’s settled in, always in his cozy bedtime robe. It reminds me of the way I usually like to settle in with sweatpants, coffee, and an Edgar Allan Poe book.
What entranced me the most when I first saw this was the pasty green makeup of Berta’s vampire relatives. It is a simple but effective way of achieving an otherworldly, monstrous feel to the vampires. I was left with a precious memory of smiling pale vampire faces, menacing Berta at one of the finest gothic dinner tables in a castle. The wine at the table that’s supposed to insinuate blood looks like Kool-Aid and bright red paint, and judging from Han’s initial reaction probably tastes like it too. It draws attention to the setup similar to the way Countess Bathory's turquoise drink did in Daughters of Darkness (1971).
This is one delicious vampire film that should please all types of fans, as it does meld a lot of classic and new ideas. Despite being kind of lighthearted and not being meant to be taken seriously, The Dracula Saga is an intoxicating horror experience with the right kind of somber, gothic ambiance that makes a great vintage, foreign vampire film, and it will hit all the right notes for Eurohorror fans.
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