Friday, December 29, 2017

Count Dracula's Great Love / El gran amor del Conde Dracula (1973)

Paul Naschy had a lot of success in a wide range of film genres, playing an even wider range of characters, but he is mostly remembered for his brand of gritty and beautiful Spanish gothic horror films. These movies had their low budget and pacing issues, but there was still something so attractive about them, with a reverence for the classic monsters, most especially the wolfman, and the inclusion of plenty of female vampires and femme fatales in general. Plus, with his charisma and sincerity to the material, it’s always a joy just seeing Naschy; whenever he makes an entrance in these movies, he causes viewers’ eyes to light up like they’re seeing a dear old friend. For me, it was always interesting to see what a zombie movie, or a mummy movie, or a cannibal movie, or even a giallo would be like after getting the Paul Naschy treatment.

It was my tendency to read other people’s takes on Paul Naschy movies, be they positive or negative, that inspired me to eventually take up the quill to see if I’d have anything interesting to contribute as a genre film blogger.

With Count Dracula’s Great Love, a costume horror drama with a satiable amount of violence and eroticism that according to Naschy in his memoirs was a critic and box office success, we have one of my favorite classic monsters done by one of my favorite filmmakers. It was directed by Javier Aguirre (Hunchback of the Morgue) but was written by Paul Naschy who also stars as Dr. Wendell Marlow and (forgive the spoiler) Count Dracula. I believe it is also the first in a short but notable line of horror films with Naschy and actor Victor Barrera (sometimes credited as Vic Winner or Victor Alcazar); the other three Naschy movies with Barrera are Hunchback of the Morgue (1973), Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), and Vengeance of the Zombies (1973).

Taking on a role previously made iconic by Max Schreck and Bela Lugosi, and in a way competing with the, then, current Dracula Christopher Lee, is no easy feat. Considering Naschy’s shorter powerlifter physique, he might physically be at odds with the public perception of Dracula as a tall 6 foot plus slender man. Nonetheless, I still think Naschy pulled the Dracula look off in his own way, while still keeping it traditional with the slicked back hair, cape, and pale features, although when in Dracula form he really doesn’t do a whole lot except stand around and transmit telepathically, a la Howard Vernon’s Dracula from Jess Franco’s Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972) and Daughter of Dracula (1972). Naschy was certainly a lot more vicious and animate playing the wolfman, but he borrows certain recurring elements of tragedy and love from his own Hombre Lobo mythos to give this Dracula a human side, and as a Paul Naschy film it kind of works. It is in no way the best Dracula, but it is Naschy’s own personal Dracula.

The premise is a familiar one for Naschy’s horror films, where true love is needed to break/fulfill a curse of sorts; this time the conditions are such that the love interest be a virgin. Why a virgin and not the love interest with the longest list of past lovers is unknown to me, but as chance would have it, a selection of some of the finest stock of potential love interests happen to be touring the Borgo Pass in Transylvania in the vicinity of a castle that used to be a sanitorium with a bloody history that was shut down, for presumably decades, before being purchased by a reclusive Austrian scientist, Dr. Wendell Marlow (Naschy).

A refined gentleman, Imre Polvi (Vic Winner), is travelling by horse and carriage with four beautiful women, Karen (Haydée Politoff), Senta (Rosanna Yanni), Marlene (Ingrid Garbo), and Elke (Mirta Miller), whose presences are certainly part of the fun. They are so colorful, each with their own distinguishing color of attire. These four will eventually feel like close friends to viewers.

Their carriage loses a wheel that literally runs away deep into the forest and is never found again; plus, the horses in their spooked disgruntlement kill the coachmen, stranding the travelers, giving them good reason to seek shelter at the nearby castle, where they are welcomed by Dr. Marlow and encouraged to stay for a week or so.

The inside of the castle is marvelous, as are the numerous gothic horror troupes that are included, such as dark corridors, candles, a lavish dinner table, and thick nightmarish ambiance. I absolutely love the use of foggy slow-motion visuals of vampires moving through dark corridors, an extraordinary technique used previously by Naschy and Leon Klimovsky in The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) that was later imitated by Amando de Ossorio in the Blind Dead films. The film makes use of a more diminished (aka creepy) musical number for its main theme, and it works so well for the slow-motion scenes where the visual and sound gel to create a real sense of otherworldly dread. Also, the main theme gets used a lot and manages to never feel overplayed.

An odd instance occurs when Karen awakens one night to investigate a noise, and in the dark corridor she runs into a vampire (José Manuel Martín), one of the thieves from the beginning of the film who was changed by an unseen Dracula. (This thief vampire makes my skin crawl every time I see him. He’s included as an alternative antagonist who sets the vampire character turnovers in motion.) Karen is understandably terrified and faints just as Wendell arrives to catch her and carry her back to her room. What’s peculiar is how casual the whole thing is. It makes you wonder if Wendell even saw the vampire in his hallway. This leads to an interesting ambiguity regarding Dracula and whether or not his identity as Wendell is a cover up or if Dracula is somehow reborn in Wendell.

Even though the film plays it out like a twist, most people going in already know this is a movie with Paul Naschy playing Dracula. Wendell abruptly changes identities from Wendell to Dracula late in the film, but it’s still interesting how different both identities are. There’s something genuine about Wendell’s friendly side that doesn’t seem deceptive. It’s true that at the beginning of the film Dracula attacks a couple of thieves in his castle, suggesting that his identity as Wendell is a coverup, but it is possible that Wendell has episodes of being evil before ultimately succumbing to being Dracula. It’s an unusual but interesting uncertainty that is more or less playing with viewers’ expectations, but I like it because we get to see more of Naschy’s character-acting aside from just the Dracula identity which itself would’ve been disappointing if it was all the Naschy we got here.

One of my favorite more low-key parts is when the girls go exploring the castle and find a library and end up reading several passages from Van Helsing’s memoirs, or as I like to think Van Helsing’s diary before The Monster Squad got ahold of it. A lot of cool, macabre lines about the legend of Dracula get read aloud, which mainly serves the purpose to introduce Dracula’s daughter Radna as a plot device, but I think she was underdeveloped as far as a character, and I would’ve honestly like to have her role in the story gone further instead of getting pushed aside by the new direction the climax takes.

The romance that develops between Karen and Wendell isn’t bad. I honestly thought that Naschy and Politoff have good chemistry here, although Naschy stated in his memoirs that they didn't get on very well together. I really do like the scenes of Wendell and Karen walking the castle grounds on a moonlit night. 

We do escape the castle grounds a few times to witness the vampires do their nightly business of stalking, preying, and invading the homes of villagers to feed and even kidnap a sacrifice for the big ritual the movie is hinting at. During some of the outdoor scenes, I realized that the three female vampires seem intended to represent Dracula’s brides, which I thought was a clever.

Count Dracula’s Great Love may be a little slow, but it is punctuated by so many brilliant moments. The story, though not without its flaws, is passable, and for its time was an interesting new take on Dracula and vampires while still feeling faithful to the classic movies and also having an appropriate amount of influence from Bram Stoker’s original novel. I think it has some of the best vampires of the early ‘70s mainly on account of how they are presented. Some of Dracula's quarks may not work for everyone, but I will say that while Dracula’s telepathic voiceovers in the dubbed English version do seem hokey, they work better in the Spanish version. The shift in direction at the end does feel abrupt, but the theme itself is so characteristically Naschy that in any other film it would fail, but it works here. It took several viewings before I noticed the brief but still epic closeout scene. Since I have a habit of watching movies so late, it is likely that I was usually half asleep at that moment to notice, but it was freaking fantastic. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

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