Now there’s a bad film — Jesus Franco’s CONTE DRACULA, scripted and produced by Harry Alan Towers. Somehow those two pirates didn’t really improve each other when they collaborated. In fact, I think both are quite a bit better apart.
Franco said he liked Towers as a producer because you never saw him after you made the deal. On the other hand, you frequently never saw the money either.
Towers said Franco was an odd character and deplored his tendency to zoom in and out for no reason. (I assume he meant with the camera.)
My friend Lawrie once dined with Towers (and Richard Attenborough), but the meal was cut short by the arrival of a waiter bearing the unwelcome news that Towers’ mum would no longer pay for any of her son’s expenses.
He’s still at it! According to the IMDb, Towers, a former fugitive from justice, aged 88, is still an active producer of public domain classics, remakes and exploitation vehicles. Isn’t there some story that he finally quashed a prosecution under the Mann Act by arguing that the women he was immorally transporting were for the personal use of JFK? I seem to recall such a story, but I’d hate to think I was wronging the fellow. Wikipedia merely notes, “In 1983, Lobster Magazine ran a long article, citing many reliable sources, alleging Towers’ links with (among others) Stephen Ward, Peter Lawford, the Soviet Union, and a vice ring at the United Nations. Hearst Corporation newspapers had already mentioned Towers’ name in a 1963 article featuring coded references to a liaison between a pre-White House John F Kennedy and a known prostitute.” Okay, so I don’t seem to be wronging him MUCH. I welcome any JFK conspiracy theories involving the producer of FACE OF FU MANCHU.
Towers’ and Franco’s DRACULA seems to have come about because Christopher Lee had, at length, deplored the liberties Hammer Films were taking with Bram Stoker’s most famous character. Towers seduced Lee with the promise of a more faithful version, then staked him in the back — the only truly faithful element here is Dracula’s moustache.
The good points: Bruno Nicolai’s score is excellent, genuinely scary all by itself, and very effective when in conjunction with images of misty forests and wolves. Franco films largely on location, finding some picturesque and appropriate spots, even better than Herzog’s NOSFERATU. The guy does have a great eye for place, and many of his films are really like extended meditations on a given setting. Or, if you prefer, demented travelogues.
Towers was able to supply Franco with a better class of actor than he was used to, but these are often somewhat wasted in the context of a Franco zoom-fest. Herbert Lom is an ideal Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski a beyond-perfect Renfield, but the latter has no lines. Christopher Lee looks bored. When a prostitute addresses him in saucy cockney, he gives her a miffed look as if to say, “You’re not in the source novel!”
For some odd reason, Towers’ writing is worse when he works with Franco. I treasure a moment in 99 WOMEN (Lom again, plus Mercedes McCambridge) where one woman in prison tells another that she’ll be destroyed by the hellish island they’re bound for, her beauty lost, her sanity, her life… then thoughtfully adds, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to depress you.” Maybe Towers meant the line to be read ironically. Franco plays it straight.
Yet Towers wrote most of those The Third Man radio shows that Welles acted in, which are jolly good fun. Welles wrote a couple himself, one of which evolved into MR. ARKADIN, although one has to remember that Guy Van Stratten, protag of that film, is a very different figure from Harry Lime (a shady character, but a hero in the radio version).
But one excellent thing DID come out of COUNT DRACULA, and that’s Pere Portabella’s CUADECUC-VAMPIR. Either an experimental film masquerading as a making-of documentary, or a making-of documentary masquerading as an experimental film, or both, or neither, it’s a magical oddity that has been little-seen, since Portabella has refused to allow it to be shown with Franco’s feature, correctly deducing that Franco’s feature is unadulterated kack, and perhaps incorrectly fearing that his film would be robbed of it’s wonderfully mystic atmos by associating with Franco’s big mess of bat droppings.
CUADECUC-VAMPIR seems to have been shot on two radically different film stocks, both b&w but one normal and the other insanely high-contrast. Sequences alternate between the two style. Portabella frequently films interactions between actors as if Franco’s camera wasn’t there (but omitting Towers and Stoker’s dialogue in favour of atmospheric music and abstract noise), but when he does show the crew it never feels like he’s revealing a separate element of the set-up. It’s hard to describe, but he’s creating a dreamlike semi-narrative out of all these disjointed comings and goings of actors in period costume, and the electric lights glaring at them are maybe intrusions from another era, the camera a device by which these Victorian figures are being viewed in our own age.
Frequently Portabella’s lens seems to by spying on the action, as indeed it is. He is forced out of the ideal camera position, and made to observe from a less favourable vantage. (Although when you see the Franco version, his angles are MUCH WORSE.) This gives the period drama a fly-on-the-wall aspect. And the loss of sound renders the narrative worryingly ungraspable, like the mysterious crimes in David Lynch’s Lumiere short.
One really great scene: a forest. A glossy black car bears us to our destination. Now a man runs through the woods with a smouldering tin on the end of the smoke, infusing the branches with billowing incense. The ceremony complete, he retires, and the invocation takes effect — emerging from the fumes, summoned from a bygone century, a horse and carriage rattles forth.
And WHO is THIS MAN???