Tuesday, October 4, 2016

COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

As COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE opens, you know you’re in for something different, something special, as two men attempt to deliver a coffin to the Kargos Klinik, a dilapidated but beautifully eerie gothic setting in what is meant to be rural Transylvania.  Shortly, having been tempted by the possible riches which may be housed within their cargo, they are killed for their curiosity by some mysterious individual: one has his throat gorily torn apart while the other gets an axe buried in his forehead.  As the latter’s limp body tumbles down the nearby stairs, this sequence is repeatedly played behind the opening credits in what seems like a never-ending loop. Whether or not this repetitive image was used simply due to budgetary constraints, it certainly sets up the wholly unique nature of the entire production aptly enough. 

Directed by the always reliable Javier Aguirre, COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE is Naschy’s only vampire outing, which, in spite of his long and varied filmography, remains one of his standout efforts.  Readily available since the dawn of video from a variety of labels, usually under a multitude of titles, the transfer prints of most, if not all of them, came either incomplete, pan-and-scanned or were sourced from badly battered-and-tattered prints (typically heavily cut TV versions); which very much makes Vinegar Syndrome’s highly welcome Blu-ray / DVD combo both quite the revelation and definitive, putting to shame any and all versions which have gone before. 

While we’re still trying to comprehend and get out from under the film’s hallucinatory opening, the film begins proper. In the countryside surrounding the sanatorium, Imre (Vic Winner) is chaperoning four young ladies, Marlene (Ingrid Garbo), Senta (Rossana Yanni), Elke (Mirta Miller) and Karen (Haydee Politoff), as they travel through the Borgo Pass.  As their carriage passes the old Kargos sanatorium, Imre tells stories of a “killer prince” who used to run the place and assures them that “Count Dracula existed.”  Naturally, their carriage is sidetracked when it loses a wheel, and the resulting commotion causes the horses to get spooked, an unforeseen chain of events which consequently causes the death of their coachman.  As the storm approaches, the stranded wayfarers seek shelter at the seemingly abandoned sanatorium, where, much to their surprise, they are warmly greeted by Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Naschy).  Grateful for his hospitality, Imre is soon overcome by one of the “dead” delivery men from the opening (who has since become turned into a vampire), whereupon Dr. Marlowe eventually reveals his true identity, who, as – yes, you guessed it! – Dracula, not only wishes to reincarnate his dead sister Rodna, but also to attain the eternal love of a woman… if hopefully presumably one other than his own sister!

Predominantly associated with his incredibly popular Waldemar Daninsky character, Paul Naschy’s Dracula is yet another one of his agonized ‘monsters’ wrestling with his destiny, who, in the end, is merely pining to be loved (“The love of a woman changed the destiny of Dracula”). Even though he does have an underlying and quite sinister motive, Dr. Marlowe is always presented in a very sympathetically melancholic light as he roams the ever-decaying sanatorium he calls home.  On a few occasions, as he seeks the amorous attention of Karen, they philosophize about life and death (“The power of the unknown goes beyond death”) and the fact that he’s (quote) “never been in love.”  What could well have come across as overly sentimental, much of this admittedly lackluster dialogue – at least in the English-dubbed version - actually works in the film’s favour, which is especially evident when Dr. Marlowe is revealed to be Dracula, following which the film abruptly shifts gears and escalates to become one of the more daring and gruesome Dracula pictures of the time, which culminates with a surprising and unusually poetic conclusion.

Needless to say, this being a Spanish horror film from the ’70s, it’s high on atmosphere, boasting everything from slow-motion vampire attacks, an eerie surrounding countryside – nicely captured by DP Raúl Pérez Cubero – and some very strong set-pieces.  In one of the film’s more controversial scenes, Marlene and Elke – as voracious vampire brides – lick and claw at the bloodied breasts of their friend Senta; which is just one of the many scenes that raised more than one censor’s eyebrow.  Alongside some of these memorably eye-opening scenes, one of the film’s stronger assets, that adds immensely to the overall atmosphere, is Carmelo Bernaola’s rather minimalist and highly repetitive music, which effectively emphasizes both the sudden outbursts of gory horror – of which there are plenty – as well as underscoring the somewhat despondent, lonesome count’s empty existence with its jarring piano and quieter, organ-driven passages.

As per their normal high standards, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray / DVD combo is a crisp, colourful transfer that is actually quite astonishing to behold.  Taken from an uncut 35mm inter-negative provided by its long-ago American theatrical distributor, International Amusement Corporation, VS has given the film a fresh 2K scan which retains the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  Natural grain is well-preserved, while darker scenes have much more consistent black levels compared to earlier editions, which seemed washed-out and suffered from a compromised colour palette.  Regardless of the wonky dubbing on the English version – for instance, most of the supposedly Romanian locals are given perplexing southern American “hillbilly” accents (!!) that seem to have strayed in from one of Harry Novak’s sleazy ’70s hixploitation films – the audio registers clear and robust, making this version the best viewing choice by far.  And yet, as an added bonus, the VS Blu-ray also includes a Spanish audio track with optional English subtitles, which isn’t quite as strong, but makes for a nice inclusion just the same.  However, the most substantial extra is an audio commentary with Naschy and Aguirre, which was conducted in Spanish and accompanied by English subtitles.  They discuss the genesis of the project (even referring to it as “Love and Dracula”), as well as some of their influences, such as casting, the various difficulties they experienced with certain cast members, plus censorship issues and some of film’s rather challenging locations.  Naturally, it’s a solid listen, and a real must for any fan of Naschy’s work.  Other extras include an interview with actress Mirta Miller, who also talks about some of the difficulties of the shoot, such as the cold weather and her preference of Aguirre’s directorial style over that of León Klimovsky.  The once-difficult-to-find theatrical trailer and a generous still gallery are additional inclusions and, unlike most of their releases, VS has also included an 8-page booklet with thorough liner notes from Naschy expert Mirek Lipinski.  Keen-eyed viewers will also notice that the reversible artwork features an image which was also utilized for Jess Franco’s EROTIKILL (1973), the alternate horror version of FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973), which was most commonly seen on Force Video’s big box VHS videocassette from the 1980s.


An absolutely stellar release, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray / DVD combo of this exceptional Paul Naschy film can and should be regarded as one of finest European genre releases of the year.  Order it at Vinegar Syndrome or DiabolikDVD.

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