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I watched this as part of my current project to explore 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', with the specific emphasis here, of course, on the 'As Similar To Dracula As Possible' clause. So similar, in fact, that his character is named as Dracula in the title - although not within the film itself, where he is only ever referred to as 'le Comte' and 'le Prince des Ténèbres'.

I have known of this film for a very long time, and have always longed to see it, but this is one which I literally could not have got hold of 10 years ago (when I last had a systematic go at tracking down Christopher Lee films I hadn't seen), as the DVD which I have now bought was only released in 2009. What I knew about it before seeing it was that it is a French-language vampire comedy, and that Christopher Lee generally claims that he was 'tricked' into playing (for what really was the last time here) a character which would be presented to the public as Dracula, but which he was not told would be any such thing in advance. We will return to the theme of Christopher Lee being 'tricked' in later reviews, since it seems to be his standard defence when he is criticised for having taken on a particular role. It is almost always self-evidently bobbins - I mean, even without the name 'Dracula', the character which he plays in this film is a vampire Count who lives in a big castle in Transylvania, and lures ladies from broken-down carriages into his cobwebby lair. It's a generic, comedic spoof of the Dracula character, and is recognisable as such with or without the name.

Still, given the pressure which Hammer kept on putting on him in exactly this period to appear in more and more of their own Dracula films, I suppose the protestation is understandable. Though Lee's last appearance as Hammer's Dracula had been in 1973 in The Satanic Rites, it was probably still a pretty live issue in 1976, given that Hammer had gone on to make The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires without him in 1974, and had evidently floated Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula even after that. Presumably Lee liked the script for this film enough to want to take it on, or he wouldn't have agreed to it at all. But once it had been released with the name 'Dracula' in the title, he also needed something to say to irritated Hammer executives phoning him up and asking how come he had just appeared in a French Dracula film, but wouldn't do the same for them, or indeed to journalists or fans making the same point. "I was tricked" is probably about the best he could do.

Anyway, however it happened, I'm glad he agreed to take on the role, because this is a great little film, and who but the man who had in recent decades so utterly defined the role could possibly deliver such as perfect spoof-Dracula (or generic equivalent thereof)? The basic set-up is that, some time in the 18th century, the Count lures a mortal woman to his castle and somehow fathers a child with her. (The event takes place off-screen and is conveyed only by suggestive sound-effects). Once the child has been born, he turns the mother into a vampire, but on her first night out hunting she returns too late to the safety of the castle, gets caught in the sun and turns to dust - perhaps semi-deliberately out of self-loathing at her new condition, although this isn't fully spelt out. So the Count is left to bring up his vampire-child alone. The rest of the film is then all about their father-son relationship, which mostly consists of exasperation at the son's failings on the Count's part, and a desire to rebel and find his own place in the world on the son's.

After getting separated when their castle is over-run by Communist forces at the end of the Second World War, they end up reunited in Paris in the 1970s. The Count is now working as an actor, playing the part of an aristocratic vampire and feeding on his female leads whenever he gets the chance. But the son, Ferdinand, is moving between a series of low-paid jobs (night watchman, slaughterhouse assistant), while still reluctant to feed on human beings at all, failing every time he tries, and getting by on things like cats instead. The Count, of course, is mortified when he discovers all this, and sweeps Ferdinand off into his own life of expensive hotel suites and top-of-the range coffins. But tensions arise when Ferdinand becomes interested in a woman, Nicole, whom the Count is courting, and she eventually decides she likes him better than his father. Finally, Ferdinand rejects the Count and everything he stands for, runs off with Nicole, and somehow turns into a human being (how is again never fully explained - he simply gets trapped in the sunlight and discovers that it doesn't harm him). The angry Count pursues them to an out-of-town mansion, but with Ferdinand now able to wield a crucifix, and Nicole (still sceptical that the Count is a vampire at all) ripping open the curtains, he finds himself caught in the sunlight and collapses into dust.

There are quite a few nods to the Hammer films, and Lee's role in them, throughout all of this. The film opens with a classic carriage-driving-through-misty-woods scene, complete with obligatory roadside shrine, as seen in many a Hammer film, while the ending with the curtains and the sunlight has got to be a direct parody of the dramatic death-scene from Dracula (1958). The Count's wheeze of finding work as an actor, and thus getting to feed on attractive ladies in the course of his work while 'passing' as a human being who simply remains in character as a vampire off-screen is also obviously playing on the way Christopher Lee himself had become identified with his role as Dracula - and this is the biggest reason why I'm so glad he did the film, as that joke just wouldn't have worked with anyone else. And there are many other small details in the costumes, sets and use of vampire tropes which Hammer fans will definitely recognise.

That said, the Count is both written and played by Lee in a quite different way from the Hammer Dracula. This is a comedy, after all, so the malicious machinations, fiery rage and uncontrollable blood-lust of the Hammer character wouldn't be entirely appropriate. Rather, the Count of this film is largely indistinguishable from a rather haughty, short-tempered and selfish human being. He is also quite often the butt of the film's jokes. There's one sequence in particular, after he and his son have fled their castle and got separated, when his coffin is trawled up out of the sea by a British fishing vessel, and he ends up staggering around the streets of London, bedraggled, smelling of fish, desperate for blood and comically failing to score any. His first attempted victim turns out to be an inflatable sex doll (remember, this is a French comedy from the 1970s), and his second foils him by walking through a glass door - which he then crashes into and painfully slides down into a heap on the floor. Then there are the multiple scenes in which he is just about to seduce Nicole, and Ferdinand (who by that time is interested in Nicole himself) interrupts with a series of trivial queries, much to the Count's considerable frustration. In other words, though he's certainly a vampire, and is definitely chasing after Ferdinand and Nicole with ill intent by the end of the film, he's never scary.

Yet despite the combination of the nods to Hammer and the jokes at the Count's expense, this is much more than a simple parody, either of the Hammer films specifically or of the Dracula story more generally. Its strength is that it gives its characters their own stories and explores its own themes - especially the dynamics of the father-son relationship, which is obviously well beyond the scope of most Dracula stories. The contemporary-Paris setting is nicely used as well. Ferdinand's time spent down and out in low-paid jobs in particular gives rise to some quite moving and realist depictions of the largely immigrant community who take him in, and who live in squats in abandoned warehouses on the edge of town. There are some nice portrayals of the film, advertising and hotel industries, too, and the characters who inhabit them, all taking advantage of the comic genre to poke fun at their obsessions and hypocrisies.

The film was originally recorded and released in French, along with a German dubbed version. An American English-language dub was also released in 1979, but apparently it isn't so much a translation as a completely different (and much less subtle) story, with considerable chunks edited out and Lee's character dubbed by somebody else. Given that his voice is one of his major selling-points as an actor, I decided I couldn't be doing with that, so I bought this DVD, which contains both the French and the German versions, and watched the French one instead. In that (though not in the German print), Lee speaks all of his own lines, and to his credit I must say that I could hardly even tell he wasn't a native French speaker. I have got rather tired of his repeated boasts in books and interviews about how he speaks about ninety thousand foreign languages with perfect fluency, but he certainly acquitted himself well in French for this film - although obviously speaking lines written by someone else is a rather different matter from conversing in your own right.

Of course, this does mean that you need to be able to understand either French or German well enough to follow the film in order to enjoy it in its original intended form, since there isn't even a version with English subtitles currently available. But if you can, I'd definitely recommend it. I would have to issue one content warning for it, which is that one technique Ferdinand uses in order to 'win' Nicole from the Count is to fake a power-cut, thus tricking his father into leaving their hotel room, and then take advantage of the darkness to dress up in the Count's dressing gown and seduce Nicole while pretending to be his father. Her reaction on discovering what he's done when the lights come on is to shrug, smile and accept it, which is pretty icky from an informed-consent perspective, especially when coming from a character who is otherwise coded as the likeable hero of the film. But other than that, it is a charming comedy with a lot going for it, and definitely worth watching for any fan of Christopher Lee as Dracula.

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