Celebrating one of Paul Naschy’s most interesting films

I can vividly remember the first time I met Paul Naschy.

I was a kid, maybe 12, and, as I was want to do in those days, I opted to stay up all-night, watching and videotaping every class of horror related film or show that filtered from my cathode-spitting screen. Perusing the TV guide with highlighter in hand (yes, I was THAT much of a movie dork, even then), I ran my yellow ink across a 4:15am screening on local channel CFTO of something called DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE starring all kinds of Spanish-sounding people I’d never heard of.

I stayed up. I watched. And was profoundly affected.

Here was an early seventies European shocker, romantic and cruel, violent and sexy, lush and ludicrous. The music was shrill and overbearing; the English dubbing was brilliantly off; the tone and rhythm were wonderfully alien and there were charming little pubic hairs flickering in the peripherals of the eerily worn and faded print that only added to the movie’s sumptuous other-worldliness.

And at the center of all, playing the good Count himself (more or less) was a hirsute, barrel-chested hombre named Paul Naschy. Looking a bit like a sun-kissed John Belushi, Naschy seemed like the least obvious choice to play the quintessential King of the Vampires and yet, somehow his hangdog, sad eyed visage was oddly appropriate.

Ultimately, my reaction to both Naschy and the film itself was one of intense bewilderment – I had never seen anything like it. Once the picture wound down to its rather abrupt and dramatic climax, I knew I had fallen in love with it. And yet I couldn’t properly articulate as to why that was.

Though the battered print I watched was listed in the TV guide under the title DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE, the actual full on-screen English moniker for director Javier Aguirre’s micro-epic of undead lesbian sex, eternal romantic longing and Gothic bloodlust is COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE (literally translated from the original Spanish EL GRAN AMOR DEL CONDE DRACULA). Many reference books and resources have erroneously dropped the “Count” from the picture’s name, due primarily to the fact that most badly pan and scanned versions of it (including the one I saw) shaved off the letters “C-O”, a sloppy mistake that led one of my equally horror obsessed pals to constantly refer to it as CUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE.

Now then… the plot.

After a carriage load of ample-bosomed Spanish honey’s and one lucky, macho, pork-chop-sideburned dude (played by Naschy’s HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB co-star Vic Winner) bust a wagon wheel and get stranded, the intrepid crew wind their way to Dr. Wendell Marlow’s remote country sanitarium where they are put up for the night by their gracious, badly dubbed host. The thing is, the good doc is actually the legendary Count Dracula in disguise and not only is he hungry for their blood…he’s lonely.

Faster than you can say ‘Parasitic Paella’ each comely cutie is vampirized, first by a wandering, bug eyed, bloody necked stray ghoul (who got bitten by Drac after dropping off a coffin to the clinic in the creepy, skull-splitting pre-credits opening sequence), then by the now inexplicably lesbian-ized undead women themselves. All become fang fodder, except the sweet, virginal Karen (the equally lovely Haydee Politoff) who catches Dracula’s eye and warms his cockles; a coffin cuddling crush that may prove to be the Count’s ultimate downfall.

Made in the wake of the more explicit late period Hammer Horror films pumping out of the UK and Naschy’s own classic Hollywood monster rewrites, COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE was a bit of a sidestep. By the time the film was released in 1972, Naschy had already established himself as the Duke of Spanish terror, playing the equally miserable werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in such freakish, trashy yet super-stylish erotic genre mash ups as FURY OF THE WOLFMAN, FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR and my personal favorite of the Daninsky Cycle, WEREWOLF SHADOW (aka THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN). Hiding under a face of fur seemed to suit the stocky former weightlifter, defining his legacy.

But the fact that Naschy and Aguirre’s riff on Stoker’s master supernatural seducer has been historically viewed as one of his lesser efforts is more than a bit of a head scratcher because COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE is everything a 70’s gothic Spanish horror film should be. It’s handsomely produced, sexual, surreal, romantic, bloody and larded to the gills with the kind of brash eccentricity that, sadly, just isn’t seen in genre movies anymore.

For example, sequences which show Dracula humanely liberating tiny, wounded and terrified animals from a series of snap traps, scenes which paint him as gentle and caring, are called into question when, later in the film, he ruthlessly and joyously murders and drains a pleading farmer who also ends up in the same trap. In another bizarre turn during the film’s final reel, Dracula, who spends countless evenings walking with Karen and pontificating on life’s mysteries, suddenly turns mute, his voice replaced by booming echo chamber spiked narration (perhaps a result of the outrageously out-of-synch English dub). It’s a weird touch but it works.

Another thing that COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE has going for it – and it’s a major selling point to the kinkier fans among us – is plenty of sex, lurid scenes that are at odds with the film’s more classical and old fashioned framing. That version I first saw was actually a hacked to pieces TV print, clocking in at under 75 minutes and shaved of virtually all of its graphic coupling and nudity. Years later, I scrimped and saved and ordered a VHS from California based mail order company Sinister Cinema and, after sticking that hefty bootleg beast into my top loading player, my jaw hit the floor and my eyes popped out of their sockets. To my surprise the thing was riddled with debauchery of every sort – vampires biting boobs, girl vamp on girl vamp action, nude swimming, Naschy and Politoff lovemaking, see through vampire negligees…the list goes on and on and it’s glorious.

This uncut (or less cut version) also boasted more bloodshed, including more graphic footage of the hilariously repetitive axe-in-the-forehead gag that unspools over the dripping-font opening credits and various stakings and suckings that serve as gruesome frissons in the context of the films admittedly languid pace.

And did I properly address the score for this dirty diamond? Veteran genre film composer Carmelo A. Bernaola (CUT THROATS NINE, Naschy’s HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE), delivers some sensational, organ drenched cues and screeching symphonic meltdowns that simply drip with full color, pulp horror lunacy.

I adore COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE. It reminds me of a time in my life when watching movies like this was akin to a embarking on a secret quest, like following a blood soaked trail of breadcrumbs into the very heart of vintage European trash culture. And, of course, it made me a lifelong, card carrying member of the Paul Naschy fan club.

Once damn near impossible to find, this gorgeous slice of Spanish sleaze is now widely available, first in various shoddy editions on DVD, most of them transferred from that very same Sinister Cinema tape source and most recently (and as of this writing, definitively), via a sumptuous Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.  But I kind of miss the way I used to watch the movie; in truth I LIKE the flick in its battered condition. The dirty colors, splicy jump cuts and curly nether-hairs just make it seem stranger. Either way, this is my favorite Naschy film and a work of unusual, lyrical potency.

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