Plot: estranged sibling returns to the old family seat, finds eccentric relatives.
León Klimovsky’s La saga de los Drácula (The Dracula Saga internationally) has retroactively attained cinematic immortality not only because it was a direct competitor to Paul Naschy’s own Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) but because American audiences have unconsciously known it for years as footage of it featured in the Edward Furlong thriller Brainscan (1994) some twenty years later. It elevated derivation into an artform and made a star out of unlikely leading lady Tina Sáinz (in an ironic twist of fate this would become the most remembered title in her repertoire) and Narciso Ibáñez Menta’s portrayal of Dracula as a world-weary homebody is as memorable as the portentous, decaying Hammer-on-a-budget atmosphere that The Dracula Saga prides itself on. Who better suited to direct something like this than Argentinian transplant León Klimovsky? He had directed the Paul Naschy El Hombre Lobo features The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman (1971) and Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1973) as well as The Vampires Night Orgy (1973) after all. Highly atmospheric in its predilection towards aristrocratic decadence and brimming with both macabre playfulness and sweltering Mediterranean eroticism The Dracula Saga is the zenith of Spanish vampire horror – and not to be missed for that reason alone.
With Klimovsky at the helm it’s no wonder that The Dracula Saga is pervaded with that Argentine weirdness. The spirit of Emilio Vieyra is alive and well here. There would no The Dracula Saga without The Blood Of the Virgins (1967). Neither would there be José Ramón Larraz’ Vampyres (1974) for that matter. In the five years between 1970 and 1975 there was incredible surge of gothic horror throwbacks after Jean Rollin arguably single-handedly started the French horror industry with The Rape Of the Vampire (1968) and The Nude Vampire (1970). However it was Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) that really codified the subgenre, put Spain on the international cult map, and kicked off the vampire craze in continental Europe. Following the box office successes of Rollin’s early vampire works and Franco’s delirious exercise in psychotronic sleaze the rest of Europe couldn’t stay behind. Before long there was The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), and Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Even America contributed their sole classic to the subgenre with The Velvet Vampire (1971) (with Celeste Yarnall). 1973 was an absolute banner year with the likes of Black Magic Rites (1973), Count Dracula's Great Love (1973), The Vampires Night Orgy (1973), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Joe Sarno’s Vampire Ecstasy (1973), and A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973). Vampyres (1974) and Nude For Satan (1974) arrived a year later but were no less important. The Dracula Saga echoes The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) just as much as it does A Woman Posssessed (1968) (with Libertad Leblanc).
Narciso Ibáñez Menta was the member of an important family of theatrical artists. He was a pillar in Argentine and Spanish horror and terror, on both the big - and small screen. In the sixties he and his son Narciso "Chicho" Ibáñez Serrador were the creative forces behind several successful series for Argentine and Spanish television. Menta had played the role of Dracula earlier in the Argentine mini-series Otra vez Drácula (1970). In 1973 he returned to the big screen with The Dracula Saga (1973) from director León Klimovsky, with whom he had worked two decades before on the series Three Appointments With The Destination (1953). Helga Liné was a beloved gothic horror icon thanks to roles in The Blancheville Monster (1963), Nightmare Castle (1965) (with Barbare Steele) and Horror Express (1972) (with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Silvia Tortosa). Betsabé Ruiz was a fixture in Spanish horror with appearances in The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman (1971), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), The Loreleys Grasp (1973) and Return of the Blind Dead (1973). Tina Sáinz on the other hand came from the soccer comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971) and has since gone on record saying that The Dracula Saga is her sole claim to international fame. More recently Sáinz had a 15-episode recurring role in the series Cable Girls (2017-2020) where she could be seen alongside Blanca Suárez from The Bar (2017). María Kosty has since built a career in television while Cristina Suriani remains a humble unknown.
Summoned back to her ancestral homestead in Bistriţa in the Carpathian mountains after an unspecified stay in London, England 5 months pregnant Berta (Tina Sáinz, as Tina Sainz) and her husband Hans (Tony Isbert) find themselves stranded as their carriage is forced to make an unforeseen stop as the horses are spooked and refuse to go any further into the Borgho Pass. On their way through the woods the young couple come across an injured young maiden (María Luisa Tovar) who just regains consciousness. Passing out from her incurred blood loss the half-naked maiden collapses once again, leaving it to Hans to see to it that she gets to the village. Sufficiently startled by the bloody sight and the howling of wolves the two make it to the inn. There they are greeted by a superstitious, long-haired, hunchbacked local who warns them about the tolling funeral bell from the nearby cemetery. "The cemetery of Vlad Tepes," he ominously intones, "is inhabited only by the dead!" With the maiden laid out on a table a helpful villager tears open her shirt to clarify that she has biting marks on her neck as well as on her chest. Crutch-bound town physician Dr. Karl (Heinrich Starhemberg, as Henry Gregor) infers that it must be another animal attack, something they have been experiencing lately. One-Eye (Ramón Centenero, as Ramon Centenero) meanwhile jokes about the situation as the priest (Luis Ciges) insists that the maiden "provoked wickedness" and that “there on the table you see LUST stretched out!" all while getting a good eyeful himself. The constable (José Riesgo, as Pepe Riesgo) meanwhile is all too enthusiastic to cast blame on a band of gypsies which allegedly (but not really) have been a scourge of the region for some time.
In the inn providing lodging the two make their acquaintance with iron-fisted matriarch Sra. Mamá Petrescu (Mimí Muñoz, as Mimi Muñoz) and the grumpy Sergei (Fernando Villena). Hans quickly catches the eye of the innkeeper’s nubile daughter Stilla (Betsabé Ruiz, as Betsabe Ruiz) as Berta and himself settle into their temporary accomodation. Stilla wantonly throws herself a the virile Hans, but he kindly rejects her all too obvious advances. Stilla then retreats back to her room where she’s overtaken by a mysterious blackcloaked figure. The following morning Berta and Hans are having breakfast when they are greeted by the patrician Gabor (J.J. Paladino), the Count’s administrator, who will bring them to Castle Dracula in his horse and carriage. Once at the castle Berta insists on seeing the graves of her forefathers and she notices the coffins of her grandfather and cousins in the family crypt, despite the fact that they are supposedly all waiting to meet her. The couple are left to enjoy lunch alone at their palatial abode with none of their hosts making an appearance. None of this helps improve Berta’s mood, fatigued from her pregnant state and worn from the journey. In one of the rooms Hans is spellbound by the portrait of a regal, beautiful woman that Berta is unable to identify. Once the sun has set Gabor informs the couple that the family is ready to meet them now and they’re invited to join them at the dinner table.
Here we are introduced to Count Dracula (Narciso Ibáñez Menta as Narciso Ibañez Menta), his dazzling second and much younger wife Munia (Helga Liné), his hot-to-trot stepdaughters Xenia (María Kosty, as Maria Kosti) and Irina (Cristina Suriani) as well as maid Sra. Gastrop (Elsa Zabala) and butler Gert (Javier de Rivera). Denied affection by his very pregnant Berta, Hans first falls headlong into the hungry embrace of the noble Munia, who quite matter-of-factly drops her gown for him, and then later Hans is seduced by a willing Irina and Xenia in an adjacent chamber. Some time later the Count explains the history of the Dracula lineage to his granddaughter, that they are descendants of Vlad Tepes, the warlord of Wallachia, and that Berta’s child will ensure the survival of the nearly-extinct bloodline. The Count also entrusts Berta that the family suffers from a peculiar affliction that makes their skin ashen and pale and makes them unable to withstand sunlight. There’s an heir, hidden somewhere within the attic and periodically it’ll be fed a villager or undesirable, but he’s "the result of the excesses and degradations of my ancestors!" and unfit on many fronts.
One night the Count lets himself into Berta’s room as she’s fast asleep but can’t bring himself to vampirize his granddaughter. Instead they will let nature run its course. The clan has locked Berta into the castle. There she slowly descends into madness, is prone to hallucinations and spells of chewing her hair – all while experiencing severe abdominal pains that the Count finds easily explainable. "Don't you understand?" he barks at one point, "She's being eaten from the inside!" Meanwhile Xenia and Irina defile the priest in the woods. One day Berta is wandering the hallways when she runs into a couple of gypsies in the process of breaking-and-entering. She pushes the man (Manuel Barrera) falling to his death in the spiral staircase and the woman (Ingrid Rabel) is fed to Valerio - a role so important that it wasn’t even credited - the ravenous Cyclops, dwarfish, hunchbacked, web-fingered abomination that the Count occassionally whips into subservience. In the following weeks Berta does give birth to a son, but when she comes about she finds him dead in her arms. The apparent loss of her newborn son fetters the last tenuous vestiges of what remains of her sanity. Grabbing an axe from a wall she steps into the family crypt, and coldly murders her relatives one by one. After all that bloodshed and carnage she retreats back to her room where she succumbs to the bloodloss from childbirth as blood of her relatives drips on her newborn son. As the closing narration informs the Dracula bloodline lived on for many centuries of solitude.
Plotwise The Dracula Saga steals from the best. It has the stranded couple experiencing vehicular trouble and the strange people at the village inn mumbling cryptic warnings about ancient evil in the remote castle from The Kiss Of the Vampire (1963). Like in Necrophagus (1971) Berta’s relatives envelop themselves in secrecy about their true nature until facts, and a heap of exsanguinated cadavers, force them to come clean. Just like Amalia Fuentes in Blood Of the Vampires (1966) and Anita Ekberg in Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) it has a young maiden realizing that the eccentricity of her estranged relatives is borne from the fact that they’re actually vampires. Since no horror movie is complete without an obligatory monster, a plot point liberally borrowed from The Blancheville Monster (1963), The Dracula Saga not only has the abomination Valerio, but also Berta’s unborn son, who is a spawn of evil just like in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Dracula Saga is one of those great patchworks that through the supreme art of derivation is one of those unique recombinants. It never quite becomes a saga the way it promises but it’s certainly epic enough considering the limited budget.
The most unique creation of The Dracula Saga is Valerio, the monocled, dwarfen, webfingered, hunchbacked abomination with a most carnivorous appetite. Apparently the product of years’ worth of inbreeding. In the tradition of The Blancheville Monster (1963) the diminutive monster is locked away deep in the bowels of Castle Dracula and his cries (that of a sobbing woman) emit through the walls. When Berta comes eye to eye with the horror she’s already so far in shock that the little monster doesn’t even register. Valerio has no menionworthy function besides being a convenient excuse to dispose of various extraneous characters without much in need of an explanation. The innkeeper’s daughter played by Betsabé Ruiz and the gypsy woman portrayed by Ingrid Rabel both meet their ends after being locked into a room with Valerio. As Berta turns into an axe-murderer and slaughters her vampire relatives Valerio comes out as one of the survivors. The screenplay, of course, makes nothing of it – and Valerio is forgotten about as soon as he's introduced. It’s a wonderful piece of prosthetics and practical effects for a movie with a budget as modest as this one.
The Dracula Saga is ripe with that thick, decaying Mediterranean atmosphere of mildew, cobwebs and candlelabras that defined the best of Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Filipino gothic horror. Ricardo Muñoz Suay and José Antonio Pérez Giner succeed in providing a regional take on that very stylish almost Hammer-like atmosphere with the usage of good period costumes, vivid use of colors and a hypnotizing harpsichord and organ score by Antonio Ramírez Ángel and Daniel White with public domain music from Johann Sebastian Bach. Filming took place at La Coracera Castle in San Martín de Valdeiglesia in Madrid, one of Spain’s great horror castles. The castle had earlier featured in The Blancheville Monster (1963), The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968), Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), Assignment Terror (1970), The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) and Necrophagus (1971), among others. Francisco Sánchez photographs the suitably sarcophagal location with its shadowy bowels, ornate hallways, candlelit interiors with age-old dusty tomes, time-worn candelabras, and cobwebbed dungeon basement beautifully.
As with any Hammer inspired production there’s no shortage of absolutely ravishing women everywhere you look. Betsabé Ruiz and María Luisa Tovar were never shy about taking their tops off and The Dracula Saga takes full advantage of that. Helga Liné even has a brief full-frontal scene whereas the pregnant Tina Sáinz remains clothed at all times. Sáinz’ tomboyish charm was already one of her biggest assets in Pedro Masó’s Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971). In no other Spanish vampire movie are the undead so dried out, parchment skinned, ashen-looking as they do here. The contrast of the pallid complexion of the vampires and the rosy skintones of the living is perhaps one of Klimovsky’s greatest achievements.
As the scion of kitschy gothic horror pulp as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) and The Blancheville Monster (1963) That the last happened to feature Helga Liné in her first major role only adds to the authenticity. The Dracula Saga is derivative in exactly the right ways. It never becomes quite as oneiric as Gerardo de Leon’s Blood Of the Vampires (1966), as impossible to follow as Renato Polselli’s unsurpassed exercise in psychotronic excess Black Magic Rites (1973) or Luigi Batzella’s Nude For Satan (1974) a year later. Tina Sáinz certainly is no Amalia Fuentes, Soledad Miranda, or Rita Calderoni.
That doesn’t take away that The Dracula Saga is as delirious as some of Italy’s finest offerings. Spanish horror was always atmospherically richer and thicker in the macabre sense than its Italian counterpart and The Dracula Saga has plenty on offer. Klimovsky makes good use of the mist-shrouded locales and foggy, candlelit interiors and the bevy of bosomy belles ready to drop top whenever required. It had worked so wonderfully well for him some two years prior with Paul Naschy’s El Hombre Lobo The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971). No. In those times before Vampyres (1974) this is a monumental achievement rightly remembered as a well-deserved high zenith of early 1970s Iberian gothic horror throwbacks. Helga Liné had made a decent living starring in stuff like this, for young Tina Sáinz it is, was, and remains an anomaly in an otherwise respectable and long career. No wonder everyone remembers her for this.