Plot: four comely women and their chaperon strand in the Carpathians
In The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971) Barbara Capell's Genevieve Bennett jokingly mused, “Perhaps Count Dracula will appear and he will invite us to spend the night in his castle.” Two years later and with a fresh batch of willing and able Eurobabes the Spanish Lon Chaney, Jr. Paul Naschy did indeed made good on that promise. Shot back-to-back with The Hunchback of the Rue Morgue and using many of the same talent in front, and behind, the camera Count Dracula’s Great Love is a throwback to the costume period horror pieces from Britain’s horror factory Hammer Film. With little in the way of innovation and an abundance of heaving bosoms, Count Dracula’s Great Love is a glacially paced exercise with enough idiosyncrasies of its own to keep it interesting for the gothic horror fanatic.
1973 proved a fertile year for the gothic horror throwback following the success of Hammer Film's Karnstein trilogy of Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971), and Twins Of Evil (1971) as well as Jesús Franco's Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Jean Rollin's The Nude Vampire (1970), and features like The Night Of the Damned (1971). Among others that year saw the release of The Devil's Wedding Night (with Rosalba Neri), The Dracula Saga (with Helga Liné and Narciso Ibáñez Menta), Black Magic Rites (with Rita Calderoni), and Female Vampire (with Lina Romay). Nude For Satan (1974) and Vampyres (1974) arrived early enough to benefit from the wave. The granddaddy of them all was, of course, Emilio Vieyra's blood-and-boobs spectacular Blood Of the Virgins (1967) (with Susana Beltrán). With interest in erotic gothic horror and vampires at an all-time high Paul Naschy couldn’t possibly stay behind. He penned his own peculiar take on the Dracula legend with assistance from director Javier Aguirre, and Alberto S. Insúa. Almost two decades after Lamberto Bava’s I, Vampiri (1954) Paul Naschy embodied a sullen King of Vampires in what can be considered an unicum in his filmography.
En route from Biarritz to the Carpathians via the Borgo Pass Imre Polvi (Víctor Barrera, as Vic Winner) and his four comely lady friends Senta (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanny), Karen (Haydée Politoff), Elke (Mirta Miller), and Marlene (Ingrid Garbo) discuss the significance of the Carpathians, its relation to the Dracula legend, and its roots in the historical accounts of Vlad Tepes, the warlord of Wallachia. Accounts that they, for all intents and purposes, couldn’t possibly be aware of considering it is only 1870. When their carriage loses a wheel, and their coachman is critically injured in the process, they are forced to seek refuge in the isolated residence of Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy), who lives in a opulent castle, a renovated sanitarium of one Dr. Kargos, a portmanteau of famous Dracula actors Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. Their gracious host is delighted by the company of the delectable aristocrat ladies and welcomes them into his abode. From there on out the ladies and their chaperon soon discover that Marlowe is not quite who he pretends to be.
Upon settling in their rooms for the night the five travellers are soon witness to the strange going-ons in and around the castle. Shadowy figures stalk the darkened hallways, and Dr. Marlowe’s nocturnal behavior soon reveals that he is actually the Prince of Darkness himself, the fabled Count Dracula. In quick succession the bra-busting Senta, Elke (who everybody calls “elle-key”), and Marlene fall victim to the Count’s diabolical charms and are turned into his Brides. To the virginal Karen, with whom Dracula is smitten from the moment she sets foot in his castle, he entrusts that he seeks a woman of pure blood that loves him, as a means to resurrect his daughter Rahdna. "The Prince of Darkness will not acquire the true potential of his bewitching power until he encounters a true virgin that will fall in love with the vampire in a natural way... giving herself to him without the need of his diabolical powers", as he puts it himself. Alternately, Dracula sees Karen as his true love, and as the ideal sacrifice to facilitate the resurrection of his long-dormant daughter. The plotpoint is quickly discarded in favor of a tragically romantic subplot as Count Dracula wants to spent eternity with Karen, an idea she isn’t very comfortable with. It is then that the dejected Dracula commits suicide by pushing a stake through his own heart.
What little there is of actual plot and character development is compensated by the ladies’ lovely costumes. The second act is awash with several scenes of blood drinking, whipping, torture, and lesbian groping. To their credit Yanni, Miller and Garbo (in one of her last roles) all have extended nude scenes in the international market versions. In an interesting twist of convention Imre Polvi, the chaperon to the four aristocratic ladies, is victimised by one of the castle-dwelling grave diggers from the prolog that were turned by Dracula. Imre in turn vampirizes half of the ladies before Dracula sinks his teeth into the remaining few. Senta, Elke, and Marlene become the Brides of Dracula, while the virginal Karen wards off her exanimate companions. In an unexpected twist of chivalry, an undead Imre defends Karen from the clutches of Dracula in the second act. The tragic love story would make a return in Francis Ford Coppola’s big-budget retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) with Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, and Winona Ryder.
Director Javier Aguirre had just directed The Hunchback of the Rue Morgue, another classic movie monster project by the prolific Paul Naschy with Rosanna Yanni and Víctor Barrera in the principal cast. French actress Haydée Politoff debuted in the Éric Rohmer film La Collectionneuse (1967) but from 1970 became an erotic exploitation - and horror cinema regular. She retired from acting after her last film in 1981. Rosanna Yanni had worked earlier with Paul Naschy in The Mark of the Wolfman (1968), and played one the barmaids in Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), for which she also acted as producer. Next to playing in Count Dracula’s Great Love in 1973 Yanni also appeared in The Amazons by former Bond director Terence Young. Naschy before, and after, would return to his lycanthrope nobleman Waldemar Daninsky in the years after. Interestingly, Count Dracula’s Great Love was the only time that Paul Naschy would portray the immortally condemned Count Dracula.
Even for 1970 standards Count Dracula’s Great Love is charmingly stuffy. The lush costumes, the interiors full of shadowy corridors, and torchlit mausoleums, and fog-filled exteriors are all the work of production designer José Luis Galicia. The rustic cinematography by Raúl Pérez Cubero and majestic score by Carmelo A. Bernaola greatly add to the atmosphere of a land frozen in time. All are testament to the fact that Count Dracula’s Great Love has it roots in Dracula adaptations of the 1950/60s. Naschy’s Dracula isn’t a hulking mortal threat that wields inconceivable power and commands arcane forces far beyond the ken of man. In Count Dracula’s Great Love the Count rather is a mousy character not that different from his mortal house guests, consumed by the very same frailties and weaknesses. It is this what makes Count Dracula’s Great Love interesting beyond the appeal of its more obvious exploitation elements such as rampant nudity and bloodletting.