AKA DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
USA/UK [TV movie]
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 98 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Solicitor Jonathan Harker goes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to meet Dracula, who wants to buy a house in England. Dracula reacts very strongly to a photograph of Harker’s fiancee Mina and her best friend Lucy because Lucy is the spitting image of his wife who died several centuries ago when he was Prince Vlad Tepes. After rescuing Harker from his three Brides, the Count forces Harker to write a letter saying that he will be staying in Transylvania for a month. Harker escapes to find Dracula’s coffin, but before he can stake him, is attacked by two of Dracula’s gypsy servants and given to the Brides. Some months later, the freighter Demeter runs aground on the southern English coast, carrying only Dracula and the dead captain lashed to the wheel….
So at last, after what seems like an eternity, I come to the second of the Hammer Draculas [The Brides Of Dracula doesn’t really count as Dracula isn’t actually in it] in my Hammer film review series, and because it’s sort of an occasion, I’ve also decided to review two TV adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula that I hadn’t seen before, re-work an old review for another film version, and review a fifth, unrelated Dracula film I hadn’t previously watched. This 1974 production, the fifth version of the book, seems to be a bit obscure but fairly well regarded by those who have seen it, and it is indeed quite a fine effort, reminiscent of a Hammer film at times, though, despite being originally called Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s not as faithful to Stoker as I expected. Instead, it’s a rather successful melding of aspects from the novel and Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, along with the addition of a romantic subplot for the Count. Now I always assumed that Dracula discovering the reincarnation of his love who died when he was the real-life Vlad the Impaler was original to the 1992 film version, but he and screenwriter James V. Hart actually pinched the idea from this one, and without, as far as I know, crediting this earlier version. It’s done rather well here – better, perhaps, than in the Coppola film [which I still love for its glorious style] – partly because it only makes Dracula a little bit sympathetic rather than into a kind of anti-hero, though the strongest feature of this production is Jack Palance’s superb Dracula, hands down one of the best portrayals of the characters ever done.
The funny thing about Palance playing Dracula is that, several years before, Marvel Comics ran a series called The Tomb Of Dracula where the drawer Gene Colan actually based the look of Marvel’s Dracula not on, as you might expect, Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, but Jack Palance, well known for playing villains but not any vampires. Producer Dan Curtis, best known for the TV series Dark Shadows, made a TV film version of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Me Hyde in 1968 starring Palance, but initially asked Jonathanm Frid to play the Count until he turned it down and Palance came on board. The script was by his frequent collaborator horror/sci-fi author and screenwriter Richard Matheson, though the love story aspect was pinched from Dark Shadows which also had a lovesick vampire. Dracula was shot in Yugoslavia, the UK at Pinewood Studios and Oakley Court [familiar from some Hammers] and Croatia where Castle Dracula was Trakoscan Castle in long shots. Palance felt the role of Dracula taking over him whilst filming and couldn’t wait for production to finish. Four scenes were shot in two versions because the TV movie actually got a theatrical release in some European countries, though the extra gore in the cinema version just amounted to some shots of blood coming out of mouths while vampires were being killed. Palance was subsequently asked to play Dracula several more times, but refused.
The beginning consisting of a lake and forest being reflected in the water, a pan up to reveal Castle Dracula on a hill and then shots of wolves running down a track into the entrance of the castle, is highly atmospheric and straight away indicated to me that this could be a really good version of Dracula. Unfortunately, it’s also the only scene supposedly taking place at night that is actually dark enough to look like it’s taking place at night, even though it was shot during the day and then darkened, as the fact that some much brighter shots from the scene are in the trailer makes evident. Every other nocturnal scene in this film is far too bright, the supposed day-for-night shooting coming off so badly that it sometimes looks like they didn’t even bother trying to darken the picture. It really is highly distracting, but it’s probably this version’s only really major problem. Anyway, Dracula is then introduced in a great entrance walking towards and past the camera, which is nice though unusual because there’s normally a bit of build-up before we first meet him. Then we get a caption that says: Bistritz, Hungary, May 1897. Yes, much like Howling 2 thinking that Transylvania is [or rather was] in Czechoslovakia, this film reckons that Transylvania is in Hungary. I’ve always thought it’s always been common knowledge that the region is in Romania, but obviously not. Silly me.
The early scenes of Harker in the castle follow the usual pattern, though here Harker is luckily trapped in a room which has lots of vines outside it to climb up. He also tries to kill Dracula with a spade [!], while the moments with the three Brides are weakly done. The voyage of the Demeter is covered with a sole but very memorable shot of a dead man tied to the wheel of a beached ship, his face frozen in fear, and Dracula walking off, presumably to get help as he’d have a lot of trouble getting all those coffins into Carfax Abbey otherwise. As in the 1958 version, there’s no Renfield and Lucy is Harker’s fiancée and, while Mina is just engaged to Arthur Holmwood rather than married to him, he becomes Van Helsing’s ally in fighting evil just as in that film. The 1992 one had Mina as the reincarnation of Dracula’s love, but here it’s Lucy, and the first encounter between Dracula and Lucy is superbly done, Lucy seemingly having some kind of sexual dream before going outside in a trance into the garden where Dracula awaits. They kiss passionately for some time before he bites her. It’s more genuinely erotic than any of the scenes in the 1992 one. Once Lucy is killed, a moment where we do feel rather sorry for Dracula but not for long [which is as it should be], it’s basically the novel from then on, until the curtain pulling down gag from the 1958 one is reprised, except that it’s not this that actually kills Dracula.
Dracula says very little [and only utters one variant on a line from the book] , but they allow him more screen time than any previous version by giving him several scenes where he shows off his superhuman strength by dispatching weak humans. As with the Hammer though, special effects are minimal and this Dracula doesn’t turn into anything, though he does command a wolf to crash through a window and attack someone indoors in an initially rather startling if not too convincing moment [though scenes like this were always hard to do without CGI]. There’s also an extremely noticeable gaff when a mysterious third person, probably a crew member, can be seen behind Van Helsing in one shot. It’s the kind of thing that digital technology should be used to remove as I think it’s entirely justifiable. Generally though it’s all handled pretty well. Perhaps the conclusion of Harker’s part of the story is done in an offhand fashion, but does provide a surprising scare, while the fate of Dracula’s wife/girlfriend is only suggested in one of several extremely short flashbacks, extremely well cut in to the main action, which only give us the broad outlines of Dracula’s past, leaving the viewer to fill bits whichever way he or she wants to. There really is very little blood – in fact we don’t even have any shots of stakes going into vampires – but to be honest the red stuff isn’t really missed. Despite being a TV production, it has a solid cinematic feel with some nice compositions, and Curtis has his odd things that he likes to do here and there, like begin a shot with a Dutch angle and then straighten up. Production design is sometimes almost as impressive as in early Hammers.
And Palance is just terrific. He’s genuinely unsettling and gives such a great impression of an unstoppable force, plus a sense of great evil, but also agony with it, tormented by his eternal existence, and with quite a few moments where he seems to be in great mental and even physical pain. Just look at the bits where he goes to bite someone – the act seems to be horrible to him. I’ll have to think about this, but it may very well be my favourite portrayal of Dracula, and by an actor I never would have thought would have been good in the part. It’s such a unique, layered and actually rather subtle essaying of the role, and it’s such a shame that he never played it again. Nigel Davenport is a refreshingly un-eccentric, down to earth Van Helsing, even though the character as written here is a bit wimp-ish in places, and the almost entirely British cast members are all solid. While not at all the best version of Dracula, it’s still a very good one, and one that deserves to be much more widely seen and appreciated. The Blu-ray looks stunning for a TV movie, and I’m so glad that I first got to see it in the best possible manner [well, outside of viewing it in a cinema, of course].