Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cult TV-Movie Review: Dan Curtis's Dracula (1974)

In 1897, Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) travels to Hungary, and meets with his client, Count Dracula (Jack Palance), at the count’s castle in the Carpathians. 

After entering the estate freely -- of his “own will” -- Harker attempts to secure property in England for his host: dilapidated Carfax Abbey.

Meanwhile, Dracula shows a suspicious interest in Harker’s photograph of his fiancé, Mina Murray (Penelope Horner), and her friend, Lucy (Fiona Lewis).

The undead Dracula unlooses his three vampire brides on Harker, and leaves for England. 

Five weeks later, there are reports in Whitby, England of the arrival of a ghost ship, the Demeter, and its dead crew.  Soon, Lucy falls ill, the victim of some apparent mystery illness.

In truth, Dracula is draining Lucy’s blood, a little each night. A brilliant scientist, Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) arrives to help, and evidence leads him to the conclusion that a vampire is responsible for her suffering. 

This Dan Curtis TV-movie from 1974 is not the most notable production of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, perhaps, but it certainly earns points for a grim atmosphere of seriousness in its depiction of the famous “preternatural being,” and his campaign of terror in Victorian England.

The tele-film starts out as an uber-faithful adaptation of Stoker’s work, beginning with the Harker interlude, but as it goes on, it becomes less and less faithful to the source material. This is a result, perhaps, of budgetary or time restraints. 

For instance, Renfield is absent from this version entirely. Lucy’s three suitors are not present either, replaced by the character named Arthur (Sion Ward) instead.

And yet surprisingly -- since this was broadcast on network television -- the film doesn’t shy away from the sexual implication of the story. 

There is a scene here, for example, of Lucy dropping to her knees before a standing Dracula, which, when coupled with the disrobing of her bandaged neck, suggests wanton, sensual abandon.

The film's photography, by Oswald Morris, is quite powerful, and director Curtis shows a facility with film grammar when it comes to establishing Dracula's frightful power.

But any production of Dracula rises and falls on its depiction of the titular character.

Here Jack Palance plays the count squinty-eyed and labored,  an approach which suggests that Dracula is often in terrible physical pain, perhaps from his yearning for blood; or perhaps because of his yearning for companionship.  

Even Dracula’s death feels highly personal here. We (the audience) are on the receiving end of the wooden stake, looking right into Van Helsing’s eyes as the death blow is delivered. From this perspective, it’s as though we are being murdered.

The story, adapted by Richard Matheson, dispenses with some of Stoker’s more nightmarish (but expensive) imagery such as the blue rings of fire on the path to Dracula’s castle, or the dark count scaling the tower walls of his home.

The teleplay also invents a “human” motivation for Dracula’s campaign of terror, his invasion of England. In this case, Lucy is a dead ringer for the vampire’s long lost wife, whom he misses desperately. Intriguingly, this subplot (though changed to Mina...) is also included in Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though it is not a facet of Stoker’s original work in any way, shape, or form..

The epistolary structure of the novel is also missing here, but the core of Stoker’s work -- the “new” technology and science of the Victorian era (such as hypnosis…) of England vs the old world magic and romanticism of Dracula’s world -- remains largely intact. 

Van Helsing is portrayed as a particularly pragmatic sort of scientist, noting that he accepts “what is,” whether science agrees with the idea or not. The underlying notion is of a world of mysteries that mankind is conquering, one at a time. Advances in science, philosophy and technology are making that happen, so that the Draculas of the world are becoming fewer, or less dangerous.

It’s also illuminating, I hope, to note that there seems to be no appetite here for some of Stoker’s over-exposed dialogue (“creatures of the night….”). Instead the focus is on a very physically-intimidating Dracula. This Dracula doesn’t rely on transformations into mist or wolves -- again, too expensive -- but instead throws people out of windows and engages physically with his nemeses.

Dan Curtis’s Dracula is generally high-regarded among critics and fans of the vampire, and it’s easy to see why this is the case.

The tele-film is much more faithful to the source material than many of the 1930’s or 1950’s films were, and the Dan Curtis production seems grounded in a way that other dramatizations do not.  Today, the film feels a bit restricted by its origin and nature as a TV-movie, but still impresses, on more than one occasion. On paper, Palance doesn't seem a good choice for the title role, but he is able to project the power, anger, and tragedy of the count in a way that is worth remembering. 

1 comment:

  1. Sheri3:29 PM

    John, when I first saw this adaption, I had never had a chance to see the original with Lugosi in full so I had only the Hammer version to compare it to. I found it very compelling as a story in a way that had more immediacy--perhaps because of the juxtapositions you point out between the romantic and the contemporary that this version emphasized.

    It's for story reasons, I guess, that I didn't find Jack Palance so miscast because he is so good at his portrayal of a being out of keeping with the milieu, a deeply romantic and wounded character who no longer belongs. To me, his Dracula is in emotional as well as physical pain--as if he hates and resists his compulsions. It's a Gothic portrayal in a setting that's less than Gothic, which throws the character into high relief in a way that, say, Frank Langella's later portrayal did not.

    Palance certainly wasn't a conventional leading man type, yet he could be riveting when he given the chance at lead roles. "The Big Knife", in which he clearly was miscast, is an object lesson in what happens when a guy's acting choices and skills are at odds with his countenance. Palance was one of those men whose looks consigned him to a "character actor" box he didn't belong in (though he rarely played villains); like Vincent Price, he was very well read, an excellent cook, and a knowledgeable art connoisseur.

    It's not a surprise that Dan Curtis produced this movie, which is of a piece Dark Shadows! Curtis obviously had a notion of the romantic, sympathetic, and erotic vampire. That he cast Palance seems in keeping with his choice of Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins. Frid didn't look like a romantic lead, either, and he was saddled with a limited ability to memorize lines, which he flubbed fairly regularly. Fans just considered it as part of the wonderful wackiness of the show they affectionately dubbed "Mic Shadows" for its sometimes thrown-together chaos.


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