In the late 60s and early 70s, American producer-director Dan Curtis, who chanced on the genre with his Dark Shadows gothic soap, turned out a series of TV versions of classic horror tales: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Jack Palance; Frankenstein, with Robert Foxworth and Bo Svenson; The Picture of Dorian Gray, with Shane Briant; The Turn of the Screw, with Lynn Redgrave. Better cast than Dark Shadows, these are hard to sit still for (or even see) these days because studio-bound videotape drama is a deeply unfashionable format and Curtis tends to encourage even the good actors rant and rave like daytime soap stars. After more success with the vampire genre in the big-screen House of Dark Shadows and the Richard Matheson-scripted TV hit The Night Stalker, Curtis inevitably turned his attention to Dracula. Though this shot-on-film version was a TV movie in the States, it managed theatrical release in the United Kingdom.
Boasting a ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ possessory credit two decades before Francis Coppola — the titles read ‘Jack Palance as Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ — this is one of a succession of Draculas that claim to go back to the original text rather than mimic the approaches taken by Murnau’s Nosferatu, Browning’s (and George Melford’s) Dracula or Terence Fisher’s Dracula. It came three years after Jesus Franco’s El conde Dracula and four before Philip Saville’s BBC production Count Dracula, not to mention John Badham’s Dracula, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you throw in Drakula Istanbul’da, Jonathan and the Mystery and Imagination episode, that’s a great many takes on one basic text. It’s hard not to feel that the ground has well and truly been trampled, especially since all versions share a great many things (some not from Stoker, like the cloak), cop bits other films leave out (Curtis’s very minor coup is making something of the character of Lucy’s mother) and are compelled to add their own new wrinkles (which are then taken up or rejected by later versions).
Screenwriter Richard Matheson, like W.D. Richter for Badham and James V. Hart for Coppola, streamlines Stoker’s novel and tries to recast the basic story of good against evil as a tragic love tale. This means starting and ending with Dracula (Jack Palance) alone in his castle, with a tapestry that depicts the vampire in life as Vlad Tepes, and replaying that tiresome search-for-the-reincarnation-of-lost-love gambit (cf: The Mummy, Blacula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Badham and Coppola both have the problem of selling us a sensitive antihero who has a pure love for the heroine that transcends death but no sooner meets up with his predestined sweetie than he seduces her best friend; more sensibly, Matheson makes *Lucy*, not Mina, the reincarnation of the wife Vlad Tepes lost in life. Palance only really becomes the traditional monster when he discovers the girl he has lovingly turned into a vampire has been staked, giving him a solid motive for going after Mina and making the lives of Lucy’s destroyers miserable. Before that, the worst he has done is forced Jonathan to write a letter and snarled a lot.
Otherwise, Matheson and Curtis follow Hammer by ditching Dr Seward, Renfield and Quincey Morris and making Van Helsing a friend of the family from the outset. Matheson, unlike Jimmy Sangster, has Dracula come to England (having made plans because he has seen Lucy’s photograph in an English newspaper that has for some reason been delivered to Transylvania). The British part of the action stays away from London and keeps to Whitby and other Northern locales (a zoo in Scarborough, a shipping firm in Stockton-on-Tees), though, unlike Badham and Saville, Curtis doesn’t include even a token Yorkshire accent: all servants and rustic walk-ons have those mockney accents American filmmakers assign to lower-class Victorian Brits. Like Christopher Lee, Jack Palance does a lot of appearing in doorways or on landings, striding down stairs or through gardens and fang-baring hisses, though his outfit is (as Stoker describes) all black without a scarlet cape lining (that’s saved for his coffin). As in Sangster’s script, Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) is killed off at the end of act one: he has a brief turn as a vampire in the finale, tossed into a pit of stakes in an image lifted from Return of Dracula. The climax even cops Fisher’s business with Van Helsing tearing down the curtains to let the sun fall on the vampire.
However, this 98 minute plod between commercials sorely lacks the dynamism of the Hammer film. A lot of it consists of tableaux (Dracula standing by his coffin on the beach near the dead skipper of the Russian boat) with plentiful zooms in and out of things (Curtis is every bit as keen on his trick lenses as Franco). The setting is 1897, the year of the novel’s publication, but Stoker’s mod cons (dictaphones, train timetables) are omitted and costumes look a couple of decades earlier while the male hairstyles are very 1973. Thanks to Network Standards and Practices, there is little blood (after staking Lucy, Van Helsing wipes a smear of gore off her mouth) and almost no sense of the erotic, making it very thin and pale next to Saville’s surprisingly gruesome BBC serial. Shot in Yugoslavia and England, it has the flatly unatmospheric feel of Jack Smight’s Frankenstein: The True Story: Castle Dracula, Hillingham (the estate where Lucy lives) and Carfax Abbey (familiar Oakley Court) are all borrowed stately homes with well-preserved antique furnishings and few sinister shadows. Curtis is fond of low, slightly distorted angles, tilted up to show the red ceilings.
It’s a drab-looking production, with everyone dressed in black and white (admittedly, they are often in mourning) and flat actors like Simon Ward (Arthur) and Nigel Davenport (Van Helsing) underplaying even melodramatic lines like ‘if the cause of your fiancée’s affliction is what I think it is, the beside it the most venomous serpent in the world would seem a plaything for children’. Only Fiona Lewis (Lucy) makes much of a supporting role, and her Lucy is out of the way all too swiftly. The brides (Virginia Wetherell, Barbara Lindley, Sarah Douglas) barely register, the wonderful Pamela Brown (of I Know Where I’m Going and Tales of Hoffmann) merely quivers in the background as Mrs Westenra and Penelope Horner’s minor Mina (pronounced ‘Minna’) Murray (she never marries) doesn’t even get a close-up until after Lucy has died twice and sits out of the climax back at the inn.
Palance is rather well-suited for the role, with his battered Eastern European face and fanged snarl, but has none of Lugosi’s relish for the dialogue or Lee’s dynamic cloak-swishing. And the happy, canoodling Palance of the misty, music box-scored flashbacks is even less reassuring than the gloomy vampire. He is given a few physical action bits, including a furious wrecking of Lucy’s tomb after he finds her skewered which seems borrowed from Orson Welles’s trashing of his departed wife’s boudoir in Citizen Kane and a corridor-and-staircase confrontation with a bunch of hotel minions that allows him to toss extras about and snap necks after the manner of the vampire villain of The Night Stalker. Strangely, his best moment comes after he has been impaled against an upturned table with a lance and the soundtrack resounds with battlefield cheers and cries of his name as the camera pulls back to let him die as a mediaeval hero rather than a 19th century monster. The effect, sadly, is spoiled by a silly, Plan 9-ish closing caption about Vlad the Impaler that suggests he conquered death and signs off with ‘to this day, it has yet to be disproven’.
From: Ten Years of Terror: British Films of the 1970s (FAB Press), edited by Harvey Fenton and David Flint.