As everyone who’s ever tried to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula into another medium has found, the novel is too sprawling to be easily reduced to eighty minutes of straight-ahead drama. However, this episode of the low-budget ITV series Mystery and Imagination (substantially shot in three days!) does interesting, even innovative things. It takes cues from the 1920s theatrical versions and the 1931 film and some business evokes Hammer, but telewriter Charles Graham and director Patrick Dromgoole make choices which prefigure the directions of subsequent Draculas with Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella, Klaus Kinski and Gary Oldman. One clever shortcut – starting the action in Whitby and doing the Harker-goes-to-Transylvania/brides-of-Dracula shtick as a hallucinatory film insert flashback – even resurfaces in Guy Maddin’s Dracula Pages From a Virgin’s Diary.
‘Number 34’ (Corin Redgrave), a wild-and-white-haired madman, gets out of his straitjacket and erupts through the upstairs windows, literally crashing a dinner party hosted by Dr Seward (James Maxwell). As the lunatic prostrates himself before his ‘master’, the camera pans to reveal the guest of honour is Count Dracula (Denholm Elliott), already ensconced in polite society. This Dracula has a black goatee, Vincent Price-in-Tomb of Ligeia sunglasses and affects a garment which resembles a monk’s habit as much as the traditional cloak. Elliott manages a Transylvanian accent which isn’t a Lugosi imitation and delivers Stoker’s speech about Dracula’s ancient bloodline to an impressed Lucy Weston (Susan George). In Browning’s Dracula, Renfield gets Harker’s trip to the castle; here, Harker gets Renfield’s insanity: Number 34 isn’t Stoker’s madman, but his hero — so altered even his own wife Mina (Suzanne Neve) takes a while to recognise him. In a striking scene, Dracula semi-possesses Jonathan – Redgrave spreads a blanket like a cape and taunts vampire-hunters in Elliott’s dubbed voice.
A severely-bearded Van Helsing (Bernard Archard) uses mesmerism to help Jonathan remember his Transylvanian ordeal. The brides are less sexy than usual, played as hissing, capering vermin. Unusually for 1968, when only Jean Rollin’s Le Viol du Vampire was a precedent, one vampire is black, Nina Baden-Semper (later co-star of national embarrassment sit-com Love Thy Neighbour). While Seward and Van Helsing fuss over Jonathan, Lucy is repeatedly bitten by Dracula. Victims clearly enjoy being drained, though Elliott sports the nastiest fangs – rattier even than Max Schreck’s – of any screen Dracula. Neve’s married Mina, whom Lucy criticises as ‘too governessy’, is unhealthily repressed, allowing George a chewier role as flirt, invalid, corpse and vampire.
Several often-dropped characters appear. Lucy’s ailing mother (Joan Hickson) is the useless twit who breaks the garlic chain to allow the vampire into her daughter’s boudoir; servants are usually blamed for this – here, a maid notes Dracula doesn’t have a reflection but thinks better of mentioning it to her employers. Swales (Hedley Goodall), Stoker’s ‘local character’, gloats about lies told on gravestones (‘she were a proper slut’) and establishes Dracula’s British residence is a suicide’s grave in the Whitby churchyard (almost all the action takes place in the asylum or the cemetery). A Carmilla-ish Lucy bites her friend before Dracula puts his own mark on Mina.
Seward has a Protestant English horror at Van Helsing’s vampire-killing ‘popery’ (rosaries, crucifixes). In the climax, Van Helsing uses holy water to reconsecrate the suicide’s grave and Dracula (who offers to share the knowledge of centuries if shown mercy) disintegrates in the dawn light. A wax face melts off a skull, with Elliott’s face superimposed – a strikingly gruesome effect. Later Draculas belabour the point (subtly made here) that the vampire is more appealing than stiff, prurient, uptight men arrayed against him. Maxwell goes too far with face-pulling in the finale, as Seward reacts to Dracula’s disintegration as if it were simply a foul smell. As in Terence Fisher’s Dracula, the wind blows away the Count’s ashes, leaving only his ring. With a cynicism echoed by John Badham’s Dracula and a bit of business used in the 1980 Flash Gordon, Mina picks up the ring, still enslaved to the Count. Under the end credits, Mina is seen with fangs, predating the punchlines of the Count Yorga films.
Extract from Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon.