Count Dracula, billed as ‘a gothic romance based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ was a comparatively lavish 1977 Christmas special, originally broadcast as a two-and-a-half hour epic, divided into two halves by a news bulletin, but repeated as a three-part serial. In comparing it with various film or even TV movie adaptations of the same work, it is important to remember that this come from a different medium. It is a television play, primarily shot in a studio on videotape (with differing degrees of filmed location insert material), and the aesthetic is not that of the cinema: Americans might find the tone stranded somewhere between 1950s-style live studio-based drama and hasty gothic soap look of Dark Shadows. The prominent billing of the original author and the adaptor (Gerald Savory) over the director (Philip Saville) says a great deal about the priorities of the medium as understood by the BBC.
Saville does make some changes (Lucy and Mina are sisters, while Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris and amalgamated into an American diplomat, Quincy P. Holmwood), but it is among the most faithful of all adaptations of Dracula. On screen at last are such rarely-seen personages as the solicitor Mr Hawkins (whom Murnau and Herzog conflate with Renfield), Lucy’s mother (who only features in the Dan Curtis TV movie), Whitby ‘character’ Mr Swales, Lucy’s child victim, the peasant baby in a bag thrown to the Count’s wives as a consolation after Harker has been rescued (the novel’s nastiest and least-often-dramatised incident) and the Count’s Slovak gypsy servants.
The added running time means Savory (screenwriter of Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT) can afford to be leisurely with the dense plot, unlike the chaotic Francis Coppola film, though the limited BBC budget means we get a better sense of Whitby (this is the only Dracula to shoot on Stoker’s Yorkshire locations) than London. Again, the emphasis is on the performances: Louis Jourdan was, in the days before Frank Langella and Gary Oldman, an unusual choice for Dracula, playing up the melancholia over the ferociousness, acting sincerely throughout as a monster who doesn’t consider himself a villain. Jourdan is at once charming and viperish, and pulls off some of the Count’s more inhuman moments (flapping down the castle wall like a bat) remarkably, making no effort to hide the fact that he casts no reflection.
Co-lead billing is afforded Frank Finlay, whose Van Helsing shows up only after the intermission. Using a modified version of the Stokerian Dutch accent (this Van Helsing is amused to stumble over quirks of the English language), Finlay makes for an avuncular vampire-slayer, employing a trio of younger men – Jonathan (Bosco Hogan), Quincy (Richard Barnes) and Dr Seward (Mark Burns) – for the action stuff, but relying most of all on the deceptively-fragile Mina. Susan Penhaligon makes a girlish Lucy, innocently delighted in her own charms and reborn as a pretty predator, but the triumph of the film is Judi Bowker as the definitive Mina, winning many of the grace moments: her face shining in the darkness with tears as she worries about her fiance and Lucy prattles about her own happiness, the mingling of horror and desire as she is claimed by the callous Count, stern stuff in the finale as she proves the equal of her male saviours by shooting one of Dracula’s minions. Also good is Jack Shepherd as an introverted, sincere, sometimes-dangerous Renfield.
Working at a point when major TV drama in the UK was getting away from video into film, Saville knowingly uses the different formats: incorporating scratchy black and white stock footage, colour negative superimpositions, infra-red nightvision snippets and other tricks that highlight the mix of techniques rather than assuming most viewers won’t even notice the changes in image quality. Similarly ambitious is Kenyon Emrys-Roberts’ untraditional, evocative score.
Originally published in Video Watchdog.