Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974, Dan Curtis)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: This American TV movie was originally called Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, in the early 1990s Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to that title for his own adaptation, so this has since been renamed Dan Curtis’ Dracula or simply Dracula. Aptly, Coppola’s movie owes it a certain debt …

Setting: Like in the novel, we start in ‘Bistritz, Hungary’. (Part of Romania since the Second World War, the city is now usually called Bistrița.) After the lengthy sequence at Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, we cut to Whitby. The Westenra home, Hillingham, is said to be 10 miles away from Carfax, the house Dracula buys – both seem to be nebulously close to Whitby. There are also quick scenes set in Stockton, Darlington, Richmond and at Scarborough Zoo. The story begins in May 1897 and takes place over a few weeks.

Faithful to the novel? More than most adaptations. It captures the spirit of the book even if a number of plot changes have been made. It’s one of the few Dracula movies to commit to the book’s lopsided opening, for example. We’re with Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown from Vampyres) and Count Dracula (Jack Palance) for half an hour before we cut to other characters. And it’s apparent very quickly that Richard Matheson’s script is a truncated retelling of Stoker’s story – Harker already knows that friends Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis) and Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) are engaged, which in the book happens while he’s away, and he also realises he’s Dracula’s prisoner very quickly. The biggest tweak to the established tale is the addition of an entirely new subplot. Harker spots a 1475 painting on a wall of the castle showing Vlad Tepes and his wife. We immediately see that the man in the painting looks identical to Harker’s host. The idea that the fictional Dracula *is* the historical Vlad III (aka Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, who lived circa 1428-1477) is a literal-minded reading of the novel. Bram Stoker certainly reused one of Vlad’s names and some of his history, but it’s doubtful he intended the character to be a real person. Thanks to movies like this one, though, this is now an essential part of the mythology. Another huge addition this film brings to the canon is the notion that one of the female characters is a reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead wife – an idea totally absent from the novel. In this telling, the Count sees a photograph of Lucy and recognises her from 500 years earlier (and we recognise her in the painting). We even see soft-focus flashbacks to the couple’s happy life together, scored by a whimsical music-box tune. The idea has an interesting history. Producer/director Dan Curtis had previously created Dark Shadows, a US TV soap opera with supernatural characters and concepts that ran from 1966 until 1971. Its most popular character was a Dracula-like vampire called Barnabas Collins, who had lost the love of his life centuries earlier and now encountered her doppelgänger. Curtis happily admitted that he ‘plagerised himself’ by adding the concept to this adaptation of Dracula. (A year or so before this film was made, blaxploitation movie Blacula also used the same conceit, but this seems to be a coincidence.) Like with the Vlad the Impaler notion, Dracula meeting the reincarnation of his lost love is now used so often that many think it’s from the novel. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film is the most famous example, though it has Mina as the double rather than Lucy. Anyway, back to this version… At the half-hour point, we cut away from Harker and switch to Whitby – as in the novel. But the plot is speeded up here quite a bit: Dracula has landed in the Demeter and Lucy has started sleepwalking by the time Mina (Penelope Horner) arrives to visit. It also becomes clear that the script has culled a few characters and subplots. There’s no Quincy Morris or Jack Seward: both men have been merged with Arthur, who now carries the bulk of the story. (Losing Seward means we also get no hospital storyline and no Renfield, of course.) The story now starts to deviates more from the novel. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) is English in this version and is said to be a friend of Arthur’s. Having deduced that Dracula is in the area, he and Arthur move Mina and Lucy’s mother (Pamela Brown) into a hotel for safety. But Dracula tracks them and attacks the hotel staff to gain entry. Meanwhile, Arthur and Van Helsing travel to Whitby to investigate the vampire’s arrival in England. When the pair and Mina later track Dracula to his castle, there’s a superb twist… Jonathan Harker hasn’t been seen or heard from since his escape attempt. An hour of screen time has passed so we’ve kind of forgotten about him. (In the book he goes missing for a while, but then Mina learns he’s in a Romanian hospital and goes to fetch him.) Van Helsing and Arthur search the castle… and are attacked by Harker, who’s now a vampire!

Best performance: Jack Palance is terrific. He’s honouring the text, rather than the cliché, and is commanding and – in a strange way – sympathetic. The actor loved the role, but said he worried he was getting lost in the darkness. He was later offered further Dracula scripts but turned them all down. Though proud of this performance and the film, he hadn’t watched it when interviewed about it in the 1990s.

Best bit: Dracula has ‘turned’ Lucy, who of course he equates with his long-dead love, so sneaks down to her crypt. He’s actually smiling at the thought of being with her. But when he reaches her coffin he’s distraught to find that Van Helsing has staked her…

Review: This is broadly enjoyable stuff if you know the novel well and enjoy spotting the ways the script is concertinaing in order to cut sections out. It’s engaging, creepy, and there’s plenty of fine location filming in eastern Europe and England (including at Oakley Court, a house seen in various Hammer horrors, Vampyres and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). However, the briskness comes at a cost. We power through the story at such a rate that there’s no time for any depth. No character is especially interesting (except possibly Dracula himself, thanks to Palance’s charisma) and we never get to know any of them. Even worse, the women are barely more than plot devices. Lucy is a very important character, but is turned into a vampire so swiftly that it’s difficult to care about what happens her. Also, because the film was made for TV, there’s a distinct lack of sex, violence and genuine scares. Originally planned for broadcast in October 1973, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was pulled in favour of news coverage of US Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation and eventually screened in February 1974.

Seven John Challis cameos out of 10

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