Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Count Dracula (1977) – review

Director: Philip Saville

Release Date: 1977

Contains spoilers

According to the DVD box this version of Dracula is available on DVD for the first time. This is not entirely true as it was available on DVD a few years ago but then withdrawn for reasons unknown (to me at least) a few months later. The original release of the DVD appears on eBay from time to time for very large sums of money. However it is now available again on general release.

So it is yet another version of Dracula. However there is much to be excited about. This is the BBC production, coming in at some 152 minutes and it is, by far, the most novel accurate version made. That is not to say that it is entirely accurate, but believe me you will not find anything closer.

With that in mind, I do not intend to go through the plot points generically as most readers of the blog will be familiar with the story, but rather intend to investigate some of the omissions and, in fairness, additions as well as the accuracies and think it best to concentrate, therefore, on the characters. This means that plot points in this review may be somewhat disjointed, it will be very spoiler heavy and I make no apologies for the length.

he first two characters we meet are Jonathon (Bosco Hogan) and Mina (Judi Bowker). We will begin with Mina. Mina has ceased to be Mina Murray, our first big change, and is now Mina Westenra – Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) is no longer her friend but her sister.

This version of Mina, however is masterfully played by Bowker, at turns vulnerable and strong.
This is a version of Mina quite willing to pick up a rifle and shoot a gypsy attacking her husband but also a Mina who would cry in the night whilst her love is away and incommunicado. Jonathon is very much as he should be, Hogan turning in a solid performance, and having said farewell to Mina departs to Castle Dracula as per the book.

Of course, at the castle Harker meets Dracula (Louis Jourdan) and it is right and proper that we look at the performance in the first instance. Jourdan plays a very understated Dracula. He appears, at first, just a man but we see the difference immediately when he carries, with ease, the case that Jonathon has dragged across the courtyard due to its weight.

The performance, as I say, is incredibly understated but that does not mean it is poor in any way, shape or form. Jourdan may not have the imposing presence of Christopher Lee nor does he bring the charisma to the role that Bela Lugosi did. However it is a fine performance. When he disturbs the brides around Jonathon he does not shout, he speaks softly but there is presence there and we can understand why they would obey him.

Another moment that should be mentioned, later in the film, that underscores the way Jourdan chose to play the Count is when he confronts Van Helsing (Frank Finlay). Van Helsing holds up a cross and speaks in Latin but Dracula is dismissive, there is an arrogance to his words when he simply states, “Yes, yes, it always sounds more convincing in Latin.”

That same arrogance is evident when Harker stumbles upon Dracula’s reposed form in his coffin and attacks the Count with a shovel. The arrogance of a slight smile, mocking the human’s futile attempt to stop him.

[Edited, see comments]This was one of the earliest production of Dracula to use a wall crawl, observed by a horrified Harker (the earliest being in the 1973 CBS production that is, currently, unavailable commercially). The actual scene seems odd at first glance with Dracula spread on the wall almost flopping down the battlement. However the strange movements add an inhuman quality that is very fitting and almost bat like.

Another thing that came straight from the book was giving Dracula hairy palms as was allowing him to function in daylight. Missing, however, is the idea of the Count being old when Harker meets him and growing younger as the film progresses. However that omission actually compliments an addition to lore that I’ll mention in detail when we look at Renfield (Jack Shepherd).

I mentioned that we have vampire brides and these seem different to other filmed versions. They are not the ethereal brides portrayed in the 1931 Dracula nor are they the overtly sensual brides later portrayed in the 1992 Dracula. These brides seem almost girlish, perhaps slightly coy. They take a letter from Harker and skip around the room teasing him. Yet they seem all the more sinister for this.

Later, when we see them in the woods as they tempt Mina to join them, and they are thwarted by Van Helsing we see, perhaps, their true face. They snarl and grasp like beasts and the transformation is more shocking because of their girlish appearance. The same can be said of the time when Dracula gives them a baby or when Harker finds them in their coffins, the blood at the mouth juxtaposes with the gently flirting creatures we saw to begin with.

Next we should look towards Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) but before we do let us look at her suitors, for this is one of the changes we see from the original story. Lucy receives two marriage proposals. The first is from John Seward (Mark Burns) and, to be fair, there is little noteworthy of Seward in this, he is a foil for the other characters and little more.

Her second beau, and the man she chooses to marry, is a combination of Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood, the two characters merged into one and called Quincey P Holmwood (Richard Barnes) – an American friend of Seward who works at the American embassy. In truth this was, to me, the most unconvincing performance in the production – down to the overt accent, I feel. When Quincey’s first uttered words are “Whoa there, little lady,” I cringed – but perhaps that is just me – that said, Barnes is superb when Lucy is staked. Being a combination of a character who dies in the novel and one who survives, I’ll leave it to you to guess which happens to this Quincey.

Lucy’s story is a major focus of the production, as it should be, and Lucy is generally very well played by Penhaligon. She is, perhaps, a little more nervous than we would expect Lucy to be but the character is certainly within the correct ball-park.

The attacks on Lucy begin in Whitby, as per the book, and it was great to see the filmmakers actually use Whitby as a location. It was also great to see the book’s minor character Swales (George Malpas) used in the way Stoker intended. One thing of note is that Lucy develops fangs almost from the get go, as does Mina later. This is discreet and yet we as an audience have noticed them long before Van Helsing is on the scene.

It was also good that Lucy’s mother (Ann Queensberry) was involved and met her end as described in the book, with the minor change that the wolf seemed to be Dracula transformed rather than an escapee from the zoo. One minor complaint was during the death scene of Lucy, as she becomes lascivious towards Holmwood, one felt that Penhaligon’s performance owed a tad to the Exorcist!

However the return of Lucy – despite a very minor logic glitch – is so well handled that it becomes a highlight of the entire production. It begins with Van Helsing and Seward returning to Lucy’s crypt, the Dutchman intent on removing her head. When they open the coffin she is gone. They leave and see a young boy who seems dazed and talks of the blooferlady. Van Helsing picks him up and, noticing the bitemarks, realises that Lucy has turned. This is the logic glitch as one would have thought that her empty casket was enough to tip him off.

They return the next night with Quincey and a snarling Lucy makes her presence felt. She stops snarling and becomes seductive as she approaches Quincey, very nearly biting her former love before Van Helsing holds her back with a cross, forcing her to retreat to her crypt in a well done mist form.

Inside the crypt she has returned to her coffin. This then leads to the highlight moment that is the actual staking of Lucy by Quincey as Van Helsing recites the prayer for the dead and it is easily one of the best on screen stakings I have had the pleasure of watching. The brutality of the scene, and the pain that Quincey feels, are palpable. We should note that, post stake, Van Helsing places garlic blossom in her mouth rather than garlic bulbs.

The next character to examine is Renfield. Perhaps less used than often, his role sees one of the biggest changes from the book. Sheppard plays a very British lunatic, generally polite with flashes of violence, but this is not what I mean when I mentioned changes.

In the book Renfield is a psychic barometer for vampiric activity, almost being used by Stoker as a literary device. His main plot influence is allowing Dracula to gain access to Mina with an invitation into the asylum. In this production it is unnecessary as the invitation rule is ignored. Mina has met Renfield briefly and is then attacked, at home, by Dracula.

The next day, with the heroes unaware of the night time visitation, Mina visits Renfield and they talk of a dream he was in and souls. Dracula visits Renfield and asks him why he refused his gift, he says he sent Renfield a human, already initiated, and they were to drink of each other to gain eternal life – referring of course to Mina. Renfield is killed for his refusal and Dracula then visits Mina again – thus we click back into the book’s main plot again with him making her drink from his chest.

However the motivation seems different in this. I mentioned about how the Count did not grow younger in this, and this is because a new piece of lore is added. Dracula states that vampires are nourishment for one another and, indeed, his purpose in travelling to England was to gain new disciples. It seems that the presence of the brides in Transylvania was enough to let him maintain his youth.

Last but not least we have Van Helsing and I adore the way he was portrayed by Finlay. This Van Helsing manages to maintain a friendly, almost doddering, exterior and yet be filled with a steely determination that is clearly visible in his eyes. In fact I’d go as far as to say that this is my favourite portrayal of Van Helsing.

There is none of the flash that we would later see with Hopkins portrayal in the 1992 dracula. When this Van Helsing draws a circle of protection around himself and Mina, when they are accosted by the vampire brides, it is fortified by the host and does not burst into a burning ring of fire and it is towards this modest portrayal that I am drawn (though I must admit I did like the way Hopkins played the role as well).

We should note that one of the omissions is that Van Helsing does not hypnotise Mina, indeed the jump from London back to Transylvania is somewhat abrupt. The omission of hypnosis seems a shame as it was one of the more interesting sub-threads in the novel.

Anything that I have written so far that sounds negative must be taken along with the understanding that I also see them as very minor issues against the whole. However there is one issue with the production that is more problematic.

Whilst the aging of the filmstock and, perhaps, its original quality are not issues, indeed the film quality offers the production an additional charm, I am less sure about some of the graphic effects used. There is an over-reliance on overlays that may well have been cutting edge in 1977 but look terribly dated and cheesy now. That is a shame but it cannot take away from the performances or from the quality and general accuracy of the storytelling.

The production itself has a rich gothic drama atmosphere that avoids falling too far towards melodrama. It does fail to be horrific, generally, but when it achieves it, such as with the staking of Lucy, it seems so more effective due to the gentile dramatic quality imbued within the production. I should also mention the fact that whilst the finale isn't exactly like the novel it is somewhat spectacular.

This might not be the iconic vision of the 1931 production. It isn’t the blockbuster vision of the 1992 version nor is it the rich gothic horror achieved by Hammer. It is, however, a fine production, one that will appeal to novel purists certainly, but one that should find its way onto the viewing lists of all genre fans. 8.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

clbmfpLove it, love it! What can one say for a woman who gets misty eyed with memories while reading a horror film review? I must be the most obsessive Vamp Hoe of all time.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I'm saying nothing - lol - except to thank you for the comment of course

Brad Middleton said...

I finally just got around to watching this one, so of course I had to search your blog to see what you thought of it. ;) I agree on mostly all points, especially regarding Quincy's accent; even to this Canadian's ears, it sounded way too fake. As for the head first wall-crawl -- this scene was first included 4 years earlier in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation adaptation for their "Purple Playhouse" series (1973). In this story, Lucy is also Mina's sister, and she only has one suitor. One major thing I like about the CBC adaptation: no Vlad Tepes references! No lost love! It must be the rarest of adaptations; it's never been released commercially.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Brad, I'll take your word on the wall crawl (and edit the review) as I have not seen the cbs 1973 production - as you say a very rare beast.

Thanks for popping round :)

Anonymous said...

When you mentioned a 1973 CBS version you meant Dan Curtis Dracula, starring Jack Palance? Because there is no crawling scene on that film. Or is it another version?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Sara CBS did a production in 1973 that production notes have floated around for but is - as yet - still unavailable, so not the Dan Curtis one.

Dale said...

A personal favorite for sure! Along with the "Spanish" version the most satisfying for me as a fan of Stoker's novel.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Nice one Dale, cheers for stopping by :)