Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dracula {1973} – review


Director: Dan Curtis

Release Date: 1973

Contains spoilers

With Dan Curtis at the helm, a screenplay by Richard Matheson and Jack Palance starring as Dracula you’d think nothing could go wrong with this and, in truth, this is a very capable retelling of Stoker’s novel.

The story is, of course, rather familiar and it is perhaps better to look at where this differs from the original rather than go blow by blow through the plot. Murray Brown as Jonathon HarkerFirstly the list of characters, as often happens in motion picture retellings of Dracula, is curtailed. We have Jonathon Harker (Murray Brown) who travels to Castle Dracula, his fiancée Mina Murray (Penelope Horner) and her friend Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis). She is engaged to Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward). Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) is there of course and, rarely used in the adaptations, we also have Mrs Westenra (Pamela Brown).

Of course that means we are missing Renfield, Quincy Morris and Jack Seward from the main characters.

The biggest difference in the way this is depicted, though there are several differences as we will see, is captured in how Palance portrayed Dracula. This is most certainly “hardcore” Dracula. Dracula takes a biteHe snarls and roars. There is no turning to mist when he wants to get through a door, he breaks the bugger down. The first hint that this is a meaner, leaner Dracula comes when he meets Harker. He offers him food, yes, but then immediately demands to see the pictures of the properties that Harker is suggesting he buys… now. When Harker is asked to write letters to his employer and loved ones saying he will stay for a month he isn’t really asked but told. He is immediately locked away on his arrival, no pretence of being a guest here, and when the brides (who we’ll get to soon) are told to leave him it is clearly until Dracula is finished with him – this is said in front of Harker. When the letters are written he immediately strikes Harker. All this makes Dracula more forceful, more the ruthless boyar.

Later in the film he fights his way out of a hotel, casually tossing people aside. This is Dracula under hardcore rules.

The same hardcore rules apply to the brides. They are not ethereal, seductive creatures. These are snarling Hell Bitches who go for the jugular and that is a pleasure to see for a change. Of course, all this means that there is no way Harker is getting out of Castle Dracula – which in itself is a plot change from the original. The difference between this and Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958), another film in which Harker fails to escape, is that in the earlier film Harker was a vampire hunter, he knew what he was getting into. In this, as in the novel, Harker is a poor unfortunate.

However, the Dracula character has motivation. flash back to a more romantic DraculaHe has recognised Lucy as being identical to his mortal love Maria. The film hints that the move to England was originally planned around this; though he sees Lucy in a picture that Harker has, the same picture is later discovered in a newspaper clip kept in a scrapbook in Dracula's chambers. During the film we get slow motion memories of Dracula and Maria together, with musical box tunes floating across the memory. In his excellent review Exclamation Mark had the following to say: “Jack Palance passionately kissing a woman is far more disturbing than Dracula drinking her blood. And that’s not just hyperbole.” I couldn’t really add any more to that as Mark has nailed it. However, whilst it is absolutely true that Langella did romantic Dracula in a much more tender way and the idea of lost love reborn was deeply explored in the 1992 Dracula, it is clear that this film did it before them.

Lucy has seen better daysThere is a (partial) pull from the book in that Dracula uses a wolf from a zoo to do his bidding. The changes here work well. In the book the wolf causes Mrs Westenra to die (of a heart attack). In this she falls into a faint whilst the wolf savages Arthur allowing Dracula to spirit Lucy away and have his evil, toothy way with her.

Lucy proves to be a psycho girlfriendLucy rising is also handled really well. Rather than becoming the bloofer lady who feeds on children she immediately goes after Arthur and is forced back by Van Helsing brandishing a cross. It made sense that she would return to her old home and fit in well with traditional myth that the vampire would seek out its loved ones. Once staked it was also nice to have Dracula go to her tomb and, in a righteous rage, wreck the place when he discovers she is truly dead. It gives the character further motivation – revenge.

Van Helsing brandishes crossWe have, of course, a Van Helsing and Dracula confrontation and Mina drinking of the Count’s blood. Remember however that this is hardcore Dracula. He is leant over Mina when Van Helsing enters and threatens him with a cross. This Dracula simply tightens his grip around Mina’s neck and tells him to throw the cross away; the implied threat of violence is palpable. He then forces her to drink and casually walks from the room. The arrogance is splendid, this Dracula knows he is superior, he doesn't need to morph into a bat-creature to prove it.

Dracula's demiseIt will not come as a surprise that Dracula dies and I loved the way it was handled. He tosses Arthur and Van Helsing around and then Van Helsing pulls the curtain allowing sunlight to flood the room. I groaned inwardly, expecting a crumbling to dust, but this Dracula just becomes weaker, afraid almost. He is desperate to get into his coffin, which the heroes prevent. His actual death comes through staking by Pike whilst in his weakened state. Marvellous stuff.

The acting is competent throughout, with the possible exception of Simon Ward who hasn’t got too much to do. Palance, as you would expect, is proficient – in fact more than proficient - but something was ultimately lacking. He is very snarly and able to portray much through expression, yet he hasn’t got Lee’s commanding presence. The likely reason is that this is hardcore Dracula, man of action – we perhaps needed to see a lot more of him through the film than we did. Unlike Lee he does not just stand around exuding an air of malevolence, this is Dracula violent and arrogant – I feel that we needed more of that on screen.

Lucy is stakedI wasn’t too keen on Castle Dracula’s interior, which had the feel of a stately home rather than a gothic monstrosity – but that is personal taste coming through. The look of the film was pleasing, however, though the dark portions were very dark indeed – a digital remaster would be nice.

All in all this is a good version, with plot changes that make sense and add character motivation. It is, perhaps, not as atmospheric as one would like but it is certainly worth watching especially if you want to see Dracula kick some butt. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Mark said...

Nice review (and it is an honor to be quoted here)!

I'm glad you touched on Palance playing the part as almost an action hero; I've never really looked at it that way, but it certainly is true.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Mark, the quote was down to two things. Firstly you were absolutely on the money - a passionate Jack Palance was a scary thing. Secondly after reading your, excellent, review I was left with a deep sense of having to see the film.

It seems now we have Hardcore Dracula and Disco Dracula (Langella). What others can we find?

Anonymous said...

More useless trivia: When Marv Wolfman took on the writing duties for Marvel Comics "Tomb of Dracula" he based his portrayal of the count based mainly on Jack Palance's take. Gene Colan's character design of Dracula brought this out even more, and in the comic version Dracula was very proactive and physically a threat, even to super heroes like Spider-Man.

Jeez, I'm a nerd.

Taliesin_ttlg said...


Aren't we all nerds! lol

Many thanks for the info. I didn't know that and I always enjoy recieving new vamp info.

The T said...

You review says almost everything. Another important element in this movie is the fact that it's one of few when a link is established between Dracula and the historical Drakul, though not as evidently as in Coppola's film.

I liked "hardcore Dracula" as you call him. I love seeing him being truly POWERFUL. What I don't like in most great Dracula movies is how little time we actually see the guy on screen, though probably it adds to the excitement and effect when he does appear (like most good villains I guess).

I also agree with the dislike for the interior of the castle. It really looks like an old house inhabited by people with little concern for dust haha.

We're all shameless nerds hahaha. Have never read Tomb of Dracula. Is it good?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T, I've not actually read Tomg of Dracula myself (it is on my Amazon wish list but its also rather expensive). This, of course, is almost sinful as Tomb of Dracula introduced Blade to the world.

However I fpound Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned, which was based on Tomb of Dracula, rather entertaining.

The T said...

That's the movie I saw once as a child and never could find again as an adult! Thanks!!

How great it would be if I could get it... Alas, it seems ther's no way.. But the doubt has been erased. I knew it had to be japanese!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T. My wife found it for me on an out of print site, ie the sort of place that sells films on dvd/vcd not currently available. The site has probably long gone but a search around should find someone selling it.