Dan Curtis, 1973
Starring: Jack Palance, Simon Ward, Nigel Davenport
Thanks to MPI, Dan Curtis’s British made-for-TV film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973), has finally made it to Blu-ray, complete with a restored print from the original 35mm negative and some new special features. The master of ‘70s television horror, Curtis obviously drew inspiration from his beloved series Dark Shadows, which focuses on TV’s greatest vampire, Barnabas Collins, and from Hammer’s stylish Dracula series that put an equal emphasis on blood and bosoms. Essentially the love child of Bram Stoker, Hammer horror, and Dark Shadows, Curtis’s Dracula may not be a contender for best Dracula film of all time, but is a worthy effort and does justice to horror’s most adapted novel.
Dracula follows the plot of Stoker’s novel with a few twists. Jonathan Harker travels to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania to facilitate the sale of Carfax Abbey in London. After seeing her picture, Dracula falls for Lucy, a friend of Harker’s wife, Mina. She looks exactly like his dead love, which is his motivation to advance quickly to London, leaving Harker trapped in the castle with Dracula’s hungry, lustful vampire brides. Lucy’s fiancé Arthur notices that she has fallen ill and contacts a specialist, Dr. Van Helsing, who recognizes the symptoms of vampirism. It is too late for Lucy, who Dracula transforms into the undead, but Van Helsing and Holmwood must rush to save the new object of Dracula’s bloodthirsty attention: Mina.
I’m a huge fan of director Dan Curtis, who produced Dark Shadows and directed Burnt Offerings, The Trilogy of Terror, The Night Stalker, and many more. Curtis fans will definitely want to pick up this Blu-ray and, if you have yet to see the film, it is a blend of some of his favorite themes. As with Dark Shadows, the main vampire is in love with a woman he believes has been reincarnated centuries later. Elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Mummy figure in, though fortunately this romantic aspect is not the all-consuming focus of the film. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s much later, though similarly themed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is not inherently a tale about redemption – it’s still about a centuries-old bloodsucker toying with his prey in a new hunting ground.
The script is from horror legend Richard Matheson, who was the first in cinema to directly relate the fictional Count Dracula to real-life Romanian tyrant Vlad Tepes. This is likely inspired by Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally’s seminal In Search of Dracula, which came out in 1972 and was the first academic study to connect these two figures. The ‘70s was a busy time for Dracula — Hammer concluded their nine-film series, Jess Franco tried his hand at adapting the tale, and John Badham directed Frank Langella in the famous 1979 version. It’s a wonder that Curtis decided to adapt Dracula at all, though he and star Jack Palance had already made a successful adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968).
Curtis and Matheson’s attempt borrows some plot elements from Hammer’s first entry, Horror of Dracula, particularly in its messy treatment of Jonathan Harker and liberties taken with some of the book’s other characters. As with the Hammer version, parts of the tale feel rushed and I can’t imagine coming to the film cold, though it’s unlikely by this point that fans weren’t familiar with the novel, the Lugosi version, or the Hammer adaptation. The idea to incorporate an actual love-interest for Dracula would have been an original one, if audiences weren’t already watching it unfold in Dark Shadows.
Jack Palance (Batman, The Barbarians) is unfortunately kind of a silly Dracula, flashing his fangs rather than relying on seduction, psychological dominance, or quiet menace. He is a hulking, imposing figure, utterly doing away with any hints that the Count is an inherently supernatural figure. Gone are the sickly mists, animal transformation, and the transfixing, hypnotic stare. While some fans may find this refreshing, he is simply too human of a villain to do justice to the original story. Palance’s fang display is particularly unfortunate; when he bears his large, pearly chompers, he just winds up looking angry, constipated, or both.
Outside of Palance, who does bring an entertaining level of cheese to the role, there are some solid performances from the other leads. Simon Ward (The Monster Club) is decent as the protagonist, Arthur, and he effortlessly replaces the whinier Jonathan Harker. Fiona Lewis (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Dr. Phibes Rises Again) is lovely as Lucy, though she’s given too little screen time and is overshadowed by Penelope Horner’s (Holocaust 2000) Mina. British horror fans will likely recognize the familiar faces of Virginia Wetherll (Curse of the Crimson Altar) and Sarah Douglas (The People That Time Forgot), who appear as Dracula’s buxom brides.
Hardcore Dracula fans may be disappointed to learn that Van Helsing is depicted as British, rather than Dutch. And though Nigel Davenport (Caravaggio) is charismatic and likable, it’s hard to picture him as a match for such a physically imposing bloodsucker. Dracula purists beware: There is no Renfield, Quincey Morris (always the first to be cut in cinematic adaptations), or Dr. Seward, and very little Jonathan Harker.
MPI have restored the film for Blu-ray using the original 35mm negative with an aspect ration of 1.78:1. It’s hard to believe that this was a made-for-TV ‘70s film, as it looks absolutely stunning and the visuals – particularly Oswald Morris’s cinematography – is one of the film’s high points. The print has a minimal, through appropriate level of grain and an explosive amount of color and detail. Shadows are occasionally overly black, though this is a minor issue.
The DTS-MA stereo track sounds vibrant and clear. The loud, occasionally bombastic score from Dark Shadows’ Bob Cobert is mixed well with the dialogue. None of the age-related hissing or crackling that I expected is present and the overall track is clear. Spanish and French language tracks are included, along with optional English SDH subtitles.
Most of the extras are from the previous DVD release, though MPI have thrown in a few new goodies. There are short interview with Palance (who claims to never have seen the film) and Curtis, as well as a trailer, a few minutes of soundless outtakes, and a few TV cuts. It would have been nice to see a Curtis documentary on either his work in TV horror or his use of cinematic vampires (he had quite a few), but the included extras are pleasing.
Lavish enough that it doesn’t look like a television production, Dan Curtis’s Dracula is an unusual entry into the canon, one that bravely attempts something original. Though I wouldn’t call it an essential film for non-Dracula addicts, fans of Curtis, Dark Shadows, and British horror will definitely want to seek it out. MPI have done an admirable job of restoring the film to a surprisingly high level of visual splendor and the Blu-ray is a must-have for serious fans of everyone’s favorite bloodsucker.