Studio: MPI Home Video
Release date: May 27th, 2014
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
20 years before Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious take, Dan Curtis took a brief vacation from Collinsport in an effort to helm a definitive adaptation of Dracula, at least if the original title is any indication. Billed as Bram Stokerís Dracula, the title (which one would assume to mark some heretofore unseen fealty to the source material) winds up being every bit as ironic as it would be two decades later, as this is Dan Curtisís Dracula through-and-through. Far from a faithful adaptation of Stokerís novel, it feels more like Curtis grafting his own preoccupations from Dark Shadows onto existing takes on the novel.
As is usually the case with Dracula adaptations, Stokerís skeletal framework remains: solicitor Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) travels to Transylvania to provide counsel for Dracula (Jack Palance), a reclusive, enigmatic count who winds up being a member of the undead. In this particular version, Draculaís eye catches a portrait of Harkerís acquaintance Lucy (Fiona Lewis) and is convinced sheís the reincarnation of his dead wife (shades of Barnabas Collins). With this in mind, he converts Harker to the ranks of the undead and ships off for London, where he begins to raise hell in an effort to reunite with the spirit of his deceased lover.
Even by 1974, there was already a veritable horde of Dracula films, so Curtisís attempt to add some wrinkles to the mythology is admirable, even if he was just sort of ripping off his own material. His take is also one of the first to connect the cinematic Dracula to Vlad Tepes, the ruthless 15th century warlord said to have inspired Stokerís original tale, so the film scatters about some distinguishing features among so much familiarity (well, assuming you see this one before the Coppola version, I suppose). That said, the familiarity is rather overbearing, and with only fifteen years separating this and Horror of Dracula, I can only assume how redundant the film still must have felt upon its original airing (indeed, the film is somewhat famous for being preempted by Spiro Agnewís resignation, so its legacy is one of being sort of an afterthought).
Itís sort of easy to see why itís an inessential entry in the Dracula canon, at least aesthetically speaking. Arriving at the latter end of the Hammer era, this thoroughly British production feels a little perfunctory and could easily be mistaken for another effort from the countryís preeminent horror studio, what with its garish design elements and fits of crimson-laden violence. One could certainly do worse, of course, and such an approach actually works well with Curtisís own style, which often favors elaborate, gaudy production design to create convincing worlds. This is on display throughout Dracula, particularly in the ornate interiors and the luxurious landscapes. Generally speaking, itís a lavish, well-burnished production that feels bigger than its made-for-television origins; Coppola would later amplify this tale to operatic heights, but Curtis finds a nice middle ground between the intimacy offered by his predecessors and the grandeur that would follow.
That said, this is also among the most musty of Dracula adaptations, as the scent of Old Spice hangs about its older cast, giving this adaptation a more mature bent than most others. Palanceís take on Dracula as a weary, lovelorn immortal is another riff on Barnabas Collins and represents a departure from the two most noteworthy Dracula turns from the 20th century in Lugosi and Lee. Palanceís age and stateliness recalls the former, while his feral bursts echo the latter, but his performance is more than just a simple portmanteau of those two titans. There are moments of profound, human despair here, particularly in the brief flashbacks to Draculaís discovery of his dead wifeís body and his agony at historyís tendency to repeat itself. Unlike many (most?) Draculas, Palanceís count is less consumed by sex and bloodlust and more haunted by pure love, an intriguing approach with obvious ramifications on later vampiric portrayals and Draculaís place in this filmóheís not a leering, sexual predator, but heís not exactly a completely sympathetic, tragic figure either, seeing as how he does descend on Carfax Abbey and lays waste to several of its inhabitants.
Due to the focus on Dracula, his rivals and victims feel a bit disposable (as they typically do, to be fair). Harker especially becomes an afterthought here, as Curtis and screenwriter Richard Matheson follow previous adaptations by having him fall prey to Dracula early on, leaving Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) and Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) to take the reins and uncover the mystery behind Londonís strange new visitor. Theyíre a serviceable duo, meant mostly to serve as foils to the bloodsucker during the climactic hunt, which finds the two skulking about Draculaís abode and dispatching his various minions (including Sarah Douglas as one of his wives!). This climax is the filmís liveliest stretch, and Curtis devotees shouldnít be surprised that the film is a relatively talky affair until the heroes take action.
In many respects, Curtisís effort is still a rather streamlined Dracula, much like its predecessors. While he does at least acknowledge the voyage of the Demeter, itís relegated to a brief, eerie shot (that winds up being one of the filmís most evocative), and the character of Renfield is completely excised altogether. As such, itís difficult to consider this a definitive take on Stokerís novel; instead, itís much more apt to consider it a quintessential Curtis film, as it intermingles the directorís thematic preoccupations with a typically sturdy production. Itís fitting that Coppolaís attempt to claim the Bram Stokerís Dracula for himself resulted in this one being rebranded Dan Curtisís Dracula because thereís no mistaking it for anything else.
Itís arrived on Blu-ray with that title courtesy of MPI, who has restored the film from the original 35mm negative, and the results are outstanding . Oswald Morrisís vibrant cinematography flourishes in high-def, while the DTS-MA stereo track is crystal clear. MPI has also ported over the supplements from their previous DVD release, including interviews with Palance and Curtis and a trailer. Theyíve also added some outtakes and TV cuts to make this the filmís definitive release.
Curtisís Dracula is simultaneously noteworthy and perfunctory; its embellishments to Dracula and vampiric lore are important, while it can be hardly said to be the most stylish or inventive take on Stokerís novel. Like so many adaptations before and after it, itís both faithful and unfaithful, but it at least has some semblance of its own personality creeping through. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: