[Written by author and reviewer, Robert Hood]
Dracula: (US-1973; TV; dir. Dan Curtis)
For several decades, Dan Curtis (who passed away of a brain tumor in March of 2006) lurked in the background of horror film commentary, relegated to being something of an outsider because he specialised in television production. Most famous, perhaps, for his involvement in the vampire melodrama series Dark Shadows (1966-70, 1990-91), he was also responsible for many horror films, including (as director) House of Dark Shadows (1970), The Night Strangler (1973), Scream of the Wolf (1974), Turn of the Screw (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Burnt Offerings (1976), Intruders (1992), Trilogy of Terror II (1996), and (as producer) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968), The Night Stalker (1972), Frankenstein (1973) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973). These are the work of a man with a firm grasp on the aesthetics of the horror film and the technicalities of evoking an atmosphere of terror. And one of his most memorable efforts was the tele-movie Dracula (1973), starring Jack Palance as the Count.
This version of the Bram Stoker novel is not only more faithful to its source than most, but contains one of the best portrayals of the vampire lord yet produced for the screen. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula might be the more recognisable and the most iconic of them all, but Palance’s Dracula is frightening and imposing, and exudes a power that few have captured on the screen before or since. He is superb — probably the first Dracula to encompass such inhuman complexity, coming over as both fascinating and unnerving. He is physically dominant throughout and conveys a wonderful sense of dark power: aristocratic without being effete; yet strangely, deeply haunted by his lost humanity. What’s more he looks like he might have led armies — and not gentlemanly armies, but armies of semi-barbaric warriors. Palance’s reaction when Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) thrusts the cross at him is a superb example of the complexity he brings to the role; it hurts him and he must turn away, yet he fights it with an almost despairing anger. The emotions — loss, desire, hate, despair and animalistic rage — swirl across Palance’s features: confronting, yet not melodramatic and overplayed. Palance has more than a touch of Christopher Lee in his performance, but he brings more complexity to its emotional nuancing than Lee ever managed to give the role — as effectively imposing as the latter was.
Coppola’s Dracula takes much from this version, too — including the “lost love” storyline, which Curtis (and Matheson) introduced as a way of giving their Count a more emotionally potent rationale for immigrating to England, while opening a door on his lost humanity. It was to become a “standard” of the Dracula cinematic myth. Over all, in fact, the Richard Matheson script is an imaginative masterpiece — inventive, yet closer to the book than any that preceded it. Curtis’ direction is also creative and wonderfully controlled, if somewhat constrained by TV budgets and TV-style cinematography (though he continually pushes the limits of standard contemporary practice, creating effective camera movements that cause the viewer to focus on important visual information yet otherwise carry him/her effortlessly through the narrative). Davenport as Van Helsing is not in Peter Cushing’s league, of course, but he is more than serviceable, and both Fiona Lewis as Lucy Westenra and Penelope Horner as Mina Murray bring a convincing sensuality to their roles as Dracula’s less-than-unwilling victims.
But it is Palance who gives the film its frisson. His cry of suprahuman despair over the staking of his long-lost love — and the coldly inhuman revenge he pursues in its aftermath — stays with you long after the film has ended.
First published on Robert Hood’s website: www.roberthood.net