Monday, September 5, 2011

The Real Bram Stoker's Dracula

Count Dracula(1977)
Director: Phillip Saville
Cast: Louis Jourdan, Frank Finlay, Susan Penhaligon

While the Francis Ford Coppola production retains several elements from Stoker's narrative, the film is far from the most accurate, instead opting for a plot that recalls The Mummy(1932) with it's tale of reincarnated and undying love. The most accurate screen adaption was actually produced for the small screen by BBC and released in a two part mini-series. At two and a half hours, Count Dracula produced in 1977, has to be the most epic undertaken of the classic story available.
Very few liberties were taken with this version, notably the combining of the Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris character into one(Quincey Holmwood) and the ultimate destruction of the vampire by Van Helsing with a stake through the heart, rather than the novel's death, where Quincy drove a Bowie knife into his heart. Louis Jourdan has the right persona to suggest Stoker's character, but does not resemble him. He remains suave and handsome throughout, though the long talons and hairy palms from the novel are included. These are the only minor diversions from the novel's narrative, because the remainder of the film is largely intact and tells the story largely as written.

The basic plot for you heathens who are not aware, involves Johnathan Harker(Bosco Hogan) who travels to Transylvania to sell real estate to Count Dracula(Louis Jourdan) in London. Dracula is a vampire and traps him in the castle and plans on spreading his vampirism. He arrives in Whitby(sadly, the Demeter episode aboard the boat is absent) and he preys upon Lucy Westerna(Susan Penhaligon) and she slowly becomes a vampire. Dr. Van Helsing(Frank Finlay) is called in to treat her, but is too late and she turns into one of the undead. With the aid of Dr. Seward(Mark Burns) and "Quincey Holmwood"(Richard Barnes), they stake Lucy and bring her everlasting peace. Meanwhile, Dracula has fed on Mina(Judi Bowker) who is Johnathan's fiance. Johnathan has escaped the castle and recognizes the sign and the men do their best to protect her from the Count, while destroying all his coffins and places of rest. He escapes and makes his way back to Transylvania, with the men in pursuit. Dracula has enlisted gypsies to protect him and a gunfight breaks out, where Quincey is wounded. However, he is able to take down the remaining gypsies and keep the gates to castle Dracula open long enough for the rest to arrive and dispatch the Count, who goes up in a large puff of smoke(a fantastic effect that seems to have been lifted directly from the novel.)

Count Dracula is an absolute dream(or is that nightmare?) for the devotee of the classic novel as so much of what Stoker wrote are represented on screen. Little details are inserted that enhance the mood considerably and make for a supremely creepy experience. In Johnathan's carriage ride to Dracula's castle, there's a young woman praying at a roadside cross in some strange tongue. Dracula is seen stalking down the side of the castle like a lizard in one scene. The attack of the vampire brides upon Johnathan is deftly realized and well handled, as is Renfield(Jack Shepherd) nightime encounters with Dracula inside his cell. There's so much here that's not apparent in previous(or future) versions that this adaption remains a treasure trove for the fan, much like Calvin Floyd's Terror of Frankenstein(1977) is for readers of the Mary Shelley classic.

The film's cinematic techniques can sometimes become obtrusive and can bring attention to themselves. It was a popular practice in the 70s to shoot alot of these made for television productions on video. This one contains many bizarre video effects, which are strange, but can be effective as well. The contrasts of reds and blacks are pretty creepy and Saville handles the directorial chores well. Occasionly, Jourdan's Count appears as a strange silver color with red eyes, which is actually quite startling. Like in the novel, the most atmospheric moments are when Johnathan is at Dracula's castle, a dank, spooky place that has to rank among the finest visulalized of the Count's humble abode. There always seems to be fog and shadows lurking around every corner and the atmosphere is just right. One particularly well directed scene is the climatic encounter between Van Helsing, Johnathan and the Count in the detsroyed abbey. Jourdan's clam portrayal and the light of the crucifix painted across his eyes create one of the great images of Dracula in film, defiant and evil, the very figure of the antichrist.

The performances are largely excellent, though the standouts are exceptional. Jourdan is the very definition of sly, oily menace and makes for one of the all-time great Draculas. His appearance is not in keeping with the Stoker description, but his attitude and character is exactly on. Jourdan's characterization captures the lofty arrogance and militaristic discipline of the Count better than most actors have before or since. It's interesting to compare his portrayal with that of Christopher Lee in Jess Franco's Count Dracula(1970). While Lee portrayed the character physically as Stoker described him, everything else was lost in translation. Jourdan overcomes this and makes the Count a supreme villain.

Frank Finlay's Van Helsing proves a worthy adversary and is one of the best interpretations of the character, behind only Peter Cushing and Edward Van Sloan. His performance is the most accurate ever given of the character and it is one combined with humor and dedication. Notice his calm and gentle presence with Lucy, even when he is aware of what has befallen her. He brings several sahdes to the role of vampire hunter that has rarely been seen since. Even his weaponary is just right, the hammer and stake depicted are directly from the novel, huge, ghastly weapons, probably the most fearsome any Van Helsing ever utlized.
Special mention must go to Jack Shepherd's portrayal of Renfield, a manic lost soul, who borders that fine line betwene sympathy and terror. Shepherd's macabre scenes of spreading out food to capture flies on his windowsill, waiting with the stillness of death, are among the film's creepiest scenes. His ultimate demise at the hands of Dracula is appropiately powerful. One of the best Renfields that no one ever seems to mention in analyzing that most interesting of literary madmen.

Some people may claim this version to be too slow moving(you know...the dumb ones) but for those that love brooding atmosphere and epic storytelling on a vast scale, than this version of the timeless classic is sure to please even the most jaded fans. Many adaptions have been made throughout the years and certainly there will be more to follow, but this has to stand as one of the finest Dracula movies ever made. Filled with creepy visuals, great performances and attention to detail, this is the most accurate and faithful take on Bram Stoker's all-time horror classic and likely to remain so. Not to be missed.

1 comment:

  1. Great review of the film. I saw this film way back in the mid 1980s and it gave me sleepless nights. I revisited this classic sometimes earlier this year and was completely spellbound. There is something with the BBC productions that simply cannot be duplicated by Hollywood, no matter how hard they try. The feel, the mood, the atmosphere is always different. I loved the way the feature of shot, using combination of film and videotape, which I think more than being an incongruency, is actually novel. The film was atmospheric, creepy and at the same time Shakespearean. Louis Jourdan as "Dracula" remains to this day the best cinematic representation of the character of Dracula, though I like Sir Christopher Lee's representation of the character too. Bela Lugosi was from a far era and since I have not seen any of his versions, I will refrain from commenting. Frank Langella and Jack Palance were the forgetful ones, hardly impressive at all.

    FFC's B.S.'s Dracula was more like a Gothic/Fantasy movie rather than a horror/thriller. I guess, with mega budget, plush sets, costumes and special effects the horror and the atmospheric element is lost and the film looks anything but horror. Also, I did not like the reincarnation/past life twist to the tale along with some really bad acting or over the top acting by some of the known actors in the film.

    Anyway, for me, both Mr. Louis Jourdan and Sir Christopher Lee would remain the ultimate onscreen (and probably off screen too) Draculas. Thank you very much for this engrossing write up.