Count Dracula Review
There is something in saying that television's desire to remake classic dramas demonstrates a lack of innovation as well as a disappointing tendency to overlook the past. Pride And Prejudice is a perfect example, with Andrew Davies' adaptation from 1995 knocking Fay Weldon's from 1980 out of the BBC's history books, with one enjoying two DVD releases, one a 10th Anniversary Reissue, while the other must be imported either on Region 1 or from Germany or enjoyed on VHS.
That's what makes this release all the more surprising. It isn't that Count Dracula isn't worthy of a release but one would have expected this 1977 adaptation to have been quietly forgotten about in the wake of the version shown over Christmas in 2006 and which starred Marc Warren, Sophia Myles and David Suchet. That had moments of gothic charm - if the death, decay and dread can be considered charming - but it seemed rushed and, reading what was said about it on its release on DVD earlier this year, I had some terrible things to say about Marc Warren's choice of wardrobe, including that, "a starched white collar and grotty fingernails would have as much chance of charming Mina Westenra as had he farted at her." Looking back, it's also difficult to distinguish Dracula from Mr Teatime in Sky One's Christmas offering of The Hogfather. They seem to be drawn into being a single drama the more the weeks and months pass.
Not so with this 1977 version of Bram Stoker's vampire tale. Choosing to pay homage to the languid sensuality and terror of Christopher Lee, the BBC hired the French actor Louis Jourdan to play the Count and he looks assured in the part, equally at home at playing charming as much as he is evil. And evil is the key word in this adaptation of Dracula. Perhaps it was the era in which it was made, when the country was less secular than it is now, but there's a strong vein of religion running through this version of Count Dracula, one that sees Van Helsing (Frank Finlay) bearing not only sharpened stakes and garlic but holy water and communion wafers. Van Helsing scatters communion around Mina to protect here from the brides of Dracula and talks of evil and of Christianity. These confrontations between the two are few and far between but always welcome, coming with some gravitas in amongst the flimsy love affairs between Jonathan and Mina and between Lucy and Quincy.
The problem with this adaptation of Dracula is one that is shared with all others. Like all gothic fiction, Dracula has aspirations of lyricism but tends towards melodrama. It is as much the creak of country houses, the howl of distant wolves and clouds across the moon as The Castle Of Otranto, Wuthering Heights, The Monk and The Fall Of The House Of Usher. That doesn't stop there being some marvellous images in the text, perhaps none better than Dracula arriving in Whitby on board the Demeter, a ship that is completely abandoned but for the body of its captain lashed to the helm. The stormy seas on which the ship sails leave a lasting impression when reading the book but no version of the film does justice to this. Similarly, no film does justice to the eroticism in the story, the social mores of the time shooing away the more fanciful encounters between Lucy Westenra and Dracula in favour of chaste sucking of necks. That may be less so now but is certainly noticeable in 1977 when Susan Penhaligon may unbutton her nightdress a little but does little more.
However, to be given Dracula without the budget to realise the drama onboard the ship or the leeway to show the lust for blood and for the flesh between Dracula and Lucy (and his brides), producers turn to atmosphere, a draughty old castle and homely sets that stand in for the Westenra home. In this, Count Dracula is reasonably successful, with Jonathan Harker's journey to Transylvania given, unlike so many other adaptations, sufficient time to show his breaking down during his month's stay at the castle of Count Dracula. Later, the windows in the home of Mina and Lucy Westenra rattle with the comings and goings of Count Dracula while, later still, Van Helsing delves deep into crypts and cellars to uncover Dracula and his brides. Cobwebs hang from the castle walls, the bodies of vampires appear by candlelight and coffins creak as Van Helsing draws back their lids. And in Dracula's bloodlust, the screen fades to grey with the blood on his lips standing out a bright red.
It is a gothic drama but often in the best sense of the words. The use of the ruined castle in which the first part of the drama is set was a masterstroke and sets up what follows very well. Later, and come the arrival of Van Helsing, Count Dracula is proud to dwell in the dustier parts of Whitby and Transylvania. And that pride is evident throughout, which makes this a much better-than-average adaptation of Dracula, certainly better than many others if not on a par with Dracula (1931), Nosferatu: The Vamprye and Hammer's Horror Of Dracula. However, it is more faithful than any of them and while it has flights of fancy, not least in Mina's dance of ecstasy, it is as grounded in the text as any gothic drama. With a suitably bleak atmosphere, much creeping around in the dark and the howling of the wind off the shores of Whitby, there is much to like in Count Dracula, all the things that one could want from an adaptation of Dracula and done, with all credit to the BBC, as well as one could want.
Count Dracula isn't unique in the way it was produced but it's no less odd to see how the style of the production changes between the external shots, which were captured on film, and those shot on sets, which used videotape. 2 Entertain have done a very reasonable job with the faults in each coming as a result of how they were shot rather than the DVD. The film is sharp, somewhat grainy and shows only a small amount of print damage but the video lets it down little. Though it was always going to be softer and less distinct, it's more so than it ought to be with a certain fuzziness at times. Had it been produced on video throughout, this wouldn't have been such a problem but the sections made on film are so clear and in such good shape that the quality of the video looks poor in comparison.
The audio has this same problem. It is typically very good but there are moments when the audio drops away at the end of a scene, which is no fault of the DVD but rather the original production. The DVD does reasonably well with what it has and certainly it doesn't add problems to the material but with a little more care, it could have been better. Finally, there are English subtitles.
There are no extras on this DVD release.