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A review of the BBC's DVD release, currently selling on amazon for £5.
This is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous vampire novel, made by the BBC in 1977. Over the years I'd seen it referred to as the most faithful adaptation of the novel ever made, which intrigued me enough to want to check it out.
The story is almost exactly as in the novel. A young estate agent named Jonathon Harker goes to Transylvania where his client, Count Dracula, imprisons him in his castle. The Count is, of course, a vampire, and soon sets out for England, with fiendish designs on Harker's fiancée, a pretty little thing called Mina. Fortunately, help may be at hand in the form of a wise Dutchman, Professor van Helsing.
So yes, it's truer to the book than most versions of the story. Lucy and Mina have been made sisters rather than friends, and two other characters - Arthur and Quincy - have been merged into one. I can see why they made those changes, as they make the story a bit easier to follow, but that does mean that they lose a few interesting nuances along the way. The BBC's usual attention to detail in décor and costumes gives it an authentic look, and much of the dialogue is taken from the book.
But I'm not really sure that it's all that faithful an adaptation. What we never get a sense of is that this is meant to be a horror story. It bills itself in the opening credits as 'a gothic romance', but the book is nowhere near as namby pamby as this version. This has mistaken pedantic attention to detail for authenticity. It has none of the spirit of the original, none of the uncanny feeling, none of the dark eroticism. It's as if you've asked a Victorian governess to tell you the plot of Dracula - all you're left with is a genteel echo of what ought to be a profoundly disturbing story. And that's why none of the best Dracula films follow the plot of the book that closely.
I think this was quite a prestigious production at the time - the Beeb obviously put a lot of effort into it. But it hasn't aged well for a few reasons. It has that perennial 70s TV problem of being shot partly on film and partly on video. Exterior scenes are on film, and look a little grainy but basically OK. But any interior scenes are filmed on studio sets and have that bright, false quality to them that 70s VT filming always has - flames don't look even remotely natural, which is a big problem in a story set in a time of domestic fireplaces and candlelight. If the whole thing was shot on VT it wouldn't matter so much, but the constant flipping between the two formats is distracting.
It's also far too polite. There's not enough blood, and what there is looks unconvincing (there's one fairly explicit staking, which must be what earns the film its 15 certificate). The sexuality is watered down to the point that it's hardly there at all - Dracula's vampire harem ought to be powerfully alluring, but they really, really aren't. And some of the most powerful passages of the novel - Drac's wall climbing, the ship, Renfield's fly eating - are badly fumbled, robbing them of the uncanny force they should have. There are a couple of vaguely spooky moments, but nothing more than that. We're never even given a sense of why Harker is so afraid of Dracula at the beginning of the story, and the shock moments wouldn't scare a six-year-old.
The acting is also disappointing. Almost everyone is in generic costume drama mode. Dracula is played by Louis Jourdan, a French actor best known for being the worst ever James Bond villain (Octopussy). He was a good choice in some respects - he's handsome and has a face that's kind of ageless. But he lacks any of Dracula's raw power or sexual menace, and is too softly spoken in a part that requires at least some thunder. You can't imagine this Dracula's breath smelling of blood and corruption; perhaps mint or herbal tea. He doesn't even try to hide his French accent.
The other cast members are mostly bland, only a few being well-known. Susan Penhaligon is a disappointing Lucy. Jack Shepherd is too bland as Renfield. Frank Finlay as van Helsing is probably the best of the main cast, with a watchfulness that reminds you of Peter Cushing. I have no idea what that accent is meant to be though - it certainly doesn't sound Dutch. There's one supporting character - a grotesque, elderly Yorkshireman - who briefly lifts the whole thing out of banality. He's like Steve Pemberton in the League of Gentlemen, and in a sane world would have been the star of the show. But he's only in it for about two minutes. On the debit side, the guy playing Quincy, a yee-haw American character, is abominable! Couldn't they at least have hired a real American?
The special effects are dire. There's an embarrassing model ship which wouldn't pass muster in Dr Who. Dracula sometimes turns into an adorable (real) fruit bat that obviously would never try to bite anyone; at other times he turns into a bog-standard Hammer rubber bat. And the attempts at showing Drac's mystical powers either involve lots of dry ice or some very, very basic video effects - think Bowie's 'Ashes to Ashes' video, but without the funny costumes.
It's mostly made with a certain competence, with high production values and some nice location work in appropriate locations (Whitby, Highgate Cemetery). The music is fine; sombre and occasionally rather haunting. But that doesn't save this. It's a classic example of an adaptation completely missing the point of the original work.
The DVD has no extras. Although it was obviously broadcast in two parts, here it's presented as one long (two and a half hours!) film. There's no reason to want to see this bar idle curiosity.