Remember when Andrew took a bullet for the team and reviewed Twilight? Well, this week I took not one, but two silver bullets and, by the end, I was begging to be vanquished by the dawn.
A few years ago, fellow film aficionado tryanmax reviewed Hotel Transylvania. In the comments, he and I discussed several adaptations of Dracula and he sent me a link for reviews he had done on various Dracula films. You can read his reviews HERE. We both agreed that one of the films I’m looking at here didn’t like the book; hence the inspiration for today’s review.
There’s been a noticeable trend in recent decades to not only alter the plot of Dracula, but to basically defecate all over Bram Stoker’s legacy. In Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice (through her characters), claims that Stoker had no idea what he was talking about. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 had the Van Helsing character refer to the novel as the “ravings of an Irish madman.” So, why all the hatred for the man who wrote a great story and pretty much established the vampire genre as a literary staple? Sadly, I don’t know, but I can tell you with full confidence that Dracula will still be talked about long after Louis, Lestat, and Freddy Kreuger are long forgotten.
This TV film is the brainchild of director Dan Curtis. Curtis was the producer of the 60’s supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. One of that show’s main characters was Barnabas Collins, an 18th-Century vampire who had come back to find his long-lost love. It seems Curtis believed in the old adage of, “if it worked once, why not again?” So, he decided to update the story of Count Dracula by adding a love story and making the King of Vampires a tragic figure. What went wrong? The answer is: “Everything!”
The film starts with one of the most rushed Transylvania scenes of all time. The film jumps from Bistritz to the carriage ride to Borgo Pass to Castle Dracula in almost record time. Then, in even less time, Harker (Murray Brown) and the Count (Jack Palance) complete the business deal, Harker is trapped, and the brides attack and kill Harker. It all happens at breakneck speed (if that’s a pun, I’m fine with it).
Basically, Dracula saw a picture of Lucy (Fiona Lewis) that Harker had on him and found her to look exactly like his long-dead wife. Believing she’s the reincarnation of his lost love, Dracula seeks her out to vamp her and live wickedly ever after. Of course, the plan is thwarted when Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) and Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) stake Lucy in the crypt. In an act of jealous revenge, Dracula goes after Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Penelope Horner), while the men stand around and do nothing. The chase ensues and ends in the castle with Van Helsing stunning the Count with sunlight and impaling him with a spear. Credits roll. Oh, yeah. And Harker got turned into a vampire, attacks Arthur, trips, falls, and get impaled on a stalagmite. You know how it is.
In researching for this film, I was surprised to learn that Palance was widely sought after at the time to play Dracula in several potential adaptations. This was a shock because he just didn’t look comfortable in the role. Palance is best known for playing tough guys, either unhinged or just about to lose it. Here, he seems to be holding back in just about everything he does. He wants to yell at Harker, but doesn’t. He wants to seduce Lucy, but just doesn’t pull it off. He wants to be angry, but acts like he’s trying to build up the desire to do so. He just seems completely miscast. Harrison Ford in K-19 The Widowmaker miscast? Not quite. But not too far from it, either.
As I said, this films hurries to cover Transylvania and get it over with. Exactly why befuddles me. All the interesting stuff happens in Transylvania. The England scenes drag on forever with little, if anything, happening. Even the novel’s most interesting character, Van Helsing, is dumbed down, going from a Danish eccentric to a common British bore. This is also the first film to try to connect the Count with a certain 15th-century Wallachian Prince. Flashbacks show him in love with his lady love and then being dragged away by guards as the poor girl lies in a pool of blood in her bed. It all leads up to… nothing. Just a light mention in the end credits. WHAT?! That’s supposed to the whole crux for making the Count a tragic figure instead of a demon! It all builds up and then goes poof! Bad enough they change the character, but they don’t even finish the job! What I oughta…
Was this some TV screenwriter giving it his first major push? Nope. The screenwriter was Richard Matheson! Remember him? He’s the author of I Am Legend, Hell House, and 16 episodes of the Twilight Zone? How could he be so bad here? I have no answers at this point. Just the perplexed act of scratching my head.
BTW: This movie was supposed to premiere on TV in October, 1973. However, President Richard Nixon took over the time slot that night to announce that Spiro Agnew had resigned the Vice Presidency. Maybe we can just blame this whole thing on Nixon.
Okay, so we’re going back to the silver screen with Dr. Loomis from Halloween, the Nazi who asked, “is it safe?” from Marathon Man, the actress who almost won an Oscar for The Prince of Tides, and Skeletor from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This will be good! Right? Right???
Definitely a Product of the Times
From what I’ve read, director John Badham got the idea for this movie while watching Langella star in a revival of the Deane-Balderson play based on the novel. (That’s the same play that inspired the 1931 Universal version.) It seems Langella’s performance was very sexually charged, and Badham chose to make a love story the focus of the film.
And although I can’t say it belongs to this genre for certain, there is a very strong American New Wave feeling to this movie. The genre is characterized by a gritty, more realistic feel along with inverting traditional characters; thus making the usual heroes into annoyances and fools, while changing traditional villains into misunderstood anti-heroes.
(It’s also worth noting that screenwriter James V. Hart saw the play and wrote his own version that eventually ended up in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola.)
later encounter the undead Mina and are forced to destroy her.
An alternate title for this film could be Dracula Goes Casanova. That is exactly how he’s portrayed. He’s the Hollywood hunk who has come to free poor English girls engaged to successful men who might suffer from the crime of being slightly less exciting in bed. Langella himself refused to wear fangs (though vampire Mina and Lucy do), and said that he thought of the Count not as a monster, but as an aristocrat with the problem of needing to drink blood. In other words, the Count isn’t a bad guy and shouldn’t be judged as good or evil. This has the effect of rendering Seward, Harker, and Van Helsing as the real monsters for not letting Dracula just be himself. And this is where my main problem with this film lies.
This film has many defenders. They call it “stylish and sexy.” They also say it adds new depth, new directions, revitalizes old topes, blah, blah, blah. In other words, the kind of stuff Roger Ebert probably wrote in his review (which I didn’t bother or care to read).
I’m sure most of these would take offense to my Puritan swipe at this movie. They’d probably also point out some horrific effects of Dracula’s presence. These include the sailors Dracula murders in grisly fashion; Mina’s decayed vampire state; Olivier’s Van Helsing breaking down in tears as he holds the vampire body of his daughter before he destroys her (Olivier was reportedly very sick during production and his castmates were amazed that he finished the shoot); and- most disturbingly of all- the woman running through asylum after Mina kills her infant and the subsequent shot of the dead baby in a pool of blood. I’m sure these defenders would say these scenes show vampirism as evil and that that’s enough.
So, who is Dracula? Where did Stoker get the idea- and name- for his legendary character? Well, according to Sir Christopher Frayling, who studied Stoker’s notes for the novel now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia, the inspiration for the name came during a holiday in Whitby, England. During a typical rainy day during a typical English summer, Stoker stopped at the town’s museum and philosophical society to read through the books and old newspapers for tidbits of inspiration. From one of those papers, he learned about the Demitri, a Russian schooner that crashed on a Whitby beach a few years earlier in a storm. (Thus the arrival of the Count on the Demeter in the novel.) However, he also came across a book called An Account of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. He copied down several sinister-sounding words for reference. One of those words was ‘Dracula’- a Romanian word for ‘devil,’ sometimes given to warriors who displayed great courage or cunning. (Gotta admit: it’s better than the original name, Count Wampyr.)
Now, that might be enough by itself. But 25 years earlier, two Boston College professors, Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, read between the lines of the novel and went to Transylvania- modern-day Romania- to investigate. What they discovered was a man who used the surname and could have been the inspiration.
McNally and Florescu’s work seemed convincing, but they’ve been challenged since the 1970’s. Dracula scholar Leslie Klinger says that although the Count recalls much of Wallachia and Transylvania’s history when he talks to Harker, the talk is vague and could easily match other incidents. Moreover, the Count claims to be of the Szekely, a Hungarian line that allied with Transylvanian Germans. (They can also trace their lineage to Attila the Hun!) And in his study of the notes, Frayling says Stoker found some information about Vlad- and may have based Dracula’s features on a woodcut of the Imapler- but it’s still uncertain how much (or little), Stoker actually knew of the man.
So, was Irving the inspiration? Was it Vlad? In my humble opinion, only Stoker knows.