Saturday, 1 September 2018

Count Dracula (TV, 1977)

Count Dracula, the BBC’s 1977 TV version of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, is very much a mixed bag. It has the reputation of being the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which really goes to illustrate the pitfalls of faithful adaptations.

I’m sure there’s no need to say anything about the plot, other than to note that the main change from the novel is that Mina and Lucy are now sisters, and Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are combined into one character (Quincey Holmwood).

There are quite a few problems with this production. We’ll start with the most minor ones first. Richard Barnes as Quincey Holmwood is catastrophically bad. Even I can tell that his Texan accent is outrageously wrong and I’ve never been to Texas, and he’s a terrible actor. Bosco Hogan as Jonathan Harker isn’t much better. In fact for a BBC production the acting in general is surprisingly poor. Frank Finlay is an annoying and uninteresting van Helsing. Susan Penhaligon as Lucy is mostly extremely good, but for some unknown reason it was decided that when she became vampirised she’d become a snarling animal trying to do an impression of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The result is embarrassing for all concerned.

Much bigger problems arise from the attempt to stay close to the novel. Let’s be honest, despite its classic status and its undoubted power, as a novel Dracula is a formless mess. The excessively long running time of 150 minutes exacerbates other weaknesses of the book - it’s too long and badly paced. And the title character is really only a bit player in his own story. Stoker just about gets away with that because the influence of Dracula permeates the whole novel, but in a TV or movie it’s a real problem. One popular solution to this is to place the focus on van Helsing, but this one adopts the  unique approach of making Renfield more or less the central character. The ideal solution is to put the focus on Lucy and Mina, but oddly enough this has rarely been done in a Dracula movie and this one is no exception -  the two potentially most interesting characters remain undeveloped.

There are other problems. The special effects rely heavily on solarisation which gives it a very dated feel, and while the sets are reasonably good they’re not especially interesting. There are one or two inspired visual moments though, particularly the scene with the cross  outlined by light on Dracula’s face.The class hostility which is one of the central concerns of the novel, the fear and hatred felt by the rising middle class towards what they saw as the decaying and immoral aristocracy, is also sadly unexplored.

Set against these flaws are several major strengths. Focusing on Renfield turned out to be a masterstroke. This is the most complex, most human and most sympathetic Renfield ever. This is helped by Jack Shepherd’s superb acting (he’s even better in the role than Klaus Kinski). And Renfield serves a real purpose, with the battle between good and evil and between body and soul fought out inside this one unfortunate individual.

Louis Jourdan is rather good as Dracula. He’s genuinely sexy, and he’s a very sympathetic figure. Another plus is the unexpectedly erotic charge that this production has. If Lucy wasn’t having an orgasm the first time the Count bit her she was definitely giving a very convincing impression of a woman having an orgasm. Mina’s response to Dracula’s attentions is equally sexual. The Count offers Lucy and Mina sexual bliss and eternal life, eternal life with a very good-looking and utterly charming nobleman. It seems like a pretty good deal to me, and a lot better than what the good guys are offering them. This makes it all the sadder that the characters of the two women aren’t explored in more depth.

This version also puts more emphasis than usual on the religious aspects of the struggle between the opposing parties, with Renfield used to highlight the fact that the fundamental issue is a choice between body and soul. It’s a valid approach, although it would have been more convincing if the other characters seemed to share Renfield’s concern with the significance of the soul, and if they really appeared conscious of the spiritual dimensions of the fight they were waging.

The fact that Dracula isn’t portrayed as a monster does serve as an advantage, since it makes the struggle less clearcut. Although perhaps it ends up by making it too difficult to feel any real sympathy at all for the vampire hunters.

Despite its faults this version is worth a look. Jack Shepherd’s performance as Renfield is sufficient on its own to make it worth seeing. And if you like your vampires charming and sexy then you’re going to love Louis Jourdan.

Despite a few reservations this one is recommended.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Despite its flaws, I've always thought this was one of the better Dracula adaptations, mainly because of Louis Jordan (didn't even realize he could act) and the more overtly sexual aspects of vampirism. And you're right; Renfield helps make this adaptation work for me. Thanks for the review!