The Curmudgeon


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Count Dracula

Philip Saville 1977

The BBC's adaptation of Dracula, written by Gerald Savory, was broadcast during the Christmas season in the eightieth anniversary year of the book's publication. Savory's screenplay is largely faithful to the book, and the changes are largely beneficial, such as the amalgamation of Stoker's two most interchangeable good guys into a single character and the large amount of screen time devoted to Jonathan Harker's sojourn at Castle Dracula, which occupies a comparatively small section of the novel. Harker's witnessing of the Count crawling down the castle's outer wall - black cloak billowing and dark eyes blank as a lizard's - and his later encounter with Dracula's three undead brides, are among the book's most memorable episodes, and Count Dracula does them full justice, abetted by a fine performance from Bosco Hogan as Harker.

This version benefits greatly from the BBC's characteristic professionalism in production design, and from some superb casting and acting. It's refreshing to encounter a horror film (or Gothic romance, as the opening titles have it) whose makers have sufficient humility both to keep to the original story and to keep from camping it up. Although the Count's hairy palms are a little overgrown, and despite some unnecessary colour-reversed imagery, the visual effects are mostly serviceable. There are very few rubber bats in evidence, and the only one to be seen in close-up is patently real and alive; while the blood on display actually resembles blood and not red paint.

Professor Van Helsing is played with immense panache by Frank Finlay, whose performance as Dennis Potter's Casanova (1971) is also not to be missed. Rather than the coolly scientific demeanour which Peter Cushing brought to Hammer's Dracula films, Finlay's Van Helsing emphasises the Professor's eccentric charm and deadpan humour. "Her body isn't there," Dr Seward (Mark Burns) exclaims on opening Lucy's empty coffin. "That is good logic as far as it goes," replies Van Helsing helpfully. Susan Penhaligon conveys the vivacity and innocence of the human Lucy without making her more loathsome than the vampiric version, something Stoker and a number of other actresses have failed to achieve.

Judi Bowker's Mina is equally human and sympathetic. The scene where she wakes from a trance to find herself tainted by having drunk Dracula's blood, which Stoker mars with melodramatic declamations, is here moving and horrifying, thanks in no small measure to Bowker's performance. Her conversations with Jack Shepherd's Renfield help to make the unfortunate madman's abrupt repentance and rejection of Dracula unusually convincing. I don't think I have ever seen a better Renfield than Shepherd's; in other versions, when this fascinating character is allowed to appear at all, he is mostly reduced to a mere cackling maniac with an appetite for small game. Savory's script and Shepherd's acting restore the complexity of Stoker's character - by turns calculating, civil, violent, pathetic, suspicious and, at the last, courageous and even chivalrous in his fight for sanity and redemption.

Finally, Louis Jourdan's Count may lack Christopher Lee's physical stature, but he more than makes up for it in thin-lipped pallor and more-than-aristocratic froideur. Jourdan's restrained gestures, razor-gash mouth, low voice and quiet, deadpan delivery beautifully convey the vampire's cold, sardonic cunning and cruelty, and the hint of affection and playfulness he displays as he offers his brides a little treat in place of Harker's blood makes an exceptionally chilling coda to a thoroughly effective nightmare.


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