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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Golden Age of TV Movies: Count Dracula (1977)

Posted By on Tue, Oct 27, 2015 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Count Dracula title card - BBC
  • BBC
  • Count Dracula title card

Welcome to The Golden Age of TV Movies, a monthly column about those wonderful TV movies of yesteryear.

So many versions of Draculaso little time to watch them all.

Count Dracula was produced for BBC TV in 1977. It aired stateside as part of PBS' Great Performances series. For many years afterwards Count Dracula was a Halloween staple on a number of PBS stations. From its initial airings onward, this impressively ambitious two-and-a-half hour adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel has been hailed as one of the finest and most literate translations of the book, and one of the most faithful to the source material.

In his book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula From Novel to Stage to Screen, noted horror film historian David. J Skal had this to say about Count Dracula: "The most careful adaptation of the novel to date. And the most successful."

As is usually the case with BBC television productions, Count Dracula was shot on video on stage-bound sets. This is not a hindrance — thanks to superb art direction and shadowy, atmospheric lighting, Count Dracula manages to drum up quite a few scares and is genuinely spooky throughout. The film does employ a long standing tradition of British TV dramas: while interiors are shot on video, brief establishing shots are lensed outdoors on grainy 16-mm film stock. As is often the case, the abrupt juxtaposition from video's clear image to the filmed shots can be jarring. But this is a minor quibble with a production that's literately written (by Gerald Savory), superbly acted and as scary as any classic tale of terror should be.

One of the highlights of of the Stoker novel are scenes in which the Count scales the walls of his gargantuan castle in human form as though he were the vampire bat he can morph into. Many of the film and television versions of the story are missing these sequences, but Count Dracula wisely includes them. As Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) watches in horror, the Count (Louis Jourdan) crawls down the castle wall ever so slowly and deliberately — he moves like a rodent. The gloomy night sky of Transylvania can be seen overheard — it's a magnificent shot which underscores the not-quite-human-not-quite-corpse nature of the vampire.

The Count scales the castle wall as Harker looks on in horror. - BBC
  • BBC
  • The Count scales the castle wall as Harker looks on in horror.

Jourdan gives the performance of his life as Dracula, This count is handsome, elegant and charmingly polite, a sociopath who knows how to gaslight those who are under his control. It's a chillingly unforgettable performance that should have won the French sex symbol some awards. 

Frank Finlay, a classically trained, Oscar nominated British actor, is wonderfully over the top as the grimly determined Van Helsing, the legendary vampire hunter. Finlay plays the role as though he were playing Shakespeare. Van Helsing is determined to stop the vampiric scourge which plagues the seaside town of Whitby — considering that Count Dracula is a nearly 40-year-old television production, the staking of Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) in her crypt, is surprising graphic. Lucy screams in agony as blood gushes out of her chest. It's a wonderfully powerful if disturbing scene. Lucy is staked by her stunned and heartbroken fiance (Richard Barnes) while Van Helsing offers a dramatic reading of the Prayer for the Dead.

Special kudos go to Jack Shepherd for his gleefully manic turn as the fly eating Renfield, a disciple of the Count.

At two-and-a-half hours, Count Dracula runs considerably longer than most other versions of the story. Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula which launched the career of horror icon Bela Lugosi, runs a scant 75 minutes. Hammer Films' Horror of Dracula (1958) which made a star of Christopher Lee, clocks in at 82 minutes. At 150 minutes, Count Dracula is able to fully develop it's characters. Viewers will get to know most of them rather well, which is always a plus. The horrors become more horrific when they happen to people you've come to care about.

Is Count Dracula the best version of Stoker's novel? Watch it now and judge for yourself. Happy Halloween!                          

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