From the DVD case: Filmed in England and Yugoslavia, it [Dracula] stars three-time Academy Award nominee and 1991 Best Supporting Actor Jack Palance as the immortal vampire, Count Dracula, whose centuries-old existence is threatened after he attacks the lovely Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis). When Lucy’s fiance (Simon Ward) calls in Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) to investigate, a spine-tingling hunt for the vampire follows. (1973, color)
Mark says: Fans of monsters and TV are lucky that Dan Curtis came along. Not only did he bring the vampire series Dark Shadows to the small screen, but he also produced innovative TV movies like The Night Stalker and 1968’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1973, Dan Curtis directed and produced Dracula, casting Jack Palance (who also starred in the Jekyll and Hyde TV movie) as the famous bloodsucking Count.
What Curtis brought to the Dracula table is romance. He believed Dracula needed proper motivation to pull up his Carpathian Mountain roots and transplant himself in England. That motivation, in Curtis’ version, comes in the form of Fiona Lewis (Dr. Phibes Rises Again, The Fearless Vampire Killers) as Lucy Westenra. Lucy is a (ahem) dead-ringer for Dracula’s true love from the 1400s. In fact, Curtis suggests that Lucy is the reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead lover.
I know what you are thinking: you’ve heard this twist before. But not before 1973’s Dracula, you haven’t. This innovation was dreamed up by Dan Curtis himself (taken from a plot line from his old Dark Shadows series) and written into the script by Richard Matheson (Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man). This romantic element has been copied since, most notably in Francis Ford Coppola’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it was Curtis’ production from which the idea originated.
Dracula having a tragic love interest brings a certain pathos to the character. When Dracula sees or thinks of Lucy, we hear a music box melody and are permitted brief flashbacks of Dracula’s beloved running to him in slow motion, or the two lovers engaged in passionate kissing. To be honest, Jack Palance passionately kissing a woman is far more disturbing than Dracula drinking her blood. And that’s not just hyperbole.
Many critics have bestowed praise on Jack Palance for his performance as the lovestruck vampire. Dan Curtis asserts in an interview (included as a bonus feature on the DVD version I own) that Jack Palance is the best Dracula that has ever donned the cape. In another interview (on the same DVD) Mr. Palance speaks of how he feared the role and eagerly awaited the production’s end because he got into the part so deeply he was afraid he’d “become Dracula” (now that’s hyperbole!)
From my point of view, Palance’s portrayal is competent, but not much more. Sure, he’s a scary-looking guy, and he snarls, hisses and roars with the best of them, but he doesn’t inspire the sense of dread that other Draculas do. Not in my book, anyway. Max Schreck (1922’s Nosferatu) is a much scarier-looking beast, and Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula) has a more commanding presence than Palance. Even Lugosi’s Dracula has his creepy iconic mannerisms that make him memorable. I’m not saying that Jack gives a poor performance (I wouldn’t dare!), but I am saying that I have seen the role played more convincingly.
Nigel Davenport (1977’s The Island of Dr. Moreau) as Dr. Van Helsing turns in a believable performance. Likewise, Fiona Lewis as Lucy, and Penelope Horner as Mina, are both capable actresses. Simon Ward (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) seems a little lacking in the role of Arthur Holmwood, but this may be because he isn’t given much to do except to look up at Dr. Van Helsing with a countenance of utter concern. That’s Murray Brown (Vampyres) in the role of Jonathan Harker.
The film has a visually appealing aesthetic, with the interior sets bathed in rich, bold reds. The exterior scenes, on the MPI Home Video transfer that I own, are sometimes a little dark, but effective. Unfortunately, the story tends to drag, and its 100 minute running time seems longer than what is needed.
For a TV production, Dan Curtis’ Dracula is a very fine effort, and Dracula aficionados will certainly want to judge its merits for themselves.
Scene to watch for: After finding his beloved has been staked, Dracula throws one heck of a temper tantrum.
Line to listen for: “If the cause of your fiancée’s affliction is what I think it is, then beside it the most venomous serpent in the world would seem a plaything for children.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.