Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to suck your...never mind.
From the mind of Dark Shadows.
Since Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, few people have had their name indelibly associated with the undead bloodsuckers. It's a testament to Stoker's myth-making abilities that he cobbled together a series of disparate folk tales to craft one of the 20th century's dominant villains. Of the half-dozen or so people who've most influenced the development of the vampire mythos (for good or ill), Dan Curtis isn't the first name likely to rise to most people's tongues. And yet, he steered the good ship Dark Shadows to five seasons of soap opera fame, making vampires sexy and contemporary without losing their Gothic charm. Less well know, though, is his 1974 stab at the Bram Stoker original, made as a TV movie. It has much to recommend it, though it's more of more historical interest today.
Adapted by novelist Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), Dracula is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel to be found. It starts with Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown, Vampyres) making his way to Transylvania to meet Dracula (Jack Palance, Batman). Things get weird in Transylvania, and when Dracula travels back to London, a series of supernatural forces are set in motion, which only Harker and Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport, Chariots of Fire) can stop.
Depending on where you look, this particular Dracula has numerous titles—Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jack Palance's Dracula, and Dan Curtis' Dracula…as this Blu-ray is titled. Add in the fact that it was written by genre-master Richard Matheson, filmed at England's famous Pinewood Studios, and it's hard not to have sky-high expectations. These are expectations that, for a variety of reasons, the film can't meet.
I can't deny that Matheson has given the novel a fairly faithful treatment, something long-ignored by many cinematic adaptations up to that point. This is most evident in the earlier scenes at Dracula's castle, many of his shenanigans have never made the jump to film but are featured here. Matheson also adds a few touches—notably the Vlad the Impaler connection—that will be taken up by other filmmakers (I'm looking at you Coppola). That basic story is given solid direction by Dan Curtis, who gets to exorcize his further Gothic demons with the full might of Pinewood Studios behind him. Combine all that talent with the limitations on TV movies and you've got a film that relies very heavily on its atmosphere, which Dracula delivers in spades.
Jack Palance delivers a Dracula that feels like the most fresh aspect of the film forty years later. He's not as otherworldly as Max Schreck, as aristocratic as Christopher Lee, nor as savagely refined as Gary Oldman. His closest competitor is likely Klaus Kinski, but Kinski's Count seems driven to animalism by madness. Palance, in contrast, seems solidly animal, using the gravity of his personality and the heaviness of his body to give us a Dracula who feels like he was always part of the animal kingdom, which ties his portrayal to the novel more tightly. It's not a definitive performance of Dracula, but a worthy entry in the canon nonetheless.
Given all the talent involved, I wanted to like Dan Curtis' Dracula more than I did. It's not at all bad, but it also very much feels like it's being held back. The same decade brought us Daughters of Darkness and Vampyros Lesbos, not to mention Herzog's take on Nosferatu. In that company, Dracula feels like it suffers from having to confine itself to television sensibilities. That means the sexuality of Dracula and his minions has to be toned down, as does the violence done to and by him. Looking back decades later we can see how much of the film might have been shocking at the time, but for 21st century audiences, this is a disappointingly tame version of the story. And it's made all the more tame knowing that Palance could be more savage, and Matheson isn't afraid of the macabre. Those who fondly remember the film will appreciate returning to this Blu-ray, but it will be difficult for the film to win new fans.
At least I can't argue with this Blu-ray release. The film's 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is pretty excellent. Detail is strong, grain is appropriate, and colors give the film its naturalistic, period look. Some may worry that the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but the film doesn't seem to suffer from this framing. Black levels are deep and consistent, and the film doesn't seem to suffer from any digital manipulation. There's a bit of damage in the form of specks here and there, but overall the image looks great for a 40 year old made-for-TV movie. The film's DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track does a fine job balancing dialogue with the use of "spooky" effects. It's not going to impress audiophiles, but the mix itself is solid. Extras start with interviews featuring Curtis and Palance discussing their work on the film. We also get a few minutes of outtakes and some TV cuts, as well as the film's trailer.
Dan Curtis' Dracula is a historical oddity, probably worth tracking down for Dracula completists, Palance fans, and those with fond memories of the film from childhood. Everybody else can skip this one, even if the Blu-ray does offer a solid presentation and a few nice extras.
Not the perfect bloodsucker, but not guilty.
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