Two of my more recent discoveries on Amazon Prime were a selection of the BBC anthology series Play for Today (1970-84), (sadly no A Photograph), and ABC’s gothic daytime melodrama Dark Shadows (1966-71). This unique and unlikely hit gave its creator Dan Curtis the chance to successfully pitch some classic horror adaptations to the U.S. networks, the first of which, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Jack Palance would air on ABC on 7 January 1968 and receive four Emmy nominations. Curtis would make more horror adaptations for ABC, including Frankenstein (1973), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973), and The Turn of the Screw (1974), all shot on videotape for the network’s Worldwide Mystery series. Throughout these productions Curtis would seek to portray a tonal faithfulness to the source text away from some of the more lurid and sensationalist reworkings that had gone before. His adaptation of Dracula however was picked up by CBS and shot on film, on location in Yugoslavia (as was) and the U.K. It is a lavish and melodramatic production. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Curtis commented, “There are only two great horror stories, Frankenstein and Dracula. And Frankenstein has been done well, several times. But not Dracula. The 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula is unwatchable, expect as camp. The 1958 Christopher Lee Dracula is one of the worst movies ever made.”
The script is by Richard Matheson in his fourth of some six collaborations with Curtis, they had most recently worked together on cult favourite The Night Stalker (1972). Matheson was noted as the author of I Am Legend (1954) as well as some of the best regarded episodes of the original run of The Twilight Zone (1959-64), and various Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for Roger Corman. One of his stories, No Such Thing as A Vampire was adapted by the BBC for short lived anthology series Late Night Horror (1968), I wrote about that series’s one surviving episode here.
Because of the two-hour slot the programme was assigned, many edits are required from the novel (and indeed from Matheson’s original three hour script), only Arthur Holmwood survives of Lucy’s suitors and the Renfield subplot is done away with altogether. And while the first part of the film concentrates faithfully enough on Harker’s time at Castle Dracula, Matheson tidies up his escape, which Stoker rather brushes over, by having Harker turned into a Vampire by Dracula’s brides at the end of the first act. Furthermore, Matheson makes two significant additions that seem to have become an accepted part of the Dracula canon, at least as far as adaptations are concerned. The first is an explicit link between the Vampire and the real-life Vlad Tepes (Impaler) (1431-1476). While working on the script Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally’s In Search of Dracula (1972) was published. This was followed up with Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times the following year. The books delved into what was known of the Prince of Wallachia, and here in the film we see a painting of Tepes and he does look quite a lot like…Jack Palance and there are also a couple of brief flashbacks that show him with his lost love, who looks quite a look like that actress playing Lucy. Which brings us nicely on the second addition, and one that Curtis seems to have lifted wholesale from Dark Shadows. Concerned that Dracula’s motivation to up sticks to England seems to be missing from Stoker’s novel (it’s probably hanging out somewhere with the sequence where Harker has it away on his toes from Castle Dracula), Matheson adds in the discovery that Lucy is the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife, and he wants her back. If, like me you saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) before you saw Dan Curtis’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, well you now know where to lay the blame.
All of this seems largely to give the Count a more worthy motivation and try to elicit some sympathy with the curse of living for centuries, which in itself is an interesting development of the character. And yet if your motivation was to create the most faithful adaptation of Dracula you could, why the need to ‘fix’ certain perceived plot holes? Is changing the plot to something you prefer so very different to what Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher did when they made “one of the worst movies ever made”?
To play the role of Dracula Curtis would return to Jekyll and Hyde’s Jack Palance. He seems to have made a good impression, the Los Angeles Times commenting “If the late Lugosi was the definitive Count Dracula it’s no longer true. It’s now Jack Palance.” While Variety called it “one of the finest performances of his career.” The less is more performances from Christopher Lee are a world away and Palance’s Dracula is obsessed and fierce. Now, like the character developments introduced by Curtis and Matheson this could be a bold move but the decision to have Palance dressed as you would expect Dracula to dress in the most traditional way possible hampers this development and mires the character in cliché. The scene where Dracula discovers Lucy is finally dead and destroys the family mausoleum could be shocking but instead we see a bloke dressed as Dracula smashing the place up, putting you more in mind of the aftermath of a Halloween Party in Albert Square. Palance’s wig doesn’t help either. This is Dracula having a midlife crisis.
The pruning of various subplots means the story focuses on Harker (Murray Brown), Holmwood (Simon Ward), Mina (Penelope Horner), Lucy (Fiona Lewis) and Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport). Like the Mystery and Imagination adaptation Van Helsing comes across as a rather po-faced Doctor Who (although you get the impression that Davenport is doing his best with limited material) and Holmwood his rather dim-witted assistant. Dracula’s focus on Lucy leaves Mina side lined until a bit too late the in the action but her role as revenge target gives us probably the most effective scene in the whole programme where Dracula opens a wound on his chest and forces Mina to drink his blood. The fact this takes place in front of Val Helsing and Holmwood reinforces the Victorian fear of the foreign cuckolder (and, y’know, having the nickname ‘Impaler’ helps), yet it loses some of the impact without Harker’s presence. Murray Brown does a first-rate job and is probably the best performer. It’s a pity he’s all but disposed of by the end of the first act (and his vampire falling into a convenient pit of stakes that for some reason Dracula has in his basement is really up there with the worst of lazy plotting) . Spotters of British TV character actors will find much to enjoy here. George Pravda and his real-life wife Hana Maria Pravda run the inn that Harker stays at, John Challis is a shipping clerk, and personal favourite Reg Lye as an ill-fated zookeeper.
The production side marks this out as a cut above most T.V. films with Cinematographer Oswald Morris one of the all-time greats. While Editor Richard A. Harris would be responsible for cutting up four of James Cameron’s film and would win an Oscar for Titanic (1997). Shout out too for Special Effects Supervisor Kit West who worked on several Hammer films and later Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
This version of Dracula is more lavish that might be expected even for a U.S. T.V. production and was driven by Curtis’s desire to produce something more akin to Bram Stoker’s novel, and yet both these things work against it. The rich colour scheme makes Transylvania look like a verdant paradise and much of the atmosphere is lost, especially when compared to the gloomy forest scenes that was such a feature of Hammer’s output. The bold moves to expand much of Dracula’s background and motivation are genuinely interesting but also serves of highlight how silly some of the clichés can look if you don’t buy in to them totally. I never completely believe Palance is Dracula, rather a man dressed as Dracula, and even the brief flashback sequences with Fiona Lewis do little to colour this character as medieval warrior and noble. Yet this is clearly a highly influential production, not just did it inform Coppola’s er, effort but Marvel’s comic series Tomb of Dracula (1972-79) would use Palance as the Count’s likeness, although artist Gene Colan would initially refer to Curtis’s Jekyll and Hyde.
Next time I’ll look at Philip Saville’s BBC production from 1977 and see if its reputation as the greatest small screen adaptation still holds.