Count Dracula (1977)

Director: Philip Saville

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among monsters, there is none that has had more longevity and allure than the vampire. From its first English-language iteration, John Polidori’s short story “Vampyre,” through to the wildly popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, the vampire indeed seems likely to live forever. Certainly, vampires already rule the world of cinematic monsters, with directors both great and small finding their stories worthy of telling and retelling. The template for most vampire films is Irishman Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Few of the adaptations have been terribly faithful to the novel, the result of which, it seems to me, is that the battle between good and evil has deteriorated into a mosh pit of mumbo jumbo, or disappeared entirely. Not surprising in our increasingly secular age, but there is much to be said for the power behind the religious notion of the sacred and the priceless worth of the human soul. That power is palpable in the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s classic I’ve ever seen, Count Dracula.

The story is very familiar, so I’ll sum it up quickly. Solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) leaves London and his fiancee Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker) for Transylvania to finalize a home purchase for Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan), who plans to relocate to England. He is detained, a virtual prisoner, in the Count’s home for a month; learns the Count is a vampire; threatened by three brides of Dracula (Susie Hickford, Sue Vanna, and Belinda Meuldijk); and left there when Dracula sets sail. Instead of going straight to London, Dracula lands in Whitby, in Yorkshire, where Mina, her mother (Ann Queensberry), and her sister Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) are on holiday. The Count attacks Lucy. Mina learns Jonathan is alive, and goes to Transylvania to retrieve him; they marry while abroad. In London, the Count moves into his digs. Lucy grows increasingly weak, and Dr. Van Helsing (Frank Finley) is brought in on her case. He diagnoses vampirism but cannot save Lucy. Soon, the Count is attacking Mina, offering her to his disciple Renfield (Jack Shepherd), who is in an insane asylum under the care of Dr. John Seward (Mark Burns). Renfield refuses the gift, and kills himself instead. It is then up to the Count to take possession of her soul, and Van Helsing, Harker, Seward, and Lucy’s fiance Quincy Holmwood (Richard Barnes) to destroy him and save Mina.

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Produced as a miniseries for the BBC, Count Dracula takes few liberties with Stoker’s novel and is able, with its longer running time, to allow events to unfold gradually, building suspense and presenting the familiar characters of Van Helsing, Renfield, and even the Count with stronger points of view. In most vampire tales, the Christian notion of the soul is dispensed with entirely, making the Christian prayers and symbols used as weapons against the vampire—the crucifix and consecrated hosts (no holy water in this version)—mere props. In this version, Christianity is served up repeatedly as a constant reminder that this is a fight between God and the devil.

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For example, Harker rides a coach to the crossroads where Dracula’s carriage will fetch him up to the castle and informs his fellow passengers where he is going. A Romanian woman places a rosary around his neck (“for the sake of your mother”), and once things start getting strange in the castle, Harker doesn’t hesitate to wear it. Finley as Van Helsing is no fire-breathing avenger, but a kind, deeply religious man who examines Lucy and tries to prevent Dracula’s access to her without frightening her. When it is time to set her soul free from the vampire’s curse, he engages Quincy to drive the enormous stake into her because Quincy’s is a hand of love. Over and over, we see the gentle love of beings with souls—with the body of Christ represented by the host being the most powerful force for love—defeat the vampires.

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Louis Jourdan is an amazingly good Dracula, the best, in my opinion. He has that cold handsomeness and veneer of culture that always seem the most evil. When Harker discovers his “secret” in a truly macabre scene showing the Count clinging to the castle wall like a bat and lurching his way down, Dracula doesn’t seem to care. He’s powerful, immortal, perhaps even invincible in his own mind. He actually doesn’t have much screen time, so the effect he exerts on us is rather like that he exerts on his victims—a dreadful attraction, even yearning for his presence, an unseen but unmistakeable menace in the dark.

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I was deeply impressed with Jack Shepherd as Renfield. His character has never made much sense to me, and his fly eating, spider catching, and bizarre logic have always seemed to be just a horror device—the looney in the attic, so to speak. Here, as Renfield regains his humanity through contact with Mina before Dracula has attacked her and then after, learning of her fears of being damned to purgatory for losing her soul, his rationality returns. He stands up to Dracula without apparent fear, asks God to grant him the strength to do what he must, and breaks a wooden chair to use to stake himself through the heart. The passionate conviction Shepherd invests in this sequence has forever transformed my vision of Renfield.

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The production values are a bit jarring to modern eyes. Mixing video with film gives Count Dracula an uneven, cheap feel, and special effects, such as the use of negative and double-exposed images are basic, if effective, in suggesting the eye of Dracula. Growing up on this kind of stuff, though, I noted it, but was not bothered by it. In other ways, Count Dracula pays greater attention to the details than modern horror films do. For example, when Dracula tells his brides that they cannot feast on Harker, they complain about what he has to offer them. A carpet bag on the floor twitches slightly, and the scene shifts to the brides holding a naked baby boy in the air, and then to their blood-stained mouths. A horrifying scene shot with more economy I’d be hard-pressed to find. Another effective moment is when the men enter the dark basement in Dracula’s London home to search for the boxes where he keeps the earth in which he must rest. Flashlights twitch across the contents of the cobwebbed room, alighting momentarily on various objects and leaving others indistinct shadows in a frightening place. In its untricked-up simplicity, this scene is more frightening than other “don’t look in the cellar” scenes that tend to be ridiculous with foreboding.

Count Dracula has been unavailable for some time. Although this BBC Warner DVD issued in 2007 has no extras at all, it’s still well worth its modest purchase price and then some. By retrieving the story from the scream-inducing impulses of the horror genre, Count Dracula reinvigorates the vampire fable with universal consequences that haunt the human spirit. l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/06/2009 to 4:10 pm

    Well Marilyn, I am sold on it and will be placing my order.
    As a lifelong vampire and horror film afficianado, I must say I am embarassed I haven’t yet seen this, but at the same time am grateful that you have brought this to my attention with your typically fecund skills. Besides this, what is the greatest vampire film? And do we consider DARK SHADOWS (a childhood obsession of mine, and I bet yours too) and/or BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER? Jonathan Frid is surely among the most adored blood-suckers, at least among the baby-boomers.
    The original Universal horror film showcased a magnificent opening 20 minutes and a great Renfield (Dwight Frye) but it’s hopelessly stilted and abridged.
    Hammer Studio’s 1958 DRACULA (Terrence Fisher) is certainly one of that studio’s best horror entries (certainly ranking with THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, VAMPIRE CIRCUS and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, perhaps edges them out) and Christopher Lee is a far more accurate a vivid Count than Lugosi was, yet again liberties are taken with the story and characters. Peter Cushing as always is very good, and there’s an alluring current of sensuality running through it. The climax, when Lee crumbles to sunlight is superb. But again, still not all the way there.
    Then there’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (Coppola) which is beautifully mounted and acted (except for that fraud, Keanu Reeves) and scored, (and which comes closer to the events of the novel) but yet it’s still oddly unfullfilling and frequently tedious.
    The Langella DRACULA doesn’t even seen worth mentioning, yet the Count in Mario Bava’s ‘Wurtelak’ segment of his shuddery BLACK SABBATH is surprisingly effective. (but that piece is based on Chekov, not Stoker.
    I’m afraid we must go all the way back to the very beginning with Max Shrek and Murnau’s masterpiece NOSFERATU (1922)to get the most satisfactory and accurate Count, even if the story isn’t remotely accurate.
    Beautiful essay here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/06/2009 to 4:23 pm

    Thank you, Sam. As always, you’re so gracious.
    Well, you tell me after you see this whether Nosferatu is the better, putting aside the German Expressionism that Murnau was so adept at. Comparing production values of a TV show and a movie isn’t exactly fair, in my humble opinion, even if the movie was decades older.
    I saw this on PBS a long time ago, and it stuck with me all that time. Now that I’ve seen it again, I’m happy to say my memory did not fail me. Despite a surface resemblace (the video) to Dark Shadows, Jourdan’s count is not sympathetic or likely to be adored by young girls, despite his brief seducions. They seemed more like an executioner calming down his victim than a lover seducing a willing woman – these women clearly loved others and were bewitched. That made it all the more dastardly.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    1st/06/2009 to 6:26 pm

    It’s nice to see a positive review of this film. Made-for-TV movies often get the short stick, but there were a lot of great made-for-TV horror movies produced in the ’70s and this is one of the best.
    Like yourself, I think Louis Jourdan is really wonderful as the Count. He seems to be enjoying the hell out of his role and totally embodies the character.
    Although the film effects might seem dated to some short-sighted modern viewers I think they’re extremely creative for a 1977 television production.
    For one reason or another I’ve seen a lot of made-for-TV horror films from the ’70s recently such as Dan Curtis’s anthology Dead of Night, which also came out in ’77 and was just released on DVD. And even though it’s not as good as Dracula, the anthology movie does contain one story that was incredibly efective and very creepy involving a grieving mother who uses black magic to resurrect her dead child with dire consequences.
    I don’t understand why made-for-TV horror films are so awful now. I have a weakness for the terrible movies that the sci-fi channel produces month after month and I watch almost all of them, but I’m constantly asking myself WHY I’m wasting my time? 95% of them are terrible! I guess we just don’t have the same caliber of writers, directors and actors working in television anymore, but I’m beginning to think it has something to do with dumbing down of America.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/06/2009 to 6:49 pm

    I can’t really remember many TV horror films myself, though I have looked in on some recent ones that Stuart Gordon produced and that I’ve liked. As a big fan of the TV series “Torchwood,” “Angel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I reveal myself to be a fan of long form horror. Of course, BBC made some incredible television during their golden age of the 60s and 70s. I just made good on my promise to myself to get “Ken Russell at the BBC” and the uncut “The Devils.” It’s British immersion time here at Casa Ferdy.

  • Fox spoke:
    2nd/06/2009 to 10:24 am

    This looks really good. And I really mean “looks”. I like the stills you pulled. There’s not much action in them, but it has that British TV look to it that would seem to suit the story of Dracula very well.
    I’m not a connoisseur of Dracula or the vampire genre, but your review and stills tell me I might like the tone that this adaptation is going for. I just checked Netflix, and they have it as well! I haven’t been buying DVDs much anymore.
    And speaking of Ken Russell… have you thought anymore on submitting an entry about him to Senses of Cinema?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/06/2009 to 10:37 am

    Fox – I do think you’ll like it. We watched it over two days. It was nice to savor the story.
    I am still thinking about the Senses of Cinema entry, but probably more thinking about trying to score an interview with the man himself. He seems very approachable from what I’ve read.

  • Greg spoke:
    2nd/06/2009 to 11:04 am

    I loved this when I saw it years ago on PBS. I had no idea it had been made available again. Having watched so many BBC productions use film for exterior shots and video for interior shots on everything from Doctor Who to As Time Goes By it not only doesn’t bother me but in fact I like it. The new stuff now, like Monarch of the Glen, uses high quality digital video that can’t be distinguished from film making me miss the old stuff.
    Anyway, enough of my strange affection for exterior film/interior video shots. I’ll have to check this out again now that I know it’s available. Thanks.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/06/2009 to 11:06 am

    Greg – It was great to see it again. I never forgot it after I saw it and have told people for years that this is the best version of the Dracula story. Now I can prove it.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    5th/06/2009 to 7:02 pm

    The problem with the movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is that it keeps the events of the book but cuts out the heart: Stoker’s Dracula is evil, not a misunderstood romantic. He is a rapist more than a seducer (and I agree the BBC version better captures that, though imo Christopher Lee’s 1958 Dracula comes closest to the monster of Stoker’s book even though the film severely telescopes the plot).
    Anyway, I have and greatly enjoy the BBC dvd (which also stuck with me since I last saw it in the 70s) but I think the ultimate version of Stoker is still waiting to be done.
    Btw, the Orson Welles Mercury theater version is well worth a listen, though Welles can’t help putting a bit of romance into the Count at the very end, and as with Lee there is no time or space for Renfield.
    (The Renfield in the book is less disturbed than very disturbing; someone who, having no faith in Christian immortality, wants the physical immortality Dracula offers. The fate of his “pet” birds is a truly modern horror scene that would test audiences even in today’s splatter world.)

  • animalfather111 spoke:
    14th/11/2009 to 5:20 pm

    Of all the Dracula adaptations, this is the most faithful to the original book; the only omission being the character of Arther Holmewood.
    It’s also the best. The acting is flawless and it just has that “feel”. It may not have the pretty looks and effects of Francis Ford Coppola’s film (which is also very good), but this is more satisfying and less pretentious.
    The DVD can be picked up for next to nothing on amazon; I recommend it to anyone who wants an honest and intelligent dracula film.

  • Linda spoke:
    10th/11/2010 to 6:09 am

    I was always a fan of Bela Lugosi, but Louis Jourdan’s Dracula is my all-time favourite. I also totally agree with what you said about Jack Shepherd’s portrayal of Renfield – astounding! Everyone in the cast put 100% into their performances. On the IMDB website, Louis Jourdan himself said this was his most favourite film & he greatly enjoyed making it. He quite liked playing this sinister role.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/11/2010 to 7:23 am

    Linda – Thanks for stopping by, and I’m not surprised about Jourdan’s comment. He’s actually quite like his character in Gigi in this – a predatory seducer of women – but without the possibility of redemption.

  • Teddy Radiator spoke:
    8th/04/2011 to 6:38 pm

    I read this review with great delight. I remember seeing this version of Dracula when it first aired in the 70’s and being spellbound by Jourdan’s portrayal of this character. I was astounded by the sexuality of his performance, and I loved this adaptation so much I purchased a copy while living in the UK. Even though, as you say, it looks a little dated, it still is one of the best versions of the story, and every Dracula since has had to measure up to my yardstick of Jourdan’s performance. A true, dark, sexual, menacing predator, but completely believable that Mina would be unable to resist him in that last, very erotic scene when he urges her to drink his blood. The Gary Oldman/Winona Ryder version was a pale, mawkish imitation in comparison.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2011 to 7:57 am

    Teddy, you might want to read Rod’s review of the Coppola film as a companion to this review: http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/?p=9021

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