Director: Philip Saville
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.