IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Dan Curtis, the man behind the original “Dark Shadows” TV show, and THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), the film that introduced Carl Kolchak to the world, and a bunch of other above average TV horror movies from the 1970s, including TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), produced and directed today’s movie, DRACULA (1974), a made-for-television retelling of the Bram Stoker tale with Jack Palance cast as the King of the Undead, Dracula.
My first memory of DRACULA was not a good one. It was 1973, and I was nine years old. I had aggressively lobbied my parents to let me stay up to watch the new DRACULA movie that had been advertised all week, and to my delight, they said yes! Unfortunately, Richard Nixon also chose that night to announce to the nation in an hour long news conference covered by all three networks that he had selected Gerald Ford as his new Vice President. In doing so, he pre-empted the showing of DRACULA. My plans had been thwarted. But I got the last laugh, as DRACULA was finally shown a few months later (thus the 1974 release date), and well, we all know what happened to Tricky Dick.
DRACULA is a decent enough movie, although it’s nowhere near as good as Curtis’ prior vampire efforts, THE NIGHT STALKER and “Dark Shadows.” My favorite part of this movie is that it looks and plays like a Hammer Film, only not as good.
In fact, DRACULA shares some similarities with Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). As in HORROR OF DRACULA, the character of Renfield is noticeably absent, and Van Helsing is portrayed once again as a medical doctor instead of the old professor from the novel. We also don’t see Dracula change into a bat.
One difference between DRACULA and HORROR OF DRACULA—and Stoker’s novel as well— is the beefier role for Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward.) Perhaps this was because Simon Ward was an up and coming star, and they wanted to give him plenty of screen time.
DRACULA boasts a decent enough cast, but unfortunately no one really stands out.
You’d think Jack Palance with his experience playing villains in the movies would have made an excellent Dracula, but he really doesn’t. One reason for this is the script emphasizes the romantic element, as we find Dracula in love with Lucy (Fiona Lewis) as she is the splitting image of his long lost love. So, we get to see some romantic flashbacks with Palance and his love, and I don’t know about you, but I just don’t see Palance as the leading man type. He’s much more the straight villain, and unfortunately, he doesn’t really get the opportunity to be all that evil in this one. He fared much better in the evil department when he played Mr. Hyde in THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1968).
When he’s allowed to be angry, Palance is very good as Dracula. However, there’s a difference between anger and evil, and strangely, in this film, Palance doesn’t do evil all that well. There’s something lacking in his performance, and it’s almost as if Palance, Curtis, and screenwriter Richard Matheson were trying to make Dracula more human and less supernatural. It makes one appreciate just how good Christopher Lee was as Dracula. Lee has always been able to capture the essence of evil in his performances as the Prince of Darkness.
Speaking of Christopher Lee, in 1974 producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wanted Jack Palance to play the villain in their latest James Bond movie, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), but Palance had to turn them down because he was contracted to do DRACULA. So Broccoli and Saltzman were forced to look elsewhere. The part of villainous hit man Scaramanga eventually went to Christopher Lee. So, you might say Lee could thank Dracula for landing him a role in a James Bond movie.
Simon Ward makes for a decent Arthur Holmwood, although I liked him better as Karl, the young doctor blackmailed by Peter Cushing’s evil Baron Frankenstein into helping the Baron transplant people’s brains in the superior Hammer shocker FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).
The rest of the cast is rather blah. Nigel Davenport is OK as Van Helsing, but compared to Peter Cushing, he’s rather dull. And neither Fiona Lewis as Lucy or Penelope Horner as Mina makes for very effective heroines. Murray Brown is wooden as Jonathan Harker.
I do like the direction by Dan Curtis. DRACULA is probably the best looking “Hammer Film that’s not really a Hammer Film” ever made! From beginning to end, it looks and plays like a Hammer Dracula movie. While Curtis crafts plenty of good looking scenes, taking full advantage of the color red throughout, unfortunately one thing he forgot to do was make this one scary. DRACULA doesn’t come close to being as effective, memorable, or as flat out frightening as Curtis’ earlier hit THE NIGHT STALKER.
There’s a neat scene where Dracula shows off his superior strength when he’s confronted by a group of men. Drac goes into action star mode and makes short work of these guys. The film could have used more scenes like this.
The screenplay by Richard Matheson does include a neat bit from the novel which before then hadn’t really made it into any of the movies, where Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina and is able to tap into her psychic connection with Dracula in order to gain insight into his thoughts. It’s through this process that they are able to learn of Dracula’s plans to return to his castle.
However, the script does a lousy job with Mina and Lucy. Lucy is supposed to be Dracula’s great love in this movie, but she’s killed off with a stake in the heart early on, and so that love affair goes nowhere, and Mina isn’t the strong heroine she is in the novel. Her part is greatly reduced here.
And again, while Jack Palance isn’t bad as Dracula, he’s not great either. He lacks Christopher Lee’s ability to personify evil, and he’s certainly not the romantic lead we’d find in Frank Langella as Dracula five years later in the 1979 John Badham film.
DRACULA is a mediocre film version of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel. It’s beautifully photographed and it features a decent performance by Jack Palance as the Count, but the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff. It ultimately plays like “Hammer Lite.”
Dracula should have sharpened his fangs for this one.
It could have used more bite.