IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: COUNT DRACULA (1977)

Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the BBC production of COUNT DRACULA (1977) starring Louis Jordan as Dracula.  This column is currently published in the June 2015 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER.

Enjoy!

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHTCount Dracula poster

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

I first crossed paths with COUNT DRACULA (1977), the BBC production of the Bram Stoker tale, starring Louis Jordan as Dracula, when I was in high school and it was shown on PBS.  I was immediately drawn to this version, which impressed me, a Hammer Dracula fan, to no end.  In short, I loved it.  PBS played it multiple times, and I think I watched it each time.

I recently bought COUNT DRACULA on DVD, and after not having seen this movie in nearly 40 years, I got to enjoy it once again.

Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) travels to Transylvania to conduct business with Count Dracula (Louis Jordan), arranging the sale of the Carfax Abbey estate back in England.  But Dracula has an agenda of his own, and in this film it’s all about his traveling to England to seek out new disciples, which he does after making Harker a prisoner in his castle.

In England, Dracula puts the bite on Lucy (Susan Penhaligon), the sister of Harker’s fiancé Mina (Judi Bowker).  Lucy’s good friend and suitor Dr. John Seward (Mark Burns) is stumped by Lucy’s illness.  He calls in his friend from Amsterdam, Professor Van Helsing (Frank Finlay), and it’s Van Helsing who makes the connection between Lucy’s condition and vampirism.

But Van Helsing is too late to save Lucy, and soon Dracula sets his fangs— er, sights on Mina.  Van Helsing realizes that Dracula is the vampire they are seeking, and he assembles a team consisting of Seward, Jonathan Harker, who has since escaped from Castle Dracula and made his way home, Lucy’s American fiancé, Quincy Holmwood (Richard Barnes), and Mina herself to hunt down and destroy Dracula.

There’s a lot to like about COUNT DRACULA, and my favorite part is that of all the Dracula movies I’ve ever seen, it comes the closest to capturing the mood and flavor of the Bram Stoker novel.  There is a strong literary feel throughout, due mostly to the well-written script by Gerald Savory.

Is it my favorite Dracula movie of all time?  No, but it does place in the top three for me, trailing only Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA (1931).  That’s how good it is!

And as much as it captures the essence of Stoker’s novel, it’s not completely faithful to the book.  There are some changes. For example, the characters of Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris are condensed into one, Quincy Holmwood.  Dracula is an old man at the beginning of the novel and gets younger as the story goes along.  In COUNT DRACULA he remains the same age.  And the person who drives the stake through Drac’s heart at the end of the story is also changed.

The cast is excellent.  Louis Jordan puts his own personal stamp on the role of Dracula, and his performance steers away from both that of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.  He comes off as the thinking man’s Dracula, and he makes for a deliciously cold and powerful undead Count.    He’s cool, relaxed, and supremely confident.

Louis Jordan, the thinking man's Dracula.

Louis Jordan, the thinking man’s Dracula.

Jordan’s Dracula argues that he’s not evil at all.  He rationalizes his behavior, claiming he’s no different than humans except they eat meat and he drinks blood to survive.  It makes him an emotionless, calculating predator.  I prefer Jordan over two other movie Draculas, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman.

While my favorite movie Van Helsing is of course Peter Cushing, I really like Frank Finlay as Professor Van Helsing here.  His Van Helsing comes closest to the way Stoker wrote the character. As much as I like Edward Van Sloan in the Bela Lugosi DRACULA, his Van Helsing was both modernized and Americanized for 1930s movie audiences.  I was never much of a fan of Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Van Helsing in DRACULA (1979), and Anthony Hopkins in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) played him like a crazy person.  While I love Cushing as Van Helsing, his take on the character in the Hammer Draculas was completely his own, turning him into a younger, more athletic “doctor” rather than a wise, elderly professor.

Frank Finlay is masterful as Professor Van Helsing.

Frank Finlay is masterful as Professor Van Helsing.

Frank Finlay nails the Bram Stoker version of the Van Helsing character here in COUNT DRACULA.  He’s wily and witty, super intelligent, resourceful, and most of all he’s fearless.  He’s the perfect man to lead the charge against Dracula.

Judi Bowker is also excellent as Mina.  She’s vulnerable yet strong, and she often possesses more strength and gumption than her husband Jonathan.  I like Helen Chandler as Mina in DRACULA (1931) a lot, Melissa Stribling in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) is okay, Kate Nelligan in DRACULA (1979) is very good, and Winona Ryder in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) I always found underwhelming.  Judi Bowker is better than them all. She also starred in the original CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).

The beautiful Judi Bowker is one of the screen's best Minas.

The beautiful Judi Bowker is one of the screen’s best Minas.

Jack Shepherd makes for a very effective Renfield.  Dwight Frye from Lugosi’s DRACULA remains the definitive Renfield, but Shepherd is just as good if not better than the string of Renfields who have appeared in Dracula movies since.

Bosco Hogan is convincing as the victimized and often confused and frightened Jonathan Harker, and he’s believable when he makes the transition to a braver man towards end of the film.  Mark Burns is fine as Dr. Seward, and Susan Penhaligon is very good as Lucy.  Only Richard Barnes misses the mark somewhat, as he tends to overact as Texan Quincy Holmwood.

There are plenty of memorable scenes in COUNT DRACULA, directed by Philip Saville.

The scene where Dracula supplies his brides with a bag full of babies- a scene that comes directly from the novel— is as chilling today as it was back in 1977.  When Professor Van Helsing and Mina are surrounded by Dracula’s vampire brides, and Van Helsing has to protect Mina, it’s one of the film’s finer moments.

Other memorable scenes include Mina’s interview with Renfield, the confrontation at Carfax Abbey where Dracula challenges Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, and Dracula’s nighttime visits with Lucy.  The early scenes at Castle Dracula are also very effective.

The location shooting also helps this film, as it gives it a local flavor that brings Transylvania to life.  And it has a haunting music score by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts.

COUNT DRACULA is one of the finest film versions of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel.  Short of reading the book, you won’t find a more authentic rendition.

—END—

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