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January 2013

Count Dracula

cast: Louis Jourdan, Frank Finlay, Judy Bowker, Susan Penhaligon, and Jack Shepherd

director: Philip Saville

150 minutes (15) 1977
BBC / 2Entertain
DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Count Dracula

In the film Gigi (1958), directed by Vincente Minnelli, and based upon Colette's novella, the title character played by Leslie Caron sees through her grooming for society and confronts the rich flaneur Gaston played by Louis Jourdan. "They've pounded into my head I'm backward for my age... but I know what all this means. To 'take care of me beautifully' means I shall go away with you... and that I shall sleep in your bed." Gigi is a young girl pimped out by her grandmothers to Gaston, although the film tried to sidestep the issue. All ends happily of course in the inevitable acceptable marriage, although much that was thought charming and delicately risqué in a 1958 musical leaves a bad taste now, not least of which is Maurice Chevalier's signature song Thank Heavens For Little Girls.

Confused and ultimately decent as Gaston, Louis Jourdan seems an unlikely villain, although he would become one as Anton Arcane in the Swamp Thing movies, and as Kamal Khan in Octopussy. Before those career peaks, however, he effectively transformed the suave amorist from his romantic leads, into the sensualist monster lurking beneath, to play Count Dracula in this fairly faithful BBC adaptation from the late-1970s. Adaptor Gerald Savory was head of serials at the BBC in the mid-1960s, and earned his genre stripes saving William Hartnell from being written out of Doctor Who in the Celestial Toymaker serial, and pushing for the Dalek Master Plan to be an epic 12 episodes.

For Count Dracula, Savory made a few changes to Bram Stoker's original. Mina Murray and her best friend Lucy Westenra are now the Westenra sisters. The character of Arthur Holmwood is lost; of Lucy Westenra's three suitors, Dr Seward, the aristocrat Holmwood whose proposal in the novel she accepts, and the American Quincey Morris, only Seward and Quincey (now Quincy Holmwood) remain. Lucy is engaged to Quincey. Whether this move was to tempt sales of the production in the USA is a possibility; Quincey dies of gunshot wounds in the book, here he survives. The other more obvious change, other than editing for pace and concision, is that Dracula does not begin the narrative as an old man, only regaining youth and vigour as he sates his foul appetites in England; he starts as he means to go on, urbane and in his prime.

The compression of the book, for narrative pace, means we are spared much of Van Helsing's pious glorification of the character of Mina. Women, for the Professor, and the three younger men, John, Arthur, and Quincey, are there to be worshipped and protected. Dracula views them in a different light; they are his nourishment but potentially his equals in a companionate marriage lasting centuries. It is unsurprising that academic analysis of the novel has highlighted the powerful and rewarding feminist reading available in the narrative. Dracula is a monster assuredly but he also offers a liberating alternative to the Victorian treatment of women. Lucy is a victim of Dracula but as affianced in the novel to the aristocratic Holmwood her future is already sealed as wife and mother and domestic paragon. Mina is clearly talented and resourceful, she teaches herself shorthand, she sets out to be archivist and recording angel for the fellowship of vampire hunters, despite Van Helsing's best efforts to sideline her, both for her protection and because once initiated into the cult of blood-letting she is herself already of the vampire's party.

The stereotypical personification of women as either Madonna or whore is exemplified in Dracula; contamination as a vampire brings out all the repressed sensuality in Lucy as she comes on to her fiancé. Van Helsing repeatedly refers to Mina as 'Miss' Mina, despite the fact of her marriage to Jonathan, she is Mrs Harker and one presumes no longer a virgin, but it is in the Professor's interests to maintain a conceit of perceived purity as a bulwark against the attractions of the Count. While this TV film spares us much of Van Helsing's fussing and fawning, little of the psychological power of the original is lost.

Jonathan Harker travels to Eastern Europe to the home of Count Dracula to fulfil the latter's interest in a property in England. Forewarned by the unspecified concern of fearful locals Jonathan finds himself a prisoner in the Count's castle. The Count does not eat or drink, he casts no reflection in Jonathan's looking glass and, strangest of all, he leaves the castle at night by climbing head-first down the castle walls. Almost becoming a victim of the Count's beautiful evil 'brides', Harker realises it is his fate to become their victim. Having been coerced into writing a letter to his employer claiming he is returning to England, Harker risks all in an escape attempt. He manages to climb down from his bedroom window, and then makes the horrendous discovery of the Count and the brides sated and lethargic in their coffins in the crypt of the castle. Harker attempts to kill the Count with a blow from a shovel but, instead of decapitating him, he only gashes him across the forehead before continuing to make his escape.

Back in England, filled with foreboding by the lack of news from Jonathan, Mina attempts to enjoy her sister Lucy's good fortune in her engagement. Enjoying the sea-air at Whitby, the girls are witness to the grounding of a vessel after a horrific storm. Shortly afterwards, Mina discovers her sister out of bed, apparently sleep-walking, where she sees her in the embrace of a tall dark figure. Later, pinning a shawl around Lucy, Mina believes she has pricked her sister's neck for there on the white flesh are two puncture marks. Over the coming days, Lucy sickens and fails in health causing Dr Seward to call in his old Professor, Van Helsing who, after some research, proposes an unusual cure decorating the girl's bedroom with garlic flowers.

Unfortunately, while this action seems to offer the girl some protection, her mother's intervention results in tragedy when they are attacked by a large dog causing Mrs Westenra to die from a heart attack. With news that Jonathan has returned following some form of nervous breakdown, Mina has travelled to join him and she is absent when Lucy finally succumbs to the debilitating illness that has left her so weak. Mina returns, married to Jonathan, and Van Helsing confides in Dr Seward and also to Quincey his suspicions that Lucy has been preyed upon by one of the Nosferatu, and that she herself has joined the ranks of the undead.

With the death of Lucy, and Van Helsing, Seward and Quincey's intervention to save the dead girl's soul, Dracula turns his attention to Mina, consummating their blood pact while Jonathan lies in a hypnotic sleep beside them. Van Helsing proposes that they must destroy the vampire to save Mina, isolating the coffins he brought with him to England and sterilising them with sacramental wafers, and leaving the Count with no refuge in the hours of daylight. Having done so, the four men and Mina pursue Dracula to his homeland to attempt to destroy him forever.

A fairly faithful adaptation, then, with some 1970s camera trickery and effects, the screen goes to negative, blood-red filters are used to emphasise Dracula's bloodlust. One of the most effective scenes is where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with a crucifix, the shape of the cross glowing on the vampire's face. The rubbery bats flapping against the girls' bedroom windows are pretty ropy but you can't have everything. The cast is excellent, the thoroughly upright and dependable fraternity of Seward, Jonathan, and Quincey are somewhat forgettable but then the characters themselves are merely ciphers of decency.

Bosco Hogan is Jonathan, his first film role was George in John Boorman's terrific Zardoz. Mark Burns who plays Dr Seward had quite an eclectic TV and film career before his death, making a final appearance in Matthew Vaughn's Stardust. Susan Penhaligon had made her name the previous year playing the doomed spoilt daughter of Frank Finlay, in ITV's controversial A Bouquet Of Barbed Wire; she already had some genre experience playing alongside droll-faced American actor Doug McClure in the Amicus production The Land That Time Forgot. The luminous Judi Bowker made her name in kids' TV playing opposite a horse in the Sunday afternoon telly version of Black Beauty, but perhaps she is most famous for being rescued from the Kraken by Harry Hamlin in Clash Of The Titans (1981).

Finlay himself is excellent, down-playing Van Helsing's foreign fussiness, and Louis Jourdan is commanding as Dracula. Perhaps the outstanding piece of acting is from Jack Shepherd as, the lunatic would-be-disciple of Dracula, Renfield. Believing that, by consuming the lives of other creatures he can extend his own life, Renfield has started small; "Flies, spiders, birds!" When he is offered Mina by Dracula, Renfield resists and is murdered by the Count. A tour-de-force of sulks and sudden mood changes Shepherd makes Renfield both hideous and pitiful. Dramatic, and quite effectively scary at times, and gory in parts, this production still makes entertaining viewing some 35 years after its first appearance.

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