Review: Dracula (TV-1974)

Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by Dan Curtis
Starring Jack Palance, Simon Ward, Nigel Davenport, Fiona Lewis
US Airdate Feb. 8, 1974
RT 98 min.
Home Video MPI Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)

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According to imdb, the most filmed character of all time is Dracula. As horror fans, I’m sure we’ll all seen at least a few different versions. Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella… One of the most unusual choices for me has always been Jack Palance. When I think of Jack Palance, I think of City Slickers and one-armed push-ups at the Academy Awards. But when I watch the beautiful Blu-ray of Dan Curtis’ Dracula, I realize that the 1974 Jack Palance is actually an excellent addition to the list.

As Dracula, Palance emotes more anguish than most other actors in the role. When he first sees a picture of Lucy Wetenra, who resembles his long-lost love, his eyes reflect a deep sadness. When he spots blood from a razor cut on Jonathan Harker’s neck, his face contorts in self-loathing. And when he delivers the final bite that will make Lucy one of the undead, he seems to be fighting what he is compelled to do. All this emotion does not mean that Palance is entirely a touchy-feely Drac; he is also one of the most cruel and savage, exploding in fury at a moment’s notice.

Dracula was first broadcast on ABC Television in 1974. However, it does not have the look of a typical TV movie. Filmed entirely in England and Yugoslavia, it is made with theatrical motion picture quality from the dark, gloomy exteriors to the lavishly decorated Victorian interiors. An exemplary scene is that of Harker travelling to Castle Dracula early in the movie. As he looks outside his carriage, wolves run alongside it on both sides. Also, watching the Blu-ray, you can’t tell where commercials may have been inserted when it was first broadcast.

Dan Curtis is, of course, the creator of Dark Shadows, which ended it’s run on ABC three years earlier. There are some similarities between the stories. Dracula is a tortured soul here, much like Barnabas Collins. Lucy is the “reincarnation” of his love from centuries ago, much like Maggie Evans was the reincarnation of Josette Dupres. There’s even a music box that acts as a bridge between worlds. But it is a screenplay by the great Richard Matheson that I believe keeps Dracula from being a complete remake of Dark Shadows.

The score by Curtis-regular Robert Cobert is fantastic. In places, it doesn’t do much to distinguish the production from Dark Shadows; however, it goes well beyond the familiar sounding cues to lengthier pieces that are scary and exciting. I can’t swear to it, but I wonder if a couple of the “stingers” were actually lifted from Dark Shadows. If so, they’re appropriate; you can’t beat the source for creepy atmosphere. I’m willing to bet it’s the music from Dark Shadows that helped make it so memorable.

Other than the distinctive touches anyone applies to their version of Dracula, this one seems fairly faithful to the source material, the original novel by Bram Stoker. The primary difference, if I recall, is that in the book, Dracula’s primary target was always Mina Murray, Harker’s fiancée. In the movie, it’s Lucy from the outset and becomes Mina only as an act of revenge after vampire-Lucy is destroyed by Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood (Lucy’s fiancée). I like this little twist; it provides additional suspense during the third act.

Of all the Dracula movies I’ve seen, this version compares most closely to Hammer’s 1957 Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula). Although it doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bernard Robinson’s production design, it is perhaps slightly more authentic. And the final destruction of Dracula in this version is comparable to Peter Cushing’s swashbuckling disposition of him in Hammer’s version. (I don’t want to spoil the specifics… of either version.) I’d even go as far to say that in its entirety, Dan Curtis’ Dracula is probably my second favorite version of the story.

The same week I originally watched this Blu-ray, I also watched Dario Argento’s Dracula (sans the 3D). Watching them so closely together, I’m reminded of the liberties different creators take with the story to make it their own. Some are successful; merging elements of Dark Shadows with Dracula is natural. Some are not; Dracula transforming into a giant preying mantis is ridiculous. Sometimes, you can’t do any better than the classics. Dan Curtis’ Dracula may not be as well known as some of those, but I encourage you to watch it. It may just become one of your favorites.

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