Bram Stoker's Dracula (1974)
'Are you sure that's the title?' you might be thinking. 'Isn't that the Coppola film from the 90s?' Well, yes, but this made-for-TV had the title first, but the rights to it were bought so nowadays the Coppola film is the only one that can use them. I didn't have high hopes of this, associating lead actor Jack Palance with westerns, but he actually makes a very good Dracula, elegant but with a vampire's savagery bubbling under the surface.
Warning: I'm assuming you know the story of Dracula, and so it's impossible for me to spoil things by talking about the plot. If you don't know Dracula (where have you been?), don't read on.
I've seen a lot of Dracula films over the years, but never any that start quite as faithfully to the book as this, with Jonathan Harker's journey to Dracula's castle. And what a castle it is! Parts of the production were filmed in what was then Yugoslavia, lending things a realness that earlier movies couldn't quite match. I love Hammer, but some of their sets, especially ones supposed to be of non-English places, can look very stagey, and their outdoor scenes always look like they're taking place in the home counties. This was a proper castle on an actual cliff, and inside things looked like they'd been accumulated in that place for years, not been assembled with a set design in mind.
The next part of the story, set and filmed in England, is rather weaker. Dracula's trip from Transylvania to Whitby is glossed over, so we simply see him next to the run-aground ship, a dead sailor lashed to the wheel. Unlike in the book, where his motive is simply to go somewhere more filled with life, here he's got a specific quest – Harker had a photo of his friends, including Lucy Westenra, who looked just like the Count's dead wife. (Yup, something not in the book but close to the Coppola film, in which Mina Murray looks like his missus.) Vast chunks of the book are cut away here. There's no Renfield, Harker was left in Transylvania, there's no Quincey Morris, and no Jack Seward either. Morris is a bit of a spare part in the book, but Seward's the one who calls in Van Helsing. Here Van Helsing's the local doctor and knows what's up with Lucy from early on.
I was slightly baffled by the action remaining set in Whitby when it was clearly filmed in the Hammer heartland in the south of England. The houses simply didn't look right. The accents definitely weren't right. And as the action in the book moved rapidly from Whitby to London, I honestly don't know why if they couldn't film on location in Whitby, the film-makers didn't just transfer everything to the south. The costumes also bothered me, because the dresses were round-skirted, the sort of thing you associate with the 1850s and 1860s, not the slimmer-skirted styles of the 1890s. (Mr Robot did wonder if it had anything to do with the film being made for American TV, and the American Civil War being such a focal point of the 19th century to the people of that country. American chums, is that likely? Does 'Victorian' automatically mean 'crinoline'?)
Trimmed of the human storylines, things are linear. I guess the scriptwriters decided everyone knew the Dracula story and didn't want to bore the audience by taking too much time to get to the point of 'It's a vampire'. Drac kills Lucy. Lucy returns. Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood kill Lucy for good. Drac's lost his wife again and goes for Mina. Van Helsing and Holmwood and a hypnotised Mina track the count back to his castle, take out Dracula's wives and a revenant Harker, then it's curtains for the count.
I can't help wondering how much better this could've been if it had been a two-parter. The acting is solid, and clearly a lot of effort went into reproducing the book early on. With more time, might we have seen the full array of characters? Or was it the case that with a star like Palance in the titular role, the filmmakers didn't want to waste many minutes of screen time on a bunch of lesser-known Brits, so Jack and Quincey would never have featured?
Of course, I'm being picky. There's never going to be a perfect film version of Dracula for me, and I've learned to judge them all as interpretations. Had the whole thing been as good as the early part of the film, it would have been a solid 10/10. That beginning is so impressive. As it is, stripping back the characters and storyline strips back the sense of humans versus a monster, good versus evil, and the struggle feels less immense. Overall I'd give it 7/10, which is pretty solid.