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OK, next up on Overdue Film Review Club we have this BBC adaptation of Dracula starring Louis Jourdan, which was originally broadcast all in one go at Christmas 1977, and which I watched last weekend with ms_siobhan. I have wanted to see it for a very long time, as it is widely acknowledged as the adaptation most faithful to the original novel, and I can now confirm that this is very definitely true. Not absolutely everything is by the book - for example, Mina and Lucy are made into sisters, while Quincey P. Morris steals Arthur Holmwood's surname, and the latter isn't otherwise represented in the story. But other than that it follows the structure, events and feel of the novel more closely than any other adaptation I have ever seen. Episodes which almost universally get discarded, like Mina and Lucy's encounter with the seaman Swales in Whitby, the scene where Dracula gets to speak out for himself and pour scorn on the vampire-hunters at his house in Piccadilly, or the shoot-out between the vampire-hunters and the gypsies at the end, are all present and correct, as Stoker would recognise them - and it was absolutely fantastic to see them.

Thanks largely to Doctor Who, I have seen enough television from the 1970s to say that by the standards of their time, the production values here are absolutely mint, too. People were still producing television quite noticeably inferior to this in the late 80s and indeed the early 90s. Some of the special effects look dated now - particularly colour-saturation and negative inversion of a type used regularly on Top of the Pops at the time (example). But even those are being used in a commendable attempt to convey the surreal, dreamlike effects of vampirism, which was actually still very effective in terms of creating the right atmosphere for the story. Other than that it has all stood up extremely well, and must have eaten up a pretty hefty chunk of the BBC budget for the year of its production. The costumes, locations, sets and props are seriously impressive, with Dracula's castle in particular looking both historically-plausible and properly unkempt and Gothic at the same time, and they had even acquired a real bat for some close-up scenes (though it unfortunately also had a rubbery, be-stringed stunt double). Whitby features prominently, as do various settings in London (including Highgate cemetery), while the internet tells me that Dracula's castle was played primarily by Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (supplemented by sets for the interiors) - and that would explain why it looked so good.

Of course, telling Stoker's story accurately, and pouring a lot of money into the effort, doesn't automatically result in a high-quality outcome. Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970) also ticks both of those boxes, and has Christopher Lee in the title role to boot, but it is still ill-paced and tedious to watch. Thankfully, this production is a great deal better. It is long (150 minutes in total), but in general used the time very effectively to develop the characters and build up the story-line. There was a short phase in the run-up to the climactic encounter with the Count in the Carpathians where we did feel that a few scenes were being rushed through in order to get to the end on time, but perhaps even that is worth accepting for the quality of the material around it. For example, the scene in which Mina and Van Helsing cower amid the snowy Carpathians within a circle made of crumbled holy wafers while the vampire brides call and gesture all around them was really well done, and worth the rather rapid montage needed to get them into that position.

Certainly, ample space is given to character development, and the actors (almost all) make good use of the material. Louis Jourdan may not be Christopher Lee, but he does turn in a great performance as Dracula here - beautifully creepy from his very first appearance, exuding a powerful, self-confident sexuality in his interactions with his victims, and yet with a note of impatient world-weariness to his character that speaks of the many centuries he has lived through. I did miss Dracula's violent out-bursts, though, which seem to have been neither scripted nor acted into Jourdan's part. Even when he catches his vampire brides dining out on Jonathan Harker, he is merely a little firm about expressing his displeasure - and I definitely like Christopher Lee's utter explosion of rage in the equivalent scene (albeit with only one bride) in Hammer's Dracula much better. Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and Jack Shepherd as Renfield also deserve special mention for two utterly compelling performances, although on the other hand it does need saying that Quincey P. Morris' 'Texan' accent was face-palmingly bad, and his performance as a whole lacklustre alongside it. In fact, it seems to have been the first role of an unremarkable career for him, and it shows.

This was never going to dethrone Hammer's Dracula as the ultimate telling of the story for me, and if only because of when it was made it couldn't really hope to outshine Nosferatu (1922) or Bela Lugosi's iconic Dracula (1931) either. But it is definitely in their league, and far stronger than some film versions I could mention. I can certainly recommend it as a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
ms_siobhan
Oct. 26th, 2014 11:12 am (UTC)
I really liked the Brides, the shots of Whitby (only marred by a hideous 70's bin - bane of gothic artists)and the richness of the settings and costumes,and all of the actors except for the terrible Quincey.
strange_complex
Oct. 26th, 2014 05:47 pm (UTC)
Yes, the brides were good too, and especially their slightly different styles of wedding dresses, hinting at how he might have been gradually collecting them over the centuries. :-)
ms_siobhan
Oct. 26th, 2014 06:03 pm (UTC)
Yep - if I knew more about fashion I might be better able to tell you what era they were from - though I suspect they all came from the BBC Costume 'floaty old fashioned dresses for ladies' category ;-)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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