Count Dracula (1977)

This BBC two-part series from 1977 was an unexpected detour in Dracula Month.  I’d seen just about every other movie on the list before, but not this one nor the BBC remake from 2006.  When I read the description of the 1977 version on Wikipedia, I got excited.  It was said to be considered one of the most faithful adaptations ever made and didn’t mention anything about a romantic liaison between Mina and the Count.

So, I got the DVD from the library and began to watch.  Count Dracula acted suave and often chilling.  His solicitor was Jonathan, not Renfield.  Mina acted like the kind, hardworking, intelligent character that Stoker created.  Lucy acted sweet and loving and didn’t flirt with anything that moved.  Quincey got to make an appearance!  Dr. Seward wasn’t Mina’s father!  Van Helsing was smart, witty, and kind!

Basically, this was my reaction as the first episode unfolded:

FINALLY!  A FAITHFUL ADAPTATION!  IT ONLY TOOK ALMOST A HUNDRED YEARS TO HAPPEN!!!

Well…almost faithful.  But I can’t jump too far ahead here.

First things first: despite its faithfulness overall, we still see character roles condensed and relationships switched around.  Mina and Lucy are sisters in this version and Lucy wants to marry Quincey.  Arthur doesn’t appear at all, although Dr. Seward does and Lucy mentions to Mina that he did propose to her.  Poor Quincey gets left out of these adaptations so often that I think it’s only fair that he got to play the love interest this time around.  Plus, his upbeat personality makes Lucy’s death sadder.  Even after it’s obvious that she won’t survive Dracula’s attack, he sits by her bed and tells her all about the house that he bought for them where they can live after the honeymoon that he knows will never happen.  That hurt to watch.

Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Jonathan act as Dracula’s solicitor.  Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Bosco Hogan’s performance as Jonathan.  Most of the time, he sounds unemotional and uninvested in what’s happening to him.  Granted, in the book he tries to hide his fear from Count Dracula, but this Jonathan sounds detached regardless of whether he’s talking to Dracula or Mina.  When he sees the vampire in London and exclaims to Mina, “It’s the man himself!” I always imagined that he would’ve sounded terrified, but his tone in this production sounds mildly puzzled more than anything else.  Boo.

There’s a similar problem with Louis Jourdan’s performance as Count Dracula, where he sounds a little too calm at times.  Fortunately, this works in Jourdan’s favor for most of his scenes because it correctly suggests that Dracula is a powerful villain and it will take all of the heroes’ combined skills to challenge him.  My favorite scene involves Jonathan angrily accusing the Count of keeping him prisoner, demanding to know what was up with the brides, etc, etc.  Each time he makes an accusation, the Count provides a rational explanation, and it’s so creepy to watch.  We, the audience, know that Jonathan’s right about the Count, but the Count doesn’t care.  He’s one step ahead of Jonathan the whole time.  Anyone staying in this vampire’s house would definitely question his/her sanity after a week or two.

But then during the scene with Jonathan and the three Brides, Dracula walks in on their attempt to eat his solicitor.  In the book, he practically rips the blonde bride away from Jonathan and goes berserk on them.  In the miniseries, he kind of sweeps them back and doesn’t sound angry at all.  He’s so nonchalant that I’d expect him to say, “C’mon guys…you know better…just go away…go on now… shoo…”  That’s really not very scary.

I’d really love to see somebody portray Dracula the way that Tilda Swinton played the White Witch of Narnia in the live-action The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from 2005.  She could’ve easily decided to go the hammy route, but she didn’t.  When she wanted Edmund to trust her, she treated him kindly.  When he failed to give her what she wanted, she would alternate between screaming at him and talking in a cold, calm voice.  It was effective because you knew that she could fly off the handle and turn people into stone, but you didn’t know when she might do it.

But, going back to Count Dracula, it is unnerving when Jonathan casually tells Dracula about Mina’s plans to vacation in Whitby and then sees Whitby circled on a map in a later scene.  Now, that’s an adaptation change that I can embrace.  Here, Mina’s first encounter with Dracula doesn’t feel like a coincidence anymore, without betraying their characterizations in the book by adding a reincarnated dead wife plot. (ARGH!!!)

Best of all, this adaptation showed me just how disturbing Stoker’s novel really is.  I’ve never had to look away from the screen as many times as I did with this one.  Viewers get to see the Brides lift the baby out of Dracula’s sack to eat it.  When Jonathan goes to the crypt, he sees Dracula sleeping in his coffin with a wide-open stare and eyes full of blood.  Dracula’s attack on Lucy, her illness, and her death, all look painful as she writhes and gasps for air.  It’s one thing to read about her pale face and her struggles to breathe, and another thing to see and hear it.

If only the movie could’ve maintained its fear factor for each scene.  Unfortunately, there are many cheesy and confusing moments as well.  When Dracula goes into vampire mode for several scenes, nothing about his costume or makeup changes.  Instead, the camera switches to a negative shot where the colors on his face reverse.  It doesn’t look scary; it just looks weird.  Other shots overlap images, i.e. Mina’s face during the scene with the Brides.  It’s confusing rather than unsettling or disturbing.

This adaptation also uses an inordinate amount of mysterious chimes in place of a full musical score.  Van Helsing and Jonathan are investigating one of Dracula’s lairs when the monster walks into the room- cue the chimes.  (It’s also unintentionally funny because they pay no attention at first, causing me to think, “They didn’t hear the chimes, Count, try again.”)  Jonathan cuts his face while shaving and the camera dramatically zooms in on the blood while the chimes play.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think chimes sound very dramatic or scary and they didn’t fit Count Dracula.

But as far as adaptations go, this is pretty good!  Everyone’s acting in-character, despite Jonathan being a little dull.  WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

“Dracula Seduces Mina”  Oh no.

“Do you know the significance of the kiss?”

No.  You can’t.

“…flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, my beautiful winepress…”

He said “bountiful winepress” in the book, because he wants to suck her blood, not kiss her!

“We shall cross land and sea together!”

Don’t you dare, BBC.

“Come. Drink.”

So she comes.  And she drinks.

YOU HAD ONE JOB, BBC!

This was not a sexy, romantic scene in the book.  He grabbed her arms with one hand so that she couldn’t fight back, then he smashed her head into his chest so that she would either swallow his blood or suffocate.  She does not smile.  She screams and cries the whole time.  It is horrible and violating and disgusting.

But with that said, when the scene ends and Dracula leaves, Mina does scream that she is “unclean” and cries.  This version implies that she was hypnotized into drinking from Dracula’s chest.  To be completely fair, this happens to Jonathan in the book when the Brides appear.  Part of him wants to back away, but he can’t resist them as one of them draws closer and closer to his neck.  Lucy’s journal entries suggest something similar: she’s afraid to go to sleep, but once Dracula gets in her room, she’s powerless to stop him from sucking her blood.  And I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression here: as far as sexual metaphors go, if you’re incapable of giving consent, then you’re still a victim and deserve as much love, support, and help as the victims who fight back.

My issue with the damsel version of Mina is that she did get to fight back in her own way.  She couldn’t completely resist Dracula’s control, but she found ways.  So why take that away from her in the adaptations?  Isn’t that an empowering message for women?

Still, compared to the other adaptations this isn’t too bad.  Mina does get to go with the group for the climactic battle and defends herself with a rifle.  I think I’d be a lot more accepting of the change in tone with that one scene if it weren’t for the fact that I know what’s to come between Dracula and Mina in future adaptations.

That’s going to start next week, as I cover the 1979 adaptation starring Frank Langella and the 1992 adaptation starring Gary Oldman!  What wonders and horrors await us?  Let’s take a look at the back of the DVD cover for the Frank Langella movie:

“Throughout history, Dracula has filled men’s hearts with fear- and women’s hearts with desire.”

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Oh boy, it begins…the coming of Sexy Count…plug your ears, because I am going to be ranting and screaming next week.

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