Monday, September 13, 2010

Wendigo Meets DAN CURTIS'S DRACULA (1973)

Over the past two weeks my friend Wendigo and I have noticed many differences between Tod Browning's 1931 film of Dracula and Jess Franco's purportedly more faithful version from 1970. Despite the great gulf in time, Franco's film is closer in spirit to Browning's than it is to a TV movie made just three years later by Dan Curtis. It's a film we both saw on its original broadcast as kids, and watching it again brought back strong memories of a sometimes-impressive production that's had considerable influence on vampire movies ever since.

The influence of Curtis's Dracula is really an extension of the influence of Curtis's famous gothic soap opera of the 1960s, Dark Shadows. As Curtis says in a DVD interview, he ripped himself off in encouraging Richard Matheson to incorporate a reincarnation angle based on Barnabas Collins's great love for Josette, whom he discovers reborn centuries later as Maggie Evans. Curtis also ripped himself off by borrowing some of the soap's musical cues for this film. Thematically, Dark Shadows built on the romantic vibe that Christopher Lee had reignited with Horror of Dracula, but over time Curtis built up Barnabas, originally introduced as a pure villain, as a sympathetic character based on audience response to the vampire's tragic longing for lost love. With Dark Shadows, Wendigo saw a variation of the demon-lover rape/seduction scenario that attracted women to vampires. The soap is more of a "Beauty and the Beast" concept, allowing women to fantasize about redeeming a monster through selfless love. In his Dracula, Curtis goes with the reincarnation plot again, having Dracula somehow come across a newspaper clipping of Lucy Westenra before he meets Jonathan Harker to give him a motivation for going to England that Curtis didn't perceive in Stoker's novel.

Two kinds of art direction: an important painting (above) and an eerie seascape with the beached Demeter and crew in the foreground while Dracula waits for a cab on the strand.

Wendigo doesn't agree with Curtis about Dracula's lack of motivation. Anyone in 1897 would be drawn to England, he says, because it was the center and capital of the world. Simply put, the island empire gave him the widest selection of victims. Most importantly, as Stoker suggests, Dracula needs to find someplace where not everyone has taken a vampire-defense course, where folks are unlikely to believe in such a thing as him. Lacking the anglocentric focus, as an American producer, Curtis was probably wondering why Dracula bothered with such a backwater. He probably also felt that the novel's motivation didn't give the vampire enough of a story arc, but it might be anachronistic of us to say so. As far as Wendigo is concerned, Curtis simply can't cope with the fact that Dracula more or less randomly targeted Lucy Westenra because of the awkward coincidence of his arrival near the house where Jonathan Harker's fiancee is a guest. In the novel, Lucy is no more than a target of opportunity, for whom Dracula feels nothing. Curtis clearly felt a need to amp up the drama by making Lucy meaningful to Dracula somehow. The same logic leads other adapters to tie Renfield to Dracula more closely (though Curtis dispenses with the character altogether).


The reincarnation angle may seem like a natural for vampires, but in cinema history Curtis most likely owes his idea to Karl Freund's The Mummy, which in turn borrows it from H. Rider Haggard's She. But The Mummy didn't make women swoon over Boris Karloff, to our knowledge, though that may have been the actor's handicap. There's probably a reason why Karloff didn't play vampires much. His Imhotep comes off as little more than a creepy stalker. Even though the film reveals that he is right to believe the romantic lead to be his lost love reincarnated, she finally refuses to reciprocate his love because she will not pay the price of the "one moment of agony" that means her physical death. Vampires go about the same business more subtly and seductively, visiting your bedroom and not with a knife out. A reincarnation angle helps humanize a vampire, but in a way that Wendigo feels undercuts his horror. It's an invitation to pity of a kind typical of American monster movies since the time of Lon Chaney Sr., but Wendigo insists that vampires aren't properly pitiable creatures. Audiences miss the point of a vampire when they forget that all the seduction is just a camouflage facade, beneath which a grim beast plans his kill. Of course, we realize that vampires have taken new archetypal life as some higher form of humanity; whether that's a good thing remains subject to debate. "Real" vampires are more like the Volturii, let's say, than the Cullens.

Maybe because this is Dracula and not Dark Shadows, Curtis, Matheson and Jack Palance don't go overboard with the romantic aspect of the reincarnation angle. We see Palance in the past mourning over "Maryam's" death, but his discovery of her reincarnation as Lucy doesn't inspire the sort of courtship we see in Francis Coppola's Dracula. Dracula puts the bite on Lucy with little foreplay that we can see, without any hint that he's told her about her "past," and without her consent for all we know. He isn't out to redeem himself through love. He just wants what he wants and has a big tantrum when he loses it. Palance is good with the tantrums; he gets another after the vampire hunters ransack his crib and wreck his coffins. The tantrums arguably underscore Dracula's essential selfishness, reminding us that the reincarnation angle is his fantasy, not Lucy's -- and it isn't necessarily true, either.


Both Dracula and his brides play rough, or as rough as TV allowed back in 1973.


Above all, Palance brings menace to the part. He's more convincingly powerful physically than the relatively gawky Christopher Lee, and Curtis intended to sell more strongly than ever that Dracula has superhuman strength. You don't doubt that he's a mighty man, which makes it apropos that this film, hard on the heels of Florescu and McNally's In Search of Dracula, is the first movie to our knowledge that explicitly identifies Dracula with Vlad (the Impaler) Tepes. Palance you can believe as a leader of armies, and the whole voivode angle has a great payoff at the very end when we hear the martial music of the past and soldiers chanting Dracula's name as the vampire is left in ultimate defeat, impaled in an act of poetic justice or simply dead with his boots on as a warrior may have preferred. Palance can also be civilized, and comes across as quite urbane in his early encounter with Harker. He's at his best in these scenes as he struggles to control his killer instincts while prodding Harker to hurry up with the paperwork on the Carfax sale. It's an intensely physical performance in the manner of a coiled serpent, with less emphasis on the Count's mesmeric charisma. Wendigo suggests that Palance, like Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, relies more on the hint of telepathic control than on Lugosi-like hypnotic power. Where Lugosi tries to stare you down, Palance concentrates visibly on projecting his power across distances. Match close-ups of the two and it may look like Lugosi has something Palance lacks, but Wendigo says that Palance is giving Curtis exactly what he wants. He may not have Dracula's essential foreignness, but there's something alien somehow about Palance himself that makes him nearly an ideal vampire.

Curtis's film, like Franco's and Coppola's is sometimes advertised as "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Like those, it finds unique ways to deviate from the novel, though the reincarnation angle stops well short of where Coppola will take it. The major omission, as we've mentioned, is Renfield, whom this movie doesn't need because it has no insane asylum. Renfield is often the most entertaining thing in a Dracula movie, but he isn't really essential to the story. He's susceptible to Dracula's influence because of his pre-existing mania, but Lucy's own vulnerability proves the same point. Surprising as it may seem, Wendigo didn't really miss Renfield this time -- it may have helped that we'd seen arguably the worst Renfield ever last week -- nor did we miss Dr. Seward and the usually-omitted Quincey Morris. More disturbing to Wendigo was the early elimination of Jonathan Harker from the story; he is the hero of the novel, after all, and taking him out of the equation reduces Mina's relevance. In this version especially, Wendigo found himself wondering why Mina (pronounced Minna this time) still hung around the Westenra place after her friend had died. Worse yet for Harker, Curtis's treatment of him isn't even original; it's just a do-over of Horror of Dracula, as is a big part of the ending. On the other hand, once Dracula targets Mina Curtis sticks considerably closer to Stoker's plot than he had before. He limits himself to two vampire hunters -- Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood -- but Simon Ward at least makes an adequate lead by default. The two lead actresses, Pamela Brown and Fiona Lewis, left something to be desired, unfortunately. They looked a little too old and a little too frumpy, but let's remember that this was made for TV.

The film's major if not shocking casting failure is Nigel Davenport, an actor Wendigo has liked in many other roles, as Van Helsing. Davenport is simply too British for the role, when it seems important in the novel that Van Helsing is as foreign as Dracula himself. The whole point, Wendigo thinks, was that Britain had purged itself of the spirituality and superstition that would have alerted Britons to Dracula's menace. Folkloric vampires are foreign to British culture, and Britons need a foreign informant to clarify the nature of the threat they face. Davenport comports himself well enough and wields a lance with authority at the end, but he may be the worst Van Helsing ever due to one scene. He and Holmwood have found Dracula preparing to ravish Mina. Van Helsing produces a cross. Dracula tells him to throw it away. Van Helsing does so. You've got to be shittin' us! That does not happen! Wendigo isn't quite ready to name Davenport the very worst, but he'll call him one of them.

Wendigo gives Curtis credit for not trying what he can't pull off, keeping special effects to the barest minimum, i.e. no bats. He feels compelled to complain again, however, about the substitution of dogs for wolves, although the animals look a little more convincing this time. Jess Franco made the same mistake, only more blatantly, but he outdid Curtis in his use of locations, Palance's castle looking a little too recent inside and out for its owner. Curtis has a big-time cinematographer in Oswald Morris, so the picture looks more vivid and moody than Franco's, but too many sets still seem too brightly lit for Wendigo's taste. It's surprising to find a TV film (one admittedly released theatrically in many countries) that looks so much better than a theatrical film from a reputed cinematic stylist, but the Curtis Dracula is better than Franco's on nearly every level. Ask Wendigo for a Top 20 list of vampire films and he'd most likely put this one on it. It's on a level with the John Badham/Frank Langella version from 1979 and can stand comparison with its partial inspiration, Horror of Dracula. For those who haven't seen the Curtis version, Wendigo readily recommends it as one of the best Draculas of the Seventies.

Since it was released theatrically in places, here's a trailer, uploaded to YouTube by OCPCommunications.

8 comments:

Howard Beale's Ghost said...

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Crhymethinc said...

I have to agree with Wendigo. The whole current premise of turning vampires from inhuman cold-blooded serial killers to wimpy, sympathetic wusses longing for eternal love to match their immortal lifestyle has destroyed vampires for me. I won't even bother wasting my time watching contemporary vampire movies. Although I haven't seen this particular film, I have seen enough of Jack Palance to imagine what sort of Dracula he would portray. I'll have to check this out at some point.

hobbyfan said...

I remember seeing commercials for this made-for-TV Drac back when it first aired, but didn't watch. As memory serves, CBS, which broadcast the movie, billed it simply as "Dracula". Of course, I could be wrong, and it stuns me that ABC, which was home to "Dark Shadows" the first time around, didn't---pardon the pun---bite on this.

Pidde Andersson said...

This was actually the very first Dracula movie I saw - before the Lugosi and Lee ones. It scared the shit out of me as a kid and I'm still very fond of it and its fairy tale atmosphere. It's sooo much better than Coppola's silly movie.

Matthew Bradley said...

Interestingly, neither the reincarnation angle nor Harker's vampirization appears in the published version of Matheson's DRACULA script (found in his collection BLOODLINES). I don't know when or by whom they were added, but he may have had nothing to do with either one.

Samuel Wilson said...

Cryhmethinc: It all depends on the execution. I won't rule out that a great film could be made from the romantic travails of a reticent vampire, but I won't hold my breath waiting for one.

Hobbyfan: Given that ABC also ran Curtis's smash-hit TV film The Night Stalker I suppose it is odd that Dracula ran elsewhere, but who knows why?

Pidde: I don't know if I was scared by Palance, but I remember feeling alarmed when he went on those tantrums. He may have been the first Dracula I saw, too, but I'm not quite certain of that.

Matthew: That's interesting news about Matheson. Curtis did talk as if he co-wrote the movie, though Matheson gets sole script credit, and the reincarnation concept was definitely his own unoriginal contribution. Does Matheson have an opinion on the finished product?

Matthew Bradley said...

Matheson was very pleased with the film, although he told me, "Originally, we intended it to be three hours long but that was not allowed. I asked Curtis if there wasn’t enough footage for a three-hour movie. ‘Hell, I have enough footage for a six-hour movie!’ he said. That might be interesting. It is a long story. Ninety-six minutes wasn’t quite enough in which to tell it." He was also disappointed by the fact that its original broadcast, scheduled for October 12, 1973, was pre-empted by President Nixon's speech announcing Vice President Agnew's resignation. He joked that the planned showing was so heavily promoted, when the film finally aired on February 8, 1974, everybody thought they had already seen it! If you're interested, RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN is tentatively due out from McFarland early next month.

Samuel Wilson said...

Matthew: Thanks for coming back with those authoritative comments from the source. They make a great preview for what should prove a fascinating book. With best wishes to you and Matheson, may you publish many updated editions.