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.
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.
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.
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.