There’s a whole generation of film fans for whom Jack Palance is either Curly Washburn from “City Slickers” (and, to a lesser extent Duke Washburn from “City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold”) or the excessively nasal-breathy Carl Grissom in Tim Burton’s Batman and although he may seem something of an odd pick for the role of Dracula, he’s actually kind of perfect.
Transylvania, 1897. Jonathan Harker travels to the castle home of the mysterious Count Dracula (Jack Palance) to finalise a property deal but when Dracula catches sight of Harker’s fiancée Mina, he becomes convinced that she is the reincarnation of his long dead wife and determines to make her his. Leaving Harker to the predations of his coven of ‘brides’ Dracula boards the Demeter, bound for Whitby in England.
This film, now more commonly referred to as “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” was the original holder of the title “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” until in the 1990s Columbia Pictures purchased the rights to the title on behalf of Francis Ford Coppola. But the title isn’t the only thing Coppola’s production would take from this film.
Directed by Dan Curtis, the creator of “Dark Shadows”, it’s no wonder that there’s an expansion of Dracula’s backstory and a hefty dose of doomed romance underpinning the screenplay by Richard Mathieson, author of “I Am Legend”. Thus we see the now taken for granted introductions of the explicit linking of Vlad The Impaler and Dracula as being the same person and the again now common trope of Lucy Harker bearing an uncanny resemblance to Vlad’s long dead wife.
Aside from these innovations, though, it’s a handsome and loyal, if slightly stiff, adaptation of Stoker’s novel.
Although used to eking out a minuscule TV budget, Curtis seems rather taken with the novelty of shooting on location, often at the expense of atmosphere and ironically seems to have no use for dark shadows in his frame. Thus we are treated to a lighter and airier Castle Dracula than we’ve ever seen before, where even the ‘crypts’ are bathed in natural light (without any obvious discomfort to the residents). The budgetary limitations become clear when the movie skips right over the sea voyage of the Demeter itself and cuts straight from Dracula’s basement to the beach at Whitby.
Admittedly, the shot of Dracula on the beach beside the wrecked ship is iconically chilling in its simplicity and brevity, but it’s a moment of visual flourish the rest of the film has a hard time living up to.
There’s a rather unintentionally funny, unconvincing ‘wolf’ (scruffily back-combed German Shepherd) which Dracula recruits from the local zoo in another sign of the production’s limitations but for the most part, the rest is perfectly serviceable. Nigel Davenport makes for a very convincing Van Helsing and while Simon Ward’s Arthur Holmwood is more likely to go down in history as a victim of his hairdresser than of a vampire, Fiona Lewis is superb as Lucy Westenra. There’s even an early appearance from Sara Douglas as one of Dracula’s ‘Brides’. Jack Palance is actually pretty good as the tragic vampire, bringing a more physically imposing air of menace to the role than previous actors. He’s a more aggressive, confrontational Count and what he lacks in elegance he makes up for in physical dominance.
It’s thanks in large part to Palance’s great performance that this parsimonious TV production isn’t simply staked and left for dead. His full-blooded interpretation holds your interest even when the production values crumble to dust.