Count Dracula

2007-09-25

BBC miniseries productions of Victorian novels, especially those from the ’70s and ’80s, usually make a fetish of authenticity. It can even seem, sometimes, as if getting the cut of a dandy’s coat just right is more important than narrative movement or enjoyment. They’re great for teaching, to be sure, but not always riveting viewing — rather more “good for you” than good to see.

And so when Count Dracula, the 1977 miniseries production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is touted, which it sometimes is, as the most faithful to the novel, I’m not sure whether that’s supposed to be a compliment or not. Happily, the miniseries is eminently watchable, with mostly excellent performances from its British cast.

The movie does stick relatively close to Stoker’s plot: Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to transact business for a strange foreign client, named Dracula. When he gets to Dracula’s castle, he discovers the count’s secret and is ultimately imprisoned by the vampire. Dracula, capitalizing on information he’s learned from Jonathan, moves to London to find fresh blood. Along the way, he makes English landfall at Whitby, where he turns Lucy Westenra into a vampire. These actions lead Jonathan and Mina Harker to join forces with Lucy’s former lovers and her doctor in a quest to destroy Dracula — but when he gets to Mina first, the very survival of the empire is at stake.

As is usually the case, the BBC brings many talented actors into the movie. It probably isn’t a surprise that Bosco Hogan brings off Harker more plausibly than does Keanu Reeves. More worthy of especial note are Louis Jordan as Dracula, and Jack Shepherd as Renfield. Both bring a note of restraint to their performances, one that only amplifies how bizarrely out of place they seem to proto-modern English eyes. Shepherd conserves his antics for a single, scene-chewing payoff near the movie’s end, while Jordan’s control never wavers.

By playing Dracula, not as a frenzied monster consumed by bloodlust, but only as a man doing –as do we all — what he must, Jordan ensures the constant relevance of his performance. Even under the padding of a BBC production, Jordan brings out the erotic dimension of Dracula without giving in wholly to indulgence. The main female characters, Susan Penhaligon as Lucy and Judi Bowker as Mina, are fine as far as they go, but, as I discuss below, they are not allowed to go as far in this adaptation as they are in Stoker’s novel.

Count Dracula is, at bottom, a 1977 made-for-TV movie, and so its visual effects aren’t exactly up to Beowulf. But there’s a delicious campiness to the effects here which is, in its way, perfectly enjoyable. When the sated vampires’ eyes fill up with blood, the movie’s indifference to anatomical verisimilitude is a feature, not a bug. Likewise, Dracula’s allure and supernatural powers are frequently captured with relatively clumsy-looking composites and overlays. However, the clumsiness works as a harsh, libidinous counterpoint to the movie’s normal cinematography, which placidly captures the overstuffed restraint of late Victorian propriety. If these effects are slightly risible now, they nonetheless continue to point up the contrast between Dracula and his English antagonists.

There are some serious drawbacks to this production. Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood, both suitors of Lucy, are combined into “Quincey Holmwood”. That Quincey is supposed to be an American and Arthur a British aristocrat suggests the difficulty of this combination; Richard Barnes, the actor playing Quincey, can’t sustain a credible American accent, which gives his scenes an unappealingly comic turn. Mina and Lucy are now sisters, which both condenses the action and makes Mina resemble Lucy too much. In Stoker’s novel, she exploits late-Victorian information technology to drive home the nature of the Count’s threat. Here, Judi Bowker moans prettily while Louis Jordan sucks on her neck . . . much as Susan Penhaligon moans sexily while Jordan bends her backward over a tomb.

One of the cleverest features of Stoker’s novel is that it presents its characters a textual riddle, one largely solved by Mina: She collates letters from diverse characters against the shorthand in Jonathan Harker’s diary against Dr. John Seward’s phonographic physician’s log, and deduces the plans and whereabouts of the Count. As Mina puts it, the novel pits chthonic old-world forces against the “nineteenth-century up-to-date with a vengeance” crew of Harker, et al.

It must be acknowledged, I fear, that this adaptation does away with all that. (In this specific sense, the Coppola version is better.) Having said that, Philip Saville (director) and Peter Hall (cinematographer) have an inspired solution: The myriad location shots in this miniseries –including, but not limited to, Whitby Abbey and Highate Cemetery in London — have a similar effect. When Jonathan Harker goes by train to visit Dracula, he treats it as a sort of trip back in time. In this version, we are shown a clip that looks very like file footage of an early 20th century locomotive. These sorts of visual cues recreate the novel’s quasi-documentary approach.

I read Dracula as a novel about fin du siècle anxieties over technology, science, and modernity, on the one hand, and tradition, faith, and atavism on the other. The New Woman’s desire — captured saucily in Lucy’s desire for three husbands, and earnestly in Mina’s attempts to stay abreast of office work trends — offers a provocative flashpoint for Stoker’s imagination. Telling the story through letters and journal entries means that we have access to the characters’ thoughts in a way that a movie can’t quite capture. (The best example here is Jonathan’s diary entry after being attacked by the three female vampires, in which he’s quite honest about his passionate, yet passive, desire to be penetrated by these women.)

And if the movie can’t quite do justice to those rich intersections between horror story and late-Victorian culture, it does a superb job capturing Dracula’s uncanny appeal. Count Dracula gives us a title character both desirable and terrifying. That dynamic is at the core of any telling of this story, and Louis Jordan’s controlled malice is among the finest that we have. This is a must-own for Dracula fans, lovers of Halloween, and admirers of Victorian fiction; virtually anyone will find something to enjoy in it. Regrettably, there are no bonus features — not even a commentary.

RATING 7 / 10
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