Sunday, December 9, 2007

Gothic Romance

COUNT DRACULA (1977)

A feast of blood; the brides of COUNT DRACULA.

BRAM Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, is a novel that tells its story through letters and journals, where the reader can access the character’s thoughts in a way a film or television treatment can never convincingly portray. This BBC adaptation is considered to be one of the more faithful to its source material; it is certainly the first time we see the Count feed his brides an infant (the books’ nastiest and least often dramatised incident), and this is the only Dracula to shoot on Stoker’s Yorkshire locations, including St Mary’s Church in Whitby and the decaying cemetery that surrounds it. But there are also the inevitable liberties: Mina (Judi Bowker) and Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) are now sisters, and two of the latter’s suitors - Quincy P. Morris and Arthur Holmwood - are combined to form American diplomat Quincy P. Holmwood (Richard Barnes).

Another change from the novel is that there is no playing with the Count’s age, but this ensures a constant relevance to Frenchman Louis Jourdan’s performance as Dracula. Jourdan was an unusual choice, but pulls off some of the Count’s more inhuman moments (flapping down the castle wall like a bat) remarkably; not the otherworldly Valentino nor the imperious nobleman of Universal or Hammer norm, Jourdan speaks the familiar lines in an almost casual manner, purposely devoid of any affectation. This Prince of Darkness is supremely arrogant, coolly confident and totally disdainful of humanity; to him, the living are nourishment at best.

Louis Jourdan is a chilling Prince of Darkness.

Accentuating Jourdan’s take is an able cast, headed by Frank Finlay as Van Helsing, astutely capturing the kindness and steely determination of a vampire-slaying metaphysician, even if his Dutch accent can sound distinctly Irish. Bowker channels Mina’s innocence and intelligence directly from the page, and Jack Shepherd’s Renfield is more introverted than others, reciting William Blake to himself (“Am not I A fly like thee?/Or art not thou/A man like me?”). But Barnes as the hybrid Quincy can’t sustain a credible Texan accent, giving his scenes an unappealingly comedic turn.

COUNT DRACULA’s solarisation effects have been open to much criticism, but allowing for it being a made-for-TV film, there is a delicious campness to its clumsy composites and overlays. Actually, Dracula’s allure and supernatural powers are captured so sparsely that the harsh visuals act as counterpoint to the normal cinematography, which placidly captures the restraint of Victorian propriety. If the effects are risible now, they nonetheless exaggerate the contrast between the vampire and his English protagonists.