Posts Tagged ‘Dracula’

The thing about some classic stories is that there have been so many film versions of them that we seem to have reached a point of creative saturation with them – there just doesn’t seem to be any desire for new ones. Recent films based on reliable old bankers like Tarzan, Robin Hood and King Arthur haven’t really paid the rent, although of course modern sensibilities are probably a bit uncomfortable with a canon which largely revolves around white male heteronormativity.

In other cases, it’s just the original story which has apparently fallen out of favour – spin-offs and derivative works continue to turn up on a regular basis. There hasn’t been a ‘straight’ movie version of Dracula in thirty years, but since then there’s been a spin-off centred on Van Helsing, an attempt at a revisionist origin story, and various low-budget films that haven’t really made an impression. I was about to suggest this was a recent phenomenon, but then of course, as we have recently seen, people were making films about Dracula’s pet dog as long ago as 1977. So the appearance of a film about Dracula’s helpmeet shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

This is Renfield, directed by Chris McKay (who previously did a rather good film about the Lego version of a different sort of bat man). Renfield, for the uninitiated, is a lunatic in Stoker’s original novel; he falls under Dracula’s sway and starts eating insects and spiders (a sort of cargo-cult version of vampirism). In the movies, when he appears at all, he usually gets amalgamated with either Jonathan Harker or Harker’s boss Hawkins. The Hammer film series largely replaced him with a character called Klove, although another character called Ludwig closely resembles the Stoker version.

As you can perhaps imagine, playing Dracula’s insane sidekick gives a performer a certain latitude when it comes to pitching their performance, and some people have gone howlingly over-the-top as a result. Keeping things a bit more under control in the new film is Nicholas Hoult, who is living in present-day New Orleans. He has been in Dracula’s service for nearly a century (there is an elaborate call-back to the Tod Browning version of Dracula) and is currently helping to nurse the Count back to health, if that’s the right word, following his latest near-demise. Dracula is played (and very much not underplayed) by Nicolas Cage.

The main gag of the new film, which is largely a comedy, is that Renfield has taken to going to a support group for people trapped in abusive or controlling relationships, clearly seeing something of his own situation in their problems. Naturally the other people there don’t realise that much of what he says about his boss having the power of life and death over him is literally true. Dracula, on the other hand, is testy and complains that Renfield isn’t doing enough to help him restore his strength – he just wants to prey on some unsuspecting tourists, or nuns, or a bus full of cheerleaders. Male or female cheerleaders, enquires Renfield delicately. ‘Don’t make this a sexual thing,’ scowls the Count.

Meanwhile, ass-kicking traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) is engaged in a one-woman crusade to bring down the Lobos, a powerful crime family responsible for the death of her father. She eventually ticks them off enough for a hit to be ordered on her while she’s in the same restaurant where Renfield is looking for a snack for his master. The hapless thrall is sufficiently impressed by her steely refusal to be intimidated that he ends up saving her life; she inspires him to try and make a change in his situation and break free from Dracula’s control. The Lobos, meanwhile, are looking for Renfield and end up tracking him back to Dracula’s lair. The Count decides this band of ruthless killers may be his kind of people, and proposes an alliance…

It sounds a fairly straightforward story, but to be honest the film wanders about quite a lot in its midsection before rallying near the end. This is about as short as mainstream films get nowadays, at only 90 minutes or so, which means that it never gets slow or dull but also struggles to develop any of its ideas properly. Not that they are tremendously original: the intersection of traditional vampirism and organised crime isn’t a particularly new plot device, while the familiar-in-therapy conceit is exactly the sort of thing that they’ve been doing on What We Do In The Shadows for years now.

For something being pitched as a comedy, Renfield is never as consistently funny as What We Do In The Shadows (the movie or the first few years of the TV show, anyway). What it ends up as is a sort of knockabout action-oriented splatstick with some extremely gory bits and not much subtlety to a lot of the jokes. It may not help that two of the main performers are Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz, neither of whom are synonymous with delicate understatement; Awkwafina’s performance, I have to say, is very possibly not good enough – though she’s saddled with a character who’s two-dimensional at best.

Nicholas Hoult, on the other hand, is very good, and manages to keep his scenes very watchable as usual. But the film only really comes to life – perhaps I should say rises from the coffin? – when Nicolas Cage is on-screen. This is an archetypal Cage performance, operatically over-the-top by any conventional metric, but also containing real wit and depth. And it must be said that Cage makes a tremendous Dracula – the fact that he sort-of resembles both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee obviously helps, but he provides the movie with its only real moments of menace. It would be wonderful – though it probably won’t happen – to see him play the character again in a less-comedic context; as it is, Cage’s turn is by far the best reason to see this film.

When Cage isn’t on, the film is a rather confused mixture of action, broad comedy, and gore, with a variable tone that Nicholas Hoult by himself isn’t quite good enough to salvage. The lengthy and elaborate fight sequences feel like they’ve been transplanted in from a different movie; they’re not bad, they just don’t feel like they belong in what started off looking like a fairly witty spoof of Dracula. But by the end this has turned into something more generic and less rewarding. It has funny moments, and it’s usually visually interesting, but less fighting, more Cage, and more ideas would have made for a much better movie.

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I can still remember the morning when my junior school teacher sat the whole class down, got us to open our books, and announced we were going to write a story. We could write whatever we wanted, as long as we stuck to the title The Haunted House (for boys) or The Fairy Garden (for girls – oh, those pre-woke days). I couldn’t believe this was actually school work – I remember the sense of almost delirious joy and possibility at, after years of copying stuff out, being able to write anything I wanted to. I stayed in at lunchtime (normally a punishment) to write more. Some would say I have never quite stopped writing in the forty-plus years since.

All I can remember about that first exercise in fiction was the end (my best friend came up with a really good idea, which I promptly ripped off), and a bit halfway through when my best friend (who was heavily involved in those early efforts, both as a source of ideas and a character) was wandering around the titular structure when he was attacked by ‘Zoltan, the hound of Dracula’ who I seem to recall left him ‘half-dead’. It was probably a bit optimistic of me to expect the casual reader to know who ‘Zoltan, the hound of Dracula’ actually was, given I didn’t actually explain it, but this small detail reveals two important nuggets of information – firstly, as a small child I was clearly paying far too much information to the horror movie listings in the Radio Times – the TV premiere of the movie Zoltan… Hound of Dracula had clearly left a big impression on me – and secondly, my first ever work of fiction is, in retrospect, possibly the world’s only piece of Zoltan… Hound of Dracula fan fiction. Any serious prospect of a proper writing career was clearly doomed from the outset.

The movie which played such a seminal role in my young life was directed by Albert Band and released in 1977. In the States it was lumbered with the rather less evocative title of Dracula’s Dog, but on the other hand this probably does give you a better sense of what to expect from the film. That said, it does get off to a belting start, with Red Army troops blasting their way into a tomb complex somewhere in Romania. This turns out to be a family crypt of the Dracula dynasty and thus probably not to be messed with. Perhaps inevitably, one man is left on guard while everyone else clears off.

That night, there is subsidence in the tomb, or possibly an earthquake, and two coffins are thrown clear of the vault. The sentry, being an idiot, opens one of them and finds something covered in a blanket with a wooden stake sticking out of it. Because he is a real idiot, he pulls out the stake and then seems to be genuinely surprised when something springs out of the coffin at him. Well, to be fair, he probably wasn’t expecting a dobermann to be in a coffin, but even so. Yes, it is the star of the movie, Zoltan himself, and he makes short work of the idiot guard before managing to open the other coffin and yanking out the stake with his teeth.

In the other coffin is Veidt Smit (Reggie Nalder), a servitor of the Dracula family who is described as a ‘fractional lamia’, whatever that means. Smit is immortal, doesn’t need to drink blood, and seems to have some sort of psychic powers, but is bound to the will of the Draculas (in this movie ‘Dracula’ and ‘vampire’ are used more-or-less interchangeably). But there aren’t any Draculas left, the last of the line having upped stakes and moved to California years ago. Clearly it is up to Smit and Zoltan to visit this man and remind him of his family legacy…

(There’s also a bit where we see Zoltan looking at the tombstone of ‘Igor Dracula’, at which point we are treated to a flashback sequence which serves as his origin story: we see Dracula, thwarted in his attempt to chow down on the lovely daughter of Smit, who was previously an innkeeper – she screams and he runs away, which seems a bit out of character – settling for second best and attacking the innkeeper’s dog Zoltan instead. Dracula does this in bat form, presumably because it would be a bit weird for a grown man to be seen sucking a dobermann. He then recruits Smit as well, on a sort of two-for-one deal, although while Zoltan is apparently a full vampire, or at least a full a vampire as it is possible for a dog to be, Smit is stuck being a ‘fractional lamia’. It does look like Smit is the brains of this team, though, relatively speaking.

When all this happened is not clear – Wikipedia has a stab at 1670, which predates the development of the dobermann as a breed, while ChatGPT is predictably useless and suggests the film is a horror comedy starring Eddie Redmayne as Dracula and Jack Black as his dog. It probably doesn’t really matter. Also obscure is exactly what it means to be a vampire dog – does Zoltan have supercanine strength and speed? If, as per Stoker, Dracula can turn into a dog, does this mean Zoltan can turn into a human being? As this would require the film-makers to display some genuine imagination, it doesn’t happen, of course.)

Anyway, on the trail of Zoltan and Smit is one Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer, by his own admission solely here for the money), who has got the facts of the situation from the officer commanding the troops at the tomb. She is played by Arlene Martel, who portrayed Spock’s fiancee in the original version of Star Trek, but sadly she only has this one scene. This movie is actually good fodder for our Trekkie cousins – Nalder played the Andorian ambassador in one episode, which the last of the Draculas is played by Michael Pataki, who was a Klingon in the episode with the tribbles.

Pataki plays one Michael Drake, a psychiatrist with a lovely family and a curious selection of family heirlooms he should probably have paid more attention to. He also has a couple of German Shepherds which prove to be significant to the plot. As luck and budget limitations would have it, Drake and his brood, together with the dogs, are about to go off for a short break in their camper, thus allowing the rest of the film to be filmed off in the woods somewhere where it’s less expensive.

As you are perhaps sensing, Zoltan… Hound of Dracula is not a particularly great, or even good, or even (if we’re honest) mediocre movie, overall, and one of the things that make it so poor is the fact it is so glacially paced. Every time anyone gets in their car or RV and drives somewhere, we get a lengthy sequence of them driving along while cheery music plays on the soundtrack, whether this is appropriate or not. You start to anticipate these sequences, but this doesn’t make them any less annoying while they’re in progress.

Zoltan and Smit eventually start to come across as just a bit incompetent, as they spend most of the second half of the movie lurking in the undergrowth near the Drakes’ camper without ever seeming likely to actually make a move on Drake himself. The Drake family dogs start acting weirdly, and other local campers are in serious peril, but that’s all. The film’s most bizarre and provocative moment comes when Zoltan slakes his unholy thirst by drinking the blood of a cute little German Shepherd puppy, which the Drakes bury with all due reverence and sadness. But, of course, the puppy rises from the dead as a vampire, digging itself out of the ground and scampering blithely away while no-one’s looking. The twist at the end of the film is that the vampire German Shepherd puppy is still on the loose somewhere, an idea that screams… well, maybe it just screams.

After a while you get a strong and accurate sense that nothing very exciting or scary is ever going to happen in this movie, despite the best efforts of the dog trainers. Branco turns up (having traded in his homburg for a beret that makes him look like an aging beatnik) and tells Drake what’s happening. Drake, rather improbably, believes him, and the stage is set for… more of the same, really.

In the end it is what it is: a super-low-budget cash-in on the Dracula name, which never really finds something interesting to do with the area of vampire-canine intersection which it has proudly claimed for itself. You could probably do a reasonably interesting film about vampire dogs if you thought about it imaginatively. But no-one here did. Zoltan… Hound of Dracula starts off with glimmers of promise but quickly turns into a heavily-padded piece of unintentional low camp. Seven year old me might have been more generous about it, but – for good or ill – that kid is long gone. Zoltan… Hound of Dracula is still marking his territory on various video-sharing websites, however. Maybe there’s a message there for us all. Or maybe not.

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It’s never a bad idea to have a goal in life, no matter how quixotic, and by the early 1970s it seemed that producer-director Dan Curtis’s aim was to bring a particular flavour of horror to the Great American Viewing Public. By this point he had already been in charge of the gothic horror soap melodrama Dark Shadows for two years, overseen its two big-screen spin-offs, and produced the immensely popular horror TV movie The Night Stalker (this eventually led to the Kolchak TV show, something Curtis was not involved with). In retrospect, the next step must have seemed obvious – another gothic horror TV movie, this one concerning the original night stalker.

The result was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, originally intended for an October 1973 broadcast but eventually arriving in February the following year. Ever since the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s own Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the rights to that name have belonged elsewhere; these days when Curtis’ film shows up it’s usually simply as Dracula (which is not the most distinctive title for a horror movie, I will grant you).

It wasn’t a coincidence that Curtis and Coppola chose the same name – the selling point of both productions was that, supposedly, each was the most faithful adaptation of the novel made up to that point. To oversee the script, Curtis hired Richard Matheson, who’d written the two Kolchak TV movies as part of a long and immensely distinguished career in the horror and SF genres. Is it a ripped-from-the-page take on Stoker’s novel? Well, no, but it gets closer than most (for my money the most faithful Dracula remains the BBC version with Louis Jourdan, which came out a few years after this movie was made).

Virtually everyone knows the premise of Dracula by now; most people probably have a vague idea of the plot. Well-mannered estate agent Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) is packed off to Hungary to assist a local nobleman in the purchase of some property in England, much to the concern of the peasants he meets on the way. (Yes, deviation #1: in this movie it is repeatedly suggested that Dracula is Hungarian, not Romanian!) But the Count himself (Jack Palance) is a gracious enough host, even if the women of his household seem to be taking a permanent walk on the wild side. Dracula takes a special interest in Harker’s photos from home, especially those of his fiancee Mina (Penelope Horner) – ‘Mina’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘winner’ by all concerned, which doesn’t seem right to me, but so it goes.

Dracula heads off to the new house he’s bought in Blighty (deviation #2: Carfax is somewhere in the north, not in London – though no-one ever gets this right), leaving Jonathan to try and survive in Castle Dracula unassisted. Soon enough Mina’s friend Lucy is suffering from a mysterious neck wound and an inexplicable wasting illness. Lucy’s fiance Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) is worried enough to call in his acquaintance Dr Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport), who quickly figures out that there’s something nasty on the loose near Whitby. Pass the garlic!

If we’re going to be technical about this, I reckon this is about 70% faithful to Bram Stoker, with many of the changes imposed for budgetary reasons – whichever way you cut it, there are quite a few dead wood characters in Dracula, which is why Dr Seward and Quincey usually get the chop, as happens here. Mounting scenes in Victorian London, especially after dark, was clearly also beyond Curtis’ resources, though we get a decent look at the aftermath of the wreck of the Demeter (we see the dead helmsman lashed to the wheel, with a moody-looking Dracula standing on the beach in the background).

Of the remainder, I reckon about 20% comes straight from the first Hammer Dracula – particularly the central partnership of Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood, and also the climax (never mind curtains, the Count needs to get his windows bricked up). The last 10% brings quite a different flavour with it, for it seems to me to be a holdover from The Night Stalker itself – Robert Cobert’s score is virtually identical in many places, for one thing, while this is (I think) one of the very first instances of Dracula being presented as a borderline-supervillain, with superhuman strength and indifference to bullets – again, very much in the same vein as Night Stalker, where the villain strolls through hails of gunfire and throws policemen around like ragdolls. (On the topic of Dracula-as-supervillain: ironically, the Marvel Comics version of Dracula looked rather like Jack Palance for many years, even though that comic book started before this film was made.)

On the other hand, Curtis’ Dracula doesn’t have any of the funky swagger or urgency of The Night Stalker. It’s the kind of film where respect for the source material is in danger of turning into over-reverence. Normally I like my adaptations to be pretty faithful to the original text, but the world is not short on Draculas and it would be nice to have seen a freer take on it from Matheson (writer, let’s not forget, of the seminal I Am Legend). On the other hand, Hammer’s Dracula spent the first half of the 1970s molesting Carnaby Street hippies, hanging out in Millbank Tower, and appearing in kung fu movies, so I suppose that at this point doing a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation was in its way quite radical. Curtis’ movie could certainly be seen as the point at which the pendulum starting swinging back towards the more faithful Draculas of the end of the decade (Werner Herzog’s and John Badham’s, as well as the BBC version).

Nevertheless, there’s a thin line between straight and stiff, and this is a pretty stiff version of the story whichever way you cut it. I think a lot of this is down to the casting – Jack Palance isn’t a terrible Dracula, but he seems grumpy more than actually evil, and he’s a long way from being the charismatic ladykiller of the popular imagination (that said, this conception of the character has little to do with the Stoker text, so it’s not necessarily a problem). Filming in England means a few familiar faces pop up – Sarah Douglas is a bride of Dracula, while John Challis (Herman Boyce in various sitcoms) also gets a walk-on. But Simon Ward makes hardly any impression as Arthur and Nigel Davenport’s Van Helsing is more like some bluff old cove you’ve met down the golf club than a dedicated seeker into dark mysteries and vampire lore.

The 1970s were a boom period for vampire and Dracula movies – there were at least six ‘proper’ Dracula films I can think of without racking my memory, and that’s before we consider things like Count Iorga Vampire and the Blacula films, let alone things like Zoltan, Hound of Dracula. Even if it wasn’t a TV movie, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the Curtis Dracula got lost in the crowd a bit. It’s not the greatest version of the story, but it’s a worthy one that tries to take it seriously and do it justice. I wish I could find nicer things to say about it, but… it’s just a little bit lacking in fun.

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There have been many notable and occasionally great one-and-done Draculas in screen history: Klaus Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Gary Oldman, Frank Langella. The list is extensive. What’s perhaps a surprising is how close Bela Lugosi comes to appearing on it. But it’s true: while the actor racked up a long list of genre and horror movie roles (including playing Frankenstein’s creature, one of Dr Moreau’s creations, several other lookalike vampires and appearing in a very early picture from Hammer Films), he only played Dracula twice – and one of those films was a spoof (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). And yet he remains Christopher Lee’s only credible rival for the title of One True Dracula (Lee played the character in nine movies).

Maybe it’s because he originated the role – or perhaps the original 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is just that good? Certainly it establishes the ground rules for anglophone versions of Bram Stoker’s novel, mainly by taking a very flexible approach to the text. Several characters are dropped entirely, others have their roles switched around, and the end result is that in this film it’s Renfield (Dwight Frye) who’s on his way to Castle Dracula to finalise the sale of a house.

It almost feels a bit redundant to summarise the plot of Dracula, but I suppose every version is a little bit different and – in any case – it’s just possible some people may not be familiar with it. The locals are appalled to learn Renfield will be visiting Dracula, giving him a crucifix for protection. Renfield, poor sod, wanders up to the gloomy old pile anyway, finding it to be oddly infested with what look like possums and armadillos (some very odd choices from the art department here). Dracula (Lugosi) issues his usual warm welcome and they conclude the sale of a ruined abbey near London before the brides of Dracula descend on Renfield. (As usual, the film doesn’t address the real question of why Dracula has decided to up stakes – ho, ho – and relocate to England. He hardly fits the usual profile of an economic migrant.)

After a brief interlude depicting the not-exactly-untroubled voyage of the ship Dracula takes from Romania to England – the crazed Renfield has now become his servant – we’re into the main part of the film. After a brief but strikingly effective interlude of a top-hatted Dracula stalking through the metropolis’ fog, pausing only to snack on the occasional match girl, this primarily concerns Dracula’s dealings with Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), owner of the asylum next door to the ruined abbey, and his nearest and dearest: his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).

Best not to get too attached to Lucy, for she is soon no more: her plot function is basically to be a sort of demonstrative victim of Dracula’s M.O. (The subplot from the novel about Lucy rising as a vampire and preying on children is mentioned, but not really developed.) From this point on the film is about the battle to stop Mina from going the same way – luckily, Dr Seward is able to call in his old friend and expert on all things peculiar, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who very quickly realises just what’s going on here.

The status of Dracula as an important and iconic film is indisputable by anyone with a passing knowledge of and interest in modern culture, but in recent years a sort of critical push-back against it has developed, suggesting it is simply not a very good movie (and the Spanish-language version made on the same sets at the same time, starring Carlos Villarias, is often cited to be a much more effective take on the story).

Well, I can see where critics of Dracula are coming from, because nine decades on this iconic piece of cinema often feels barely cinematic at all. The reason for this is, in a sense, very straightforward: it’s not quite a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a filmed version of the 1924 stage version (with occasional moments lifted from Murnau’s unauthorised adaptation, which genuinely is a classic movie). This explains the talky and largely static nature of the piece, although given the film is only about 75 minutes long, probably not its sluggish pace – I get a sense that the stage play may have been a gruelling ordeal, just not in the way that its makers may have intended. Certainly, as a horror movie this film is seriously restricted by the censorship of the period: this is a wholly bloodless vampire movie, some might say in more senses than one.

Then again, neither sensationalist spectacle nor studied naturalism were really in the toolbox of American cinema in the 1930s; many films were basically just filmed theatre, with an accordingly theatrical and camp air to them. There’s something very theatrical, and indeed practically Shakespearean, about the way most of the major roles are played dead straight, while the supporting parts are often comic grotesques (apart from Frye’s wildly over-the-top turn as Renfield, I’m thinking of Charles Gerrard as the asylum attendant, who seems fond of telling his charges they are ‘loonies’).

On the other hand, there is Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Again, this is a very theatrical performance, with a lot of rather studied posing going on, not to mention some stilted line readings. But there’s something else here too – particularly in close-up, where he brings a real intensity and charisma to the part. It’s just a shame that Tod Browning elects to shoot most of the movie in rather static long- and medium-shot. You can perceive, perhaps, why this performance effectively set the template for screen Draculas – virtually every other take on the character is a reaction to it, either an emulation or a modulation.

You can say the same about the movie as a whole: it may hardly be a great Dracula movie itself, but you can sense it incubating the seeds of many other Draculas and vampire movies to come. For every scene which is a bit of a dud, there is another which either really lands, or is at least brimming with potential. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing one can say about this movie – it’s almost like an extended sizzle reel for Dracula and the vampire movie genre as a whole. Perhaps the movies weren’t quite ready for Dracula in 1931, but this movie did a fine job of giving them plenty of motivation to revisit this story time and time again.

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If you’ve spent much time nosing about the dimmer recesses of this blog, you will know that there are not many things I enjoy more than an obscure old horror movie, more likely than not a gothic horror movie. It’s always a pleasure to find another one of these things floating around on the internet, especially when it’s an obscure version of a famous story – it’s getting to the point where I find it almost impossible to predict whether any given film or play will be available free-to-view or not, so it’s always worth a look, I find.

Which brings us to the BBC’s 1977 adaptation of Dracula, which for some reason they decided to call Count Dracula – the world was at close to peak Dracula in the 1970s, especially at the back end of the decade when there was this one, the John Badham movie with Frank Langella and Werner Herzog’s superb remake of Nosferatu, so I suppose tweaking the title a bit was one way of standing out from the crowd. For a long time all I knew about this production was that the BBC treated it so seriously that all other vampire-related dramas were banned that year, for fear they might appear to be sending it up. That said, the young reader version of Dracula at my school had a picture of Louis Jourdan on the front, presumably because it was cheaper to license than one of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi.

Anyway, this version of the story has turned up on TV in various different forms, both as a single (rather lengthy) film and in two- and three-episode chunks. I watched it one sitting, which was more or less okay, though I would completely understand if you fancied stringing it out over a long weekend or whatever; I doubt it would make a great deal of difference. It might even make a nice companion piece to the BBC Dracula from the start of the year.

The most obvious difference between the two BBC Draculas is the startling degree of fidelity on display back in 1977: this is, in fact, probably the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel ever brought to the screen. It opens, obviously, with young solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) being packed off to the Carpathians to close a deal with the enigmatic Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan). As we’re talking a BBC budget, it’s largely a stock-footage version of Transylvania (looking not unlike the woods from all of those Hammer horror films), and we never see Castle Dracula in long shot, but the virtues of BBC costume drama – acting, costuming, direction – certainly compensate.

One element of the novel they do dispense with (and, ironically, one of the few bits which the Moffat and Gatiss version retained) is the idea of Dracula initially looking like an old man and gradually rejuvenating thanks to the restorative properties of human blood: here, he starts off looking like Louis Jourdan at the age of roughly 55 and more or less stays like that for the rest of the programme. I think Jourdan makes a very good Dracula, rather like Claes Bang in the recent show: he has a nicely understated foreign-seeming quality, and most of the time comes across as rather enjoying his own malevolence – perhaps he’s a bit too much of the predatory womaniser (albeit with claw-like nails and hairy palms), rather than the actual predator, but I think it’s impossible for any single performance to be the definitive Dracula. This one, as noted, is certainly of a high standard.

The story unfolds with all the bits you’d expect, perhaps subtly tweaked (‘Don’t trust mirrors,’ the Count cheerily advises Harker, after notably failing to show up in one – a rather neatly done bit of video-tape magic). Dracula crawling down the sheer wall of the castle doesn’t quite work, but Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s brides, after a rather sedate start, turns into something unexpectedly shocking and unsettling.

Soon enough Dracula heads off to Whitby, drawn (it is implied) by his desire to get his teeth into Harker’s fiancee Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker) and her sister Lucy (Susan Penhaligon). Yes, that’s another change from Stoker, though I’m not sure what making them sisters really achieves; amalgamating the characters of Arthur and Quincey (which Gerald Savory’s script also does) at least cuts some of the dead wood from the dramatis personae. Everyone else is present, from Van Helsing (Frank Finlay) to Renfield (Jack Shepherd).

And it all proceeds quite faithfully, as noted. That’s the one word you’re almost obliged to keep using when talking about Count Dracula – it’s not quite the filmed text of the book, but it’s a damn sight closer than any other version of the story I can think of, and by quite some distance too. Given that many people just aren’t that familiar with the novel, I think this is obviously a point in the programme’s favour: it’s nice to have at least one ‘accurate’ Dracula to go with all the oddly variant ones which appeared down the years.

On the other hand, this approach does throw into sharp relief some of the structural flaws and possibly-regrettable choices that Stoker made when writing the thing. Dracula himself gets some good lines in the first hour or so, while hosting Harker at the castle, but once he departs for England he’s largely reduced to a walk-on part, appearing or disappearing in a cloud of special effects when not gorging himself on one of the actresses. Finlay is a very charismatic, authentic Van Helsing, and it is simply very regrettable that Van Helsing and Dracula only get one scene together: the same is really true of Dracula and Renfield (Jack Shepherd resists the temptation to chew the scenery and is mostly very effective). There is also the pace of the thing, which is a bit sluggish even with the final act and the Club of Light’s journey from London back to Transylvania heavily trimmed down.

By choosing to simply be a vessel for Stoker, the film does give up the opportunity to put its own spin on the story of Dracula (doing this is arguably what makes the best adaptations so successful), and perhaps it does come across as a little staid and dry as a result. Nevertheless, provided you are not foolish enough to be dissuaded by late 70s BBC production values (a mixture of film and videotape, some distinctly peculiar video effects, a timpani-heavy score from Kenyon Emrys-Roberts) there is still a lot to offer you here if Dracula or vampires are your thing, especially if you’ve never battled your way through the novel (no shame in that – I didn’t manage it until I was thirteen). In the end, you come away wanting to see Jourdan and Finlay play these characters again, and that’s usually a sign of a Dracula which has got all the most important things right.

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If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varies hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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You have to admire the nerve shown by the producers of Mystery and Imagination in doing adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula in the same year, especially when the year in question was 1968. If that wasn’t quite the point of peak Hammer Horror, it was certainly thereabouts: the company released Dracula Has Risen From the Grave that year, while it was also the off-year between Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Beyond the marquee value of the names of these two most well-known Gothic novels, one wonders if there was any further motivation for doing them – some puritanical impulse to strip them of their Hammer trappings and restore them to their place as Classic Literature, perhaps?

There have been a fearful number of Frankensteins and a dreadful number of Draculas down the years, so the same question applies to the Mystery version of Dracula as to their Frankenstein – how to justify it? What makes it a worthwhile addition to the canon? Doing it as a largely studio-bound, black-and-white video-taped production also brings with it a set of additional challenges. Perhaps because of this, this hardly qualifies as an attempt at doing the novel faithfully – but there is a certain fidelity to Stoker, as we shall see.

The play (directed by Patrick Dromgoole) opens in an asylum somewhere in the Whitby area, where a mysterious inmate (the actor Corin Redgrave in a fright wig) is pleading for water from the attendants. But this is just a ruse, and the madman breaks free from his straitjacket and crashes a party being held upstairs by the proprietor, Dr Seward (James Maxwell). Present are local grande dame Mrs Weston (Joan Hickson) and her strikingly nubile daughter Lucy (Susan George). Less nubile and more noble is another guest, an exiled Eastern European aristocrat who has recently arrived in the area – Count Dracula!

Dracula is played by Denholm Elliott, who would normally seem to be cast against type, were it not that Dracula here is to some extent written against type. Eloquent, bearded, and occasionally wearing dark glasses, such is Elliott’s charisma that his sway over weaker-willed locals seems entirely understandable. The madman is packed off to his cell and Dracula continues to charm his hosts, especially Lucy. Seward remains somewhat sceptical about this new figure on the local scene.

However, the mystery of the lunatic deepens with the appearance of Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve), whose husband Jonathan has disappeared while on a business trip to Transylvania to visit Castle Dracula. Seward has called in his old mentor Doctor Van Helsing (Bernard Archard) to consult, and it transpires that the madman in the asylum is indeed Harker, left unhinged by his experiences abroad (there is a brief, filmed flashback to the goings-on at the castle, and very evocative it is too). But why does Harker call Dracula ‘Master’? Why does Dracula profess not to know who the inmate is? And could it all have anything to do with Lucy suddenly coming down with a bad case of anaemia?

As you can perhaps surmise, Charles Graham’s adaptation performs brisk, reasonable surgery on the sprawling source novel, limiting the setting almost entirely to Whitby and the time period to a few nights. (You do miss the London scenes a bit, to say nothing of Transylvania, but the budget is clearly demandingly limited.) The roles of Renfield and Harker are combined, which makes a certain sense as Harker rarely gets anything interesting to do, while Quincey and Arthur are dropped from the story entirely; I have to confess I didn’t miss them at all.

So it’s a cut-down Dracula but still a surprisingly effective one. What we are left with is a potent brew of graveyards, sex, and outraged Victorian sensibilities, so you could certainly argue that the essentials of the story have certainly survived. This could never have been as lavishly lurid as one of the Christopher Lee movies Hammer were doing at the time, but then for all their definite pleasures those films are so often a kind of schlock pantomime. Bereft of eye-catching production values, this version of Dracula is obliged to dig down into the text and actually engage with it in order to work.

But does it succeed? It is certainly a strikingly different version of this much-told fable. Elliott is certainly a very distinctive Dracula, employing his legendary scene-stealing abilities to full effect. You can imagine Christopher Lee grinding his fake teeth in fury as Dracula is actually given dialogue drawn from Stoker’s novel to deliver, which Elliott does with predictable aplomb. Whether the decision to give him rat-like incisor teeth rather than the traditional canine fangs is justified is probably a question of personal taste; the way that Dracula summons up his mesmeric powers by basically just screwing up his eyes and squinting at people is the only real element of Elliott’s performance which definitely feels a bit dud.

You would expect him to have a formidable opponent in the form of Bernard Archard: an actor capable of being mesmeric himself, given the right script and direction. Here, though, Van Helsing’s fake beard is the least of his problems. Rather than the smooth, unflappable savant that Peter Cushing invariably played, Archard’s Van Helsing is a bit rough around the edges and eminently flappable. The play decides to stick with Van Helsing being Dutch, but the good doctor’s battle against the undead is nothing compared to Archard’s struggle to get the accent right. We end up with another one of those vocal Grand Tours: Van Helsing may start off coming from Amsterdam, but at various points in the play he seems to be a native of Pontypool before finally settling on being from somewhere near Karachi. But on the whole Archard is quite acceptable despite this.

The play is mostly well-performed, anyway, especially by Susan George and Suzanne Neve. It is they in particular who make you realise just how bland and inappropriately bloodless most of the sex in the Hammer Dracula movies feels: the women tend to do a lot of limp sighing before quietly yielding to Christopher Lee. Here, there is a genuine erotic charge to the scenes between Dracula and his victims: in this sense at least, the play is a lot more explicit about the nature of the metaphor, for all that it contains no nudity and relatively little gore. The women are given real agency, too: Lucy is clearly dead keen on having a fling with their new neighbour, while Mina likewise seems almost to be an active participant, consciously choosing to become undead.

It all builds up to a final semi-twist in the tale – I say semi-twist because it is so understated, or perhaps just slightly fluffed by the script and direction, that it’s not entirely clear whether this is an intentional thing or not. It’s certainly not enough to spoil one of the better adaptations of Dracula that I have seen. Most attempts just take the premise and ditch as much of the plot as they feel they can get away with, but this one does seem to be making a genuine effort. It keeps enough of the traditional trappings to be recognisable and familiar, but isn’t afraid to try new and different things – even when being new and different means going back to the original book. A worthwhile piece of vampirology.

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Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is an eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

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Alan Gibson’s 1973 film The Satanic Rites of Dracula is another of those late-period Hammer horrors that doesn’t hang around in getting to the point. No sooner have the opening credits (featuring a rather awkwardly-posed shadow puppet superimposed over various London landmarks) concluded than we are in the midst of some proper Satanic rites in full swing: sweaty acolytes gawp, ethnic actresses hired to impart a touch of low-budget exoticism declaim dodgy dialogue about Hell, young actresses who needed the money try to avoid showing too much flesh to the camera, and chickens look nervous.


This sequence really isn’t all that great, but the film-makers clearly felt otherwise, as for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film they keep cutting back to it, often in defiance of chronology or logic. The Satanic rites are taking place in a stately house outside London, guarded by sinister goons whose uniform appears to be sheepskin tank-tops, which at least makes them distinctive.

It turns out this set-up has been infiltrated by the security services, and their man makes his escape at the start of the film. There is some political delicacy to this situation, as one of the Satanic acolytes is in fact the minister responsible for security affairs, with the power to shut down the department if he discovers the cult to which he belongs is being investigated. (The movie zips very smartly indeed past the question of what MI5 – which is what this very much looks like – is doing taking an interest in suburban occultism, even if it does involve senior establishment figures.)

Torrence (William Franklyn), leading the investigation, decides to bring in a detective from Special Branch as he is technically not under the command of the suspected minister: his choice is Murray (Michael Coles), previously seen in Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. Learning of the occult angle, Murray in turn brings in an anthropologist and expert on such matters who he has worked with before – namely, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, of course).

Well, investigations by the trio, along with Van Helsing’s grand-daughter (Joanna Lumley, who makes less of an impression than you might expect), uncover that the basement of the stately house is infested with vampires. This is not really a surprise, as we have already seen Torrence’s secretary kidnapped by the tank-tops and molested by Dracula himself (Christopher Lee, of course) in a subplot that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. However, there is also the revelation that Dracula’s cult has recruited a Nobel-winning virologist (Freddie Jones), who has been tasked with creating a new super-virulent strain of the Black Death, supposedly to wipe out everyone on the planet. Van Helsing’s conclusion is that Dracula has grown weary of immortality (or possibly just being brought back every couple of years for another movie) and just wants to take everyone into oblivion with him. In any case, given that the new virus appears to spread only by touch and spectacularly and very nearly instantly kills anyone who comes into contact with it, I am not sure it has the potential to be quite the agent of genocide Van Helsing is worried about.

With all the exposition concluded (Cushing does his best to cover it with some business involving him ladling soup for all the other characters), we’re heading for the climax. Can our heroes uncover Dracula’s lair? Can the release of the killer virus be averted? And is Christopher Lee actually going to show up for more than a couple of minutes at a time?

Well, he does, but the impact of Lee’s main dialogue scene with Cushing is somewhat affected by his decision to affect a bizarre Lugosi-esque accent quite unlike his usual Dracula voice, which is especially confusing considering that Dracula is passing himself off as a British tycoon (living in Centre Point). I suppose one should be grateful that Lee showed up at all – in another one of those moments that would never happen nowadays, Lee showed up for the press launch of the movie, announced he was only doing it under protest, and declared he thought it was a fatuous joke.

This was partly a reference to the original title of the film, Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London, which was duly changed. Possibly as a result, this is one of those films which has popped up under a variety of different names at different times, said names ranging from the somewhat bland (Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride) to the peculiar (simply Dracula is Dead, not to mention Dracula is Still Living in London).

This isn’t usually a sign of a particularly strong movie, and it almost goes without saying that the main point of interest of Satanic Rites is that it was the final Hammer film to feature both Cushing and Lee, both of whom go through the motions with the usual commendable professionalism. It’s doesn’t have the gimmicky novelty of the previous movie’s conceit of bringing Dracula into a contemporary setting, but on the other hand this does seem to have made screenwriter Don Houghton work a bit harder: many of the trappings of the rest of the Hammer Dracula series are dropped, most notably the laborious structure where they spend the first half of the film contriving Dracula’s resurrection and the second half arranging his demise.

In its place, Houghton comes up with a script that feels more like a hard-edged contemporary thriller than a traditional horror movie, complete with the apocalyptic germ-warfare angle. (Am I the only one who would quite like to have seen the version of this film where the viral outbreak actually gets started, with our heroes fending off crazed plague-zombies while society collapses and the vampire cult takes over the world?) All this stuff is relatively good and interesting; it’s only when the movie gets into its Gothic horror drag that it starts to feel dull and a bit chintzy.

I suppose you could argue that if the best bits of a Dracula movie are the ones which feel least like they belong in a conventional Dracula movie, then something has gone wrong somewhere, and I can’t really disagree with you on that. The sense of what these days we’d call franchise fatigue is almost overwhelming – it may be the main reason that this film is so stylistically different is because they literally couldn’t think of anything else to do. Certainly, having had Dracula blasted to ashes by sunlight, frozen into a lake, impaled on a crucifix, struck down by the power of God, struck by lightning, impaled on a broken cartwheel, and impaled in a pit of stakes in previous films, coming up with a new way of getting rid of him at the climax must have been a problem, and the solution – he walks into a particularly prickly bush and gets tangled up in the thorns – is not really a great one (that barely counts as a spoiler: it’s in the poster for the movie).

The only positive things you can say about The Satanic Rites of Dracula are that it is a bit more interesting than Dracula AD 1972, and it still has Christopher Lee in it (Lee positively and absolutely refused to come back for Hammer’s final Dracula film, the kung-fu-tastic Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires). There’s a sense in which this is still cheesy, energetic fun, but if you compare it to one of the really great Hammer horrors like Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s very obvious that this is an inferior and rather weak movie in every respect.

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There are easy targets, and then there are easy targets, and then there are people who call their movie Dracula Untold. Untold? Really? After dozens of various adaptations and sequels, with Dracula himself portrayed by actors ranging from Frank Langella to Adam Sandler, what exactly is there left to tell? Plus, given this is another one of those CGI-heavy mid-budget genre movies that never really get well-reviewed, the potential for people to be snippily punful is almost irresistible. Dracula Untold? I’ll see that and give you Dracula Uninspired, Dracula Unnecessary, and Dracula Unwatchable, just for starters.

Cheap shots like this are only available if Gary Shore’s new movie isn’t any good, of course. It might very well be good: you’ve got to keep an open mind, after all. But you must admit that the omens are not promising. The Lord of the Undead is played by Luke Evans, one of those actors hugely dependent on the quality of the script he’s given (and, by the way, the fact it’s all too easy to accidentally describe Untold as ‘the new Dracula movie with Lee Evans’ is another mark against it), while the rest of the film promises a lot of heftless CGI and lazy pop-culture steals.


Anyway, proceedings get underway with an expository flashback of dubious historicity, describing the life of the young man known in his lifetime as Vlad Tepes, prince of Transylvania, but more noted nowadays as the Vlad the Impaler. As this is only a 15-rated movie, of course, Vlad’s impaling days are behind him and he is more concerned with being a good leader of his people and a good husband and father. (At this point we pause to deal with incipient nausea.) To be honest, it’s a bit unclear who our hero was impaling in his younger days – the historical Dracula’s victims, if indeed he’s not just the victim of propaganda, were Turks, but as the film opens he is effectively a client king of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (represented here by Dominic Cooper’s one-dimensionally sadistic Mehmed II).

Relations between Transylvania and Turkey take a turn for the worse when Mehmed decrees a thousand Transylvanian children will be conscripted into the Turkish Janissary corps, along with Vlad’s own son. Needless to say, our hero can’t bring himself to comply with this order, triggering a war with his much more powerful neighbour. Things look bleak for the Transylvanians, but Vlad embarks on a desperate search for help from an unlikely source: at the top of the movie he discovered an ancient and powerful supernatural evil was in residence in one of the remote mountains of his land, and so off he pops to see if it will help out.

Needless to say, this turns out to be an elder vampire (left nameless on screen, but according to some publicity it’s supposed to be the emperor Caligula), played by Charles Dance (who’s really quite good in the part). The vampire grants Vlad immense speed, strength, and some other useful tricks, but also an insatiable thirst for human blood. If he can resist the temptation to guzzle down some of the red for three days, he will return to his normal state – but if he fails, not only may the kingdom be lost, but he will be damned to eternity as a bloodsucking monster…

Or so it says here, anyway. I’ll be honest and say that while Dracula Untold isn’t utterly worthless, it does have serious problems, and – for me – one of them is the choice of story structure. This is ‘the tragedy of a man whose utter dedication to doing the right thing results in the destruction of everything he holds dear’, and the thing about this is that for it to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to retain his conscience and remain broadly sympathetic throughout: he has to realise just what a big mistake he has made.

The result is that we never really get Dracula as a relentless, terrifying predator, never as a genuine force of evil – he’s just a nice guy with a bit of a past who makes some mistakes, for the best of reasons. Luke Evans is by no means the least impressive Dracula in cinema history, but even he can’t really make much of an impression with material like this. The producers might well argue that this is an attempt at a revisionist Dracula, to put more of a human face on the fiend, but why would you bother? Who looks at a proper Dracula movie and thinks ‘Hmm, okay, but it would be better if he was a bit nicer’? This guy was born to be bad. Needless to say, it looks likely that any future outings with Evans as Dracula will see him as a brooding, romantic anti-hero rather than an unstoppable monster.

This is all the more ironic given that Dracula Untold has apparently been retrofitted to launch a potential franchise based on Universal’s stable of famous supernatural heavies, in which they will all cross over with each other, at least as long as the box office stays healthy. Yes, everyone wants a slice of Avengers-style pie, don’t they? Personally I hope the rest of the monsters are a bit more, um, monstrous.

But this isn’t even really a proper horror movie, just a fantasy action film with a debt to things like 300 and Lord of the Rings. The 300-ish stylings are particularly pertinent given just how much of the historical subtext this movie actively ducks – the historical Dracula was, if anything, a Christian hero, famous for helping to keep the Muslim Turks out of Europe. Exploring the ramifications of this in any kind of systematic way would be far too provocative (and possibly demand too much thoughtfulness from the audience), and so we get simple good guys and bad guys and barely any mention of religion.

The best you can say about Dracula Untold, really, is that it chooses a fairly solid story and tells it competently. It’s just not a good Dracula story or even a particularly good vampire tale. Moments with potential – Dracula taking on an entire army single-handed, for instance – are just fumbled, possibly due to the director’s lack of experience, while too many others lack even that – too often Dracula is reduced to a banal, pedestrian figure. Sex, death, blood, and style are the essentials of vampire cinema, and Dracula Untold comes up short in every department. It’s sort of vaguely enjoyable while you’re watching it, but in a week’s time you’ll have forgotten most of the details. I’ve just thought of another one: Dracula Underwhelming.

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