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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Finlay’

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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