This adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic, produced and directed by Dark Shadows-creator Dan Curtis, was produced for CBS in 1973 and released theatrically with some choice blood and violence added to the mix (all of which is included in the featured cut of Dan Curtis’ Dracula on the brand new Blu-ray release from MPI Home Video). With Richard Matheson of I am Legend fame penning the screenplay, Curtis created what has since become one of the most influential adaptations of Dracula, as it was in this version that Dracula’s trek to England from Transylvania was first motivated by love. The influence of Curtis and Matheson’s romance-centered reworking can be seen in almost every adaptation since.
But the film is significant for more than just the production team’s creative approach to the material. It features what is to my mind the most genuinely terrifying Dracula of any adaptation I’ve encountered. Played here by Jack Palance, Count Dracula is no gentleman. There is nothing suave or debonair about him as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was before him. Palance plays Dracula as something more akin to an animal, possessing a constant bestial intensity even in his most formal interactions with other characters. Only, there we find characters like Jonathan Harker confusing Dracula’s viciousness with eccentricity, which makes sense given that Dracula lives a life of solitude in a castle that no one but the occasional daft solicitor dares approach.
Jack Palance devotes himself completely to the performance, and so much so that he admitted later in interview to having been worried he was far too close to the role. And right he was to be worried, for his Dracula rarely exhibits human qualities. Except when clearly driven by love or caught up in a self-righteous, megolomaniacal rant, I found it nearly impossible to discern his Dracula’s motivations. So ancient and beyond our grasp is he that he’s like an animal who’s learned to speak our language, but whose frames of reference are far beyond our comprehension.
While Palance is no doubt the scariest Dracula I’ve ever seen, the film’s Van Helsing, by contrast, is sadly rather dull. In fact, when Palance isn’t lighting up the screen, I suspect the film’s pace may prove something of a bore to viewers unaccustomed to the pacing of ‘70s TV movies, especially when a sizable portion of the movie centers on Van Helsing and another character as they take turns watching a woman sleep.
The thing about Curtis’ Dracula, though, is that any shortcomings are far outbalanced by Palance’s performance, as well as some incredible flourishes on the part of the filmmakers. To begin with, it’s a beautifully shot picture, with cinematography by Oswald Morris (Lolita (1962)), who crafted some truly stirring imagery. Foremost among Morris’s cinematic achievements in the film is a shot that depicts Dracula upon arrival in England. The vampiric nobleman stands maniacally motionless on the English shore during low tide, staring off at we know not what as a dead man draped over a ship’s helm lies frozen in the foreground.
What’s more, the film is rather impressively violent. In addition to the bloody deaths of vampires throughout, one scene follows Dracula as he murders a half dozen or more men during a stroll through an inn. He simply wanders around the place in search of Mina, destroying anyone who gets in his way. And in what may be the most incredible exchange of the film, some random at the inn rushes up to Dracula on the stairs during this scene and uppercuts the Count in the crotch! Without flinching, Dracula judo chops him in the neck and the guy flies off the stairs, presumably to his death. Sure, it may seem a tad out of place, even in context, but damn if it isn’t an amazing thing to see! There’s also, I should note, an incredible painting hanging on the wall of Castle Dracula in Transylvania featuring Jack Palance as Vlad Tepes on horseback. If I found someone in possession of that particular piece of set dressing who was willing to part with it, I swear to god I’d sell every other thing I own just to have it. It’s just that totally epic!
Dan Curtis’ Dracula lands on Blu-ray from MPI Home Video today, and the disc’s 2k high definition transfer from the 35mm negative is frankly everything I look for in a Blu-ray. Although it’d win no awards and is characterized by a fair amount of speckling and source damage, the picture is incredibly sharp with vibrant colors and captures a richly textured film grain at that. The interviews with Palance and Curtis from the previous MPI DVD release return here, and the disc also includes a trailer, outtakes, and a comparison of scenes that were toned down for the televised version of the film, which predictably featured far less blood.