Count Dracula (1977)

I thought I’d round off what has been a vaguely vampire-flavoured month at Mewsings with a look at my favourite adaptation of Dracula. I first saw it at school, bizarrely enough, shown over a couple of English lessons, though I don’t know what work we did in association with it. (This puts it in the same category as The Man Who Would Be King, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and a play-for-today adaptation of Z for Zachariah — which, along with a frankly gratuitous school viewing of Threads, served to convince me that the next winter was most likely to be a nuclear one).

So what makes it the best, for me?

Firstly, it’s understated. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was visually interesting in hallucinogenic moments, but so overblown (not to mention unintentionally comic in the awful stiffness of some of its British accents), it’s better treated as an overlong pop video than an attempt to tell a story. This 1977 adaptation, though, is horror done as a BBC costume drama. The fantastic elements are secondary to the characters, and the actors aren’t doing melodrama, they’re doing serious drama. Mina (Judi Bowker) is a perfect English rose; Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) a wildflower of a brasher, brighter, ultimately less hardy variety; the Count (Louis Jordan) is darkly foreign, charming, mysterious and coldly commanding — very believable as the supremely suave sociopath that Dracula is. The English reticence so vital to the novel is here entirely believable (as it isn’t in Coppola’s superheated lay-it-all-bare version). So, Jonathan Harker notices the Count’s hairy palms, but is too polite to comment on them; and Lucy’s fangs, when they start to emerge, are obvious for all to see, but no-one mentions them, either, because why would they? No-one expects her to be turning into a vampire, and besides, it would simply be impolite. The result is so much more convincing as a human drama, and therefore as a horror story.

Secondly, I like its visual style. I have a Doctor Who-grown fondness for the look of 70s BBC drama anyway, with its muted colours, murky videoed interiors and grainily-filmed exteriors (in actual English settings — Whitby, here, is the real Whitby, where of course Stoker went on holiday prior to writing the novel). The few visual effects are mostly used to create a mood than convince you you’re seeing something fantastic — so we have a blood-red and silver shot of the Count when the hunger’s on him, and Lucy dancing in her nightgown in one corner of the screen while the rest shows her being quietly vamped (perhaps representing how one sane corner of her mind has cut itself off from what’s happening to her body). There are some “convince them it’s real” visual effects, and it’s true these have not only dated, but probably never worked in the first place (I’m thinking of one particularly pathetic bat-on-a-string), but they are minor & brief, and can be forgotten (in the way you train yourself to do if you love watching old Doctor Whos — even Genesis of the Daleks has its giant clam scene).

Perhaps all this is possible because it’s a TV mini-series, and so has a chance to linger on character moments in a way that a film, being shorter, can’t. All the same, I can’t imagine a similar mini-series being made today, when usually the slightest hint of fantasy or horror is enough to unleash every make-you-jump cliché and make explicit every possible level of erotic interpretation, however much its power in the original relies on restraint. In the novel, the Count is only as successful as he is in England because people keep all their dreams and fears to themselves; in a sense, it’s only when Mina initiates a free-for-all bout of reading each others private diaries and journals — sharing everyone’s secrets like a touchy-feely vampire hunter’s support group — that the Count loses so much of his power, and is ultimately defeated.

Count Dracula is available on DVD, where it’s divided into two parts. I usually can’t help myself but watch both in one sitting.

Comments (10)

  1. Man from Finland says:

    Hi! You took words right out of my mouth! This is the finest version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have this movie on DVD. I watch this movie again and again because it is so fine and exciting. I like its visual style too..

  2. Ian Knight says:

    Just stumbled on your comments having (equally) stumbled on the DVD on ebay and bought it; I’ve yet to view it (I have some trepidation!) having loved this adaptation at the time, when I was in my ‘Sixth Form Gothic’ phase! I still remember Jourdan’s Dracula as the most compelling – I really hope it lives up to my memory! And you are right about the Coppola version – fascinating at times and yes, hallucinogenic – yet somehow manages to miss all the essential subtleties!

  3. Murray says:

    I like the idea of a “Sixth Form Gothic” phase. I picture you revising for exams in a bat-haunted attic…

  4. Will E. says:

    For years this wasn’t available on DVD, and had a vague memory of it on PBS when I was a child. I bought it immediately when the DVD was released in 2007, and happily found it to be the best adaptation of Stoker’s novel, which is what I’d been led to believe about it. I’ve watch it every Halloween since!

  5. Murray says:

    Nice pic from it as the header to your blog!

    1. Ian Knight says:

      I meant to reply to your earlier comment about ‘Sixth Form Gothic’ (but I forgot my password!). Sadly we didn’t have Goths in those days (as a youth fashion I mean, I think at that time all it meant to me were the hairy savages sometimes mentioned in those dreaded Latin lessons – although of course that’s another inaccurate historical stereotype), or I suppose I might have been one. Although I did wear a cloak to school on my final day at school! The interesting thing for me is how those early interests inevitably passed – I haven’t returned to Dracula in thirty years – but have kinda crept up on me again in middle age.I find I do enjoy a good vampire now and again now, and ultimately Louis Jordan (and, yes, Christopher Lee – come on, all that hokeyness and lurid blood was huge fun when I was sneaking in under-age to watch it!) are ultimately responsible for that. I do hope more people catch up with the BBC version – although I see, googling it, it does have a following.

  6. Man from Finland says:

    Hi, Ian! When I said, that “this is the finest version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, so i don’t speak about the film, which was made in 1992. I speak about the film, which was made in 1977. In my opinion: Count Dracula is best Dracula -film for all time. And as i said earlier i must to watch this 1977 film again and again because it is so fine and exciting. I always watch that two parts -film in one sitting like you do too.

  7. Man from Finland says:

    Hi, Ian! When I wrote my last message I was so tired, that my brain doesn’t work same way as they work normally. I understand, that Your first message was pointed to Murray not for me. Now I go to the kitchen because I must to have some coffee. Before that I wish, that you have a nice sunday there in England. P.S. Like you! I also hope, that more people catch up with the BBC version.

  8. Edana says:

    Great post! I fully agree, Murray, with your statement about understatement, especially compared with Coppola’s 1992 version (The accents!! Aaaaaah!!). Several scenes from the 77 version continue to stand out in my mind: 1) The mysterious, kerchief-covered driver who picks up Harker in the horse-drawn coach — and no sooner has he dropped Harker off at the castle door and ridden off than he reappears as the suave, slightly-accented Dracula; 2) The Count effortlessly picks up Harker’s steamer trunk — after we earlier saw Harker struggle with it; 3) the BEST scene of all: Dracula crawling bat-like down the castle wall toward the camera (goosebumps!), and then, when Harker pokes his head out of a window high above him, without turning his head, the Count pauses, knowing he’s being watched…and then continues. So perfect. Jourdan is superb. Thanks again for the great post!

  9. Murray Ewing says:

    Glad you liked it! And I totally agree about that look on the Count’s face when he knows he’s being watched while climbing down the wall…

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