So, this morning I put on a white T-shirt and I did my writing work from home. What’s the relevance? Well, having drunk most of my coffee in the hours before I leave for day job, I figured I’d be able to change my clothes if I spilled a bit of brown liquid on myself.
Except I didn’t finish my coffee before I left, and the very first thing I did after sitting in my cubicle is spill some on my shirt. Nothing better than a fat guy spending the maximum amount of time with food stains on his clothes.
But! Last night I watched the 1977 BBC miniseries of DRACULA, with Louis Jourdan in the role of the vampire with the worst manicure ever. It was an odd experience, in part because I didn’t recognize any of it. A Dracula movie I haven’t seen before? Unthinkable! (Until now.)
The movie feels a little long and it looks 70’s BBC cheap. They shot film outside and video inside, giving the whole thing a Dr. Who feel to it. That, I assume, was out of the director’s control. Most of the rest of what was wrong with this performance fell squarely on the director.
First of all, there are several scenes were Dracula uses his Dracula powers or otherwise vamps out. The director used some kind of color negative in close up, not to mention weird overlays, confusing jump cuts and some Disney animation-level effects. The carriage ride to the Borgia Pass takes place in a lovely parked-out English wood. And I’ll be damned if the exterior of Dr. Seward’s asylum doesn’t look like a three-star country hotel, with lovely gardens and all the rest.
And then there are the performances. Look: Anytime you ask an actor if they can do an accent, that actor will always say “Yes.” Always. All actors want the job, and all actors think they can gin up an accent during rehearsals. “Basque accent? Absolutely! My great-grandmother was Basquian!”
And you should also have someone familiar with the accent actually check the actor’s delivery. Seriously. That would have avoided the worst Texas oil-man accent since David Boreanaz did “Irish.” The moment Quincy
Morris er, I mean Quincy Holmwood, since Sir Arthur Holmwood wasn’t just cut but combined with Quincy (if “Quincy’s last name was changed” counts as combined) opens his mouth, all momentum the story has developed vanishes.
Still, those are the downsides. There are upsides, too. For one, the scenes shot on the beach and cemetary at Whidbey look fantastic. As woefully miscast as Quincy Holmwood was, Jonathan Harker was note-perfect: fussy, pale, slender, and fragile.
The other performances were pretty terrific. Vampire-Lucy did the open-mouthed hissing thing, which is too bad, but she played the scenes where she was slowly dying very well. At one point late in the story, I thought: “This has got to be the best Renfield EVAR!” Ten seconds later the actor was thrashing on the lawn and chewing the scenery. For a moment, I thought he was going to go all Curly Howard and “wub-WUB-wub-wub-wub-wub” in a circle on the grass. (If only there had been someone on the set who could ask him to dial it back a little.)
Then there’s Mina, who is (of course) beautiful, but also pretty dull through most of the beginning. It’s not until she lays her mouth on Drac’s chest that she gets to play a meaty scene, and after that she is magnetic. She draws the eye in every shot, even when she’s with Van Helsing. I know they changed the actress’s makeup, but I’d have to watch again to see if they did something different with her costume, because I’m not sure how they managed it.
And then there’s Van Helsing, played perfectly by Frank Finlay. He’s so vital and charismatic that he brings the whole production to life. I was half-way through his first scene when I thought: “So that’s what this movie needed!” He infuses every line with warmth and intelligence, even the criminally stupid ones. Seriously, the film is worth watching for him alone.
Finally, there’s Jourdan’s Dracula. This is a different Count than I’m used to seeing. Jourdan very much underplays him. The fangy hissing is at a mimimun here, and the line deliveries are low key and intense. Jourdan has an incredible sense of privilege in this; he’s a man accustomed to getting his own way, but still very much a man.
Sometimes, this works against the story. When Dracula noms on Mina, he needs something more than Jourdan’s sexy, handsome self. He needs a vampire’s power, intruding on her marriage bed as he does. He needs to seem larger than the characters around him, but when he doesn’t the scene takes on an odd, rote turn, as though the women are helplessly seduced because the script insists on it.
At other times, though, this underplayed Dracula is startlingly effective. Harker shouting about “evil” sounds thin and self-serving when the Count points out that all things eat to survive.
And when he looks at Harker and says: “Your wife belongs to me, now” we’re not watching some fantasy of hypnosis and blood. With that line, Dracula transforms from pulp monster to alpha male who steals away the woman you always knew was too good for you. It’s a moment of genuine sexual threat for the men in that room, even if the meaning for Mina is something else entirely.
So, overall an interesting and effective version, even if it’s flawed (the way most horror movies are flawed). Give it a watch.