Monday, October 7, 2013

Night of Terror #7: 'Dan Curtis' Bram Stoker's Dracula'

Dracula is one of those characters like Macbeth or Batman that just keeps popping up in movie after movie after play after TV movie after radio drama etc etc etc. As a result there really isn't one definitive performance of Dracula, nor is there one definitive approach to the character, since everything from the ratlike monstrosity of Nosferatu to the seductive charm of Bela Lugosi in the cape seem to be pretty much acceptable nowadays. And that's one of the reasons that Jack Palance is such perfect casting in the part - if you tried to find the exact magnetic center between those two poles, I doubt if you could do much better than Palance.

Palance announces his ownership of the Dracula character in the very opening scenes of this made-for-TV version of the story, directed by Dan Curtis, creator of Dark Shadows, and written by Richard Mattheson, creator of everything you have ever loved. He's shown purposefully stalking the halls of his Transylvanian castle, cape flowing majestically behind him. It's a solid cinematic technique, as if to say to the audience "yeah, we cast Jack Palance as Dracula. Got any smart remarks? Take it up with him."

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are simply giving solid, workmanlike TV-movie line readings to their characters, making Jack Palance seem even more like a God among men than he normally does. Even the character of Renfield, usually a showcase for great acting, has been eliminated from the story, presumably to make room for more of Palance's stalking.

Despite the sometimes chintzy production, I was surprised to see just how influential this telling of Dracula is. That whole "love never dies" reincarnation angle from Coppola's version? It's here. And watch Palance's strained facial expression any time he exercises his power over a mortal. It almost subliminally makes this version of Dracula into a tragic hero, one who only sinks his teeth into necks and throws people out of windows because he has to. And it's killing him inside!

The Austin Film Society is doing a month-long retrospective on made-for-TV horror movies, so you might be seeing one or two more in these pages in the next 24 days. It's definitely interesting to see a quintessentially 70s take on Dracula that presumably for reasons of standards & practices doesn't have any nudity or even that much blood (and even less of the gushing variety). And yet it's easy to imagine this quietly atmospheric little movie scaring the bejeesus out of kids back in '73. Especially whenever Jack Palance smiles.

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