In the fall of 1973, as a grade nine student, I was thrilled to see the TV commercials announcing that a new version of DRACULA, starring Jack Palance, was going to be broadcast the following Friday on CBS. Here in Canada, American stations like CBS were relatively new to us, as we required cable to get them. This was the kind of programming that made getting cable worthwhile.
Having seen Jack Palance's take on Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde a few years earlier, I was eager to see what he would do with the Count. To make things even more interesting, there was a girl in my class at school that I really liked and this seemed like the perfect first date: invite her over to watch DRACULA with me!
As it turned out, the young lady had an accident after school and had to cancel. What's more there was a storm down in the U.S. that affected the TV reception on CBS up here in Canada. I tried watching DRACULA by myself, but about half the film was lost to bad reception due to the storm. Talk about a washout. It wasn't until a repeat broadcast a few years later that I finally got see this highly satisfying version of the much-loved classic.
At the time, I didn't think Palance was as good as Christopher Lee in the role. Perhaps because I had seen Palance in so many other parts prior to DRACULA. Christopher Lee (and Bela Lugosi, for that matter) had a much higher profile in the part and I dare say I had seen them both as Dracula before seeing them in anything else. You know what they say about first impressions.
But as we grow, our perspectives change, and with the blossoming of Dan Curtis (who directed Palance's DRACULA) into the full flower of his genius when he undertook The Winds of War and War & Remembrance some years later, proving that he was far more than a director of horror films, I went back to his version of DRACULA with a new perspective. By then available on video, I remember being deeply impressed with the atmosphere of Curtis' production and the majesty of Palance's Dracula.
Today we now have this exceptional version transferred and restored in 2K High Definition on Blu-ray. It is when watching this beautifully restored disc that one can see, with the benefit of hindsight, just how good this DRACULA is.
The atmosphere of this film is in-your-face amazing, right from the start. The running dogs escorting the carriage speeding to Castle Dracula is an inspired touch, establishing the film's momentum and tone right off the bat. The Yugoslavian locations, especially the castle they used, look every bit like one expects them to be. The towering medieval fortress, isolated and imposing, is remarkably like the real Castle Dracula, which, at the time of this writing, has recently been put up for sale. Given that this movie was made for TV in the 1970s, it is unusual that foreign locations were used. Clearly, the filmmakers had an agenda to do it right.
The adaptation takes a number of liberties with Bram Stoker's original novel, as most film versions do. The closest to the source material occurred a few years after this version, when the BBC adapted Stoker's book into a three-part miniseries starring Louis Jourdan. However given the limited running time of 98 minutes, producer Dan Curtis and writer Richard Matheson made some excellent creative decisions in choosing what to keep and what to discard in their version. Their main innovation was to clarify Dracula's motive for going to England, thus beefing up the love story element and helping to make Dracula more of a tragic figure. In this rendition, Dracula glimpses a photograph of Lucy Westenra, the fiance of Jonathan Harker, the young man who has come to Castle Dracula to show Dracula some potential properties for sale in England. Immediately Dracula recognizes her as the reincarnation of his lost love from many centuries ago. While his original impulse to travel to England is never really explained (perhaps he had an instinct, a "gut feeling" about it) once he sets sight of Lucy, Dracula is a driven man. If this slant sounds familiar, it is because the idea has been used since, most notably in Francis Ford Coppola's big screen Bram Stoker's Dracula with Gary Oldman. But it all started with Dan Curtis' production.
With this new passion at the forefront, Palance then has a field day portraying Dracula as a truly tortured soul (though Dracula would never admit it). His bearing is that of a nobleman, capturing the same essence that Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi conveyed so well (and Louis Jourdan, too). But Palance also layers in an animal-like, primal quality that manifests in key moments of frustration and thwarted emotions. Arguably Palance's finest moment comes when he is impaled at the end (not a spoiler--we ALL know that is how things finish up!). There is a look of relief on Dracula's face, along with the pain and horror of the moment of his dying. It is these touches of humanity that Palance brings to the role that compelled producer/director Dan Curtis to opine in his bonus feature interview that Jack Palance was the best portrayal of Dracula, bar none.
Audiences will have to decide that for themselves, of course, but the case can be made. Not unlike trying to decide who is the best Sherlock Holmes. There are so many to choose from.
Palance is ably supported by a mostly British cast, the stand outs being Simon Ward and Nigel Davenport. Although they pale in comparison to the colourful role of the Count, they still register in roles that have clearly been reduced as part of the compromise to meet the limited running time.
The bonus features include interviews with both Palance and Curtis--something to be thankful for since both men have passed--and it is clear they regarded their collaboration very highly, although Palance apparently never saw the finished film. Six foot, four inch Jack Palance admitted that Dracula was the only role that actually scared him!
This beautiful and thoughtfully packaged interpretation of one of the most beloved horror stories of all time gives viewers the opportunity to enjoy vintage Jack Palance in one of his most overlooked roles. You'll be impressed, moved and surprised.