Saturday, September 19, 2015

Louis Jourdan is Count Dracula

When I sat down to watch the BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Count Dracula, I was surprised with how many people I spoke to who have seen it that were not enamoured by it. A friend said to me it was fine with the exception of the slow parts. What slow parts? I read people online complaining about the dated effects. I don’t think they were dated in 1977. If you hold this view about this 1977 production, I feel bad because I feel you are missing out. As I sat and watched this production, I found it engaging, tense, exciting and even at times scary. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you on this incredible production.

Count Dracula TX: 22/12/77

Before there was Dracula, there were vampires. The term can be traced back to the Oxford dictionary in 1734 but obviously the term had been around before that. To me when I was young, Dracula wasn’t a novel written by Bram Stoker in 1897, it was a film that starred Bela Lugosi. I didn’t know more than that. The idea that this came from a novel from the late 1800s was something I never considered yet this character would go on to be the most famous vampire.
I think it was back in 10th grade in high school that I finally read the novel. The novel is constructed in a narrative that personally annoys me. It is not a narrative that flows in the moment from the third person but a series of letters and other documents pieced together to tell the story. I know this is a very intimate way to tell a story but it is not a favourite way for me to read anything and as much as I did enjoy the novel, I still found it a chore to get through.
This year we lost two actors to have played Dracula. Sir Christopher Lee and Louis Jourdan. As I mention in this article I wrote for Warped Factor, Dracula The Prince of Darkness, I was never a really big fan of Lee’s portrayal of the vampire. I know that is sacrilege especially from a site the focuses love on all British media. To me, Lee’s Dracula just stared at people and that was it. Then we move on to Jourdan.

Count Dracula was the big play of the year for the BBC in 1977. This was to be broadcast around Christmas and a lot of money was put into this production to tell this story. It was the 80th anniversary since the novel was published and it was going to be a big deal. Of course, as usual Doctor Who has to come in and ruin it.
At the start of Season 15 of Doctor Who, script editor Robert Holmes commissioned Terrance Dicks to write a story that focused around vampire lore. It was called The Witchlords and once word of this production got to management level at the BBC on the Sixth floor, that story was cancelled. Terramc Dicks explains:

What happened was that, at a very high level, they had heard we were going to do a gothic Doctor Who story about vampires. Meanwhile, someone at Plays or Classic Serials was planning a big-budget, prestige, classic serial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring French actor Louis Jourdan. This someone on the sixth floor of the BBC said to Graham Williams: “No, you may not have vampires in Doctor Who this year, because people will think you’re taking the mickey out of the Dracula play.” (1990, May). The Script Mutations. In-Vision, pp.9

The story was eventually re-worked for season 18 as State of Decay.

The story of Dracula is very well known and this BBC adaptation is considered to be one of the closest productions ever made of the novel. The story is of Jonathan Harker travelling to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula to prepare documentation for land that he is buying in England. Upon Jonathan’s arrival at Dracula’s castle, Dracula is a very gracious host but is perhaps a little odd. He will not eat with Jonathan and will not be seen during the day. Jonathan eventually becomes a prisoner in the castle. 

Right from the start of the production, my interest is piqued. I love the opening credits to this play. It evokes horror of the undead. It immediately grabs my attention. We don’t see Dracula or anyone from the cast with the exception of the one of the women that played one of Dracula’s brides. Yet with one cool aspect we get a questionable production decision. The action moves from the title sequence to black & white stock footage of a train travelling. This is to give the impression that Jonathan is travelling to Transylvania by train. Why black & white footage? Why not just colour stock footage? I thought this might have been some artistic way to show movement in the production, maybe we get a few more shots like this throughout the production but we get nothing. It’s odd and really sticks out.

Right away, Jonathan is on a carriage on his way to Castle Dracula. He is in this carriage with some locals and when they find out where he is going, they become very concerned. A woman gives him her rosary. We see the carriage travelling through the land and it is a nice sunny day. What I love about this and other sequences in the program is that even though it is sunny, it is still menacing. The sunlight gives away to the woods that show blackness within. There is also a very sinister music that plays. Almost synthesizer but deep and heavy even foreboding.  When Jonathan gets dropped off to the meet up where another carriage will take him the rest of the way to Castle Dracula, it is in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere. The carriage just leaves him behind in the middle of the windy night. It is harsh but it is understandable because these people are terrified. When the black carriage and black horses arrive to pick up Jonathan the driver, unbeknownst to Jonathan, is Dracula. Dracula has a few people to help him during the day while he sleeps but at night he is the only one awake. At the castle, Dracula does everything for Jonathan to make him feel comfortable. He makes the food for Jonathan. I suppose after cooking for hundreds of years, he must be pretty good at it. Yet, of course, his type of food is blood.
After staying in the castle for a while, Jonathan starts to notice things about his host which are unsettling. Of course, he probably thought him odd of eccentric from the start. Dracula would keep him up all night talking and allow him to sleep all day. Dracula would never eat with Jonathan. Then, things started to get stranger.

One evening when Jonathan was shaving, Dracula came up behind him which startled him. Although startled, what was even more frightening was Dracula had no reflection in the mirror. Jonathan did but not Dracula. This is a great scene, once Dracula notices that Jonathan cannot see Dracula’s reflection Dracula takes the mirror and simply drops it out the window. Dracula says that such objects cannot be trusted. It is noteworthy that for this production, when Dracula sees blood such as the cut on Jonathan from shaving, we get a close up of Jordan as Dracula in a negative effect with hints of red. He hungers for blood. It is frightening.
It starts getting worse for Jonathan. He is trapped in the castle with no escape and one evening looks out the window to find Dracula scaling the wall of the castle to get down to main level. He is scaling on his stomach almost like a slug slowly sliding his way down. It is unnerving. Then the next night or so, Jonathan stays in a room he shouldn’t where he is taken advantage by three of Dracula’s brides. He is no match for them as the seduce him and are ready to drink his blood. Suddenly with a very unique effect done to the video, Dracula enters the room with a bright light shining behind him. He stops them from taking Jonathan and instead offers them what he has in his bag that he brought back to the castle from his travels. It is a living baby. They take this baby, put him down and they devour them. Although we don’t see that, we do see the three women as they come up for air. Blood is dripping from their mouths and their eyes are completely red. The sequence is edited very quickly and just lasts for seconds. It is wonderfully edited and macabre at the same time. It is my favourite sequence from the production and by itself is worth watching Count Dracula for, just to see this sequence. This sequence alone explains what Dracula is and what he needs to do to survive.

An interesting part to this story is watching how Jonathan starts in the story as a gentleman tending to Dracula’s needs in Transylvania to becoming virtually a caged animal. He keeps trying to find his way out. During the day at one point, he is able to get out further in the castle than he ever did before. Basically scaling walls and climbing on rooftops of the castle, Jonathan finds Dracula lying in a coffin. That is where he sleeps during the day. As Jonathan removes the cover to the casket, Dracula’s eyes open up. They are bloodshot and glistening. Jonathan, who is in complete shock, takes a shovel and slams it over Dracula but it has no affect. In fact, although in a comatose state, Dracula actually gives a slight smile to the whole thing.
Much happens in the story that I am glossing over. There is the whole storyline of Mina (Jonathan’s fiancĂ©) and her sister Lucy going with their mother to Whitby which is by the sea. This just happens to be the place Dracula has purchased a new place to live, so to speak. This is what Jonathan was out in Transylvania for and now Dracula is on his way over to England. There is also Renfield who is in an asylum. Renfield is a fantastic character who outwardly could almost pass as someone who not deranged but has horrible tendencies such as violent outbursts and eating bugs. One night a heavy storm falls on Whitby. A ship appears to have lost its way and crashes on the shore. Inside the ship, everyone is dead. The captain’s hands are tied to the ship’s wheel. Dracula has arrived in England.

Almost immediately, Dracula sets his sights on Mina’s sister Lucy. Lucy has taken to sleep walking. One night, Mina sees that Lucy is not in bed any longer and goes out to find her. She walks up to the cemetery and sees a man draped over Lucy or at least that’s what we see. Dracula is taking over Lucy.
What confused me about this DVD was that it is broken up into two parts. That in itself is fine but the first part didn’t have any closing credits and the second part didn’t really have any opening credits apart from a title card. As you can imagine, this confused me greatly especially knowing that this was shown in one night originally. What happened was the first part was shown which at that point the BBC took a news break and came back with the second half. I am actually really happy that the BBC released the DVD this way. I am sure other would prefer to see this as one movie but this is how it originally aired which is how I personally would like to see it. I am sure it sounds odd since I would have been 3 and living in the US when this aired so there really should be no personal attachment for me.

Part Two is where things get going. I kind of think of this like the 1979 mini-series Salem’s Lot. I love the first part but that was setting up the story and the second part is where things get moving. I feel that is the same way with Count Dracula. I think bringing in Van Helsing is where the plot really starts to move. Up until this point no one knows what Dracula is and Van Helsing sees the signs of a vampire immediately. He is brought in by Lucy’s courter Dr. Seward because Lucy is so ill. During Lucy’s transformation into a vampire, it is subtle. When she opens her mouth to speak you see her teeth have become sharp.
Van Helsing gives specific instructions on how Lucy’s room should be prepared that night when she sleeps which includes garlic all over the place. It may sound strange to everyone but Van Helsing knows what he is doing. He knows that Lucy’s is turning into a vampire. The problem was that they never told Lucy’s mother what they were doing in her room. That night Lucy’s mother checks in on Lucy but finds garlic all over the place. She removes some by the window and sits with Lucy while she sleeps. Suddenly, a wolf smashes the window with the shock killing Lucy’s mother immediately. The wolf is Dracula and he finishes his work on Lucy. This is another wonderful almost dream-like moment as after Lucy realizes her mother is dead, she is put into a trance by Dracula. He enters the room as sparkles which eventually forms into his physical being.

The next morning, Lucy is found nearly dead and pale. She is going to die. Van Helsing wants to get Lucy’s loved ones into the room before she dies. Her mother just died and Mina is out retrieving Jonathan. Van Helsing notices that Lucy’ reflection in no longer in the mirror. Her transformation is complete. As they are all in the room saying their goodbyes, Lucy beckons Quincy over and she tries to bite him with Van Helsing interjecting to stop it. Susan Panhaligon plays Lucy and she does go a bit over the top here. Maybe turn it down to 7! Then Lucy dies yet we all know she is not dead.
Mina and Jonathan return to England and to her house. We don’t really know how Jonathan got out except that he was found at a convent in Budapest. As they get off the carriage with Jonathan paying the driver, he realizes just as the carriage drives away, that the driver is Count Dracula himself which is very menacing. It will get even worse since this is where Mina finds out that both her mother and sister have died very recently.

Lucy is now the undead and Van Helsing needs Quincy’s help to finish one more thing and that is two cut off her head from her body and stuff garlic into her mouth. This removes the vampire from her body and allows her soul to rest in peace. This needs to happen after she is already in her vault. The problem is that Lucy is not there when they arrive. She is roaming around looking for victims to feed from for her hunger of blood. Any problems I had with Susan’s acting for Lucy’s death scene are nullified when she plays the role of the Vampire Lucy. Dressed in white, in death she is absolutely terrifyling. She has bloodshot eyes which seems to be the only colour on her. She preys on the children and we see one of them who is bitten and disoriented. Once again very chilling. Lucy is eventually returned to her grave where then Van Helsing stakes her, cut off her head and puts garlic in her mouth.
Dracula now turns his attention to Mina. He starts feeding off her. At one point she even visits Renfield knowing that he also knows Dracula. Renfield is basically jealous of her because Dracula’s focus is on her just as it was on Lucy. Renfield’s death is gruesome and graphic. It’s hard to watch. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him.

Once Jonathan, Van Helsing, Quincy and Seward know that Dracula is after Mina they go after him. They now know where Dracula is because Jonathan sets up the land deal. This probably was not a great idea on Dracula’s part to focus victimizing Jonathan’s loved ones since Jonathan knew where Dracula lived. Yet again, Dracula probably did not expect Jonathan to leave his castle alive.  Van Helsing and Jonathan go to Dracula’s estate, Carfax Abbey, and sterilize all the boxes of Earth Dracula brought over from Transylvania with Christian hosts which makes it impossible for Dracula to go near. This is a great scene because it is the one real face-off between Van Helsing and Dracula and it is good. It’s two equals who each know what Dracula is. It features some great dialogue and great effects.
Dracula is forced to return to Transylvania since all of his dirt has been consecrated. What is cool is that Van Helsing, Quincy, Saward and Jonathan are not going to stop at getting him out of England but they want to destroy Dracula. It now becomes a race between Dracula getting back to his castle before dark and everyone else hunting him down.

It is decided by Van Helsing to break up into two groups to track down Dracula. Mina will not stay in England and comes along to help destroy Dracula. What I found interesting is that at the beginning of the play, I didn’t really think much of Mina as a character. By the time we get to this point, I find her to be a strong willed woman and her addition to going on the journey to Transylvania is necessary.
Once again, a scene with the Brides of Dracula is another point of note. Taking place at night, they come out of the forest to the campground that Mina and Van Helsing is resting. They circle around Van Helsing and Mina, mocking them. They beckon Mina to join them which she almost does. Van Helsing thwarts them. The next day he finds where they are resting and he stakes them in the heart. Destroying them or releasing them based on your point of view. 

Suffice to say, Dracula is finally dealt with and destroyed. Just before dusk, everyone catches up to him and he is staked through the heart. Smoke billows out of the coffin. It is over.
I think this is a fantastic production. It is the standard BBC style of production. It is the mix of videotaped interiors shot in studio with exteriors shot on film. One of my favourite aspects is the natural sounds. Stuff like carriage wheels rolling on a street with the sounds of horses galloping along with it. A campfire that crackles. I love these things and they are things I look out for and love in these older productions. There are some unique attempts at doing something different with video effects. Shots using video disc technology to slow down Dracula’s entrance in the scene where he catches the Brides trying to seduce Jonathan. The aforementioned negative affect on Dracula every time he sees blood. It is frightening. The thing is, just the nature of it being done on video kind of tows the line a little bit. Video effects like this which can be bold or even pioneering can date very quickly and look comical now. To be honest, I am not sure where these fall but I personally love them. I accept them for what they are and it is an innovative way to tell a story.

Articles from Radio Times 1977
The music is one of my favourite pieces to this production. There is little of it but when something bad is about to happen or when Dracula shows up in many of his guises, the music becomes dark and menacing. It really sets the mood. The music is done by Kenyon Emrys-Robert. Although I am not familiar with his work, I think music is fantastic. Just as fantastic are the locations used for filming.  Taking place all over, this really feels like it was shot in the 1800’s. Some of my favourite uses of these locations is that it is just not the night that is menacing but also stuff shot during the day. Nothing feels safe knowing that Dracula is around and the characters know this but don’t know why they feel that way. It’s a treat to watch.
The big question becomes, what about Louis Jourdan as Dracula? We have seen it so many times. It is easy to play to the stereotypical aspects of the character. It is so easy to use a European accent and say, “I vant to suck your blood!” I think Jourdan underplays the role. He is very understated and almost normal. I think he can be menacing when needs to but the whole time he is feeding of Lucy then Mina, it is almost sexual. He lays on top of them totally covering their body with his; his cape overflowing off the sides of the bed. I definitely prefer him to Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the legendary character. I know this is not a popular view.

Frank Finlay as Van Helsing is also strong in this play. He plays the role as very matter of fact. As he is the first to bring up the concept of a vampire taking control of Lucy, no one really questions him. He is a calming presence in the production. As soon as he shows up, as the viewer, I feel like everything is going to be OK. I think the only other character that really stands out is Renfield played by Jack Shepherd. He shows us you can play insane without screaming or doing violent things yet there is something not right about him. I think the rule to this production is that all characters are understated. They don’t need to shove it down your throat who they are. I think that is why I like this so much. When the action needs to be ramped up then it is. There is a reason for it. Nothing is a throw away here. This is not a slow production but it is well-paced.
I guess it is pretty clear that I love this production of Dracula. I think it is one of the closest and best adaptions of the original material. It succeeds in being convincing and it is portrayed very traditionally. If you love this style of BBC television from the 1970s or a fan of Dracula himself, this is one version definitely worth checking out.

Next Week: When is the Doctor not the Doctor? It’s when he is Sergeant Grimshaw. I take a look at the very first Carry On film. It is one of my favourites of the franchise and features William Hartnell along with some of the best comedy talent in the UK at that time. I look at Carry On Sergeant.
Upcoming reviews: I have a guest writer giving us a thorough review of the UK Blu-ray of Network’s Space: 1999 Year Two and I will be looking at Acorn’s US Blu-ray release of George Gently Series
Have a great week!
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