Sunday, July 25, 2010

October 27, 2009: Psychobabble recommends the ‘Count Dracula’ miniseries

Without question the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is this 1977 miniseries written by Gerald Savory and directed by Philip Saville for the BBC. As the title Count, French heartthrob Louis Jourdan obviously isn’t the repellent creature Stoker described, and Lucy’s suitors Arthur Holmwood and Quincey P. Morris have been distilled into a single character (wisely, on the part of Savory). Otherwise Count Dracula hits all the beats of the book; it’s extended format allowing them to unfold more naturally than they do in the more famous Cliffs-Notes versions by Tod Browning and Terence Fisher. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Frank Finlay giving the best Van Helsing performance of them all. Here he’s a fully formed character with a fatherly sweetness (he takes time to make cups of hot cocoa for each of his fearless vampire killers!) offset by a subtly mad glint in his eyes. Jack Sheperd’s Renfield certainly isn’t as iconic as Dwight Frye’s, but it’s the most human performance of the madman ever delivered. And finally we get to see Renfield’s interactions with Mina (nicely played by Judy Bowker) instead of merely hearing about them second hand! The scene in which Mina consults Renfield about their budding vampirism enriches two characters coming from vastly different social strata but dealing with the same unique problem.

The film’s one problem—and it’s a significant one—is that most of the interior scenes are shot on video (which is pretty common of BBC productions), and these flat sequences jar with the shadowy, atmospheric exteriors caught on film. Fortunately, most of the film’s two hours and thirty minutes were shot on film, so it’s only an occasional disruption of mood. Saville’s experiments with video (ample use of solarization; primitive fish eye shots) sometimes date the film, although I liked his sparing use of grainy black and white effects, which kind of reminded me of E. Elias Merhige’s experimental film Begotten.

So, the real question is: is Count Dracula a better film than the Browning or Fisher films… or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu for that matter? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. For visual beauty, Fisher’s 1958 Dracula is without peer. For sheer iconography, Browning’s 1931 film is the champ (there will never be a Dracula as unforgettable as Lugosi or a Renfield as unforgettable as Frye). For terror and gothic atmosphere, Nosferatu is the greatest. But for faithfulness and strong storytelling, Count Dracula has no competition. Since no one will ever make a film that masters all of these elements as well as these four do, let’s say that all are of equal merit and are really the only ones the Dracula dabbler needs.
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