Dan Curtis' Dracula (1973) Jack Says, "Pick Up the Stake. Pick It Up."
While the modern era of slasher, lead by Jason Voorhees and Mikey Myers, ushered in an era of killers whose facial expressions meant nothing to the story, it began to matter very little who portrayed the killers in countless sequels. For the classic movie villains, casting was everything. Take for example the role of Frankenstein in the classic Universal films. Originally offered to Bela Lugosi, the role of the monster part had no sex appeal so he passed it to Karloff. It's just as hard to imagine Bela as The Monster as it is to think of Karloff as The Count. Over the years, many men have tackled the role of the most famous vampire from Gary Oldman and Frank Langella to Bela and, coming soon, Johnathan Rhys Myers in a television show about ol' Drac. All of these performances have several common threads that run through them. There is a primal, animalistic evil that runs through each, and every last on of them was dead sexy. Sure, they might not be Channing Tatum, but in their time, the most famous keepers of the cape and fangs made the women swoon. No matter what era he existed in, today's Vlad Tepes got as far as embodying the evil, animal qualities and left sexy out in the rain. I don't care how many one armed push-ups he could do or how tough he was because when you cast Jack Palance as Dracula the sucking sound you hear isn't entirely blood.
I wouldn't feel the great need to give a synopsis for Dracula, but for the fact that screenwriter, and I Am Legend scribe, the infinitely awesome Richard Matheson took it upon himself to tweak Bram Stoker's story just a bit. It still begins traditionally with the arrival of Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) at Castle Dracula to sell off Carfax Abby to the Count. Unlike most other versions, when Drac sees Harker's picture from back home, it's not Mina he's interested in but instead her redheaded friend Lucy (Fiona Lewis), believing her to be a reincarnation of his lost love. Ditching Harker with his vampire brides, Dracula takes off for England, and his ship crash lands with all on board dead. Quite soon after, Lucy begins to experience a strange malady, and her fiancée Arthur (Simon Ward) calls for the help of physician friend Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport). The good doctor soon discovers that Lucy is being menaced by a vampire, and despite their efforts, she succumbs to the bloodsucker and dies only to be reborn as a vampire. Only after Arthur and Van Helsing dispatch the vampire Lucy does Dracula turn his attention to her pretty blonde friend, Mina (Penelope Lewis). It becomes a race against time as Van Helsing chases the vampire back to his Transylvanian abode before Lucy also becomes a beast of the night.
So I'm not going to beat around the bush here because the attraction to Curtis' made for TV Dracula is the headline star Jack Palance. Probably best remembered now for his role in City Slickers or showing off his one armed pushup skills at the Oscars at the ripe old age of 73, Palance had a long and storied career in everything from Italian gangster movies (De Leo's Rulers of the City), westerns (Shane where the title of today's post has been derived from via a Bill Hicks routine), and mainstream fare (Batman, Young Guns, Tango & Cash). He was arguably one of the best movie heavies to ever walk across the screen, but sadly, that commendation alone does not prepare an actor to play a role like Dracula. While Palance exhibited incredible poise, a tremendous, nearly overwhelming power, and his acting was spot on, there are two places where his image falters. As I mentioned earlier, sex appeal is left at the door with Dracula controlling his victims rather than suavely seducing them, but the most jarring thing is when Palance decides to bare his fangs. Unlike other actors who might just, you know, open their mouth, Palance generally prefered to show off the sharp and pointies by way of his trademark grimace wherein he just pulls back the sides of his lips to reveal the large canines. Rather than being intimidating or scary, Jack just looks silly. It invokes more of a feeling of discomfort than engenders fear, and when Dracula can't manage to seem at least a bit scary, everything surrounding him begins to unravel.
Dan Curtis directed one of my favorite films of all time, the supernatural flick Burnt Offerings, his one and only theatrical release. Apart from that film, Curtis spent most of his career in television both directing (The Norliss Tapes, Trilogy of Terror) and producing (most notably the Vampiric soap opera Dark Shadows). In fact, some of Shadows seems to creep into Dracula's storyline as his obsession with Lucy mirrors that of Barnabus Collins and his love Maggie Evans, who he believed resembled his lost love Josette. While Curtis handles Matheson's script extremely well, the entire production is hindered by the lead actor's faltering performance and budgetary limitations. Oswald Morris (Kubrick's Lolita, Beat the Devil, The Wiz) does his best as cinematographer to give the film a moody dark vibe, but it is a feeling which gets broken every time Palance bears his sparkly whites. The score, by Bob Cobert, harkens back to Curtis' Dark Shadows, which Cobert also wrote the music for, as well as Burnt Offerings and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, also Curtis productions.
While Palance's Dracula is more silly than spooky, thankfully, he has precious little screen time, and when Dracula is not grimacing on the screen like he's about to crap his pants, the supporting cast picks up the reins and runs away with the picture. This is especially true with Nigel Davenport as Van Helsing. I recently lauded Davenport for his role as the one eyed leader of a band of survivors in No Blade of Grass, he gets equal commendations from me for his portrayal of Van Helsing. Equal to the great performances by Anthony Hopkins, Peter Cushing, and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, Davenport gives the good doctor that stalwart British "can do" attitude and steals the show away from Palance at every turn. Simon Ward (Supergirl, Holocaust 2000) also acquits himself admirably as Arthur, Lucy's beau, in what I usually would have considered the traditional Jonathan Harker role. For her part, Fiona Lewis (The Fearless Vampire Killers) is ravishing as Lucy, but she is given little to do much like her co-star Penelope Horner (Holocaust 2000) as Mina. Both of them are reduced to cowering and looking sickly while under the vampire's spell.
While Dan Curtis' Dracula leaves out many of my favorite portions of the Dracula story, most egregiously there is no Renfield to be found, the film taken as a whole does spin a fascinating tale of the Count. While some versions dwell on the sexual power of Dracula and others the love lorn romantic, Curtis' Dracula speaks to the vampire as a parasite. While it doesn't delve extensively into the topic like Herzog's Nosferatu, the main focus of Dracula's powers seem to be spreading incurable and incapacitating illness. Coming in the early Seventies with the scourge of sexually transmitted diseases on the rise (and AIDS yet over the horizon), this is seems like both a topical and prescient way to present the story of Dracula. While the film has its foibles, for the most part it remains well paced and interesting throughout, and the story itself, with its timeless qualities, overcame the minor stumbles to make for an interesting addition to the tradition of Dracula films. Just remember, if you meet up with Jack Palance In a darkened alley, no matter how much he says "You're my number one.”, don't trust him.... And try not to laugh when he opens his mouth.