This version of Dracula was produced by Dan Curtis and shot in England and Yugoslavia. It is one of the many films made in the 1970s and 1980s that were intended for a two-pronged release: television in the US, and cinemas in Europe. Initially it was scheduled for a 1973 broadcast on CBS, but this was postponed till February 1974.
This is not a particularly exciting adaptation, but an interesting and even influential one. Like John Badham’s 1979 version (with Frank Langella), it streamlines the novel a bit, but it does so in a different way. The Badham version was based on a stage play, which explains the narrative efficiency. But this 1974 adaptation has a screenplay that famous author Richard Matheson (with input from Curtis) based directly on the novel – although it has been said that Matheson not only used Bram Stoker’s novel, but also previous film-adaptations. By significantly cutting back the number of characters, Matheson achieves a similar efficiency and stringency as the 1979 version. As I had pointed out in my review of Badham’s film, reducing the number of characters is not only acceptable, but almost necessary.
I believe I can easily think of at least three characters from the novel that Matheson omitted here; while others are either sidelined, or only come into the story at alternating times. Apart from Dracula, there are no more than four core characters in play at any given time, and one of them is barely involved before their overall number is reduced to three. That way, the number of characters the audience is confronted with is very manageable; and this makes Matheson’s job as writer easier, because he has fewer characters to deal with, which means less backstory to establish, fewer character relationships to explore, etc.
While the film is generally well-paced, the opening credit sequence is displayed over a scene of Harker travelling in a carriage. As that scene has been edited to be as long as necessary in order to fit in all the credits, it is too long for its own good. But, as I said, this is not a fault in the writing or the directing; it is merely a necessity to keep this montage-like scene going as long as needed. Once Harker arrives at the castle, the speed picks up nicely, with very little time wasted.
What makes this film so interesting in its relation to other adaptations is the addition of a Dracula love interest, the idea that Dracula falls for Lucy. This is said to be the first time this addition has been made to Stoker’s story, and it has been re-used many times since, including in Coppola’s 1992 version. Matheson and Curtis chose a pseudo-reincarnation angle, with Dracula falling for Lucy because she reminds him of a woman from his past. The reincarnation angle is also a perennial favourite in vampire stories. Curtis says he simply plucked this idea from his own TV show, Dark Shadows, to give the Dracula character a human, relatable touch.
The cast is very decent, and the acting is good. Palance is very good as Dracula, but he is given very little conversation with other people. He is mostly staring, hissing, and growling. There is definitely a strong non-human, animalistic streak to his interpretation of Dracula. But his displays of physical strength and the way he walks are a bit distracting. When Palance’s Dracula roams through the night, he usually walks fast, purpose-driven. This makes him look like a man on the way to the office. I prefer a slowly, “stately” striding Dracula. Another minor problem with Palance’s performance is that – in certain scenes with lots of movement – you can see him going through the motions and almost pausing while thinking about what his going to do next. It’s like he is either making his choreography up on the fly, or is carefully trying to remember a studied choreography and playing each move out in his head before actually acting it out.
The film’s biggest asset is probably Nigel Davenport as Van Helsing who is clearly the story’s protagonist. But Murray Brown is also very good as Jonathan Harker, and so is Penelope Horner as Mina. Unfortunately, they are both somewhat underused. I did not like Simon Ward and Fiona Lewis very much as Arthur and Lucy. That has very little to do with their acting and more with the fact that their characters were damaged by their costumes. With the period wardrobe and the chosen hairstyle, Simon Ward (in his early thirties at the time) looks like a 15-year-old choirboy. Whereas Lewis (five years younger than Ward) is smothered in costumes, wig, and pale make-up until Lucy looks like she could be Arthur’s mother.
The film’s title theme is very enjoyable, but the rest of the score is very generic and not really any different from the music you would use to score an episode of Columbo, for example.
The film also looks very competently made. The cinematography deals efficiently with the challenges of narrow locations and sets. The costumes look good and authentic, and yet artificial and off-the-rack – just like you’ve seen them in dozens of other period film of the time. The only real problem is that a lot of the interior of Castle Dracula does look like the interior of a Georgian mansion, and not really like the interior of a neglected, never up-dated 15th century castle. In the same vein, the interiors of the Bistritz inn look far too luxurious to be convincing.
As I said, this is not a particularly exciting version of Dracula, but it is passable. I’d rate it at 6 out of 10. Coppola’s and Badham’s versions look better, and Badham’s is still my favourite, but this 1974 film has its advantages as well. Like the Badham version, it is well-paced and never feels too slow – thanks to the way in which Matheson’s screenplay shortened certain elements of the story and omitted (or sidelined) a handful of characters. And it is 11 minutes shorter than Badham’s Dracula. If you want a particularly faithful representation of the novel, this is probably not it. But if you want to introduce someone to the Dracula myth using a comparatively short film (98 minutes), this one might be an option.