Our rating: 4 out of 5
Though there have been numerous vampire stories, from LeFanu's chilling Carmilla to Joss Whedon's empathetic, tormented Angel, it is Bram Stoker's novel that stands above the rest in our memory. He put a name on vampirism, a name that has withstood the test of time and endured through countless film adaptations. This Masterpiece Theatre production is closer to the novel than any depictions before or since.
Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) never suspects when he boards the coach into Transylvania that his journey will led him into the darker regions of the supernatural. Mystified by the strange response the knowledge of his destination elicits from the fellow passengers, he is left at the crossroads in the dark, since they have no intention of remaining in that part of the country beyond midnight (local legend states all forces of evil will be unleashed). Out of the fog comes a carriage that deposits him at the darkened doorway of an ancient castle. His host is Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan), a decidedly sinister and eccentric soul attempting to purchase property in England. Ill at ease, Jonathan looks forward to returning home, but Dracula intimidates him into remaining a month for the purpose of assisting the count in accurately speaking the English language.
Forced to write home several meek, explanatory notes for his absence, Jonathan forms the belief he is being deliberately kept prisoner. His attempts to gain assistance through local gypsies are profitless, and one night in the library he is assaulted by three beautiful but demonic women. His letters do nothing to reassure the concerns of his fiance, Mina (Judi Bowker), awaiting his return on the coast of Whitby. Her sister Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) has just accepted the marriage proposal of an American, but also harbors feelings for the practicing physician of a local mental asylum. Their latest patient is Renfield (Jack Shepherd), who collects insects and speaks of forthcoming doom, predicting a great evil will soon come to their fair shores. Shortly after a violent storm at sea finds a ship wrecked on the beach, Lucy begins to entertain nightmares. She walks in her sleep to the cliffs, where Mina sees a cloaked figure bending over her. Come the morning, Lucy remembers nothing, but has experienced a colossal loss of blood.
They call in the expertise of Professor Van Helsing (Frank Finlay) and he unearths a deadly path of bloodthirsty intentions that ultimately led him to believe Count Dracula has left his castle and now roams the wilds of England. This adaptation is about as close to the book as you will ever find, although even they take liberties with the linage of those involved. This Dracula is charming, terrifying, and ultimately villainous, taking the blood of innocents without hesitation or remorse in a carnal drive to satisfy his lust. I found him enthralling in early sequences with Jonathan, and equally charming toward the end, though his treatment of Lucy is rather barbaric. There have been entire essays written on the subtext of Stoker's novel, but this is the first movie I have seen where the vampire encounters were purposefully sexual. While Dracula feeds on Lucy, her vocal response is one of pleasure. His brides pet and caress Jonathan. Mina is hypnotized into drinking the count's blood. Dracula gives his brides a baby to feed on, and we see blood on their teeth. The staking of Lucy is quite graphic and involves spurting blood. We hear the brides screaming as they are killed. Religious artifacts play a much larger role in this film than others: crosses keep away evil, there are discussions on immortality and the afterlife, Van Helsing sanctifies the earth, and keeps back vampires with holy wafers.
Some scenes really shine, such as Dracula meeting with Quincy and Van Helsing in
the castle. Jourdan is an impressive presence on screen, beautifully laid back
and intensely frightening in his deliberate actions. We have the same horror as
Mina to come upon him feeding off Lucy in the graveyard. His comments about the
mirror that refuses to reflect him are beautifully poetic. The miniseries seems
to lag at certain points, suffering from the same problem the book has -- not
enough of its title character. The filmmakers also chose to go with moody, campy
special effects that ruined the intensity of its best scenes, and whoever did
the sound should be shot. The eerie echoes and dream-like sequences don't add
anything to the moody atmosphere. It could have been improved by eliminating
those issues, but is very worth watching if you're a fan of the book.