DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA (1973) (Blu-ray)
Directors: Dan Curtis
MPI Home Video

Previously available on DVD (as a double feature with the shot-on-video THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE), MPI Home Video is now revisiting this highly memorable Dan Curtis TV movie production on Blu-ray featuring two-time Oscar winner Jack Palance as one of the countless actors to play The Count.

In 1897, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown, José Ramón Larraz’ VAMPYRES) travels from England to Hungary to visit Count Dracula (Jack Palance, WITHOUT WARNING) in hopes of selling him land. An unseen driver takes him on a wild carriage ride to Castle Dracula, where is he greeted by his ambiguous host. Dracula tells his guest of his immediate want to purchase Carfax Abbey, despite its dilapidated state. After seeing a photograph of lovely Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN), the vampire lord keeps Harker a prisoner and makes his way to England to seek out his new property and prey on this woman who resembles his love from centuries earlier. Dracula infiltrates the home of Lucy’s fiancee Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward, THE MONSTER CLUB) and gradually makes her one of the undead. When Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport, NO BLADE OF GRASS) is brought in to examine Lucy, he surmises that a human vampire is the culprit and that such a being must reside in the vicinity. Lucy dies, returns as a thirsty bloodsucker, and is staked in her coffin, causing an animalistic rage in Dracula when he makes this discovery. With his chosen lover now gone for good, he now has sights on her friend Mina (Penelope Horner, HOLOCAUST 2000) and Holmwood and Van Helsing will play vampire hunters in a chase which is going to lead them all the way back to Dracula's homeland.

Based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, DRACULA (also known as BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA) was produced in England in 1973 and released there theatrically. Here in America, it was sold to CBS and broadcast as a prime-time spectacular in 1974 (it was originally to have premiered in October of 1973 but was pre-empted for an address by President Richard Nixon on the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and it didn’t air until the following February). Shot in England and partially in Yugoslavia, there was lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, and it’s obvious that the casting of a larger than life Hollywood heavy (known for his numerous villainous roles in various genres) is what helped sell the movie to TV audiences. On the outside, Palance seems like an unlikely Dracula in his traditional vampire make-up and attire, but he really relishes the part, playing him as a tormented soul, overwhelmed by love and his eternal existence. Palance gives his all (and of course hams it up on occasion) with every line that he delivers and every physical attribute of the vampire king that he interprets. He is one of the most intimidating screen Draculas, and his technique brings a fresh, sympathetic vulnerability to the character, yet his animalistic growls and fits of anger make sure he remains scary.

Producer Dan Curtis directed the film himself, and employing the fine assets of England's Pinewood Studios, DRACULA often resembles a Hammer horror film. With Curtis being no stranger to vampire lore and the horror genre, the film has substantial style in terms of its lavish sets and familiar locations, including Oakley Court (as Carfax Abbey), seen in countless British genre movies and later immortalized in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Legendary screenwriter Richard Matheson's script combines elements from Stoker's novel, Hammer’s original telling of the story (HORROR OF DRACULA) as well as the tragic romance found in Curtis’ "Dark Shadows" daytime soap and THE HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS feature film, with genuine motifs later lifted for Coppola's overblown Hollywood take of the 1990s (the Vlad Tepes connection for example). It’s hard to forget Dracula slicing the blood from his chest with his fingernail and pulling Mina’s head to sip it up (a similar sequence can be found in Hammer’s DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS) and his power over animals allows for an unnerving bit where Holmwood fights off a vicious wolf who makes his way indoors. The fine supporting cast is often upstaged by Palance, with the underappreciated Davenport making an intelligent, subtle and youngish Van Helsing. Virginia Wetherell (CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, DEMONS OF THE MIND) and a very young Sarah Douglas (THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, SUPERMAN II) can be seen as two of the sexy hissing vampire brides, and George Pravda (Ward’s co-star in Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) and his real-life wife Hana Maria Pravda (AND SOON THE DARKNESS) can be seen as Hungarian innkeepers. Hammer’s long-time stuntman (and double for Christopher Lee’s Dracula on several occasions) Eddie Powell plays a hotel employee when Dracula goes on a rampage at an inn (Powell is given not credit, and it’s possible he also did stunts on the film).

MPI Home Video (who have long been providers of Dan Curtis productions) previously released DRACULA on VHS, laserdisc and DVD, all looking to be from the same transfer. With this welcomed new Blu-ray edition, the film has been transferred (in its full strength European theatrical version) in 2K High Definition from the original 35mm camera negative, and looks splendid. The film has been framed in a fitting 1.78:1 aspect ratio giving it the theatrical look missing from the previous, boxy full frame transfers. Here, fine detail is rendered throughout, colors are rich and well saturated (the deep red walls of Holmwood’s home for instance), and skin tones look natural throughout. Filmic grain is consistently kept minimal, and the overload of dirt and debris witnessed on the previous home video versions are now but a distant memory. The English audio comes on a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, mixing Robert Cobert’s excellent score and the dialogue well. There are additional Spanish and French language tracks, as well as optional English SDH subtitles. You’ll appreciate how good this Blu-ray looks when you see the clips from the old transfer incorporated into the vintage video interviews presented here as extras.

The video interview with Dan Curtis (4:23), who passed away in 2006, was originally conducted for MPI’s 2000 DVD release. Curtis talks about creating a central love story not found in any other film versions, bringing a degree of sympathy to the monster, and he feels that Palance is the most frightening Dracula ever seen on the screen. A 4-minute video interview with the late Palance (shot in the early 1990s for the laserdisc release) has the actor talking about how he really got into the role, how he didn’t think he thought the character was really evil, that he was offered the role several more times (turning it down every time) and admits that he was yet to have the courage to watch "his" Dracula. A fascinating section of silent outtakes (6:28) shows director Curtis on the set, Palance flubbing his outdoor scene, some great glimpses of several vampire staking scenes, and the fun attraction of the clapboard coming into the shot. A section of “TV cuts” (3:41) shows the difference in some of the gorier scenes, comparing the British theatrical version with the tamer American TV edit, including Lucy’s staking, a vampire bride’s (Wetherell) staking and Dracula’s staking (naturally, these scenes in the TV version are practically bloodless). The original British theatrical trailer (anamorphic) rounds out this Blu-ray’s fine extras. (George R. Reis)