Dracula 1968

Posted by James Bell on August 09, 2009 in Blog tagged with

One of the wonderful things about our digital age is the resurfacing of cultural artefacts previously inaccessible to the casual viewer. Such is the case with this 1968 Dracula, originally produced as an episode of the anthology series Mystery and Imagination.


I watched this within a few days of Guy Maddin’s hyper-stylised ballet film Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, to which the antique television film couldn’t have been more of a contrast. Both are filmed in black-and-white and have a rather short running time, but where one is talky, the other is silent (apart from the Mahler soundtrack); one is static, the other hyper-kinetic; one conventional in style, the other Expressionistic. Out of necessity, the ’68 Dracula de-emphasises spectacle and features minimal special effects. Its staginess is compounded by the division into ‘acts’. It is much closer, both in spirit and execution, to the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula than, say, the Hammer films.


Oddly enough, there are several narrative similarities between the tv Dracula and Pages From a Virgin’s Diary. Both begin in media res and present the Transylvania sequences in flashback. The television film sees Dracula already ingratiated into the Whitby society of the Westenra family and the mutton-chopped Dr Seward. (While the other suitors are eliminated, minor characters such as Swales and Lucy’s mother are retained.) Dracula is first encountered playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ for a rapt Lucy in the Westenra drawing-room. His monologue about the history of his race is retained, but delivered to Lucy, who is as mesmerised by this as by his musicianship.


Meanwhile, mystery surrounds the nameless ‘man in room 34’, a fly-eating lunatic who worships Dracula as his master. Sound familiar? The twist revelation is that this character turns out to be none other than Jonathan Harker. This conflation of Renfield and Harker is borrowed from the Balderston-Deane play, which was filmed with Bela Lugosi. Jonathan/Renfield becomes fixated with his ‘abandonment’, lamenting obsessively like a spurned lover. His jealousy towards Mina is thus directed here towards his own wife!


When Lucy falls ill in time-honoured fashion, Professor Van Helsing is summoned. (Lucy’s, and later Mina’s, orgasmic moaning and writhing suggest some awareness of the subtexts.)

To the horror of his erstwhile student, Van Helsing quickly reveals himself to be more occultist than scientist. “Enough of your necromancy!” thunders an outraged Seward. This rather sinister Van Helsing presents himself as an amiable old duffer, but can hypnotise effortlessly and, it is implied, may be more of a Machiavellian manipulator than Dracula himself. In his eccentricity, inhumanity and occult scholarship he prefigures Anthony Hopkins’ performance in some interesting ways. “Do not think of me, I beg you.” implores Dr Seward. “I do not think of you, John.” replies Van Helsing calmly.


Dracula’s English residence is a bare Georgian mansion rather than the usual Gothic pile, which contrasts interestingly with the overstuffed High Victorian sets for the Westenra house. When Dracula is eventually destroyed by sunlight, his disintegration is heavily ‘inspired’ by Hammer’s Dracula of ten years earlier, to the point of duplicating several shots exactly. Mina defiantly snatches up Dracula’s ring from the ashes, suggesting that his influence will live on. At the very least, no-one in this adaptation will live happily ever after.


Denholm Elliott also played Roderick Usher in the same series’ adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, which I haven’t seen but which sounds even more interesting. He’s a strange choice for Dracula, and not a particularly comfortable fit. He has neither the sinister elegance of a Lugosi, nor the presence and sepulchural tones of Christopher Lee. In his defense, the goateed Elliott is a creepy and refreshingly un-sentimentalised Dracula, sporting Nosferatu rat-fangs and smoked glasses long before Gary Oldman wore them.


Not essential viewing, then, but an interesting and scholarly variation.



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