Directed by Philip Saville. USA/UK. 1977.


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After bowing out of the Hammer Dracula series with The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973, Christopher Lee swore he'd only play the count again in a faithful adaptation of the book. He might have thought it would never be done, but on December 22 1977, the BBC broadcast its TV Count Dracula, starring Louis Jourdan in the title role. 

On August 11 1992, an audience at London's National Film Theatre had a rare chance to see the lavish 160 minute play, which the BBC had kept locked in the vaults since the 70s. And this Dracula turned out to be an unsung classic: not the stolid literary adaptation it might have been, but an inventive and gripping vampire movie, heavy with symbolism, which makes the genre seem new again. 

The TV version manages to overcome the potential pitfalls in the book, such as its long romantic interludes and the lack of a climactic confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing. Director Philip Saville's visuals invest every shot with atmosphere, so that the count's presence is felt even when he's not on screen. 

Jourdan, the first English-speaking French Dracula, plays the count as essentially tragic. Photoplay in 1977 quoted him as saying: 

"I think Dracula should be played as an extremely kind person who truly believes he is doing good. He gives eternal life."

The sexy/tragic approach is a risky one (Frank Langella didn't quite pull it off in John Badham's 1979 Dracula), but it works here. Dracula is stylish, urbane and attractive, and even gets away with jokes. (When Van Helsing chants an exorcism rite, the count remarks: "Sounds so much better in Latin, doesn't it?") The sex isn't explicit, but the seduction of Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) and Mina (Judi Bowker) have a real erotic charge, particularly a scene in which Dracula cuts his chest open so Mina can drink of his blood. 

Count Dracula was a co-production with WNET/13 New York, which may have meant the eroticism had to be moderated but ensures the production looks sumptuous: at last a BBC production in which almost all the special effects are convincing and even the transfers from filmed to videotaped scenes don't seem uneasy. 

Darren Slade

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Material Copyright 2001 Nigel Watson