Home Video Hovel: Dracula, by Tyler Smith
It has become clear to me over the years that there are some stories that are going to be told over and over again, no matter how familiar we are with them. Some of these retellings are masterful, while others completely forgettable. A lot of the reason that we return to these stories is due to a dynamic character that sparks something inside us. Hamlet, Peter Pan, Jesse James; the list goes on. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of these characters; he has been depicted countless times, on stage and on film.
As is the case with any of these memorable characters, the story of Dracula seems to succeed or fail on the strength of its lead actor. Obviously, the first image that springs to mind when we think of the Count is Bela Lugosi and his penetrating eyes. There have been several different interpretations of the character, ranging from lustful and romantic in Bram Stoker’s Dracula to gaunt and parasitic in Nosferatu. Many of these depictions are iconic and deserve to be remembered, but there are just as many that will be lost to the ages, and with good reason. Dan Curtis’ Dracula is a perfectly serviceable film, save for one element: the performance of Jack Palance. And on that basis, the film fails.
Jack Palance is a dynamic on-screen presence, in the right role. His weathered face and unnerving delivery makes him a very effective villain. But there is a difference in conveying menace and conveying evil. Any two-bit thug can be menacing, but it takes real power to be evil. And, for all of Palance’s strengths as an actor, he doesn’t quite have the gravity or majesty required to play Count Dracula. His Dracula is certainly threatening, but he is not ominous. We have to feel like Dracula can be everywhere at once. His presence must be overwhelming. As played by Jack Palance, Dracula seems limited; more of a nuisance than a force of unspeakable evil.
Perhaps some of the problem has to do with the way the story plays out. While Dan Curtis creates a thoroughly Gothic world and has a pretty strong grasp of atmosphere, everything about the story seems small. Not intimate. Not claustrophic. Just small. Low stakes, small scope. The final confrontation with Dracula, in particular, never really reaches a climax. Instead, Dracula is easily found and even more easily dispatched. And while Curtis does what he can to give Dracula a tragic quality, even that feels a bit rushed and inconsequential.
Fans of low budget horror might enjoy the technical elements of the film. The world feels complete and lived in. The atmosphere occasionally feels creepy. But the way Curtis shoots it makes it all feel safer than it should. But, again, perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if the central figure around which everything is based were a larger presence. If we felt genuinely frightened by Palance’s Dracula, the other elements might fall into place. The wide shots that allow us to take in the whole scene could feel like we’re surveying Dracula’s domain and that at any moment he might emerge from one of the many nooks and crannies to terrorize us. As it is, these shots make us feel far from the danger.
More than anything, the character of Dracula feels small in this film. And Dracula should never feel small. As played by Bela Lugosi, with those sharp eyes, that knowing smile, and the vague accent, Dracula seemed otherworldly, like this was a character that was more than simply elusive; he was unknowable. Gary Oldman’s performance was so melodramatic and tragic that it almost felt like we were watching an opera, with all the bombast and larger-than-life emotions that implied. And, of course, “Count Orlok” from Nosferatu was the most monstrous of them all; animalistic, relentless, and unstoppable.
Dan Curtis’ Dracula contains all of the elements to make a perfectly fine- and maybe even spooky- Gothic horror film. But the most important element of Bram Stoker’s story has always been- and will always be- Dracula himself. To get him wrong is to negate any of the elements that are done right, and to render the film both flawed and forgettable.