The biggest problems with Count Dracula are completely unrelated. First, the obvious–the source material. Bram Stoker’s novel is, apparently, unadaptable. To date, no film version has been successful. The problem lies with Stoker’s plotting. After the compelling opening with Dracula in Transylvania, his subsequent disappearance leaves the reader or viewer with a bunch of rubes. Many of the characters are unlikable, not because they’re bad people, but because Stoker did such a bad job creating them. For example, in this version, Harker–played to mediocrity (sort of appropriate for the character) by Bosco Hogan–is immediately unsympathetic. He’s a rube. Richard Barnes plays the Texan and is awful. Susan Penhaligon and Judi Bowker play the damsels in distress to some success, but when Penhaligon needs to go nuts, she’s silly looking. On the other hand, for the first two acts, Bowker is unsensational, only to get good at the end.
I’ve left a few characters and actors out because the rest are pretty good. Frank Finlay is a fantastic Abraham van Helsing and the script’s flourishes for his character are nice (Francis Ford Coppola has apparently seen this version). Mark Burns is fine as the other doctor. He and Finlay have a good chemistry. But Jack Shepherd brings some–as far as I can remember, totally unseen before–humanity to crazy Renfield. Shepherd’s really the most exciting one to watch, because his performance isn’t as flashy as Finlay’s and has to work on less pronounced level. As Dracula, Louis Jordan has his good scenes and his bad. A lot of the problems aren’t his fault, but the director’s. The scene with Jordan and Van Helsing is quite good, but the third act scenes are when Dracula is at its best.
The problem–the other problem–with Count Dracula is the production. When he’s shooting on film, Philip Saville creates an atmospheric, haunting film (even if the music is always a little too much). Except most of Count Dracula is shot on video–nearly every indoor scene, on set, is shot on video–and Saville is not a good video director. Well, given he shot the film in 1977, it’s possible no one was a good video director yet. But he’s a bad one. All of the indoor scenes are obvious, all the compositions uninspired. It’s a shame, because otherwise, this version is the finest adaptation of the novel I’ve seen. It just follows too close to the novel and so there’s a boring midsection, one where some plot liberties could have made things a lot more interesting.
Still, even at a long two and a half hours, Count Dracula is worth at least one viewing–both for the acting and the generally competent storytelling.