Summoned to a remote castle in the Transylvanian hills lawyer Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) is ensnared by the evil vampire Count Dracula (Jack Palance) into securing an estate and passage to England. Once there Dracula pays nightly visits to Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis) who, unknown to her fiancé Arthur (Simon Ward), is the reincarnation of the count's lost love. Lucy's friend Mina (Penelope Horner) arrives just as stoic physician Doctor Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) discerns the family are being menaced by the undead. He and Arthur set out to destroy Dracula before it is too late.
Despite the common claim that Gothic horror was outmoded in the post-Night of the Living Dead (1968), post-Exorcist (1973) era, the Seventies arguably presented the most diverse array of Dracula interpretations. The Hammer films were still going strong with Christopher Lee who also headlined Jess Franco's supposedly faithful (but not really) Bram Stoker's Count Dracula (1970) and the French comedy Dracula and Son (1976). The decade also delivered Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy a.k.a. Jacinto Molina in the decidedly unorthodox Dracula's Great Love (1972) as well as such campy low-lights as Dracula's Dog (1977) and Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula (1979) before rounding off with John Badham's lavish yet hopelessly anemic Dracula (1979). Amidst the glut, often forgotten was this classy adaptation for television from prolific producer-director Dan Curtis. Intended for broadcast in 1973, the film was preempted by an address from then-President Richard Nixon and eventually screened in early 1974 though foreign audiences got to see it on the big screen.
After the runaway success of Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker, Dan Curtis was Mister Horror on American television. So it seemed only natural he should tackle Bram Stoker's seminal vampire novel in a reunion with Jack Palance following the success of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968). Curtis' ace in the hole was screenwriter Richard Matheson. Aside from a hugely influential genre novelist in his own right (e.g. The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come and many more) Matheson penned numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone and wrote several of the best Edgar Allan Poe films for Roger Corman. Interestingly his script anticipates many of the creative liberties Francis Ford Coppola took with his later, far more controversial Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Specifically the re-imagining of Dracula as a Byronic antihero motivated less by blood-lust than a desire to reclaim his lost love. However Matheson and Curtis also shift Dracula's obsession exclusively to Lucy which, as a consequence, implies he eventually pursues Mina solely out of spite. The revised image of the vampire as a tragic, romantic figure eventually went on to consume horror cinema to the point where, after sub-Marvel Comics nonsense like Dracula Untold (2014), an irredeemably evil Dracula would make a refreshing change.
Blessed (if that is the right word) with saturnine features ideal for the role, Jack Palance plays Dracula with just the barest hint of a Bela Lugosi-style Hungarian accent. Proving his skill the oft-manic star gives one of his most controlled performances, combining old world manners, brooding melancholy and seething animal rage without once lapsing into camp caricature. Here is a Dracula who not only weeps over his staked vampire bride but winces when he sees the cut on Jonathan Harker's neck. He seems almost embarrassed and regretful about his need for human blood. In fact his scenes with Lucy are closer to a passionate love affair than a vicious bestial violation. Filmed in Yugoslavia and England, the film opts for a misty blue colour palette that imparts an elegant eeriness without going into Gothic overdrive. Rather than ape the fairy tale artifice of Hammer, Curtis grounds his Dracula in the realism of Nineteenth century Europe. This yields mixed results. On the one hand, aside from a pack of German Shepherds doubling unconvincingly for wolves, the sober treatment renders fantastical events never less than believable. Yet the prosaic handling of several of Stoker's most famous set-pieces cry out for a more magical, supernatural charge.
On the plus side Dan Curtis' handsome productions routinely had the benefit of a stellar ensemble cast. Here Nigel Davenport makes a robust Van Helsing with the force of presence to prove a match for Palance's Dracula. Fiona Lewis, strangely criticized by some critics, is really quite good as wilting English rose Lucy, the haunted, shell-shocked ghost of the girl she used to be. Lewis parlayed this role into a long, if sadly undervalued career in genre fare as a glamorous femme fatale: e.g. The Fury (1978), Strange Behaviour (1981) and Innerspace (1987). By unfortunate contrast, Penelope Horner takes a valiant stab at Mina but is rather too austere. Of the many screen Minas arguably only Judy Bowker ever really captured the essence of Stoker's luminous, spirited heroine in the BBC's Count Dracula (1977). The mid-section drags as characters rush tiresomely back and forth from the Westenra house but the final confrontation in the bowels of Castle Dracula features some effective shocks.