Written by: Bil Brossert and Anthony D.P. Mann
Directed by: Anthony D.P. Mann
Featuring: Anthony D.P. Mann, Matt Davis, Terry Wade, Denise Wedge, Barry Yuen
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been adapted in so many mediums, one would figure that the novel would be more beloved, or at least talked about more often.
I remember excitedly picking up the book for the first time nearly 20 years ago (in anticipation of what I lovingly refer to as the funniest film Francis Ford Coppola has ever made), but as I discovered to my chagrin, Dracula, the novel, is dry. Dry. DRRRRRRRRYYYYYYYY. It’s filled with memorable, iconic characters, unforgettable imagery and scenes that stick in the mind for a long time, but actually getting through the majority of Stoker’s leaden prose, in my experience, is a bit of a slog.
There are always purists, however, and co-writer/director/star Anthony D.P. Mann’s The Terror of Dracula purports to be both “faithful in spirit to the original text” and “a loving homage to films of an era gone-by.” In fact, the title card before the film opens claims it’s a “lost” Hammer production. Mann and his co-writer Bill Brossert clearly have love and reverence for Stoker and Hammer. I’m just not necessarily sure that’s enough for a good film.
While Terror of Dracula almost immediately betrays its origins as a microbudget feature shot on digital video, Mann does a neat job of slightly degrading the film stock so it at least has the illusion of something made 50 years ago. The movie’s opening remains its strongest sequence, as Jonathan Harker (Matt Davis) dreams of chasing wife Mina (Denice Wedge) through the Carpathian forest. When he catches up with her, she bares her fangs, and Harker wakes up in an Eastern European hospital with the kind but concerned Matron Agatha (Andrea Hiltz). Harker begins to relate the story of how he was sent to Castle Dracula to broker a real estate deal with the castle’s mysterious Romanian namesake (Mann), a very old, very rich man who is planning to make a permanent residence in England.
Harker’s flashbacks are intercut with the story taking place back in his home in the UK, where Mina’s friends Quincy (Ilke Hincer) and Lucy (Angella Scott) are dealing with Lucy’s mysterious illness, as Mina herself is troubled by a strange presence. Dr. Jack Seward (Dick Miller) brings in the enigmatic Professor Van Helsing (Terry Wade) to assist with Mina, but all of them are soon to fall under the shadow of Dracula. Or Terror, if you will (but you won’t, because that’s terrible grammar)
I don’t need to go over the rest of the plot; Mann and Brossert keep their word and make the film as faithful as possible to the book with their limited resources. But sadly, this winds back to what I wrote earlier: The Terror of Dracula winds up being so faithful to Stoker that it begins to feel as languidly paced as the novel itself.
Part of the problem lies with the actors. While none of the actors give any particularly bad performances, with the exception of Matt Davis as the doomed Jonathan and Mann himself (who invests Dracula with the sort of arrogance and self-confidence the bastard requires), none have any flavor to them. Davis depicts well Jonathan’s stuffy British attitude slowly giving way to madness and fear, and his character arc is the most compelling as he tries with the assistance of Agatha to claw his way out of the abyss. Once Jonathan exits the movie, however, a lot of air seems to go out of it.
Mina, of course, is a very central Wedge, making her film debut, and fails to be compelling. There’s some merit to be found in Wade’s reading of Van Helsing as more of a reserved type than most portrayals of the character, but not quite enough merit. The Brides of Dracula are a lot of fun, however, though the sound mixing makes it difficult to understand what they’re saying most of the time. If Mann wanted something in the spirit of Hammer films, I question why there was so little discouraging of hamming it up.
Another issue is Mann’s direction. To his credit, aside from the aforementioned dream sequence, there’s a genuinely bone-chilling moment involving the Brides, Dracula and a baby in the first third of the film. And one of the reasons both sequences stuck with me is that they’re the only ones shot with any sort of serious style. Most of the film is shot with a lot of talking heads speaking back and forth, a lot of medium close-ups, a lot of exposition and reserved line readings. It’s hard to tell whether this was the way Mann intended to shoot the film, given how true he wanted to stay to its roots, or if he was just dealing with what he had available to him (the voyage of the Demeter, in particular, really suffers). I suspect it’s the latter. He makes good use of the Ontario locations where the film was shot.
Reviewing a film like The Terror of Dracula is always difficult for me because, as I’ve said in earlier reviews, I’ve been in the trenches on microbudget films and I know full well how difficult it can be to get a good film made. You might not get the shot you want, your effects go wrong and you can’t fix them, actors and locations may not be what you need but they’re what you have at the moment. Everyone involved looks like they had a very good time putting this movie together, which makes me wish I had a better time watching it.
The Terror of Dracula has traces of amateurishness, but what really hurts the film is its muted tone, which sets it apart from other Stoker adaptations (including the aforementioned godawful Coppola version) — but what sets it apart may be what fails to engage the viewer. It’s ultimately just not that much fun, even on its own terms. Still, I can admire the attempt, even if I don’t really enjoy the results.
What's funny is, for its time Stoker's Dracula was equivalent to modern-day beach reading. It was considered sordid, trashy fun...which is odd because. like Dan said, overall it's a very slow, sober read.
A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it's not open.