Directed by Kenneth Johnson, Jeffrey Hayden and Sutton Roley
In 1979, Dracula and vampires were returning to the world of pop culture. Frank Langella was appearing in John Badham’s Dracula. George Hamilton was goofing around in Love at First Bite. Herzog was remaking Nosferatu. Nocturna brought us Dracula’s granddaughter disco dancing. Monsters float in and out of our collective consciousness all the time. One year, we’re nuts for Bigfoot. Then, we’re zombie crazy. As disco scaled the heights, vampires made us happy. So, Kenneth Johnson, TV producer and writer, decided to incorporate Dracula into his latest TV creation.
Johnson was coming off of hits with The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk. He conceived an hour long TV show that consisted of three serial segments. Each segment was a new chapter of a longer story. The stories would be updated versions of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. One story was a Perils of Pauline-esque adventure starring Susan Anton. The second was a western/ sci-fi romp alternating black and white with color. And the third? The Curse of Dracula.
How could this not be a super successful show? The answer is simple. Have the network schedule it against Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, the #3 and #1 shows at the time, respectively. Johnson’s creation, named Cliff Hangers!, vanished after 10 episodes. However, eagle-eyed viewers who kept an eye on their TV Guides would have spotted a film called The World of Dracula airing much later. And that’s what I watched today. An abbreviation of Johnson’s modern-day take on Dracula. And, although I feel like vampires can be overused and overdone, I really enjoyed this.
Dracula lives in California. He’s played by Michael Nouri. And he’s cool! He teaches Eastern European History at South Bay College… at night. He hangs out with his students. He plays piano in a little bar for old men who look like salty sea captains. This is one hip Count! But, as with all good versions of Dracula, one of Van Helsing’s relatives, Kurt, a grandson, is hunting him. Kurt is joined by a young woman, Mary Gibbons. Mary’s mom went missing after cavorting with Dracula and falling off a bridge. Will this duo be able to stop the Count? Will the Count fall in love with Mary? Will Mary let the Count turn her into a vampire? What actually happened to Mary’s mother? How many coffins does Dracula have hidden in the South Bay area? How many times can Kurt be hung off scaffolding, attacked in his hospital bed and/ or trapped in a coffin before he dies? These questions are answered in serial-style fashion throughout this film.
Back in the 1950s, they used to edit together serials into feature films. They were giddy experiences. Mainly because a lot of these serials weren’t made to be watched in this fashion. Each episode builds to the cliffhanger. The next episode resolves it. Begin again. Chase, capture and escape were the norm. Watching the whole shebang all together can, literally, make no sense. The World of Dracula isn’t quite like this, at least not by the end. It begins with finding a coffin, fires, possibly death, Dracula cavorting and then repeat. Mary gets bitten. Kurt gets in death-defying troubles. Dracula talks a lot about how tough it can be to be a vampire but, really, it’s a lot of him being suave, handsome and acquiring a bevy of sensual broads at his beck and call. Slowly, however, the characters begin to rise out of this. Not so much Kurt, who stays the stern hero throughout, but the Count and Mary. And this means that the thrills and spills that infest the first half slow down as we began to care about whether Mary gets vampirized or not. We also begin to feel the empathy for Count Dracula that is a necessity when these vampire stories become more romantic. (Although, he still talks a lot.) I enjoyed the gradual shift from thrills and spills to more human drama quite a bit.
In true cliff hanger fashion, the movie had one more surprise for me at the end. The World of Dracula ends on a cliff hanger. We learn that… well, find a copy and watch it. Or watch the full version in the Cliff Hangers! TV series itself. Both are great. There is another movie out there and it is called The Loves of Dracula. That will give us the ending. I had no idea that The World of Dracula led into another TV movie. I’m glad there’s more out there. I will find the follow-up and I will get back to you.