Dracula Doco Lacks Teeth: Reviewing ‘In Search of Dracula’

by Rachel Bellwoar

Dracula isn’t Bigfoot. Nobody in Calvin Floyd’s documentary, In Search of Dracula, is actually looking for him (and if they were, they’d know where to find him – the pages of Bram Stoker’s book) but Dracula’s not a static figure. Plenty of films have had their way with the Dracula mythology. In Search of Dracula looks back to Stoker’s words, as well as history, to find the real-world basis for the character.

Stoker never visited Transylvania himself, but the film explores some of the superstitions around vampires in Eastern Europe, where Dracula is set. He also might not be a vampire in the supernatural sense, but the film devotes a lot of time to his historical antecedent, Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracula).
Based on the book by Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, Christopher Lee provides the narration for In Search of Dracula. Lee famously played Dracula ten times and his association with the role makes him the perfect person for the job. Besides the new footage by Floyd, in which Lee appears as Vlad and Dracula, the film only uses scenes from his performance in Hammer Films’ Scars of Dracula. Other Hammer productions, like Dracula AD 1972, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, would’ve both been more recent (In Search of Dracula came out in 1975), but as film historians Lee Gambin and John Harrison point out in their commentary track, those films were set in modern times, while Scars was set in the 19th century; the timeframe of Stoker.
A film needs more than Lee’s voice to be great, though, and considering the subject matter, In Search of Dracula is far too dry and tedious for a movie about one of horror’s greatest monsters. Lee’s is almost the only voice in the movie. There are no talking heads. Gambin and Harrison describe the film as being a mondo-style documentary, but don’t really get to talk about the genre in-depth (at the end of their commentary they mention having run out of time to get to everything they wanted to discuss). The footage Floyd filmed for the recreations actually looks appealing, but in context it’s too drawn out and repetitive. It’s like the film works on a delay. Nothing Lee mentions is overly complicated, so there’s nothing to learn from seeing it again visually.
Adding to the sense of padding is a section on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which almost justifies its inclusion by bringing up John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (the idea for which stemmed from the same prompt by Lord Byron to write a ghost story), but finds its way back to Shelley again. Then there’s a section at the end about early cinema vamps (including Theda Bara’s vamp character and the film Nosferatu). Technically, these clips go on for too long, but they’re also excellent — which is more than can be said for In Search of Dracula.
As curious as it is to realize which parts of the mythology have resonated with people and which parts have been largely forgotten, In Search of Dracula struggles to entertain as much as it informs, and while Gambin and Harrison make a much better go at it with their commentary, Dracula deserved a better documentary.
In Search of Dracula is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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