Cliffhangers: The Curse of Dracula
In February 1979, NBC premiered Cliffhangers, an hour-long series made up of three serialized dramas: Stop Susan Williams, The Secret Empire and The Curse of Dracula. Every week, a new 20-minute “chapter” of all three serials would be presented, each of which would end in a shocking cliffhanger to be resolved the following week. Despite high hopes for the series, Cliffhangers debuted to low ratings and was off the air after 10 weeks, leaving one episode unaired and two of the three serials incomplete.
The intent of The Curse of Dracula, according to star Michael Nouri, was to show Count Dracula as “a tragic figure who destroys the object of his loves.” The series would “try to avoid the camp aspect involved in the cliffhanger format and play Dracula seriously as they did in the old movies.” Of the character of Dracula, Nouri explained “he’s the hero of the show, so I do my best to make him sympathetic. It’s no easy task to make a guy look good who lures beautiful women into his lair so he can suck the blood from their necks” .
Overall, said Nouri, “we try to have serious things going in an absurd context. Our aim is to have viewers feel sorry for this man” . In the serial, Dracula was a professor of East European History at Southbay College in San Francisco. Hunting him were Kurt von Helsing (played by Stephen Johns), grandson of famed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, and Mary Gibbons (played by Carol Baxter), who blamed Dracula for the death of her mother.
Reviewing the February 27th, 1979 premiere of Cliffhangers for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Lee Winfrey explained that “the pitch they’re using on this show is that Dracula, instead of being his usual ungodly self, is now vulnerable, regretful that he must do such evil deeds.” She also wrote that the character was “seductively portrayed” by Nouri . Fred L. Smith of The News and Courier wrote “though it’s supposed to be scary, this serial is about as frightening as an Abbott and Costello movie” .
Like the other serials, The Curse of Dracula began with its story already underway. Of the three, it was the deepest into the story. The February 27th, 1979 premiere episode of Cliffhangers began with The Curse of Dracula‘s sixth chapter. And yet, it was only during this chapter that the Kurt and Mary actually came into contact with Dracula. The infamous vampire brought 20 coffins filled with Transylvanian soil with him to United States. With the help of a computer, Kurt and Mary had succeeded in destroying many of them, presumably during the nonexistent first five chapters.
As the first chapter began, Kurt and Mary were just about to burn the 13th coffin filled with soil. Dracula, however, got the drop on the two and set the barn they were in on fire, trapping them. As Dracula watched, the two desperately searched for a way out, eventually realizing they can use the coffin as a battering ram. They manage to escape.
After learning about a professor of Eastern European History who only teaches night courses, the two think they might have stumbled upon the cover identify Dracula has been using. Mary attended one of his classes in disguise and afterward went along with some fellow students at an impromptu shindig at the professor’s house. He soon revealed that he knew who she was and that she and Kurt were hunting him. He asked her why they couldn’t leave him in peace.
Mary explained that he had killed her mother, Amanda. Dracula told her he had loved Amanda but Mary didn’t believe he could love anything but the darkness. Dracula tried to explain that he was condemned to his fate, that for 512 years he had not seen daylight, that he could not control his passion to live, to possess. And he wanted to possess her.
Mary attempted to flee but was stopped by Dracula and his followers. He brought her to his lair and prepared to bite her neck. Would she be able to stop him? And what of Kurt? Dracula’s followers had rigged the fuel line in his car to ignite. Could he escape the explosion? Would he be able to save Mary? The serial’s first cliffhanger was a double.
The next chapter revealed that Kurt had been thrown from his car as it burst into flames and Mary had escaped from Dracula by smashing a lamp over his head. The two were soon reunited and Mary decided to take Kurt to the hospital, worried he had a concussion. But Mary couldn’t get Dracula out of her head. She kept seeing him in her mind and hearing his voice. She had been bitten and was now connected to him somehow.
Dracula seemed to have followers everywhere, drawn from the students he taught. They kept trying to kill Kurt and bring Mary to Dracula. But Mary went to Dracula on her own and was bitten a second time. Her mother, Amanda (played by Louise Sorel), long thought dead, suddenly reappeared. Dracula had turned her into a vampire and was trying to do the same to her daughter. All it took were three bites.
As the serial continued, Amanda tricked Dracula into lowering his guard by pretending to desire another night with him. Instead, she trapped him inside a large refrigerator, knowing the impending dawn would kill him. But Kurt, convinced Mary was in danger, let Dracula out and he escaped. Later, Amanda told Kurt that the only way to save Mary was through a painful experience involving sunlight and holy water.
In order to truly be free of Dracula’s influence, Mary had to kill someone he had turned into a vampire. Amanda volunteered herself, wanting to save her daughter and end her own life as a vampire. But they still had to find Dracula’s journal and the locations of the rest of his coffins. Destroying them would end his reign of terror.
Ten chapters of The Curse of Dracula were produced, compared to 11 for Stop Susan Williams and 12 for The Secret Empire. All ten were broadcast, the last of which aired as part of the 10th episode of Cliffhangers, which was the last to be shown in the United States. The 11th unaired episode contained the final chapter of Stop Susan Williams and the final two chapters of The Secret Empire.
In the final chapter, Mary and Kurt battled Dracula’s followers as they made their way to his last remaining coffin, within which he slept. They find it in the basement of a museum. With the building burning down around them, Mary grabbed a nearby crossbow but was unable to fire. Kurt took the weapon and shot a wooden stake through Dracula’s heart. They escaped and watched the building burn. Dracula was dead.
Or was he? Universal Television later edited the 10 chapters of The Curse of Dracula into a made-for-TV movie also called The Curse of Dracula. It ended somewhat differently, with Dracula pulling the stake from his heart and escaping from the inferno, Kurt and Mary totally unaware. At least one other telefilm was created from The Curse of Dracula; titled The World of Dracula, it was issued in 1986 as part of a package of Universal made-for-TV movies .
On February 12th, weeks before Cliffhangers was set to debut, Broadcasting reported that NBC was considering a backdoor pilot for a series called “Dracula,” said to be “a spin-off in advance” from The Curse of Dracula portion of Cliffhangers .
During its first two weeks on the air, Cliffhangers presented the serials in the following order: Stop Susan Williams, The Secret Empire and The Curse of Dracula. Beginning with the March 13th, 1979 episode Stop Susan Williams and The Curse of Dracula were flipped. This suggests that NBC felt The Curse of Dracula was the strongest of the serials and that by airing it first, viewers who tuned in just to see it would sit through the other two as well , given that competition on the other networks would already be underway.
On Saturday, March 24th, NBC aired an hour-long recap of The Curse of Dracula (also called “The Curse of Dracula”) from 8-9PM, although some affiliates may have pre-empted it with other programming. Broadcast in between the fourth and fifth chapters, the special was obviously intended to catch viewers up on the story in the hopes that they would tune in.
Broadcasting reported in its March 26th issue that NBC was still mulling “Dracula,” a one-hour series “being developed” from Cliffhangers, for its 1979-1980 schedule. The proposed series would again star Michael Nouri. It was one of more than 50 projects the network was considering and one of nine from Universal Television, the production company responsible for Cliffhangers . No doubt due to the low ratings for Cliffhangers, NBC ultimately decided not to pick up the series.
3 Winfrey, Lee. “‘Cliffhangers’ copies old movie serials.” Boca Raton News. Knight-Ridder Newspapers. 2 Mar. 1979: 9A.
4 Smith, Fred L. “TV Talk.” News and Courier [Charleston, SC]. 5 Mar. 1979: 4-A.
5 [Advertisement for Universal’s 10 Marvelous Movies]. Broadcasting. 6 “The networks’ draft picks: cops and life in the working class.” Broadcasting. 12 Feb. 1979: 58.
7 “Program development multitude at NBC.” Broadcasting. 26 Mar. 1979: 117.
Originally Published February 15th, 2005
Last Updated June 5th, 2013