The latest issue of Richard Klemensen's wonderful LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS--issue #36--is a full-length examination of the 1979 version of DRACULA, starring Frank Langella and directed by John Badham. I had not seen the '79 DRACULA in a long time, and I wasn't too impressed with it when I did see it....but I decided that before I delved into LSOH #36, I had better re-acquaint myself with the movie. (All the information in this post comes from Constantine Nasr's impressive and extensive article detailing the complete history of the '79 DRACULA.)
I watched the '79 DRACULA through Xfinity On Demand. The print looked magnificent, though a bit muted color-wise (more on that later). The '79 DRACULA is a better movie than I remember it being...but I still can't say it is one of my favorite versions of Bram Stoker's immortal tale.
The impetus for the production of this DRACULA was the smash 1970s Broadway revival of the play which was based on Stoker's work. Frank Langella starred as the Count, and he became a sensation among theater critics and audiences. After seeing the play, producer Walter Mirisch was so impressed by it he decided to undertake a new film version with Universal Studios, the company who of course had made the seminal 1931 DRACULA with Bela Lugosi. John Badham, who was riding the success of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, was hired to direct, and it was decided that the film had to be made in England. There was never any doubt about having Frank Langella reprise his Dracula on the big screen.
Badham and screenwriter W. D. Richter knew they couldn't just make a filmed version of the play. The '79 DRACULA isn't really like the play, the Lugosi movie, or Stoker's novel--it is a mixture of all three. You could go as far to say that Richter and Badham essentially did a "re-boot". Like the filmmakers of today, they took an iconic character, used several classic elements that were familiar to movie audiences, and made enough subtle changes to come up with something that was recognizable yet different.
The '79 DRACULA starts out with the Count already on his way to England, and causing the ship transporting him to crash near his destination of Whitby. It's a spectacular sequence, with fine model work of the ship, but opening the movie like this leaves out what I think is one of the best parts of Stoker's novel: Jonathan Harker's meeting with Dracula in Transylvania. The result is that Carfax Abbey, the Count's "new" residence in England, becomes the replacement for the Castle Dracula we never get to see (if anything, this Carfax Abbey looks more like a Castle Dracula than other Castle Draculas have).
Like many other Dracula films, the '79 version eliminates several characters--and several locations--from Stoker's book. Other than the Count, the main characters are Harker (Trevor Eve), Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan), Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasence), Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), and Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis). Yes, in this version the character of Mina is Van Helsing's daughter. The two main locations in the '79 DRACULA are the Seward home/sanitarium, and Carfax Abbey.
The first time we really get to see Dracula is when he attacks Renfield inside Carfax Abbey. It's a quick moment, and a rather abrupt introduction. The viewer is fully shown Dracula when he arrives as a guest at the Seward home, where he soon enraptures Lucy and Mina.
Langella is a very good Dracula. He certainly has a commanding screen presence, which I believe is one of the major factors in successfully portraying such a legendary role. Yet I have to say I found his Count to be somewhat reserved. This may be due to differences the actor and director Badham had on how to properly show Dracula on screen. This is a more romantic interpretation of the Count than is usually seen. (This really wasn't all that much of a ground breaker as people usually assumed when the '79 DRACULA came out--Dan Curtis had already touched upon the idea of romantic vampires with his DARK SHADOWS TV show and his own Dracula adaptation starring Jack Palance.) One of the reasons why Langella's stage Dracula was so well received was due to his popularity with the ladies, and the movie tries to feed off of that. Langella's Dracula has to be the best-looking one of all--he has the best hair of any actor who's ever played the Count, that's for sure. (I'd even say that Langella's coif is one of the film's best special effects.)
The member of the cast who impressed me the most was Kate Nelligan as Lucy. Nelligan is the leading lady of the film, and even though her character is engaged to Jonathan Harker, the leading lady of Dracula as well. Nelligan isn't a Helen Chandler-type weakling...her Lucy is a strong, intelligent, modern woman, who is still able to convince us that she is intrigued and attracted to the Count. A actress who was a bigger star, or an actress who was more of a generic "sex symbol" type, would not have been able to make the role of Lucy work. Nelligan's believable performance gives the entire movie a solid foundation.
Laurence Olivier's Van Helsing is a far cry from the archetypal vampire hunter that Peter Cushing played so many times. Since in this version Mina is Van Helsing's daughter, the man has to personally destroy her...which means this time Dracula's main enemy is not assured and determined, he's doubtful, hurt, and confused. I'm not big on the idea of Mina being related to Van Helsing, or Olivier's take on the role (of course, since Peter Cushing is my favorite actor, I'm obviously biased when it comes to how Van Helsing should be realized). Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Seward as a bit of a fool. Pleasence spends the entire movie eating or snacking on food, and while it's cute at the beginning, the practice becomes very annoying. Trevor Eve is okay as Jonathan Harker but the part doesn't give him much of a chance to shine when he's up against scene-stealers like Olivier & Pleasence.
The best things about the '79 DRACULA are its background details--the production design, the costumes, the entire visual aspect of the film. Seeing the '79 DRACULA in HD widescreen brought out the sets in stunning detail, and the lushness of the photography. Cinematographer Frank Tidy was replaced by Gilbert Taylor during the shooting of the '79 DRACULA, but you couldn't tell that from the final product. Special mention needs to be made of John Williams' music--it's one of his most unusual and underrated scores. In his LSOH article Constantine Nasr mentions that for the latest home video release of the '79 DRACULA, director John Badham desaturated the colors--a decision he wanted to do for the original theatrical release. I assume that the '79 DRACULA I saw through Xfinity was also desaturated--there wasn't a lot of vibrancy to the color scheme. Personally I think more color would have made the movie look better.
There were a few other things I liked about the '79 DRACULA. The scenes showing Dracula scaling the walls of buildings are effectively well-staged (once again I must point out that the Count had crawled the wall before in a movie--Hammer's THE SCARS OF DRACULA, albeit very briefly). The drawing-room confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing--one that was also used in the original play and the 1931 DRACULA--is a highlight....ironically this sequence was only included at the insistence of Frank Langella.
But there are certain things about the movie that prevent me from calling it a great vampire film. The Seward Asylum really does seem to be run by the inmates--the patients seem to roam around at will, howling and screaming all the while. I'm sure that the reason for this was to give the story a sense of unease, but the lackadaisical way Seward runs the place seems silly, even for Edwardian England (and I doubt that someone like Lucy Seward would have approved of it). The red-tinged "love scene" between Lucy and the Count would fit well in a 1980s Lifetime TV movie. And the ending features Dracula staking Van Helsing--that may be ironic, but I've always felt that was a too easy way to surprise the audience. Dracula's final comeuppance--hoisted up from the hold of a ship and exposed to the rays of the sun--reminds me of the many spectacular demises devised for the Count by Hammer Films. We don't even get to see Dracula totally disintegrate...we seem him start to, but the camera cuts away and we are shown what appears to be a bat-like figure flying out to sea, and a close-up of Lucy with a slight smile on her face--re-enforcing the idea that Dracula is the real romantic hero of the story.
Once again, I have to say that the '79 DRACULA is a very good movie--but's it not my personal idea of a great Dracula adaptation. I will admit that in my opinion Stoker's novel has never been properly told on the big (or little) screen. The book is very densely layered, and it constantly switches from one person's point of view to another. The best way to adapt it would be as a five or six-part miniseries....but if someone did make a Dracula totally faithful to Stoker, I doubt a 21st mainstream audience would find it appealing. The '79 DRACULA was made for a mainstream audience, instead of monster movie buffs.
Whatever your personal feelings on the '79 DRACULA, issue #36 of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS is worth buying and reading. Constantine Nasr has to be commended for providing as much information as one could want on this film, and the artwork inside the magazine--artwork inspired by the '79 DRACULA--is the icing on the cake.