Vampire Vednesday - Dracula (1979)
There are many reasons to get into horror films. Every horror fan will tell you a unique story as to how they came to embrace the genre. For me, as a child with an overactive imagination and prone to nightmares…well, it took a little while to warm up to it. The thing that kept me involved and coming back to these movies was the culture that had grown up around them, or, at least the culture I could perceive: horror hosts both national (like Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs, and USA Up All Night’s tag team of Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear) and local (Cleveland’s Ghoulardi and Big Chuck & Little John) as well as bits of Fangoria I’d catch glimpses of from my cousin’s stash. As for movie selections, I have to admit that sometimes this is driven by films that scared the ever-lovin’ crap out of me as a kid and circling back to them now that I’m an adult and see if I can handle it. Most times I can but some, like the original Night of the Living Dead and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre will still get me.
Strangely enough, so does one particular part of 1979’s Dracula with Frank Langella.
I mean, here’s a version that skimps on gore, hell, there’s barely any bloodletting at all! And why should there be? Based off of the Broadway play that was popular at the time, this version is dedicated more to the romantic angle of the age-old vampire story…13 years before the Francis Ford Coppola version that made the same claim. And yet, there’s a scene with Mina Van Helsing, having just freshly become one of the undead, that scares the living bejeebers out me even out. And it’s really not even a ‘good’ make up effect…just a little latex peel here and there to hint at necrotic flesh and red contact lenses, but when she says “Papa”…holy crap it still creeps me out.
Langella as the title character does indeed make the character more his own, being, ironically enough, livelier than his more notable predecessors Lugosi and Lee (and yes, I’m only noticing now the prevalence of actors with last names starting with ‘L’ in the role!) and very much does indeed capture the romance of the character that the filmmakers were going for. But for students of genre film, this film offers a bit of an all-star list of cast and crew members that might come off as a bit of a surprise. Directed by John Badham, of Saturday Night Fever fame (can’t say I expected that), written by W. D. Richter (Look! It’s Buckaroo Banzai!), some scenes by Maurice Binder (of nude James Bond openings fame), score by John Williams…just at this, you already have my attention but then we switch to in front of the lens and we have such greats as Laurence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing and genre stalwart Donald Pleasance as Dr. Jack Seward. While the remainder of the cast is less familiar to me, all serve their roles well.
Now, as much as I love W. D. Richter for giving us Buckaroo Banzai, the jumbling of characters is a bit unfortunate. As mentioned before, we have Mina Van Helsing…which should be Mina Harker, bride of Jonathan…and Lucy as Dr. Seward’s daughter who is betrothed to the aforementioned Mr. Harker. I must be fair and make allowances for two things, first, I’ve not read the Bram Stoker original, so my knowledge is based more on the Coppola version and second, Richter’s screenplay is based off of the play that was popular at the time and thus this mix up might be more a product of the playwrights and not Mr. Richter. I will also say for a character that eventually comes to the side of the angels, so to speak, man, Harker is a DICK. Was kinda hoping he would be a casualty as opposed to the character that eventually does end up falling.
There are two things that definitely stand out for lofty praise in this film, aside from Langella’s performance of course. First are the set and production design. Extremely well done and I have to admit that given the quality, I’m kind of surprised that this film isn’t talked about more in horror circles as opposed to the focus on Lugosi and Lee. Carfax Abbey, Dracula’s English home, has this amazing architecture that, while clearly telegraphing the evil nature of the resident, can easily be overlooked as just a showpiece of gothic construction of the time. Perhaps it might even be fair to say that it straddles the line of Broadway gaudiness and cinematic beauty. If the multiple interpretations of both Dracula and the Phantom of the Opera are any suggestion, this is a difficult line to tow indeed.
Secondly, and this will likely be obvious given his illustrious career, but the soundtrack provided by John Williams is utterly fantastic. I’d always wondered how he’d handle a horror movie and, as always, he’s quite masterful here. Yes, he succumbs to his usual style at times (which, to most, isn’t a bad thing), but he handles the sinister aspects quite well…and the balance of these two elements go hand in hand rather well.
There is one last thing that I have to point out that I understood only after watching this version. You see, earlier in 2020, I bought the Castlevania Classics Collection on XBox Live. Included in this collection was a game called ‘Kid Dracula’…and the titular character had very wild, poofy hair. Up until seeing this movie, I was at a loss as to where in the history of the character this kind of hair could have come from, as Lugosi and Lee favored a slicked back look while Oldman went more long-haired as opposed to poofy-haired. Look no further than Langella’s quaffed hair later in the film. It’s definitely out there (not as ‘out there as Oldman’s initial old man ‘do in the 92 version).
If you’re a fan of Dracula or vampires, I’d definitely recommend giving this one a look. It maintains the craftsman-like appearance of late-70s film and gives an interesting interpretation of the familiar lore. While not exactly lining up chapter and verse, it is this high-quality filmmaking along with a rich roster of genre veterans that make it worth a look for any horror fan.
TLDR: Tame in terms of gore, this more romantic interpretation of Dracula still has a few scares in store. There are some notable strays from the source material however that keep it from being perfect. Still worthy of a Happy Cat rating!