Title: Dracula (1979)
Director: John Badham
Cast: Frank Langella, Donald Pleasence, Laurence Olivier, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve
Director John Badham’s take on Dracula is a very different take on the character; on this version he is not the fang bearing, blood spitting villain we came to know so well through Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the character in all of those Hammer films from the 60’s and 70’s, nope, this Dracula was to be a romanticized version of the character, a tortured soul trapped in eternity, searching for love. I understand what they were trying to do here, but I think Dracula sans blood and fangs is actually just a bit too much, I mean, we’re talking about a vampire here, blood and fangs are part of the equation most of the time. But whatever, I guess this was the kind of Dracula they wanted to portray, a sexy dude who exudes testosterone , the kind of man that makes the ladies melt as soon as he walks into the room. And this is exactly what happens in one moment of the film, Dracula walks in, he’s all suave, he kisses the ladies hands, dances with them, he even “heals” one of them, the ladies are obviously impressed while the men immediately see him as a threat! What can you do, the mother of all alpha males has just walked into the room!
The way Frank Langella came to play Dracula on this film was by way of his performance as Dracula on a Broadway show that ran for more than 900 performances from 1977 to 1980, in this way, Langella was echoing Bela Lugosi who also ended up playing Dracula in Universal Studios classic because he portrayed the character on a stage play. In Langella’s case it was producer Walter Mirisch who saw him perform and liked the play and Langella’s performance so much he decided right there and then that he wanted to make a film out of it. John Badham (the director behind this film) liked the show so much he saw it four times! The script for the film itself is based on the play, so this is probably why the resulting film is so theatrical, but then again, so are most adaptations of Dracula; I guess, Dracula and the theatrical go hand in hand. Langella was offered the part and he accepted but only on the condition that he wouldn’t have to wear fangs, drip blood from his lips or promote the film dressed as Dracula. So as you can see, from the very get go Langella had strong feelings as to how the character would be portrayed. Ultimately, this romantic Dracula is what sets this adaptation apart from all others. I have to give it to Langella, he is a smooth operator on this one! Take notes dudes, on this film; Dracula shows you how to sweep a lady off her feet. First things first, buy yourself a castle and invite her to dinner! Also, get a cape and a perm!
But this is Dracula we’re talking about here and not everything can be lovey dubbey in a horror movie. We couldn’t have a Dracula film and loose the horror element; that just can’t happen. And so, Universal fought for this film to be scarier, requesting to Badham and Mirsch that the film couldn’t lose its horror edge, they didn’t want this film to only focus on the love story. I am happy to say that director John Badham balanced very well both aspects of the story, the horror and the romance. First off, the film is drenched in atmosphere. This is one of those films that NEVER loses its ambiance and I cannot emphasize how important this is to me in this kind of old fashioned horror movie. I like for the atmosphere to be a continuous thing, I want to be in this horror world for the duration of the whole film, and this film does just that! Even the daylight scenes look dreary and void of color and life. Badham originally wanted to film in Black and White in order to pay homage to the old Universal horror films, but Universal wouldn’t allow it because they see black and white as something detrimental, something that might make the film lose business. So instead Badham went with a very colorless palette, the film isn’t black and white, but it might as well have been!
So it has that dreary look to it, add to that the full moons, a castle at the edge of the hill, cemeteries, nights bathed in fog, wolves howling in the night, cobweb filled castles and yes, vampires, and you got yourselves one hell of a spooky movie! Even though Dracula himself doesn’t have fangs on this film, his acolytes do, and so we do get scenes with fanged vampires reaching for their victims throats! In fact, there are some really spooky moments on this one, so fear not my friends, you’ll get your romance, but you’ll also get your horror, Badham did well in not forgetting this was a horror movie. Another film that pulled this balancing act well was Francis Ford Copolla’s Dracula (1992). Another element that really takes this production to another level are the sets. Wow! The exterior and interior of Dracula’s castle look so awesome, so spooky! The same can be said of the insane asylum. And then there’s the awesome cast, aside from Langella who is the stand out on this one, we also get an awesome Van Helsing in the form of legendary actor Laurence Olivier, who I might add was very sick while making this movie. Still, he pulled it off like off like a champ. We also get Donald Pleasence, who was originally set to star as Van Helsing, but decided to play another character because he thought that playing Van Helsing would be too similar to his role of Dr. Loomis in the Halloween movies. So, instead he plays Dr. Seward. All in all, we get a really solid bunch of actors bringing this story to life.
Like any other Dracula adaptation, there are some changes and the film does play around with vampire lore. For example, the film completely ignores the opening of the book in which Jonathan Harker goes visit Dracula to his castle, instead, the story starts off when Dracula is already arriving to London. So those scenes from the book in which Harker comes in contact with Dracula’s vampire brides were completely eliminated. Another thing they did which I found really odd was how they switched Lucy for Mina. In the book it is Mina who falls for Dracula, and not Lucy. But for some reason, they switched them around and on the movie it’s Lucy who ends up being the central female character. I see no purpose for this switch, so go figure, I don’t know why they did it, all it does is confuse Dracula fans. But even with these changes here and there, in the end, John Badham’s Dracula is an excellent take on Dracula. Sadly, even though it wasn’t a complete flop, the film didn’t make as much as the studio expected so it wasn’t considered a winner either. Some attribute this to the fact that so many Dracula/vampire films were released in the same year amongst them Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979), Nocturna (1979), Thirst (1979) and Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979). Also, the Dracula farce Love at First Bite (1979) was released with success, and so the idea of Dracula might not have seemed so scary to audiences anymore. I personally hold Badham’s Dracula amongst my top five favorite Dracula films, in fact, I think I would place it in the top three, right next to Coppola’s Dracula and Terrence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958), yeah, I place Lugosi’s film on a fourth place, I’m one of those guys who likes Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), but doesn’t love it. So yeah, if you haven’t seen this underrated masterpiece, I say give it a chance, you’ll kick yourself in the ass for not having seen it earlier.
Rating: 5 out of 5