Fright Fest 2018: Dracula (1979)
Release year: 1979
Starring: Frank Langella; Laurence Olivier; Donald Pleasance and Kate Nelligan.
Directed by: John Badham
Review by: D.S. Ullery
Whether or not an adaptation of Dracula succeeds – and there have been many – comes down to the actor playing Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee each put their own, definitive stamp on the character, as did Gary Oldman in later years. Even Jack Palance delivered a memorable turn as the vampire in a terrific 70’s- era television movie.
In John Badham’s 1979 film, the role goes to actor Frank Langella. Like Lugosi before him, Langella had originally occupied the role in a revival of the stage production which was adapted into the 1931 Universal classic. He was a superb choice. Langella, who is an imposingly tall figure in real life, commands every scene with a hypnotic authority, investing even classically dark lines such as “I never drink…wine” with a dignity lesser artists would be incapable of.
The film – like the play – deviates somewhat from the Stoker novel. Here, asylum director John Steward ( Donald Pleasance, at his British best) and his independent, strong willed daughter Lucy ( a terrific Kate Nelligan) play host to friend Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis).
In this version, Mina is presented as an already sickly woman, frail and given to exhaustion, and solicitor Johnathan Harker (Trevor Eve) is betrothed to Lucy. Into their lives sails Count Dracula, whose ship crashes onto the shores of England, not far from the asylum. Mina witnesses the shipwreck from her bedroom and races to the Count’s aide.
The following evening, having revived from his ordeal, Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home. There he makes a proper introduction and finally meets Johnathan, who we have learned had earlier arranged the sale of nearby Carfax Abbey to the Count.
From there, Dracula begins to exert his diabolical influence, first effecting Mina, then turning his attention to Lucy. When Mina dies unexpectedly several days later, her father Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) arrives to find out what happened, setting in motion events which will bring him into direct conflict with his Undead arch nemesis.
This could easily have been a cookie cutter approach to the material, with nothing much to distinguish it from any other adaptation, but there’s a genuine respect for the material evident in the film. Badham – who would go on to direct several of my favorite movies of the following decade, including Wargames, Blue Thunder and the original Short Circuit – clearly approached this as a passion project . That affection for the story shines through in every scene.
The cast is terrific across the board. Not only do Langella and Olivier sell their dangerous relationship ( a scene where Olivier openly weeps over his dead daughter is absolutely heart wrenching), there’s also a creepy, scene stealing turn from Tony Haygarth as insect devouring Milo Renfield. Here the character is depicted as being too cowardly to resist Dracula, yet too frightened not to plead for help from others in escaping the influence of the vampire. Everyone seems entirely invested in their characters and approaches their roles with the same energy Badham demonstrates behind the camera.
The production design is sumptuous**. Beginning with an opening sequence set aboard Dracula’s ill-fated ship ( a violent, ghoulish scene informing viewers early on this will be an R rated, adult telling of the story) the film is imagined with an epic, Gothic vibe which would feel at home in the classic Universal horror movies. Carfax Abbey in particular is a marvel of set design, with its long, ascending staircase and chambers draped in decades of cobwebs. The same can be said for the asylum Dr. Seward runs and the ship on which the final confrontation occurs.
The special effects work is commendable as well. In this day of more advanced animatronics and CGI, the bat effects come off as a bit dated, but for the most part it all holds up. The Count’s ability to transform into animals is used to excellent ends here, as are his other inherent supernatural capabilities. With swirls of mist dancing about him like a shroud, there’s no denying the chilling quality of watching Langella’s Dracula scale a sheer wall like a cloaked spider.
The score by maestro John Williams (yes, that John Williams) adds elegance and power throughout. This is never more evident than in the scene where Dracula seduces Lucy. Maurice Binder -who famously designed the opening titles of the Bond movies for several decades- was responsible for the visual design in this scene. It could all easily have played like high camp. Instead, the sequence is endowed with a majestic quality thanks to William’s evocative themes.
I’m reminded of something the late Desmond Llewelyn (who portrayed Q in the Bond films as late as the Brosnan era) once said. When asked who was the best Bond, Llewelyn answered it was whoever the viewer saw in the role first. He reasoned that’s the incarnation who had the most impact and against whom all future characterizations would be judged.
I mention this because I believe Dracula works in the same way. I was nine when I saw John Badham’s film and it was my first experience with the story. The movie – which was sold as a love story as much as a horror film- deftly plays up the romantic qualities of the character, while at the same time driving home the underlying ghoulishness which powers the tale: Behind the culture and charisma, there’s an evil, life draining, Undead thing. Count Dracula is a beast pretending to be human. He wants to dominate and take what he desires and will destroy anything – or anyone – standing in his way. This film captures that essence in a way other adaptations, in my opinion, do not. Subsequently, it remains my favorite screen version of the story to this day.
Sadly overlooked at the time of its release (The success of the comedy Love at First Bite, which was released only a few months earlier, didn’t help the marketing for a traditionally serious take on the material), I strongly recommend this for fans of classy, classic horror.
John Badham famously wanted to film Dracula in black and white , but Universal balked, feeling the format would turn off too many viewers in 1979. They mandated the movie be shot in warm, Technicolor hues and so it was. Years later, when the home video re-release came about, Badham had the final say and ordered the colors de-saturated, to bring it closer to his original vision. That’s the version generally available today. Curious upon learning about this bit of backstory, I tried an experiment and changed the television settings while viewing the DVD, so I was watching the film in black and white. It worked remarkably well. For the curious, I suggest giving it a try.
D.S. Ullery has published in various ezines and magazines, as well as the anthologies When Red Snow Melts; Creature Stew; Journals of Horror:Found Fiction; Wild Things: Thirteen tales of Therianthropy ; Paying the Ferryman and The Final Masquerade. Beyond Where the Sky Ends – the first collection of his horror fiction- was published in early 2016. A born and raised Floridian, he lives with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.