John Badham rolls back the years with a traditional take on Bram Stoker’s timeless tale of seduction
The 1970s was a curious time for the world’s most famous vampire, Count Dracula, who was originally created by Bram Stoker in his classic 1897 novel of the same name. Despite ruling the screen for over a decade thanks to Christopher Lee’s iconic turn, Hammer’s incarnation of the character had now been exhausted to the point where, for their last three outings, he had been depicted as savaging London’s modern-day, hot-pants wearing youth, going undercover as an estate agent (!!!) and, rather wonderfully, stumbling into the martial arts genre. Elsewhere, the character had undergone Blaxploitation overhauls in Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream, and had entered the wilfully tragi-comic arena of the absurd with Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula.
It wasn’t all self-parody and bizarre genre leaps though. Dracula was still ripe for traditional adaptations during the 1970s, it’s just they were no longer on the big screen. Instead, two high-profile made-for-television adaptations, one North American, one British, were broadcast, with Jack Palance and Louis Jourdan starring as the title character respectively. However, when George Romero’s Martin, with its extremely fresh, realistic approach (its title character a non-supernatural blood-drinker who used razor blades, not fangs) came out in 1978, all those vampires in capes seemed older and more dated than ever. There was also the matter of Stephen King’s wildly popular Salem’s Lot, (both the novel and its TV adaptation), which gave fans the best of both worlds, offering one of the first truly effective examples of how the vampire movie could exist in a modern-day setting with its suburban, newly-turned bloodsuckers, yet also delivering infusing fresh life into an older, more ancient, more primal kind of terror in the form of its pre-Dracula, folk-tale inspired Mr. Barlow.
Still, by the end of the decade, the vampire movie was tonally all over the place. There was also the cheapo likes of Charles Band’s Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, the title of which speaks for itself. as well as the amusing but merciless spoof Love at First Bite, where George Hamilton’s Count, forced to move out of his castle before it’s renovated into a gymnasium, winds up in disco-dancing New York City. There was also Werner Herzog’s beautifully atmospheric remake of the first classic vampire movie Nosferatu (itself an unauthorised adaptation of Stoker’s novel) — basically, you couldn’t move for vampires, and none of them were quite the same as each other. After that, the 80s would see a plethora of modern-day, contemporary and utterly new bloodsuckers take over the big screen: chic nightclubbers, modern-day Lotharios, teenage biker gangs, nomadic cowboys, strippers, even a goddamned motorcycle that ran on blood.
John Badham’s Dracula was a high-profile, major-studio, big-budget affair that nevertheless must have seemed rather old-fashioned in the summer of 1979. Now, it can be better appreciated out-of-time and strictly as a classical affair, ripe and rich with melodrama, a gleeful crowd-pleaser that delivers the goods with style, scares and splendour. It was also an impressive U-turn from the zeitgeist sensation of Badham’s previous film, Saturday Night Fever, with the only link between the two being Frank Langella’s very contemporary hairstyle, which would have definitely got him into Studio 54, no probs. This new Dracula was based on the recent revival of the successful stage version of the novel that was doing splendid business on Broadway, where Langella had won plaudits for playing the role already. It was originally the stage version (written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston) back in the 1920s where the character of Dracula had been reinvented as the more urbane, social and seductive character that we’re familiar with today, and the 70s revival, thanks to Langella’s spellbinding presence, would enhance that quality to an even greater degree. Given that there hadn’t been a North American, major-studio version of Stoker’s novel since 1931 (Hammer’s 1958 version was an entirely British production), now seemed as good a time as any to bring a new Count to the big screen.
Lucy Seward : Before you arrived we were looking at the ship’s log.
Count Dracula : It wasn’t lost at sea?
Lucy Seward : No. The very last entry was a strange word. A word that Mina thought meant “undead”.
Count Dracula : Undead?
Mina Van Helsing : Yes. “Nosferatu”.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock that was buried under a coffin for the last 150 years, the plot of Dracula, despite varying wildly from version-to-version, is at heart the tale of solicitor Jonathan Harker visiting the mysterious (and it turns out, ancient vampire) Count Dracula at his home in Transylvania to make the final arrangements for the latter’s impending move to Whitby, England. Harker is soon kept prisoner in Dracula’s castle while the Count travels to his new home by sea, after which he sets his sights on Harker’s fiancee Mina and her friend Lucy, seducing and draining the latter so that she becomes a vampire herself. Meanwhile, the esteemed professor Abraham Van Helsing, together with Lucy’s hopeful suitors Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris and an escaped but weakened Harker, set out to defeat the Count, who has now begun to control the bewitched Mina by feeding her his blood.
Like the stage version, Badham and writer W. D Richter (the latter would give the world Buckaroo Banzai and Big Trouble in Little China in the 80s) completely dispense with the Transylvanian content and we remain entirely in England, beginning with Dracula’s ship crashing on the shores of Whitby, its crew ripped apart and the Count the only survivor. The final arrangements regarding Dracula’s new home are still to be dealt with, so a swiftly recovered Count arrives at Dr. Seward’s house to discuss the matter with Jonathan. Here he makes an instant impression on the two women of the household, whose identities may confuse long-standing fans of the novel and its adaptations. Mina and Lucy’s names have been switched for some reason — Lucy is now Jonathan’s wife (another change, they were yet to be married in the novel) and is the daughter of Dr. Seward, while the poorly, anaemic Mina, we later find out, is the daughter of Van Helsing, who arrives in England when she is found dead following a brief but intense hypnotic seduction by Dracula. The characters of Morris and Holmwood are not in this version. Despite the odd mixing of names and insistence on joining characters together through family relations, this simplifies the plot substantially, and even gives characters like Seward and Van Helsing greater dramatic impetus, especially the latter, who has to kill his own daughter after she is drained of her blood.
Langella makes for a stunning, tremendously smooth Dracula — the quintessential tall, dark and handsome stranger, insidiously persuasive, subtle, sly and romantic, he gives a beautifully physical performance. I love the way he scales the sides of the Seward house before he devours Mina, and the way the camera gently drifts to the left to see him — upside down — staring into her room is a striking, eerily subtle jump-scare. Interestingly his vampire doesn’t sport fangs at any point, despite his minions happily flashing pointy canines throughout. This was at Langella’s insistence, and to be fair, he didn’t need them. He manages to do so much without the need for histrionics. There’s no ‘It is no LAUGHING MATTTTAGGH!!‘ scenery chewing here (sorry, Gary). His is a Dracula that is so assured and confident of his superiority over mere mortals (not to mention the fact that he is the ‘king’ of his kind) that he doesn’t even need to raise his voice. After all, in all his five hundred years as a vampire, all who have crossed him have died (and some not pleasantly). You just have to love the confidence in someone who, when assured by Jonathan that he ‘won’t get Lucy’, responds with a chilling ‘She’s mine already’. Dracula is the ultimate example of ‘women desire him, men fear him’ magnetism, the charming bastard.
In comparison, poor Trevor Eve does the absolute best he can with Jonathan Harker, a character forever doomed to remain the archetypal dull sap when placed aside the Count’s irresistible attraction. He’s definitely the angriest Harker I’ve seen on screen, as befits the jealousy of someone who’s been instantly sidelined. As soon as Langella strides into shot, handing his coat to the help without taking his eyes off of Lucy, poor Johnny doesn’t stand a chance. UK viewers of a certain age will be bemused (and probably freaked) to see sitcom favourite Jan Francis (who was once the co-lead in long-running will-they-won’t-they charmer Just Good Friends) as Mina, especially when she turns demonic. Olivier and Pleasance are always great value in the genre — the former publicly admitted this was one of his ‘for the money’ jobs, and a one-off turn at that — it was he that insisted Van Helsing be killed at the end so that there was no chance he would be asked to appear in a possible sequel. With his broad accent and occasional ripe delivery, it’s definitely a mannered performance, but he exudes wise authority and really holds his own against Langella during their face-offs. Indeed, Van Helsing is the only character who Dracula recognises as a serious threat, someone who is wise ‘for someone who has not lived even a single lifetime’.
Outside of Langella’s star turn, the most impressive performance comes from Kate Nelligan as Lucy, who only needed a little nudge to fully embrace a life of darkness, and you can tell something’s ignited the moment she sets eyes on Dracula. The sparkle in her eyes as she willingly steps into temptation is infectious; by her own admission, she loves the night and loves to be frightened. Their love scene is the film’s most obvious debt to the time it was made — well, that and Langella’s astonishing hairdo — a surreal consummation played out as a silhouette against a fiery, blood-red background, it almost resembles a James Bond title sequence from that time, except here we get the dramatic peaks of John Williams’ brilliantly melodramatic score instead of, say, Paul McCartney and Wings.
Despite Lucy’s infatuation with Dracula, partly due to his hypnotic power over her (when she is confronted by Van Helsing’s crucifix, she genuinely seems to be regretful and full of shame over her behaviour), deep down she clearly longs to be set free from the shackles of staid, buttoned-down English society. Dracula is the ultimate personification of such desires. She also sees him as ‘the saddest, the kindest’ of all people, above and beyond anyone else she has encountered. If Hollywood didn’t demand that evil be vanquished and normality resumed, wouldn’t it be a thrill to see these two live together forever? But no, Dracula must be inevitably killed (and quite inventively, I’ll add) and the spell must be broken. Or is it? The final moments, when Dracula’s cape is carried off into the daytime sky (which may or may not be a hint that he isn’t really dead), Lucy gazes longingly and knowingly at it, as if she knows that some day her dark prince will return. Evil and its darkest desires may have been vanquished, but it can never truly be destroyed. It’s a chilling, deliciously wicked ending.
In a post-Exorcist Hollywood, you could be forgiven for presuming that at the time this version would be far more copious with the gore and terror than the 1931 (despite being made before the notorious Hays Code, it was tame enough to refrain from depicting the title character’s death) or even the, for-its-time, rather bloody 1958 version. Yet Badham’s Dracula is rather sparing with the grue, a couple of torn throats, a vicious 360 degree head-kill, a murdered baby, Mina’s ghastly appearance in the mines and Dracula’s own scorched demise excepted. Elsewhere, Mina’s ‘second’ death, when her body is killed in order to save her soul, cuts away before things get unpleasant. This isn’t a criticism — the film uses its violence precisely so that it when it does arrive, it does pack a punch. For many fans of the film, the horrific highlight is the brilliant scene when an undead Mina, who has clawed her way out of the side of her buried coffin and into the underground mines, confronts her father. With her eyes glowing and her fanged mouth bloodied, she advances towards us, beckoning Van Helsing with a ghastly, faux-innocent ‘papa..come to me’ in German. It’s one of the most frightening and nightmare-inducing depictions of a vampire ever. Nelligan in vampire form is also pretty damn scary, and her seduction of a hopeless Jonathan is one of the strongest moments of the film, but then I’m a sucker for a good-old fanged-mouth and red eyes. These old, old moves never fail to creep me out.
Count Dracula : [to Lucy] Now it is you, my best beloved one. You will be flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. You will cross land and sea to do my bidding. I need your blood. I need…
Dracula, with its $12 million budget, did pretty decent business ($31 million at the box office) and the reviews were solid if not spectacular — praise was singled out for Langella and how stylish the movie looked. Admittedly, compared to the rampant visual bravura of Coppola’s later take, it all plays out as relatively (though eloquently) restrained today, although it’s never anything less than extremely handsome and beautifully crafted. There are some delightful visual moments — note when Lucy visits Dracula’s castle at Carfax Abbey and we see a portion of the scene play out from above a huge spider’s web (complete with spider). Here she is the unwitting prey about to be devoured. In a later scene, Jonathan visits a now vamped-Lucy in the sanitarium, and we have a similarly staged shot where the two of them are viewed from above the security netting, with Lucy now the spider waiting to trap her prey. It’s a beautiful film of colour too, but weirdly for decades the version that audiences saw in cinemas in 1979 and on television and VHS years later — including me, who was spellbound by a late-night ITV screening in the early nineties — had been missing-in-action. That’s because in 1991, Badham took the opportunity to change the look of Dracula for its Laserdisc release. Originally, he wanted to shoot his film in classical black-and-white as a tribute to the vintage Universal horror movies of the 1930s. However, present-day Universal insisted Badham deliver his movie in full Technicolor. and that was that. Or was it?
Following a decade of pan-and-scan presentations on video tape and television, the film’s debut widescreen release on LaserDisc at the start of the 90s would have been the first opportunity for fans of the film who never saw it at the cinema to see it in its original aspect ratio, where the lavish sets and gorgeous use of colour could be appreciated properly. However, this was precisely the moment when Badham took the opportunity to alter the film’s look in an attempt to approximate his original monochromatic intentions. He didn’t go quite so far as to literally make it a black-and-white movie, but he did apply a desaturated look (although Dracula and Lucy’s love scene was left alone) that made everything much darker and gloomier.
The problem is, the film wasn’t filmed for black-and-white presentation, and as such, this approximation ended up looking very weird and unnatural. Appropriately, given the subject matter, it was as if a celluloid vampire had sucked the life essence from the movie, leaving a pallid, grey and anaemic but not-quite-dead victim in its wake. Most disappointingly, the scene with Mina-as-vampire in the mines loses a fair amount of its original impact with the reds toned down. Luckily, the film in its theatrical version has finally been made available on Blu-ray in North America, and while it’s not a pristine presentation, it’s an absolute joy to watch it the way it originally was, where the rich palette of colours can be fully appreciated, be it the magnificent candle-lit interiors of Dracula’s castle, the spectacular dusks or, when it comes, the vivid scarlet of torn throats or bloodied lips.
Maybe it’s because it’s a relative underdog in the pantheon of major Dracula adaptations, but this 1979 take remains one of my personal favourites of the lot. It’s not definitive (to be fair, there isn’t really one). After this, Dracula would take a back seat for over a decade. He would appear in the fringes, whether it was part of an ensemble (The Monster Squad) or making a surprise appearance in a London snooker hall (Billy the Kid Versus The Green Baize Vampire). The next major Dracula adaptation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and released in 1992, came at a time when audiences seemed ready for a bit of tradition after a decade of difference. Despite mixed critical reaction, it was a huge hit. Drac was back, but he never really went away and now, at the time of writing, a bold, 4 1/2 hour-long new adaptation from Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat has just arrived on the BBC. Some things never die.