DRACULA (1979 version): Less Blood, More Romance, Fangs Optional

In this post-Interview With A Vampire/post-Twilight era, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it was a controversial move to make a Dracula movie that presented its anti-hero as a figure of seduction rather than a figure of terror.  However, this was true in the late 1970’s: you were expected to deliver a customary amount of blood, thunder and gnashing vampire fangs, unless you were making a comedy-horror film like Love At First Bite.  Any film that dared not follow this mandate ran the risk of alienating horror fans and confusing non-horror fans.

And that brings us to the least respected adaptation of this classic tale, the 1979 version of Dracula. Genre fans got their collective panties in a knot over it because a) it favored a more romantic approach – complete with a ‘sexy,’ quasi-sympathetic Dracula – instead of the usual gruesome hijinks and b) it was directed by John Badham, who had just come off a zeitgeist-tapping, very non-horror hit called Saturday Night Fever. The film did middling business at the box office and has been consigned to home video oblivion since then. So it is the misguided bomb some perceive it to be or a classic waiting to be rediscovered?

Truth be told, it exists somewhere in the middle space between those two judgments. Dracula falls short of being a classic because its experimental approach to the tale isn’t as fully realized as it could have been.  It is based on the Broadway play version of the story rather than drawing directly from the Bram Stoker novel, favoring the romanticized take on the story that became a big Broadway hit in the late 1970’s.  As adapted for the screen by W.D. Richter, it racks up several further changes – dropping some scenes altogether, expanding others and adding some new tweaks all its own.

Some of the choices are effective – making Lucy a model of proto-feminist independence and moving things to an Edwardian setting are the most potent.  However, other changes could have used a bit more thought: a sudden car-vs.-horse carriage chase near the end seems to have walked in from a different movie. Also, some of the casting doesn’t work – Trevor Eve provides one of the more bland interpretations of Jonathan Harker. More importantly, the third act blurs by in a hasty and disjointed style, lacking the smooth, dramatic build necessary for this kind of gothic effort.

However, that doesn’t mean this Dracula isn’t worth watching. The film is stylish and committed enterprise, managing to entertain even when some of its choices fail to connect with the viewer. First and foremost, Frank Langella is a top-flight Dracula, making him as lusty as he is imposing to create one of the more seductive takes on this familiar character. A young Kate Nelligan adds some fire as the re-imagined Lucy character and Laurence Oliver is hammy in the best possible way as Van Helsing – his scenes with Langella crackle with intensity.

Best of all, the underrated John Badham directs with confidence and great cinematic flair. Utilizing sumptuous scope photography from Gil Taylor and one of John Williams’ best (and most atypical) scores, he gives the film a grand, old-fashioned atmosphere of dark romance. He also creates one of the most unusual and memorable vampiric seduction scenes – this moment goes heavy on the optical effects and is too over-the-top for some but its electrifying to Your Humble Reviewer’s eyes. Finally, you gotta love those gorgeous matte paintings by Alfred Whitlock (they still look better than CGI).

In short, this isn’t the best Dracula out there – mainly because it forsakes its horror roots to be a gothic romance. That said, modern viewers accustomed to romanticized vampire-lite fare might find this trailblazer to be worthwhile gothic eye-candy.

3 Replies to “DRACULA (1979 version): Less Blood, More Romance, Fangs Optional”

  1. The big budget epic that “Saturday Night Fever” bought, complete with lavish period art direction, magnificent
    John Williams score, exquisite British locations, and one very ailing Laurence Olivier…and all of it was to no avail….for many reasons, the most potent one being a fey, stagy, and overly mannered performance by Langella, a much too subtle and non-committal stance towards a potent and complex attack on sexual repression and Victorian social mores, and well as Christian piety, (this, no doubt, fueled by the nascent rise of political conservatism at the very tail end of the 70’s that would result in the landslide victory of The Republican Party a year after the film’s initial release) and a director who was laboring under the delusion that his previous film’s blockbuster status and explosive cultural impact was due to his dance sequences and not the searing social criticism of it’s screenplay and the raw, unsparing and naked emotional honesty of it’s young and yet-to-be-famous actors.

  2. To elaborate and clarify, due to a typo: “a much too subtle and genteel stance on attacking sexual repression and the mores of Victorian society, as well as Christian piety…the inherent boldness of this thematic conceit, which would have given the film a much more dynamic and edgier quality, was no doubt muted by the nascent rise of political conservatism that was just beginning to appear at the tail end of the 70’s and would result in the landslide victory of The Republican Party a year after the film’s initial release”.
    As an addendum to the above, it is also fascinating in retrospect to view the film through a prism of cinema history, specifically in relation to the kind of massive artistic credibility that “Fever” bestowed virtually overnight onto Badham, who up until that point was viewed as nothing more than a journeyman television director with a failed baseball picture behind him, and was now suddenly understood to be a budding and brilliant wunderkind on the level of Spielberg, and given the money, clout, and authority to suddenly graze on the highest plateau of Hollywood’s A-list. That, of course, was all over in a flash, in no small part to the critical “emperor’s new clothes” drubbing that “Dracula” received, and the remaining body of his work, although it established him as a reliable, box-office friendly, if not particularly unique or inspired filmmaker, certainly never restored him to the forceful and daring director people originally perceived him to be in the wake of the “Saturday Night Fever” phenomena.

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