Dracula (1979, John Badham)

Dracula.1979.1080p.BluRay.x264.YIFY.mp4_snapshot_00.20.19_[2016.06.29_23.02.12]

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The entire film takes place in and around Whitby – so we never see Castle Dracula nor go to London. It’s slightly later than the 1890s of the novel, evidenced by the presence of cars. Some sources claim it’s 1913.

Faithful to the novel? The script is based on the 1920s stage adaptation of Dracula and differs from the book in several key ways.
* As mentioned above, the action is limited to Whitby.
* The story begins with the wreck of the Demeter and the eponymous character’s arrival in Britain.
* Unlike in the novel, Count Dracula (Frank Langella) makes friends with the good guys before starting to seduce the women.
* The hero characters’ relationships have been jumbled around. Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is now the daughter of Dr Jack Seward (a fruity Donald Pleasence), rather than someone he wants to marry. Her other suitors from the book, Arthur and Quincey, have been dropped. And her role in the story has also been swapped with that of her friend Mina (Jan Francis), who now becomes Dracula’s first victim. In another break from the book, Mina is the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), who appears on the scene after she dies.
* Because of the Lucy/Mina switch, solicitor Jonathan Harker (an over-keen Trevor Eve) is now the boyfriend of Lucy. He also never goes to Transylvania, though is still dealing with the Count’s affairs.
* Local man Renfield (Tony Haygarth) is not an inmate at Seward’s sanatorium, as in the novel, but he still falls under Dracula’s thrall.
* The building the vampire has bought, meanwhile, is in Whitby not London – and is a Gothic castle rather than a townhouse.

Best performance: Frank Langella had been playing Dracula in a Broadway revival of the stage play since October 1977. Whether trading cool repartee over dinner or climbing down the side of a building, the Count exudes charm and authority. He wears a cape but uses a neutral accent and, at the insistence of Langella, never flashes any fangs.

Best bit: Well, it’s certainly not the bit where Mina can’t breathe after her sexual encounter with Dracula. What does medical expert Dr Seward do? He slaps her round the face and shouts the word ‘Breathe’ a few times. Not too surprisingly, she then dies. More positively, the sight of the undead Mina is a creepy bit of make-up.

Review: There’s some great staging in this film. The sets are very impressive, while the wreck of the Demeter on a beach is achieved via a full-size ship on a real location. There’s also a good attempt to beef up the gothic-romance side of the story, especially in the subplot of Lucy’s fascination with Dracula. (Their ‘sex scene’ is dramatised by trippy, music-video-like visuals put together by James Bond title-sequence designer Maurice Binder.) John Williams’s score is terrific too. But the whole enterprise has a very earnest tone. The cast – some good, some poor – are fighting against a lacklustre script and the cinematography is very cold with lots of drab, lifeless greys. (Although, perhaps I’m being unfair on that last point because the movie on DVD looks very different from its 1979 print. Director John Badham had wanted to shoot the film in black and white – partly as a homage to the 1931 Dracula – but was overruled by his bosses at Universal Pictures. So when it was released on Laserdisc in 1991, he took the opportunity to de-saturate the image, bringing it closer in line with his original vision. That’s the default version now, which is a shame.)

Six children of the night (what sad music they make) out of 10

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