After over forty years since its initial theatrical release, I finally saw what passed me by during my later childhood: DRACULA, starring Frank Langella in the title role. Having seen all of Hammer Studios’ DRACULA cycle, which spanned fifteen years (1958-1973) of nine continuous productions, I can’t help but compare this Mirisch Company project to that body of work.
The production values in this 1979 romantic horror version of DRACULA are a cut above Hammer fare, which generally had stagy– albeit campily fun– sets. The bulk of the movie takes place in and around two large buildings: the home and attached insane asylum owned and run by Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance) and Carfax Abbey, a run-down castle leased by Count Dracula (Langella), having just arrived in England from his native Transylvania. The sets are effectively old-looking, dark and, where needed, filled with requisite spider webs. I particularly enjoyed a bird’s eye view of camera work from the ceiling in Carfax Abbey, in which a large spider in its web looms directly above Dracula and his lone guest Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan) below. It’s a touch of blatant symbolism and foreshadowing but an effectively foreboding one nonetheless.
A forty-year-old Langella makes for quite the suave, seductive Dracula. A young Ms. Nelligan as an initially slightly bored and willful, then soon lovestruck Lucy matches up well with him. I found the romantic and sexual chemistry between the two convincing, fun, and intriguing. It reaches an ecstatic peak during a certain scene of them in bed together, which is filmed with dramatic back lighting and shadow play, accompanied by energetic orchestral music by John Williams. I had never seen this more sensual side of the Prince of Darkness so played out in a film produced before the 1980s or 90s. We also get to see the Count’s sexy animalness as he scales up and down walls in slow motion, his thick 70s styled hair and black cape moving in the night wind. Undoubtedly, this particular special effect was simply accomplished by having the actor crawl along a side of outer building wall placed on the ground and then angling the camera vertically while actually filming or switching the film’s position of the footage afterwards. I did wonder if filming was done backwards for some or all of these brief action scenes. In any case, Mr. Langella is show-cased nicely with his intense stare, angular face, and full lips. I certainly understand why Lucy is so taken with him and not with her young, pretty, and eager but otherwise uninteresting fiance, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve).
Grand thespian Laurence Olivier portrays a grieving, mysterious Professor Abraham van Helsing, who comes to Dr. Seward’s home immediately after the strange, sudden death there of his daughter Mina (Jan Francis), a close friend of Lucy’s. Having seen the lovely Peter Cushing play van Helsing several times in Hammer’s earlier DRACULA movies, I think Olivier does equal justice to the character, if not perhaps more so, with his nuances of ponderousness and sadness. A comparatively younger Cushing plays the same role with a business-like efficiency, which has its due place in such a campy-minded series than this comparatively serious screenplay about the cinema’s most popular vampire.
Where the screen drama falls apart for me is at the very end, which I won’t completely give away. Script writer W.D. Richter and director John Badham switched things up a lot throughout the story, which is quite varied in places from the original book, DRACULA, by Bram Stoker. Granted, I am fine with how most movie adaptations stray far and wide from the classic novel. And following the actual ending can be viewed as unoriginal and too predictable, I suppose, particularly given how frequently this story has been filmed over the past century. In this version’s ending, however, I find Professor van Helsing’s thunder to be pointlessly stolen. Just as cunning and determined as the dark Count himself, van Helsing is the other central figure of the narrative, the polar opposite to and powerful arch enemy of Dracula. Hence, he is the true main hero with the naive Jonathan Harker a supporting, secondary hero. Clearly, there was an attempt to appeal to a younger audience by giving a youthful Harker (Eve) a more central piece of the action here. What last minute, ageist nonsense.
Since it is largely public knowledge at this point in time that Dracula dies at the end of the story, a common question for viewers surely arises: “How will he actually die in this particular movie?” Well, rather awkwardly and ridiculously here in this Mirisch Company effort. How pathetic and annoying. But, hey, at least the movie sails along pleasantly enough before its denouement crashes and burns.