AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME 105 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A great storm rages, and people on the ship Demeter, which is transporting Count Dracula from Transylvania to Whitby, are attacked by a wolf. A sickly Mina Van Helsing, who is visiting her friend Lucy Seward, discovers Dracula’s body after his ship has run aground. The Count visits Mina and her friends at the household of Lucy’s father, Dr. Jack Seward, whose clifftop mansion also serves as the local asylum. At dinner, he proves to be a charming guest and leaves a strong impression on the hosts, Lucy especially. Less charmed by this handsome Romanian count is Jonathan Harker, Lucy’s fiancé. That night, however, he comes to Mina’s bedroom and the next morning she is dead. Perhaps her father Abraham can help….
George Lucas’s continuous tampering with the Star Wars films met with both bewilderment and downright hostility from many, but the case of Dracula isn’t entirely unrelated and again asks the question of how much right a filmmaker has to alter a film many years after its release, by which time everyone is familiar with the original version. In John Badham’s case, he originally wanted to shoot his version of Dracula in black and white, so when it was released on laserdisc he totally altered the formerly bright colour palette of the film, desaturating the colours, which perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if he’d still allowed the other version to stay in circulation. As it is, many fans were hoping that the Blu-ray release would contain both versions, but no; Badham just doesn’t want it seen any more, which is a great shame. I personally didn’t notice the differences because I’d only seen the film once on TV before buying the DVD a few years ago and hadn’t remembered what it looked like! I actually reviewed this film back then, but sometimes I’m not happy with a review I’ve done, so here’s another one of what is one of the more flawed Dracula adaptations, with considerable altering from the book, some of which works okay but some of which is just bewildering. The approach to the Count is interesting though if not entirely successful, there are a few stand-out moments, and the film shows an artistic bent that Badham hasn’t really shown elsewhere.
Like Universal’s earlier 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi, the screenplay for this one was supposedly based on the stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. It was revived in 1977 starring the then little known Frank Langella as Dracula, though there must have been considerable rewriting by screenwriter W.D. Richter because little of it remains in the finished film. Ken Russell was also planning a version around the same time, to star either Peter O’Toole or Mick Fleetwood in the lead, and what a film that would have been! Langella was asked to reprise his stage role, but he only agreed if he wore no fangs. Donald Pleasence was initially offered the role of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, but rejected it, saying it was too similar to his role as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween, so he accepted the smaller role of Dr. Seward instead. Laurence Olivier, who took over the part, was seriously ill during the making of this film and some wondered whether he would be able to complete it. Ironically, working on this vampire film, Olivier had a disease that caused him to bleed incessantly at the slightest nick or scratch. Sylvester McCoy was interviewed for Renfield, and the character of Swayles split into two so McCoy could have a part, but most of his footage was cut anyway. Shot at Shepperton Studios, Black Park [the Hammer forest!] in Buckinghamshire, and Cornwall doubling for Whitby, it was one of five Dracula films released in 1979, the others being Nosferatu The Vampyre, Love At First Bite, and the more obscure Nocturna and Graf Dracula in Oberbayern. It got surprisingly little box office and attention.
The story’s entire opening act of Harker [or occasionally Renfield] visiting Castle Dracula is totally skipped, which is odd but does allow us to get into the story quicker. The film begins instead with an abbreviated version of the section on the Demeter where the sailors regret ever deciding to transport Dracula’s coffin to England. When the ship is washed up on Whitby beach, there’s a really good example of how not showing an effect can work. Mina comes across the injured Dracula in a cave, and all we see is a human hand coming out from the side of his wolf form to clasp Mina’s. It’s quite creepy. This is perhaps a good time to mention a major problem I have with this version. Mina and Lucy’s roles have been switched. I can buy, say, Van Helsing now being Mina’s father, or Renfield being a dock worker, but the Mina/Lucy change just irks me because it’s so pointless, doesn’t add anything and seems to have been done just for the hell of it, much like moving the story forward just a little to 1913 so characters can whizz around in old cars. Anyway never mind, Mina is soon vampirised, and not only is her coffin discovered to be empty, but she seems to have clawed her way out through the side of the coffin. Her appearance as one of the undead in a mine [which is right by a cemetery!] is a genuinely great moment of horror because she looks absolutely hideous with her pasty white makeup and her delivery of “Poppa, komme mit mir. Komme, poppa!” is so chilling, a nice contrast to the usual idea of female victims becoming sexier as vampires. Olivier also totally sells the scene when he cries after having had to kill his daughter.
This Dracula is renowned for ramping up the romance aspect, and, what with its young-looking, sexy Count who has women swooning at his feet, it undferstandably seems to be a version that many females find appealing, but, while Lucy clearly falls for Dracula, I’m not at all convinced that he falls for her: the sexual predator is just using her in a slightly different way. The two may make love in an oddly handled scene with lots of red and Bond credit style visuals [well, Maurice Binder was involved!], but he seems to me to actually hate love and wishes to twist any form of it into an abomination. Langella and Kate Nelligan actually disliked each other on set and therefore lack much chemistry, which in an odd way works for the movie, though overall I don’t think that this aspect of the movie was totally thought through. Once Van Helsing and Harker set out to destroy Dracula, the novel’s plot is followed reasonably closely, though here we have an original but rather clumsily staged shipboard death for Dracula where he’s immolated by the sun [though we don’t get a full decomposing scene] and his cloak, despite it being daylight, flies off like a kite. You can also see the stick through the kite [now that’s another example of the kind of thing digital correction is for – not for draining the colour out of a apparently once-fantastic looking film!]. At least this version has Dracula moving about during the day which he can do in the book but doesn’t have all of his powers.
There are a few gory moments here and there – Dracula breaking Renfield’s neck is quite shocking – though this version overall feels a bit underpowered, as if some of its blood has been drained away. Still, the production design is wonderfully Gothic and made the most of by Gilbert Taylor’s photography, which gives us some terrific shots such as one looking down from the ceiling of Carfax Abbey, a huge spider’s web filling the screen. Some of the still shots of the locales, from Carfax Abbey [a really convincing matte painting by Albert Whitlock] looming mysteriously in the distance, to Whitby Bay, are really beautiful and painterly, the Gothic interior of Carfax Abbey is splendidly overdone, and the foggy cemetery is one of the very best of its kind [though the insane amount of fog behind Dracula when he visits Mina is going rather overboard]. Special effects are simple and to the point [even a bat attack looks better than the norm], and Dracula’s wall climbing bit, which he does three times here, has never looked better. Something else that I liked is Dracula’s coffin being just big enough for Lucy to fit in with Dracula. Many of the new touches are nice, and, after all, some changes are nice so things remain fresh.
Frank Langella seems to underplay the role, almost throwing away some of the famous lines such as “I never drink……wine”, and though this is obviously intentional, it means that, aside from his hand clawing frantically at Mina’s window showing his desperate hunger, you’re rarely scared of this Dracula. Overall I think he’s hit and miss but I’ve grown to like his performance, and his interpretation of the character, more of late, despite it sometimes seeming like the script and the studio had a different idea of Dracula to Langella. The stunning Nelligan never became the big star she deserved to be, but she really had the air of a movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and is a fantastic actress [see her incredible turn in Eye Of The Needle as proof]. Olivier basically does the same imitation of the old German actor Albert Basserman he did elsewhere in his later years, and it’s painfully obvious that the poor guy is struggling to get around. A special mention should go to John William’s gorgeous, old-style score. Its rhapsodic main theme is a superb evocation of dark romance and menace and to me one of his greatest creations written at a time when he was at his peak and writing great score after great score, great theme after great theme. Apparently he’d never seen a vampire picture before, which meant that he had quite a fresh approach. Overall this Dracula is a strange mixture of stuff that really works and stuff that doesn’t so much, but it more justifies its existance, and something about it keeps me returning to my DVD of it every now and again – though I’d probably watch it even more if they’d release that original version.