John Badham’s Dracula(1979) is defintiely one of the most romanticized adaptations. The film’s taglines billed the vampire film as a love story, reminding us that “Throughout History One Name Has Inspired Both Horror and Desire”. Let’s just say this film is definitely heavier on the desire side. But while rewatching this classic for the hundredth time, I realized just how beautiful this film is. From a gorgeous color palette, to John Williams’ enchanting score, to the incredible casting choices, 1979’s Draculadefinitely deserves more credit.
Plot & Recepetion
We all know the basic plot of Dracula by now. However, the film is actually based on the stage play rather than directly from Bram Stoker’s novel. As a result, the roles of Mina and Lucy are reversed from the original text. To summarize everything quickly: Count Dracula travels to England only to have his ship crash on the shore. The Count comes to meet Dr. Seward, his daughter Lucy, Mina Van Helsing, and her fiance Jonathan Harker. When Mina dies suddenly of a mysterious illness Dr. Seward calls for her father, Professor Van Helsing.
Naturally, the professor believes his daughter died after being attacked by a vampire. Meanwhile, Lucy becomes more infatuated with Count Dracula and the two consummate their love. Lucy is now under Dracula’s spell and infected by his blood. Prof. Van Helsing believes they can only save Lucy if they destroy Dracula. In the end Dracula is destroyed by the daylight and Lucy is free…We hope.
Upon release, Roger Ebert gave Badham’s film a whopping three and a half out of four stars. Ebert loved this film and even described it as “a triumph ofperformance, art direction and mood over materials”. Ebert pointed at Frank Langella’s performance as the title character and John Badham’s direction as the winning points of the film, “[restoring] the character to the purity of it’s first film appearance” That’s one bold statement. But after a couple decades on Hammer’s bloody, fanged Dracula with Christopher Lee, I can see how this would be a refreshing change. I love Hammer’s Dracula films, but 1979’s Dracula made for a nice change of pace.
Gothic Beauty In The 1970’s
Director John Badham wanted the film to be shot in black and white but Universal opted for a warmer look. Upon the 1991 release of the film on laserdisc, Badham had much of the colors saturated. This is the copy I grew up with. The saturation makes the entire mood of the film softer and more romantic. Some scenes have such vibrant colors and others seem as if all the color has been removed. It seems the right balance between the muted gothicism and the flashiness of the late 1970s.
One of the most beautifully gothic scenes is the dinner scene between Dracula and Lucy at Carfax Abbey. There are so many candles and cobwebs, It is beautiful! Conversely, we have the unusual love scene full of lasers. (Yeah, lasers). The scene is fueled by bright, modern colors but framed with classic horror swirling mist and, of course, John Williams’ score intensifies the scene’s traditional romantic quality. But as soon as Dracula bites Lucy we are invited to one hell of a light show. Ebert described it perfectly as “an erotic intensity without any sexual explicitness”.
Still a Horror Film
Generally the most terrifying moments in the film revolve around Mina. She is Dracula’s first victim and boy is it a rough ride for her. When Dracula comes to Mina’s room we seem him crawl down a wall and appear at her door. There are creepy scratching noises, and his intense stare as he removes a pane of glass from the door and lets himself in. I still get shudders thinking about it.
Then we have Mina’s reappearance as a terrifying creature of the night. The fear on her face feels real and is unnerving to watch. When we finally see her emerge as an undead being, with her black eyes, decaying skin and repeated calls for “Papa” are so creepy. It is these moments with Mina that we are reminded that Draculais still a horror story, regardless of how romantic it may appear on the surface.
The heart of Dracula truly lies with the film’s incredible cast. Frank Langella is one of the most seductive Draculas of all time. He did portray the character on the broadway stage for a couple years before the film’s release, so I’m sure that helped him really settle into the role. Langella’s Dracula is one of the more unique interpretations in cinema, showcasing the monster as vulnerable, powerful, sad and seductive all at the same time.
Dr. Seward, Lucy’s father, is played by horror alum Donald Pleasance (Halloween, Fantastic Voyage). Joining him is veteran stage and screen actor, Laurence Olivier (Rebecca, Clash of The Titans) as Professor Van Helsing. Academy Award nominee Kate Nelligan (The Prince of Tides) portrays Lucy, with Jan Francis and Trevor Eve as Mina and Jonathan respectively.
An Interesting Ending
Each Dracula film always tries to do something a little different and the death of Frank Langella’s Dracula is one of the most memorable. In an effort to escape Harker and Van Helsing, our doomed lovers board a ship leaving England. They are of course discovered by their pursuers and Van Helsing is killed. Dracula is pulled from below decks via a rope, dragging him into the sunlight. With each turn we see his skin decay more and more until he is believed to be dead. Lucy is no longer a vampire and all seems well but we see Dracula’s cape fly off into the distance. Lucy stares add it, almost smiling, happy that her lover may have survived.
Today that ending would immediately be cause for a sequel but instead we are left with a huge “what if” moment that remains unanswered. For me, it is the perfect ending to a romantic tale of a love that defies death.
Lifelong horror fan hailing from the hometown of Vincent Price. All-around nerd, artist, film addict, and the proud mom of a velociraptor... I mean puppy dog.
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