Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October Movie Reviews: Dracula 1979

For my October Reviews I am continuing my Dracula reviews.

Dracula (1979)
The John Badham film was one of the first Dracula films I saw in the theaters.  Well, actually I think I saw it at a Drive-In. If you don't remember those then I can't help you.

This movie is a visual master-piece and Frank Langella dominates every scene he is in and he is in quite a number of them.  Dracula in the book doesn't get a lot of "screen time", but this one cleaves closer to the screen-play.  Like Lugosi before him, Langella played the character on stage first.
This is another one of the tales that reverses the roles of Mina and Lucy.  Normally it is Mina who loves Jonathan Harker and who is later seduced by Dracula and Lucy who is the friend who dies by Dracula.
Kate Nelligan is a great Lucy (in the Mina role) and Lawerence Oliver is great as the aged Van Helsing.  Donald Plesasence as Seward though left a little to be desired. I guess they decided to drop Seward's morphine addiction and swapped it with eating.  Seward is eating in nearly every scene he is in. Watch close and you will see a younger pre-Doctor Sylvester McCoy.

For some odd reason this movie is set in the Edwardian age (1913 to be exact) rather than the more traditional late Victorian.  It almost plays out as a sequel to the book, if you can come up with a good reason why Van Helsing and Seward don't remember Dracula from before, and deal with the issue that Van Helsing's wife was an invalid in the book.  Maybe she died and he got remarried and had a daughter that he named Mina (after Mina Harker) and Seward got married and had a daughter named Lucy (after Lucy Westerna).  Figure John Harker in this tale is really John Quincey Harker, the son of John and Mina Harker and "Milo" Reinfield is the son of R. M. Reinfield from the book.  At least that is how I have viewed the film for years.

This is an interesting film for a number of reasons.  First it has another great score by John Williams that is so sweeping in it's construction that you can feel that the sort of languid dream quality of the Dracula/Lucy scenes.  Also it was the first Dracula film that many people my age recall seeing.  I had seen the older Hammer and Universal ones yes, but I had been much younger.  I was 9 when this came out and the scene where Mina comes back to her grave scared the crap out of me.  Plus it was at a point in my life when I had not yet read the book, but knew of it's existence.
Langella's Dracula is a sexual predator.  He takes Mina and then Lucy because he can.  There is no "lost love here" like what we will see in the Francis Ford Coppola outing of 1992.

Langella does something here that few Draculas manage.  He acts like royalty.  Christopher Lee comes close and Oldman does capture the warrior-lord well, but Langella acts like a Count or a Prince. Like I said, he dominates every scene he is in and even when not the focus, his presence is felt.  That's some good acting.

This was my favorite Dracula, but almost 13 years later a new one would challenge that title.

1 comment:

Bakhirun said...

Hello. It's 02.58 in Jakarta... and you wrote your review at around midnight. So I guess we're both "children of the night". In my case it's more prosaic: I'm doing a load of corny copywriting for business / industrial clients. Stuff like "Projects, where significant costs of goods are dependant on imports.
Volatile Laws on profit repatriation and withholding taxes". Got to eat somehow.

The Langella / Badham film continues to be one of the best, if not the best, Dracula work around. It got knocked about a bit when it came out - I think some of its glory may have been nicked by Mel Brooks. As for setting it in 1913, that worked excellently for me: Dracula is clearly not one for this modern age, and in the end it's a modern mechanical contraption which is his undoing.

He is also crossed and cheated (out of Lucy and his "undead life") by his lawyer, which is another modern ha-ha theme that worked well. None of this seemed to occur to reviewers, perhaps because of the star-studded cast and the excellent visuals (no computer graphics back then!)

Thirty years later and that was STILL Langella's high point, one that people undoubtedly remember him for, in spite of many roles since then. I wonder how that feels. All the rest of the cast has aged remarkably (or become not undead but quite dead, including Olivier, Pleasance, Turner), but Frank's kept his looks. And his charm. Thanks for putting this up!