Dracula. The name is legendary in the world of horror. There have been countless portrayals of the infamous Count throughout the decades. In the late 1970s, a stage play was produced with a unique take on the original novel focusing more on a seductive Dracula than the gory, fearsome one. In both the stage production and this film adaptation, the iconic role was portrayed by the excellent Frank Langella. Directed by John Badham, this is a very interesting presentation of this story that I feel is very successful, even if the horror factor does not rival its brethren.
When a ship is wrecked off Whitby, the only survivor, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), is discovered lying on the beach by the sickly young Mina (Jan Francis), who is visiting her dear friend Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan). Lucy, her fiancé Johnathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and her father Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum, try to make the Count feel welcome to England. The Count quickly takes the life of Mina, and proceeds to romance Lucy, with the intention of making her his greatest bride. Soon after the death of Mina, the Sewards call her father, Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to come to their home. As Lucy falls deeper under the spell of the Count, Dr. Van Helsing almost immediately comes to understand that his daughter fell prey to a vampire and discovers the culprit to be none other than the Count himself. Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and Johnathan Harker work together to foil the Count’s plans to take Lucy away to his native Transylvania.
I feel this really is more of a performance-driven film as the plot doesn’t captivate very much. It’s quite standard for a adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Thankfully, the cast is especially exceptional. Frank Langella is undoubtedly the most seductive and sensual Count Dracula ever committed to film. With every glance of his eyes, every graceful movement, every soothing, hypnotic word he speaks, it fully enraptures an audience into the Count’s spell. Langella has been told by many fans how their wives were so greatly turned on by his performance, and the husband’s benefitted nicely from it. The wardrobe was meticulously assembled to give him the right flowing and iconic quality, and Langella envelopes that ideal beautifully. He has such a striking presence from his first entrance to the end. He truly commands a scene bringing a shadowy majesty to all he does. The performance is captivating reflecting the centuries old wisdom and power Dracula has gained, making him a dangerous and fearsome evil to combat. The character himself is depicted as a more lonely individual who feels a sadness being isolated from the world. Words spoken with great zeal by Bela Lugosi about the creatures of the night are turned around with a sorrowful tone by Langella. It makes Dracula a more sympathetic figure who yearns for an eternal love to end his pain of loneliness. He doesn’t wish to damn Lucy, he wants to be with her for all time, to love her in the darkness.
Sir Laurence Olivier is also a sympathetic figure as Abraham Van Helsing. He inhabits the intellect of the Professor well, but since the story makes it that Mina is his daughter, there is an added depth of emotion here. As anyone should expect from this magnificent actor, Olivier brings great theatricality and soulful breadth to this portrayal. Despite his grief for Mina, Van Helsing has a solid strength and conviction which makes him a formidable adversary for the Count. Olivier puts on a peculiar accent as Van Helsing which is further unique since all other actors in the role have just used their native English accent. It’s just one more thing that helps him make this role his own.
Lucy Seward is wonderfully portrayed by Kate Nelligan. She has an elegant, soft beauty about her that is perfect. She brings forth a great depth of love and pain just in her eyes alone. How Lucy is mesmerized and caught up in Dracula’s power is realized with a dynamic expression of soul and heartache. You can feel the connection between Lucy and Dracula so deeply throughout the film, and is never anything but powerful and beautiful.
The rest of the cast is remarkably solid. Donald Pleasance is great as Dr. Jack Seward smartly keeping up with Olivier, and never faltering in anything he does. Trevor Eve is quite distinct as Jonathan Harker, but spends most of the film in contempt of Dracula to really breakout into showing his love for Lucy. There are a few moments where he has the opportunity, but they don’t last long enough to be fleshed out. While all other roles are rather small, the actors in those roles maintain the level of quality and commitment as the leads.
Now, there are moments of fearsome horror, but it’s more suspenseful than frightening. There’s enough dramatic conflict and ghastly encounters to maintain this in the realm of horror. When Van Helsing enters the underground cave, and is confronted by his now undead daughter, the make-up upon her is very ghoulish. While its not played for startling scares, the suspense and emotion of the scene is strong. It’s clear that John Badham wanted to make an elegant horror film instead of a shocking one, and I can respect that. The atmosphere created around Dracula in certain scenes make him both enrapturing and chilling. Ultimately, this is tragic vampire love story that has sophistication and grace in addition to its fair share of creepy imagery. I think the ambiguous ending is rightly appropriate to the mysterious qualities of the Count.
The visual effects are very impressive, and handled by the legendary Albert Whitlock. He’s done amazing work on numerous productions over his sixty year career, and this is no exception. Dracula’s transformations into bats and wolves are done very artistically using some beautiful techniques which add to the elegance of the film. It’s rarely anything noticeably elaborate, but these effects are no less impressive because of that.
The masterful John Williams did the score for Dracula, and it is grandiose and sweeping. The main theme is both haunting and romantic, a perfect encapsulation for this story. As always, Williams did a marvelous job creating something unique and operatic for a film that deserved a rich musical experience.
The film is brilliantly shot by veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. In his more than fifty year career, he most notably shot Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy, The Omen, and Star Wars. Dracula is simply a gorgeous film through and through with mystifying atmosphere, alluring lighting, and artistic and competent compositions. It masterfully showcases the amazing production designs in great breadth and detail. Said production designs are exquisite with elaborate, theatrical scope to them, especially in Carfax Abbey. While some are divided on the expressionistic love scene with the red laser light and all, it really didn’t elicit a generally strong emotion from me either way. I surely advocate that it is outside of the style of the film, but one could make the case for Dracula and Lucy’s sexual encounter needing to be a heightened sensual experience. Of course, there are other ways to do that which don’t date the film in the late 1970s. The filmmakers actually borrowed the laser lights from the rock band The Who on a day off from their concert tour. That aside, there’s really not a single technical that fails to impress in this film. It truly is gorgeous.
However, I have to take issue with director John Badham’s alterations to the color timing of the film. He originally wanted to make this as a black & white film, but Universal Pictures vetoed that idea. Thus, when the film was given the widescreen laserdisc treatment in 1991, Badham de-saturated much of the color from the film leaving it with a flat color palette. This mostly affects the darker or exterior scenes giving the picture a rather bleek, muggy look. Knowing that he had done this, I did boost the color setting on my television to partially compensate, but much was still left to be desired. It’s simply the fact that a film needs to be shot and lit as a black & white film for it to work in that sort of presentation. Dracula was not shot in that way. Regardless of this fact, the 2004 DVD does look quite good with good picture quality, if it is a tad dim, but I can see the potentially vibrant film that this once was.
Regardless of this, there is still an excellent motion picture to be had here. Again, granted, there’s not much in the way of true horror that will affect a modern audience, but if you’re looking for a romantic vampire film done right, you would be hard pressed to find one better than this. It is interesting to note that, as a stipulation, Frank Langella did not don any fangs at any point during the movie, and specifically did not want blood on his face. He wanted to maintain a certain level of integrity, and avoid the clichés that other Draculas had indulged in. I think it generally works for a film of this style and tone. It helps maintain a level of humanity in Count Dracula which enhances the heart and soul of his tragic character. This iteration of Dracula might not be for everyone, but I truly like the change of approach here. I can watch a gory Dracula film at anytime in a dozen or more different versions, but this gave me something different with the talent and artistic quality to make it very successful.