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4. Dracula (1979), dir. John Badham

As mentioned previously on these pages, I have a Horror Bible, which I bought when I was about 11 or 12 years old. In it is a page which looks like this:

Horror Bible Dracula page

I had seen Christopher Lee as Dracula already when I bought the book, of course, and caught up with Bela Lugosi about ten or fifteen years later. But the other two have only become easily available to me now that the Golden Age of Amazon, Lovefilm, YouTube et al. has dawned. I saw and reviewed Louis Jourdan's Count Dracula in October (and am of course very sorry indeed that we lost Louis himself just this weekend). So Langella's performance was the last of the iconic Draculas which I still needed to catch up with. It hardly needs saying that I watched it with fellow horror aficionado ms_siobhan, but for once this time I actually have a live witness to her Dracula-enabling tendencies: rosamicula will testify that while discussing plans for our next film session in front of her, I asked what we should watch, and ms_siobhan gleefully replied "Dracula!" So it's totally not my fault.

Alas for us, though, Langella's Dracula is most definitely the weakest of the four. That's not to say it is an utter waste of time. Visually, it was stunning, offering a beautifully-Gothic muted colour palette, excellent sets for both Carfax Abbey and Seward's Asylum, and some incredible costumes, as well as making excellent use of the Cornish coast-line and especially St. Michael's Mount. Indeed, sometimes the visuals actively added extra dimensions to the story. I particularly liked an early scene which hinted at Dracula's ability to transform into a dog, but without risking the suspension of disbelief by showing or referring to it directly. We simply saw a dog leaping off the wrecked Demeter and running into a cave, followed by close-up shots of the fur collar of Dracula's coat as he lay, half-drowned, on the floor of the same cave. A great way to preserve the mystique and ambiguity around his supernatural abilities, while still just hinting that they might be real. Later on, too, we saw his intended vampire victim arriving in and exploring Carfax Abbey from a view-point high up in the ceiling of one of the rooms, looking through the web of a slowly-advancing spider - evoking, of course, his real intentions towards her. But even the visuals sometime seemed a bit over-egged, with Carfax Abbey appearing so over-the-top Gothic in some respects that it leant dangerously close to a theme park Haunted House.

I quite liked the broad strokes of how the story was approached, too. This version developed out of a stage production, and one thing which tends to work well on stage is unity of place - in this case, setting the entire story in and around Whitby. The novel's early scenes covering Jonathan Harker's visit to Transylvania are utterly dispensed with. Instead, Dracula simply arrives at the start in the Demeter, and moves into Carfax Abbey, Whitby, a short distance from Seward's Asylum. Cutting London out of the story had already been done in the early-20th century stage play and Lugosi film, but dispensing with Transylvania itself as well is an extra step - and worked perfectly well I think. Certainly, one of the great strengths of the Dracula story seems to be its capacity to be reconfigured into multiple different permutations, each still preserving enough of its essence to be recognisable, while also expressing the particular interests and priorities of a new group of people (much like retellings of ancient myths, of course). And it was nice that having decide to focus everything in on Whitby, they had also gone to the trouble of hiring a few actors with Yorkshire accents for the smaller supporting parts - like Renfield, some of the other inmates of Seward's asylum, and various sea-dogs. That said, it would have been even nicer if they'd made the effort to film in Whitby itself (which the Louis Jourdan Dracula managed two years earlier), rather than substituting Cornwall.

Meanwhile, on the downside, no setting or scenery could possibly have compensated for the fact that Langella himself just was not Dracula. We were comparing him to a wannabe early-80s rock idol as we watched - an impression strongly reinforced by an extended biting sequence, which presented him and his victim writhing in silhouette against a red background to the accompaniment of swirling music. I guess it was meant to be incredibly erotic, or something, but it just looked like something a bit kitschy off Top Of The Pops to us - or possibly an '80s-era James Bond title sequence. But actually a friend of ms_siobhan's hit the nail on the head even better during a FB discussion of the movie when she said she had heard Langella described as playing his Dracula like a tennis coach. Yep - absolutely. Paying slightly too much attention to his appearance, taking every opportunity to show off his prowess, leaning in creepily close to his young charges - the works. And of course the result is that he comes across as exactly as thrillingly-dark and evil as a tennis coach - i.e. not very much at all. Just kinda creepy. Words like potent, commanding, chilling or unpredictable do not apply here.

I get, of course, that the entire film was explicitly intended as a romantic telling of the story of Dracula, but an '80s pop video-style vision of romance rather misses its potential. I have seen good romantic versions of Dracula, like the ballet version we went to see in the autumn, with its sense of doomed longing and unbearable, all-consuming passion. Indeed a profound sense of tragic yearning is deeply (and consciously, going by his interviews) built into Christopher Lee's conception of the character. But this isn't a good romantic version of Dracula (though in all fairness I think it is still better than the Francis Ford Coppola version). It didn't help, either, that there was no identifiable chemistry between Langella's Dracula and his intended vampire bride.

And then there is the stuff that just leave you asking - WTF? Like the fact that I have to keep calling the main female character "Dracula's intended vampire bride", because otherwise my review will be utterly confusing to people who would entirely expect that character to be called Mina, when in fact she is called Lucy. Nosferatu the Vampyre, oddly also released in 1979, similarly swapped the names of the two main female characters - but WHY? Why would you do that? Especially when 99% of the people who watch these films will already know the story, and be familiar with its characters in advance. Further weirdness included Lucy (or was it Mina?) caring so little when Mina (or was it Lucy?) died that she insisted on keeping a dinner-date with Dracula the following evening out of politeness and (as ms_siobhan pointed out) shockingly without a chaperone. I am guessing that at the scripting stage, this was meant to signal how much Dracula had already established an emotional hold over her - but believe me when I say it just wasn't there in her performance.

Still, all that was nothing compared to the peak bonkersness that was Van Helsing's vampire-hunting horse. Oh yes, you heard that right. After Mina (or was it Lucy?) has been killed by Dracula and buried, Dr. Seward quite naturally summons Van Helsing, who is actually her father in this version (OK, fair enough - it gives him a reason to enter the narrative and helps to tie the main characters together nicely), and he proceeds to investigate what has happened. Which includes going to the graveyard with a white horse, and letting it loose to roam amongst the graves, sniffing and shying, until it stops at Mina's and kicks at the mound of earth covering her coffin - apparently confirming Van Helsing's suspicions that she has been killed by a vampire. I have seen quite a few vampire films in my time, but I must say I've never encountered a horse with special vampire-hunting powers before - still less bereft of any explanation whatsoever for these strange powers. Still, it certainly made us laugh - as did the bizarre ending which saw Dracula hauled up out of the hold of a ship into the sunlight by a cargo-hook, hurled by a dying Van Helsing. Did he burn to a cinder, or merely turn into a bat and fly away? Evidently, we were supposed to be thrilled by the ambiguous possibilities.

Other points to note include Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing, but both of them unfortunately pretty much dialling it in. Also, Unexpected Sylvester McCoy as an unconvincing and inept guard in Seward's asylum. Langella's Dracula, like Jourdan's two years earlier, dutifully scaled the walls of the asylum face-down like a lizard - though he could hardly not have done after such a recent example. And a climactic chase sequence involving Dracula and Lucy (or was it Mina?) heading for the coast to escape their pursuers by ship borrowed heavily from a similar chase at the end of Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness, complete with visuals of a cloth-covered wagon containing a coffin bouncing up and down with the ruts in the road.

But now that I have seen this, noted down its key features, and (above all) ticked it off in my Horror Bible, I do not think I am likely to revisit it again.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
Feb. 17th, 2015 10:34 am (UTC)
Unexpected McCoy is this version's Renfield, isn't he? I remember more elements from the novel reaching the screen than often, but then pointlessly rearranged.
strange_complex
Feb. 17th, 2015 11:02 am (UTC)
No, he's not Renfield (though he would probably have been better in that role). Rather, he's some sort of guard in the asylum. His precise duties are never very clear, but he seems to sit outside Renfield's cell, failing to notice him being abducted by Dracula, quite a lot.
parrot_knight
Feb. 17th, 2015 11:11 am (UTC)
That's my memory done away with, then.
ms_siobhan
Feb. 17th, 2015 10:00 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure which was worse - the vampire finding horse or the unnecessary (seeing as she had already been staked in the abandoned mineshaft running under the graveyard) heart removal of Mina or was it Lucy who incidentally looked wonderfully dreadful underground and positively undecayed above ground.

strange_complex
Feb. 17th, 2015 10:07 pm (UTC)
Oh yes - I'd forgotten about the heart (though not the intermittent decay). I do sometimes feel like a bit of an eejit demanding that my vampire films should be 'realistic', but they should at least try to be internally consistent!
ms_siobhan
Feb. 19th, 2015 10:28 am (UTC)
Indeed I don't care what nonsense you dream up (though as you know I draw the line at 'dragon shit' and elves in cloaks) but please make it consistent within its own nonsense.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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