Visiting and Revisiting: John Badham's Dracula (1979) Pt. 1
The focus of this column, intended to be a semi-regular feature on both our sites, is to review films that one of us has already seen, possibly even multiple times, but the other has somehow put off watching over the years. Sometimes we get surprised when one or the other has not seen a fairly well known film, so we felt this was a good way to not only give the film either a fresh or updated viewing, but also to allow us to discuss the film at length afterwards.
Rik: The film we have at hand today is the 1979 version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, Kate Nelligan, and Donald Pleasence, and directed by John Badham. A little background is probably necessary before we begin.
The 1977 Broadway version of Dracula with Langella was a revival of the original play adapted from Bram Stoker’s 1896 novel by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, and used most famously for the 1931 adaptation with Bela Lugosi. The sets were even designed by the wonderfully ghoulish artist, Edward Gorey. The show only received mixed reviews, but it was the very definition of a monster hit, and Langella would be nominated for a Tony Award as Lead Actor in a Play. Talk turned eventually to a film version, but Langella had misgivings, and would only do it if they promised to work by his own guidelines for the character. Once Langella was on board to play the Count again in a new Universal film version, the play was given a nearly complete rewrite by W.D. Richter (who would go on to write and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, co-write Big Trouble in Little China, and direct Late for Dinner, three favorites of mine). The director, John Badham, was on fire in Hollywood at the time of this film, having previously directed the Oscar-nominated Saturday Night Fever. After Dracula, he would be best known for WarGames (1983), Blue Thunder (also 1983), Short Circuit (1986), and Stakeout (1987). On a side note, his younger sister, Mary, played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Aaron, you have never seen this film before. I generally assume you have seen most of the major horror films that have been released. Any solid reasons why this one slipped by you?
Aaron: There are probably a couple of major reasons I've never watched the 1979 version of Dracula before today. Despite a fairly serious high school Goth phase that included plenty of Anne Rice novels, I've never been a big vampire fan. I understand the appeal, and yet, I don't find them inherently interesting in the same way I enjoy other monsters. Sure, plenty of good-to-great vampire films exist, and the original Bram Stoker novel is quite enjoyable, but even my favorite vampire films don't enjoy the level of attention in my house as, say, some of the Frankenstein films, or the Invisible Man, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I also had an image in my head of what this film would be like, probably inspired by a less-than-flattering VHS cover in the local video store. I had it in my head that Dracula would be a late ‘70s cheese-fest, full of chintzy sets, histrionic acting, and dated special effects. It turned out, happily, that I was wrong on all counts. Or nearly wrong on all counts, which we'll get to in a minute. Also, the film has a curious lack of reputation. It doesn’t seem to get mentioned a lot, and I never see it in any lists or discussions of vampires in film. The fact that I simply haven’t heard much about it, combined with how much I read about horror movies, led me to assume the film had been a forgettable flop. I was pleasantly surprised by the final results, and am more than a little annoyed I hadn’t sought the film out before now. But that seems to be a theme with this year’s Halloween viewing: seeking out and watching those big titles (or medium titles) that have somehow slipped under my radar.
You have a more extensive history with the film, Rik. Why don’t you tell us a bit of your background with it?
Rik: In early 1979, when I was 14 years old, my attention was caught in a rather significant way by a television advertisement for the upcoming feature film version of Dracula. In the ad, Dr. Van Helsing, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, holds up a Eucharist in order to keep the dread vampire at bay. Count Dracula, played by Frank Langella, hisses a single word, “Sacrilege!” before hightailing it away from Van Helsing.
This commercial played repeatedly over a couple of months, and I loved it. Any time it came on, as soon as Van Helsing would hold aloft his supposedly holy weapon of choice, I would shout, “Sacrilege!” with all the vigor of the man portraying the monster in the film. Then it went beyond the commercial. I do recall riding about with my mother and brothers one afternoon, and when my mom held up a finger to flip me off for saying something in that way that I do, I yelled “Sacrilege!” once more. Her reaction was to ask me, “Do you even know what that word means? Maybe you should know before you run around shouting it.” I did know what the word meant, but she stopped me dead with her response, and I remember it shut me up for a brief time.
I was, at that age, in the throes of a burgeoning interest in horror films, and especially in the Hammer films I was seeing late night on a local show called The World’s Most Terrible Movies. Just a couple of months earlier, my mother had taken me to see George Hamilton as a disco-dancing Dracula in Love at First Bite, which was a huge comedy hit at the time. But this new Dracula was rated “R” and we had not quite moved from Eagle River to Anchorage, where the movie theatres were. To see a film required special effort and a drive 15-odd miles away. Film viewing usually occurred in conjunction with a weekend’s outing for shopping that went beyond supermarket necessities, or when we spent alternate weekends with our father who had moved to Anchorage. Unfortunately, talking him into an R-rated film was impossible unless it had Clint Eastwood in it. Thus, alas, I did not get to see John Badham’s version of Dracula in a theatre in 1979. It would not be until the film came out on VHS that I would get my chance. And I have seen it several times over the years since.
So, Aaron, what were your impressions of this version of Dracula upon watching it?
Aaron: The Dracula story is so ingrained into popular myth that just about everyone could recount the basics of the tale, which is one of the reasons this film is such a surprise. My knowledge of the stage versions of Dracula is almost nonexistent, so I wasn’t able to spot what came from the stage and what was altered. But in this film version, it almost feels like the screenwriters are remixing Bram Stoker more than they are adapting him, taking the familiar elements and shifting them around to tell their own version of the story.
The film completely drops Jonathan Harker’s ill-fated trip to Castle Dracula, opening as Dracula is already en route to London on board the Demeter. Although most of the basics of the story still remain, many of them appear in slightly different configurations. Lucy and Mina seem to have switched names, so that Lucy is Jonathan's beloved, and Mina becomes Dracula's first proper victim, with the added wrinkle that she is now Abraham Van Helsing's daughter. Dr. Jack Seward, instead of being one of Lucy’s multiple suitors, is actually Lucy's father in the film. Quincy and Arthur are nowhere to be seen in this version, but I think they’re usually left out of the screen versions anyway. I'm assuming that many of these alterations are imported from the stage version of Dracula. Either way, it provides for a nice streamlining of events, in order to confine the novel’s multiple perspectives into one singular, linear story.
Rik: In the play, the characters of Mina and Lucy are combined as “Lucy Seward”. There is no Mina. I guess they resurrected her from the dead for the film, and, as you pointed out, switched her part with Lucy.
What do you think of Langella’s choices for the character, such as no blood on his mouth, not fangs, etc?
Aaron: I think those were absolutely the right choices, and I’m glad he insisted on them. They not only add to the character’s elegance and believability as a menace, they serve to highlight the differences between him and the other few vampires we see in the film. The other, lesser vampires are sickly looking, rotted, with pallid complexions and pitch black eyes. They look marvelous, as ghouls, but also pathetic in a way. Had Langella put in black contacts or a pair of fangs, it would have turned his Dracula from a believable member of ancient aristocracy into a cheap Halloween costume.
Rik: However, if you and I showed up for a Halloween party dressed exactly as Langella’s Count, sans fangs and blood, it would look precisely like the cheapest Halloween costume imaginable.
While I do greatly enjoy the lush romanticism of the film, what I especially love is just how dark Dracula is, not only in the mood and atmosphere, but also in its physicality. The edges of the screen loom around your eyes while you watch it. You know five minutes in that this is not going to be an easy ride and there will be little in the way of comic relief.
My sense of the film to this day is that despite the violence of the storm in which Dracula lands in England, and despite the deaths of the crew that brings him there, that the Count rather improves the place (briefly) with his arrival, simply by his elegance. We are made to believe that the older continent from which he comes and the modern (as in the 1890s), civilized world appear to be equally decrepit. The civilized world is almost entirely showcased within the confines of an insane asylum, and we hear the screams of its manic inhabitants throughout the film, as even greater chaos erupts. Whatever pretense of civilization that exists in the living quarters of Dr. Seward and his family is merely a very thin veneer, and Dracula’s appearance punctures that fabric.
Langella’s Count is the ultimate smooth operator, speaking lowly in a seductive, measured purr and staring deeply but with a hint of softness into women’s eyes. You believe quite easily that he can seduce anyone even without supernatural aid, though that is surely a factor. However, it is lucky for humanity that the males in his presence aren’t buying it, otherwise the film would just be a bloody romance.
[To read Part 2 of Visiting and Revisiting: John Badham's Dracula (1979), click here.]