The Dracula Movies #9: ‘Dracula’ (John Badham, 1979)

6 Aug

From the moment the titles started to show, I could tell this was going to be quite a classy production. It also takes a few liberties with the book, which I’m not entirely satisfied with, but I grudgingly admit work quite well. It all depends on whether you prefer your version of Dracula to be more of a romantic anti-hero. Frank Langella’s take on the role is very much in this mould, and the fact that he’s a very dashing embodiment of the Count helps enormously.

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The film is quite well directed, with some great sets and creative, metaphorical touches (I love the view from the spider web at Carfax abbey, when Lucy visits. The moment that the Count has entered the room below, the spider in the web arrives at and obscures Lucy many feet beneath). There isn’t much in the way of genuine scares though, or bloody horror. This is a more sensual, even sexy version of the novel.

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This version also offers something new by being the first version of the novel I’ve seen to dispense with the novel’s then contemporary setting. The setting for the story is shifted forward over twenty years to around the beginning of the 1920s, which offers a superficial but engaging change to the stylistic trappings. There are also substantial changes to the story structure. One other notable change is that Renfield is a man who goes to Carfax Abbey and goes insane by what he experiences. The ending is also an extremely different one than the book, although the outcome is the same.
The cast are generally very good. Donald Pleasance gives an engaging turn in an expanded role for Dr. Jack Seward and Laurence Olivier adds a quiet gravitas to his Van Helsing. Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve and Jan Francis are all quite good in their respective roles, although the whole film does come across as rather light weight and is actually quite pleasant, relaxed viewing in many parts, and not perhaps the edgy gothic horror it should be.The generous budget compensates for any disappointment in that area, and the film can be enjoyed for its widescreen spectacle even when the scares are few. Still, it’s a different approach and it kept me watching. Overall, though, I found the enhanced ‘romantic’ element perhaps too much, and there should have been more ‘horror’.

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Frank Langella puts in a strong yet ambiguous central performance, full of sly sexuality. I can’t say that he is my favourite on screen version of Dracula but he certainly has a niche all to himself as the kind of Dracula you could take home to your mum, so it’s nice to see him bringing something new to the role, even if it wasn’t Stoker’s original vision.

The location work is nice, but the dull palette and cloudy skies start to pall as the film goes on. But there is some nice camera work by Gilbert Taylor, a lovely music score from the ever reliable John Williams and the largely English based re-telling is pleasing even if it does make for a rather grey but engaging version. But I did love the ending though; it makes up for the odd moment of blandness on show elsewhere.

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2 Responses to “The Dracula Movies #9: ‘Dracula’ (John Badham, 1979)”

  1. atoasttodragons August 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    I remember this one. The scene where Van Helsing confronts Lucy the vampire underground really freaked me out as a kid. She was altogether freaky looking.

  2. David October 12, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    About the “dull palette” – when I saw the film on TV back in the eighties, the film’s colours were very rich. Apparently Badham had originally wanted to film it in black and white and when it was released on DVD he chose to tone down the colours – a big mistake, in my opinion. The colours were one of the most distinctive features of this version.

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