BLOOD AND BUTTERFLY COLLARS: ‘DRACULA’ 1979

Dracula is one of the most popular literary characters ever conceived, a masterful synthesis of history and supernatural fiction, as written by Irish novelist Bram Stoker in the classic Victorian epistolary novel that has chilled and enchanted readers for 125 years. Even people who have never read Dracula will know the character by the many actors who have played the King of the Vampires in a century of film versions, beginning with Max Schreck’s “Count Orloff” in the unauthorized German silent adaptation, Nosferatu (1922), continuing with Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, George Hamilton, Gary Oldman, Claes Bang, Luke Evans, and countless others. Stoker weaved a supernatural thread through Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler, a notorious 15th Century Romanian ruler, using him as the basis for his classic undead character. Dracula was not the first piece of vampire fiction, but it popularized a mythical creature foretold by legends from many cultures across the globe. Dracula conjures both nightmares and erotic dreams from abounding readers and viewers alike; a nocturnal creature who bites the neck of a human in an intimate act, literally draining the life from his victims. Various film adaptations have played on both his fearsome presence and his supernatural charm on women, but there is one interpretation of the character that often gets overlooked: Frank Langella’s magnificent, suave performance in Dracula (1979). Yes, contemporary viewers often cite Gary Oldman as one of the sexiest Draculas of them all, but the man lacks Langella’s well-coiffed, bare-chested, dreamy presence as Stoker’s titular vampire. When Oldman’s Dracula strolls Victorian London, he looks like an uncomfortable death metal fan squeezed into an expensive suit and top hat; Langella’s Dracula is a sophisticated aristocrat, able to charm an entire parlor full of men and women and yet also be a malevolent force barely beneath the veneer of his surface-level erudition.

Dracula was a financial disappointment to Universal Studios, particularly as it was the second Dracula film of 1979 (okay, technically there was also Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, but that was a loose remake of an unauthorized Dracula adaptation), beaten at the box office by Love at First Bite, an uproarious comedy with George Hamilton mugging as a beleaguered Drac kicked out of his castle by the ruling Communist government and looking for fresh blood in New York City. Sadly, the actor (Langella) who’s likely best known to general moviegoers as Skeletor in the awful-but-delightful Masters of the Universe (1987), would be overlooked for his excellent performance in a Dracula film that deserves a bigger audience.

Many critics have argued that the director of Saturday Night Fever has no business adapting Dracula, accusing the filmmaker of urging Frank Langella to grow out his hair and wear wide collars and open shirts as if he was a Victorian Tony Manero. While John Badham had great success guiding a showstopping John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, the crux of that film isn’t really about disco (which there is aplenty), but of a young man feeling trapped by his Italian-American upbringing in Brooklyn and familial expectations, wanting something more to attain in life. Badham takes a very well-worn narrative and transforms it into an inspirational tale of late ‘70s American life. (If an aged punk like me can appreciate a film that features disco, a music genre I abhor deeply, then so can you!) Yes, Travolta and Langella share similar hairstyles, but big helmet hair was highly fashionable (if not questionable) in the late ‘70s—even Eugene Levy’s numerous characters on SCTV sported the ‘do! (Sadly, Mr. Levy does not hold a candle to Langella’s hair.) Badham’s early directing work also makes him an ideal candidate to helm Dracula, as he directed many memorable horror segments of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973). His best segment, “Green Fingers”, featuring the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, as a green-thumbed old lady who happens to be an inconvenient obstacle for a greedy land developer, succeeds in creeping out its audience in less than twenty minutes. His work on Night Gallery demonstrates his horror credentials in tackling a big-budget spectacle adapting Stoker’s famous supernatural work.

Like the 1931 Bela Lugosi version, Badham’s Dracula is an adaptation of the 1924 stage version, written by Irish playwright Hamilton Deane. Universal still owned the rights to the play, so creating a new film version nearly fifty years later seemed like a sound investment. By 1979, Dracula was a lucrative vampire: The Deane play, now updated for American audiences by writer John L. Balderston in 1927, was a massive success on Broadway in 1977, with set designs created by the legendary artist Edward Gorey and an acclaimed stage performance from Frank Langella. The aforementioned Love at First Bite made a lot of money at the box office, but Dracula could be seen weekly by millions of TV viewers in Cliffhangers, a short-lived fantasy series paying homage to classic film serials in each episode; Michael Nouri plays the Count in the only storyline that was completed before the series was canceled after ten episodes. In 1977, the BBC commissioned a French actor, Louis Jourdan (sadly best known as the Bond villain in Octopussy) to play Dracula in their sprawling Count Dracula TV production, though American audiences would wait until Halloween 1979 to see it on PBS. The popular Marvel comic book series Tomb of Dracula (Blade made his first appearance in issue #10 in 1973) wrapped up its impressive 70-issue run in 1979. Unlike many of his monstrous peers, Dracula was well-merchandised in 1979.

Some critics assert that Frank Langella’s Count Dracula is better suited for Studio 54 than the crumbling Carfax Abbey, looking at superficial features such as hair and fashion. One could argue that his look is dated, but being set in the early 20th Century, a man from “exotic” Eastern Europe could very likely have a different hairstyle and clothing unlike his uptight British counterparts—Dracula’s hair and open-chested shirts are as wild as he wants them to be, free of repressive British attitudes. Langella’s Dracula is a fully realized character, neither good nor evil, both man and monster, a creature resigned to centuries of loneliness who must feed on the blood of humans to stay alive. Langella’s subtle approach is fascinating and not played broadly as so many performers have done before him. He is cultured, as one who has lived centuries ought to be–his first “human” appearance, being announced at Dr. Seward’s dinner party, is memorable as Langella glides into the frame and unfastens his flowing cape and hands it to Seward’s butler in one quick, fluid motion without looking back. He’s so damn smooth. Even his delivery of a couple of creaky, infamous Bela Lugosi lines is not overstated, limned with restraint, as he politely declines Seward’s offer of wine and even changes “Listen to them, the children of the night—what sad music they make,” to fit a lonely, sympathetic creature looking for love and companionship.

Langella’s Dracula is a tragic character, one who yearns to live but must kill to do so. Dracula’s tagline suggested audiences would be in for an unforgettable vampiric experience: “Throughout history, he has filled the hearts of men with terror, and the hearts of women with desire.” Okay, a bit hokey, but do we judge an entire film by its overpaid marketing team? It’s demonstrative of the new approach taken by Universal to entice both men and women to a startling new Dracula for a new age, one who woos women by appearing in mist with an unbuttoned shirt and matching night cape but can also be fearsome to those who obstruct him. He becomes monstrous when he needs to be, whether it is by ripping out the necks of the doomed ship Demeter‘s crew as they attempt to dump his coffins overboard, or by snapping Renfield’s neck as punishment for betrayal. When Van Helsing confronts Dracula, Langella transforms from being mildly irritated and amused to full fury effortlessly: “You fools! Do you think with your crosses and your wafers you can destroy me? Me! You do not know how many men have come against me. I am the king of my kind! You have accomplished nothing, Van Helsing. Time is on my side.” He just wants to be left alone with his new girlfriend and continue to feed occasionally—is that so bad? Like Lugosi, Langella refused to wear vampire fangs and he doesn’t need them—his assuredness and strength suggest that the fangs are there even if they cannot be seen. Langella elicits sympathy, fear, dread, intrigue, and lust, an assured performance that is among the very best of cinematic Draculas, but the performance is often forgotten or ignored when pundits cite the best of the film adaptations.

Thirteen years before Francis Ford Coppola glossed cinema screens with luxurious visual effects, kinetic camera movements, atrocious accents, and hammy acting from some of Hollywood’s A-listers (Sir Anthony, I bite my thumb at thee!), John Badham guided an impressive cast surrounded by sumptuous sets and accompanied by a lush, darkly romantic score by John Williams. Sir Laurence Olivier impresses as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, but in this version, he’s a relative novice in the Nosferatu department, looking up vampire lore and ways to kill them in massive, dusty leatherbound tomes, the Edwardian version of Google. Though Olivier was in poor health at the time of filming, his pivotal confrontation scene with Langella’s Dracula is one of the film’s highlights. When his daughter Mina (Jan Francis) is killed by Dracula and returns as the undead (and feeds on a baby!), Van Helsing doesn’t hesitate to stake her to death, even though he weeps afterward, a touching moment rarely seen by a character that has had little depth on screen–much like the Count, Van Helsing has been played by many actors, but Olivier rises above them as the quintessential vampire slayer. Donald Pleasence is very cheeky as Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s friend and director of the local sanitarium, as he enlivens the screen with his constant eating in nearly every scene he appears—Pleasence was a notorious scene-stealer on any set and Badham allows him to commit to his eccentric approach fully, even if it upset Olivier and many of the other cast members. I dislike the traditional English breakfast (it’s always too early for blood pudding) and Pleasence’s sloppy eating habits during the most important meal of the day repulses and delights; even when he, Van Helsing, and Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) pursue Dracula, he’s got his mitts in a paper bag of sweets! Tony Haygarth plays a very coarse and disgusting cockroach-eating Renfield, Dracula’s brainwashed British servant, but unlike Tom Waits in a certain ‘90s film version, doesn’t chew on anything but the bugs.

Kate Nelligan impresses as the strong-willed Lucy Seward, a suffragette activist who speaks her mind without issue and manages to play den mother/sister to poor Mina as she slowly succumbs to Dracula’s “kiss” (the film switches the novel’s names of the women). Previous film versions portrayed both Lucy and Mina as helpless women who were seduced by Dracula and offered little in the way of characterization. Nelligan’s Lucy is as mesmerizing to Dracula as he is to her when they meet at her father’s dinner party. There is no reincarnation angle, no cat-and-mouse games to acquire fresh pumping blood—both Lucy and Dracula are attracted to each other instantly; it’s their initial interaction that sets up a fully-consensual romantic relationship. Unlike Mina, Dracula does not use his unholy powers to mesmerize Lucy—he’s impressed by her strength of character, beauty, and confident disposition. When Harker, who’s been courting Ms. Seward in secret, professes his childish jealousy (Harker has always been the ultimate literary milquetoast as described by Stoker in the novel), Lucy dispatches him without effort or care; a sulking Harker sputters about the English countryside in his newfangled “automobile” to compensate for his inadequacies. Even when Van Helsing and Harker pursue Dracula and Lucy aboard a ship sailing back to Romania, lunkheaded Harker still doesn’t understand that Lucy has willingly agreed to become Dracula’s partner, believing she is under a spell. Her final beatific smile at the conclusion of the film suggests that she isn’t happy or relieved to be rescued but hopes that her lover might still survive and that she can be reunited with him in the near future.

Badham utilizes rural location shooting in Southern England to give his Dracula a sense of scope and authenticity. The sets are spectacular, whether it’s a disorienting, spherical sanitarium full of Edwardian “lunatics”, an ornate British mansion of the upper class, or the gothic flourishes found in Dracula’s newly purchased Carfax Abbey; I love that there is a giant bat statue on display in Carfax Abbey’s open entrance, a bit of playfulness for the sharp-eyed viewer. There are ample cobwebs strewn about everywhere, but none of it looks silly or stagey like in the Bela Lugosi film. When Dracula pays Lucy a nocturnal visit, Badham opts for indulgent spectacle as Langella and Nelligan are entwined and bathed in a blood-red laser light show, as footage of solar flares is interspersed with their lovemaking as John William’s music swells to a climax—you might crave a cigarette after the scene ends. Some people think the laser light show scene is ridiculous, a very ‘70s effect that dates the film badly, but it’s a thrilling moment and much better utilized than the truly horrendous “Can You Read My Mind?” flying sequence in the previous year’s Superman (also with John Williams music!); it’s the culmination of Dracula and Lucy’s attraction and lust. In 1993, Badham sought to desaturate the color in his film and many fans were disappointed by his aesthetic choice, as he had wanted to do so for the original theatrical release, but Universal had rejected the idea. The 2019 Scream Factory Blu-ray allows fans the option to watch the eye-popping colors of the theatrical version or the muted color scheme of the desaturated cut: Decide for yourself which version is best suited to your tastes (I prefer the theatrical cut’s color scheme). Badham’s depiction of vampirism is also memorable: Effective makeup is used to portray Mina as a rotting vampire, her skin cracked and inhumanly chalk white, her crimson red eyes emerged from black sunken eye sockets, and a foul, cruel smile fixed on her crusty, putrid lips. You will believe this decomposing creature is very capable of feeding off a baby!

Dracula has been adapted into many film, stage, and TV productions and there is a version out there for everybody. It’s a testament to Bram Stoker’s writing that his famous undead character has remained beloved for over a century. As with any artifact, the novel is subject to interpretation, and readers and viewers alike have been spoiled by innumerable versions that seek to astound, titillate, frighten, or even bore, but seldom is a Dracula adaptation uninteresting. While Stoker’s other horror tales and weird fiction languish in relative obscurity (including mummies and succubae) in comparison, his most famous work compels further analysis by scholars and casual readers. John Badham sought to honor Stoker’s creation by giving audiences a new cinematic experience that is both frightening and sexually charged and Frank Langella deserves his rightful place atop the list of memorable Dracula performances. Seldom boring or uninteresting, 1979’s Dracula is a dark tale of doomed love that continues to be admired by a dedicated cult of appreciative weirdos and should never slip away and be forgotten by the current generation.

★★★

By the way, if it’s ‘Disco Dracula’ you want, we’ve got a Mixtape that is just that!