In the first article from the Out of Time — 1979 and the Last of the Gothic Vampires series, we explored Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979), a spare, understated, and decidedly “un-Hollywood” film. John Badham’s Dracula, released in July of 1979, could not be a more different telling of the Dracula legend. It is big and lavish, slick and very “Hollywood” in style. In Nosferatu, Dracula is repellent, like a rodent. In Dracula, he is suave, handsome and positively dripping with sex-appeal. One thing that both films have in common, however, is that they are both, at least ostensibly, remakes: Nosferatu of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece and Dracula of the 1931 Tod Browning classic starring Bela Lugosi that launched the first Universal Monster cycle.
Both the 1931 and 1979 versions of Dracula are based on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, and both Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella (the Dracula of the 1979 version) starred as the lead role in the play on Broadway. This is where the similarities end.
The screenplay for the 1979 version by W.D. Richter takes a great deal of liberty with both the play and the original Bram Stoker novel, though this was hardly unusual. The plot structure is very different, completely excising the famous Transylvania sequences found at the beginning of practically every other major adaptation. This film instead begins with a bang, right in the middle of a storm at sea as Dracula is being transported by ship from Romania to England. When a sailor’s throat is torn open during the sequence, we are quite certain that this will not be the subtle and suggestive horrors of the Lugosi version but something much more modern.
Perhaps the most modern element of the film is Langella’s portrayal of Dracula himself. He seems to be very conscious to play the character completely opposite of Lugosi as possible. There is no eastern European accent, no slicked back hair, no stern and commanding mannerisms or harsh stares that make the Lugosi version so iconic and unforgettable. Christopher Lee seems to have made some similar choices twenty years earlier when he took on the role, but Langella takes it a step further by playing the vampire much more like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights or some other tragic romantic hero of gothic literature. Though Lugosi is magnetic partially because he comes across as exotic, Langella is simply charming. He does not need to attack his victims or sneak up on them in their sleep, Mina and Lucy are drawn to him and give themselves over willingly. “I come of my own accord,” says Lucy, played beautifully by Kate Nelligan in the film.
Dracula is something of a perverse priest or even an anti-Christ figure, offering the sacraments to Lucy. “You will be flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. You shall cross land or sea to do my bidding.” This leads to one of the most memorable and erotic sequences of the film where Dracula drinks Lucy’s blood in a surreal landscape of red swirling clouds and light. It is communion, marriage and consummation all brought together in a way that is unique and unforgettable. After this scene, Lucy is willing to go to the ends of the earth and beyond for Dracula. Even in the end, Lucy appears to be completely in love with the Count, the spell cast over her never broken.
Elements of the monster do appear throughout the film as well. Many of his mannerisms are odd and animalistic. He often motions with two fingers evoking the fingers of a bat. The scene in which he crawls down the side of the house to Mina’s window and scratches at the window is particularly effective in this regard. In the closing scene, he snarls and growls like a cornered animal. He is shown turning into a bat and a wolf, whereas it could only be imagined in the 1931 version.
Perhaps it is appropriate that Dracula’s nemesis in this version be played by the man who so famously and effectively played the gothic hero Heathcliff in the classic William Wyler film of Wuthering Heights (1939), Laurence Olivier. In fact, some of Dracula’s costumes in this film echo Olivier’s costumes in that great classic. I believe this had to have been a conscious choice.
The Abraham Van Helsing character is given a unique twist in this version as he is the father of Dracula’s first victim, Mina (the names, such as Lucy and Mina, are switched from the novel as was often the case in film adaptations). It makes the sequence in which she, now a vampire, attacks and he must destroy her, all the more poignant. Olivier plays the role with a sense of overwhelming heartbreak. He does not seem to be the expert of other incarnations of the character but a man who can’t believe this is true — he must believe his own eyes.
The best scene in the entire film is a short one in which Van Helsing discovers that Dracula is the vampire. It’s the one scene that also appears in very similar form in both the Deane/Balderston play and the Tod Browning film. The performances of Langella and Olivier in this scene are electric and completely riveting.
Offscreen, Olivier was actually quite ill and a stand-in had to be used for a great deal of his more active moments. According to Langella’s memoir Dropped Names, he and Olivier got along quite well and had much in common. He does, however, admit a few things about Olivier during the making of this film:
He could no longer, of course, give star performances. His illness and age prevented the sort of theatricality for which he had been lionized. But the monster in the man was still very much alive and I was actually regretful at not having caught him at a time when his teeth were sharp and his claws were out. He was doing Dracula for the money, giving it his formidable showmanship, having his tea, and being, from time to time, a delicious old camp. (Langella, Frank, Dropped Names p. 73–74)
The entire chapter on Olivier is filled with wonderful anecdotes from the short time that he and Langella were acquainted. It is a delightful insight into the relationship between a veteran and an upcoming actor at a moment of nexus.
Despite the remarkable performances, the beautiful production, and the lavish scale of the film, Dracula barely made back half of its $40 million budget. Perhaps this is due to the comedy Love at First Bite that came out a few months before which mocks many of the conventions that this film embraces. Perhaps audiences expected more of the overly familiar tropes seen in the many Dracula films of the previous two decades. But maybe most likely is that audiences at the time were simply ready to move on. The era of blockbusters had begun and films like Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and the upcoming Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) were the kinds of movies audiences now craved. Gothic vampires were simply of another time. The 1980s would usher in an era of modern vampires taken out of the crumbling castles and placed into modern skyscrapers, suburban houses, or even vans in desert landscapes. The era would bring films like The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), Near Dark (1987), and The Lost Boys (1987).
Even though it failed to find much success upon its initial release, Dracula found a second life on video and became well-regarded in recent years. It’s a welcome reevaluation since the film is a wonderful take on the classic story. It’s a film of modernity taking over the old world, of science pitted against superstition, and the tensions between various religious views. But perhaps above all, it is a classic, tragic love story. These themes and stories continue to compel and enrapture us across the spans of time.
In the final piece of Out of Time: 1979 and the Last of the Gothic Vampires, we will look at one more gothic vampire film, one that is unique in several ways. It is not a Dracula film; it is set in the present day and is technically not a film at all but a television mini-series: Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot.
Haining, Peter. The Dracula Scrapbook. Longmeadow Press. Stamford, CT. 1987, 1992
Langella, Frank. Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them, A Memoir. Harper Collins, New York, NY. 2012
Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY. 1990
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