DraculaFest: Dracula ’79

Help, we’re stuck in 1979 and they won’t stop making Dracula movies! Since we’re on a roll, I figured I should remain in the Disco Era and knock out the third major vampire flick in a row of that year, in an effort to figure out what was up with the Count overkill.

And for my next trick...

And for my next trick…

Studios copy each other all the time. Happily, the ’79 Dracula hat trick is no mere case of the me-toos. Turns out all three films present a unique take on the story and characters, and all three have a valid reason for existence. Nosferatu, the Vampyre stakes out the art-house horror niche and Love at First Bite is a broad and silly comedy. That leaves Universal’s Dracula (1979) reboot to represent the sweeping, studio-system blockbuster. Almost 70 years after the original Dracula launched the Universal Monsters, the studio returned to its roots and constructed a new vision of their famous fiend. While the screenplay by W.D. Richter credits the same Hamilton Deane stage play that inspired the original, I was pleased to find that director John Badham reconstructed the tale from the ground up, creating more than a simple reshoot of the classic.

We discover this in the opening scene, as Badham dispenses with the entire first act of the book–the part that Herzog lingered on–to place Dracula at sea and en route to England. The storm-tossed ship arrives on the shores of Whitby with a mutilated crew and the requisite puzzling boxes of earth. The sole survivor, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), takes possession of a ridiculously over-the-top gothic castle on a lonely pinnacle outside of town (No red flags yet? Anyone?) with his insane manservant Renfield (Tony Haygarth). The Count wastes no time ingratiating himself with the locals, especially Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) and Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan). Mina’s sudden death brings her father, Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to investigate. He discovers the Count is now targeting Lucy, which doesn’t sit well with her fiancĂ©, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve). Unlike in his other movie incarnations, this Count is not only after blood. He swaps hemoglobin with Lucy but also shags her rotten to a dramatic score, red mood lighting and some odd shots of a bat flying around. He promises eternal life for Lucy, who runs off with him to sail back to Transylvania. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is forced to stake his own baby-stealing, resurrected daughter in the heart as she wails, “Papa…” That can’t be easy. Despondent, Van Helsing chases after Dracula and manages to board his ship before it sails, dragging Harker along for the ride. Van Helsing is killed, but not before throwing a hook into the Count’s back, allowing Harker to hoist him above deck so he bursts into flames. Lucy appears freed, though she smiles at the site of Dracula’s cape fluttering away into the sea.

Papa don't preach.

Papa don’t preach.

This film does not want for big-name talent. Badham joined following the smash Saturday Night Fever and later directed War Games. John Williams provides a memorable score, riding high from his Oscar-winning music for Star Wars. The high-profile cast turn in memorable performances. Langella’s Dracula is the epitome of the late twentieth century trend toward romanticizing vampires, as charming as he is deadly. Though the film amps up the romantic angle, unlike Coppola’s love-struck Count there’s an air of danger and inherent wrongness to the whole thing. We aren’t asked to root for Lucy and Dracula as a standard couple and forget all the killing and baby-stealing going on. And the film doesn’t neglect the horror angle, providing several genuine scares. As a result, it works on its own merits. Occasionally it suffers from Hollywood bombast; in addition to the over-the-top castle, Dr. Seward (Halloween‘s Donald Pleasance) runs an asylum that resembles a crazy factory floor with inmates running wild on multiple floors. There’s a touch of unintentional hilarity when Dracula attacks Harker in bat form, causing Harker to writhe around on the floor in a manner reminiscent of Ed Wood‘s octopus scene. Overall, however, it stands as a bold retelling that could have easily been a simple, boring rehash.

Dracula earns 1.75 out of 2 fangs. Not a bad batting average for 1979 overall. And now we are well shut of the Seventies for a while.

Next time: Viva l’Italia!