A Review By The Mike
Starring: Frank Langella, Lawrence Oliver
Directed by: John Badham
Movie Released: 1979
When I last posted, I talked about my love for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the book, that is) and how difficult it has been for anyone to film the story as it reads on the page. Dracula, the other most famous literary monster to hit the cinema, is a different story. I’ve yet to find any American version of the Dracula tale that works completely, despite each of them having many positive parts.
Such is the case with John Badham’s 1979 version of the classic tale, which bases the story off the iconic film that helped put Universal on the map in the 1930s and the stage play it was based off of.
Frank Langella dons the cape as Count Dracula (he had been playing the role on Broadway at the time, making casting easy) and the story picks up with the fatal sea voyage that results in Dracula’s arrival in England. This version takes the story in a more rural direction than most of its American predecessors, with the famed Carfax Abbey property Dracula inhabits becoming a hilltop castle in the middle of an incredibly Hammer-esque wooded countryside. Langella has always been a physically imposing actor due to his height and gravel-toned vocal mannerisms, which lends a lot of power to his portrayal of the Count. He does a great job of looking the part, which is generally the most important thing about playing this role. He’s no Christopher Lee, but who the heck is?
The bigger treat in the cast is Laurence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing. No offense to Hugh Jackman, but this is my kind of portrayal. He’s incredibly sympathetic as the aged doctor whose heart doesn’t want to believe what his mind knows is true, and most of his scenes are incredibly well done. Donald Pleasence, one of my favorite actors to see, also stars as Dr. Seward, father of the doomed Lucy and head of the local Mental Institution, and the scenes he shares with Olivier are often fantastic, particularly the famous first vampire kill scene. The other star is Kate Nelligan as Lucy, who does a good job of getting caught up in Dracula’s enticements.
The cast is unfortunately one of the film’s strongest points. While it’s a beautiful sight to behold and features a strong John Williams score, the film’s stage roots show through during the film’s first hour. There’s a lot of time spent on establishing the story and setting which hints at, but never really gets to the nature of the story. When Van Helsing arrives the film rises to a higher level, and maintains strong momentum in the final reels, save for a few cheesy segments. I can deal with slow-motion fog while Dracula sensually scales a wall, to an extent, but a mid-film sequence that resembles a Bond film’s opening credits a little too much is difficult for me to handle.
This version of Dracula isn’t a bad film, and is worth seeing, but it’s hard to recommend it over things like Hammer Films’ Horror of Dracula and both versions of Nosferatu. Plus, it doesn’t have the iconic imagery of Lugosi’s Dracula either. As a romantic option in the Dracula history it scores high points, but these were later surpassed by Coppola’s Dracula.
I know, I know. I’m basically saying it’s about the fifth best Dracula film (if that, there are plenty more to choose from…Jess Franco’s is good too, and Hammer has at least two more worth seeing), which isn’t high praise. But, the cast and the look of the film are enough for me to call it a Solid Selection, slightly more likable than Branagh’s Frankenstein that I reviewed last time out. Just see a few other Dracula films first.
Final Grade: “The Mike’s Solid Selection – Worth seeing, not entirely successful.”