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Dracula (1979)

by on 2011/08/07

“There is a grim purpose in everything I do.”

* * *

August is classics month on As the house goth, I’m going to look (exhaustively) at the story that launched an entire genre: Dracula.

I’ve always marvelled at the silver screen adaptations of the book written by Bram Stoker. This classic story is a sprawling tale told through journal entries, letters, captain’s logs and memos.

I’ve always imagined screenwriters tearing their hair out, heaving sobs over idle typewriters/laptops for having to sift through the various meandering threads of the book, tearing out the tangents, slashing out subplots and reducing the story to bleached bones.

This particular adaptation was released in 1979, starring Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sir Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man), Donald Pleasence (Halloween) and Kate Nelligan (Wolf). In this case, the original story is shifted into the early 1900s, with its horseless carriages tearing up the British countryside and the women’s suffrage movement upsetting the status quo.

This interesting historic backdrop, painstakingly recreated in this version, is illuminated by dull-grey light of overcast British skies or by the flickering yellow light of a candle. The costumes, the ships, the set dressing, the carriages – horseless or no – are done carefully and with exacting attention to detail.

The settings aren’t the only appeal of Dracula (1979). Frank Langella makes a very interesting Count. First, he’s a younger Dracula with sex appeal, billed as one of the world’s greatest lovers in an unbuttoned, billowing white shirt.

He’s the sort of Dracula that would be able to blend in seamlessly at a 70s discotheque without scaring off any bell-bottomed babes. Bela Lugosi’s pomaded and regal Dracula certainly couldn’t pull that off.

Langella also does this thing with his eyes that had me scouring websites for evidence that he has a vision problem of some kind. His irises bob, wobble and weave when he’s enthralling his victims. It was disconcerting, unnerving and effective. I have never seen the like in all my years of eyeballing films.

Like the very, very outrageously British adaption of the tale Horror of Dracula, this version swaps the two corseted, repressed female characters around – Lucy and Mina. In this case, Lucy (Nelligan) is the object of Jonathan Harker’s affection and Mina (Jan Francis) is the delicate, invalid daughter of Dr. Van Helsing (Olivier). Most unlike the book.

Also unlike the book, Renfield (Tony Haygarth) is brown-toothed day labourer who, when he’s not eating bugs, is carting around crates of ancient soil for his beloved master.

Olivier plays Dr. Van Helsing small, frail and very, very Dutch. He is a querulous, broken father mourning the death of his beloved daughter. Not the bellowing madman of some adaptations, not a steampunk superhero. Olivier’s Van Helsing is resolute but hollow and broken.

Nelligan is similarly complex as Lucy – an outspoken feminist and determined modern woman who turns snarling monster for her bloodthirsty beloved.

Though overall interesting with moments of real, visceral impact, this isn’t a perfect film nor adaption of the great story. The suspension of disbelief was battered into oblivion by the wings of a terrible bat puppet used extensively in a pivotal scene and awful, awful, awful hairdressing.

Frank Langella looked like he had his hair done by Joan Collins’ on-set Dynasty hairdresser. It puts the ‘boo’ in bouffant.

Given its competition – which we will explore on this site in the coming days – this version merits a solid passing grade. No less and no more.

* * *

Rated R for really big hair, violence, scary rapid eye movements

109 minutes

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