MAY 2, 2009
By my count, I have watched at least 12 incarnations and variations of the “Dracula” story since I began Horror Movie A Day, and probably another 4 or 5 before then. Needless to say, even though they are all obviously different, the overall story holds little surprise at this point. So it’s a shame that I didn’t see the 1979 Dracula earlier, or even first, as the technical aspects, acting, and production design outclass a great number of the other adaptations.
Oddly, the one flaw of the movie is a near total lack of Dracula action. It has an R rating, but I have no idea why; the PG-13 Dracula: Dead and Loving It is more violent and gory (and strangely enough, more faithful, for what it’s worth). It’s not a particularly violent story anyway, but even with that in mind it seems very “horror-lite”. More biting! More blood! More stakes!!!
Otherwise, I really dug the approach. For starters, the Transylvania opening is omitted entirely, which is a terrific decision. The plotting of Dracula has always been kind of awkward, because you have a few minutes of Harker traveling, and then Dracula travels back to where Harker’s from. This version more or less starts with Dracula’s boat crashing on the shore, so we can get moving.
I also loved the cast. Langella’s hair aside, he is a terrific Count. He plays him almost as a sort of douche, which is what he essentially is. The scene where he sends Harker off on an errand so he can mack on Lucy is amazing. He also lacks the teeth or goofy contact lenses traditionally worn in the role, which in a way makes him more frightening, as its just another aspect to refreshingly subtle take on the legend.
And he is backed by one of the best casts ever assembled for a 70s horror movie. First and foremost, Donald Pleasence as Dr. Seward is just brilliant. I remember reading once how Pleasence scoffed at the idea of “method” acting, and that he preferred to just show up and do it. Keep that in mind as you watch his delightfully joyful performance here. Whether he’s chewing on some candy, or correcting someone on the phone (“No, not lied. DIED!”), or greeting Dracula with a charmingly uncourteous “Oh hi Count!”, he steals every scene and is clearly having a grand old time doing it. It’s possibly the finest Dr. Seward I’ve seen yet. And the movie fucks with the common notion that “You don’t need to be Olivier to be in a horror movie” by actually CASTING Olivier as Van Helsing. He’s not as pro-active as some other Helsings (possibly due to Olivier’s age - apparently he needed a double for even a simple running scene), but you can’t get a classier guy in the role, and unlike some of his peers, he gives an actual performance, rather than shrug it off as another late-career paycheck.
Even better than the cast is the film’s look. Apparently the color was muted for the DVD, but if you ask me, it looks perfect. I don’t need a bright and cheery looking Dracula, and the quality of the DVD transfer still allows the detail on the sets and costumes to be seen. A lot of the story takes place at Seward’s asylum, and the muted color perfectly captures the atmosphere of such a terrible place. The 1994 Frankenstein seems to have taken a page from this version’s style, and if so, that would be one of the best decisions they made.
As for the changes, as usual, I don’t mind them. Making a note of what is different from the last version I saw is the only way the story itself can hold my attention at this point. I mentioned the asylum - I liked having more of the movie there (I’m actually surprised someone hasn’t done an all-asylum version of the story - have Dracula imprisoned there under suspicion of insanity. Lucy/Mina/Whoever can be the nurse he entrances.... shit, I’m gonna go write this now!). Harker gets a bit more to do than in some other versions, which was also appreciated (gives the ending an unexpected punch, given another major change that I won’t spoil). Speaking of the end, it’s a bit abrupt, but it’s pretty great as well. It’s set on a boat, and thus utilizes the standard “Van Helsing and co. race against time” scene in a unique way (they need to catch the boat).
So of course, it tanked. It had the bad luck of coming out the same year as Herzog’s Nosferatu and Love At First Bite, and by then folks were sick of Dracula (the generic title didn’t help I’m sure). I myself had the wrong impression of it, or else I would have seen it earlier. For some reason I thought it was a campy, VERY 70s version of the story, and that couldn’t be further from the case.
The DVD has a commentary by director John Badham (why is this man directing episodes of Psych now? Surely Short Circuit and Stakeout alone bought him a lifetime pass to make theatrical features?), which is mostly meh. He delivers a few nice tidbits and anecdotes, but he also narrates or simply watches the movie just as often. Right off the bat you can tell it will be one of “those” tracks, he says “Hi, I’m John Badham and I’m here to talk to you about making Dracula!”, which is followed by a good 30 second silence. Universal has also put together a nice little retrospective, with Badham, Langella, and a few others. It’s sadly lacking in cast members though; Olivier and Pleasence are no longer with us, but thoughts from Kate Nelligan and/or Trevor Eve (Harker) would have been nice. Langella’s comments are the best, of course - he points out his dislike of the goofy red laser scene and recounts a scene where he had to talk to two photographs because the actors weren’t there. A little long (due to lots of clips), but worth a look, especially if you skip the commentary.
What say you?