Gloomily beautiful. Charmingly sinister.
Is Dracula any good?
John Badham gives the acclaimed Broadway production of Dracula a profoundly cinematic sweep with his handsomely mounted 1979 film version.Elaborating upon the elegant danger and passionate romance wrought upon staid English etiquette when the mesmerising Transylvanian Count swoons into Victorian parlours and boudoirs with a devilish twinkle in his eye. Recruiting Frank Langella to reprise his titular role from the stage-show bestowed the movie an entrenched sense of character, with the actor’s commanding presence smothering the extravagant sets and redolent locations with one of the most intense portrayals of the vampire lord ever seen. Badham may eschew the more conventionally horrific elements that fans expect, barring one or two memorably shocking moments.However he drapes such a powerful aura of inordinate eeriness over the most well-known of gothic terror tales that his take immediately steps from the shadows of a legion of also-rans. Laurence Olivier gets some justified flack for his ham-flavoured accent as Van Helsing, but actually does a fine job of unravelling the villain in their midst. Trevor Eve brings an amusing class grudge to the young Harker whilst both Kate Nelligan and Jan Francis are sublime and bewitching as the damsels falling under Dracula’s heady sway. Donald Pleasance typically steals the show as the dogged Dr. Seward, but the real stars are John Williams’ awesomely sumptuous score and Gilbert Taylor’s absolutely entrancing photography.
Despite an unintentionally hilarious road-chase and a lacklustre finale, Badham’s interpretation is richly ambitious and truly atmospheric.
Gloomily beautiful. Charmingly sinister.
Dracula Blu-ray Picture Quality
Universal’s region-free US release sports a lavish 2.35:1 ratio and is encoded via AVC.
Now, we need to get something pretty important out of the way. As many of you will already know, director John Badham went back into his film years ago and revamped the colour timing to such a degree that the once opulently saturated palette now resembles a black and white image with a wan and sickly complexion only gently brushed across the screen, leaving practically no vitality at all. This was because he had always intended his adaptation to resemble the entries in the older classic Universal Horror cycle, but the studio had insisted on a more sensationally lurid and passionate aesthetic. Now, although I did manage to see the film very swiftly after its initial theatrical release (underage, natch!), and had a VHS recording of it from TV in the early 80’s … I truly cannot remember how it looked, other than the grandly grotesque blood and demonic eyes of the vampirised Lucy, which really stuck in my mind. I have many stills from the film and also note that the original theatrical trailer still sports a far more colourful appearance, but the ONLY version of the film that I have seen since those days has been this bleached interpretation. The previous DVD had this aptly “drained” appearance, and now, much to fans’ disapproval, so does the new Blu-ray.
To be fair, whilst it would have been nice to have been granted both versions on this release – the director’s and the studio’s, that is – I’m afraid that I have to come down on the side of the filmmaker with regards to how a film should look. Of course there are examples when this has spelled disaster. The French Connection, anyone? Possibly even The Last of the Mohicans. But, by and large, I genuinely do not think that we, even as paying punters, have a say in how a creative artist wants us to see his or her work. Thus, even if I would personally have preferred Badham’s Dracula to have been colourful (and it was clearly produced with lashings of colour in mind by the designers and technicians), I totally respect, and in fact, embrace his desire to emulate the classics of the genre he is adapting.
Although I suppose it could be taken as nothing of a contradiction, I definitely do happen to despise what Francis Ford Coppola did with the Blu-ray release of his own take on the Count, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A daft movie it may be, but, damn, it was once beautiful to behold.
This has always been and still remains one of the most gorgeous filmic adaptations of Dracula
Yet whilst I waited for what seemed a damned eternity for my copy of the Badham Blu to arrive, I read with increasing disappointment the reactions of those who had received theirs and I, therefore, pretty much expected the worst. Happily, once the disc did eventually turn up, those fears were mostly allayed.
This has always been and still remains one of the most gorgeous filmic adaptations of Dracula. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor was responsible for such visually arresting work as Ice Cold in Alex, Dr. Strangelove, a series for Polanski with Repulsion, Cul De Sac and Macbeth, the excellent compositions of The Omen and the flamboyant excess of Flash Gordon. For John Badham, I feel he contributed some of his best work. Whatever reservations we may have regarding the lack of colour, this hi-def transfer magnificently reproduces his incredible camerawork and, perhaps, even enhances his lighting by virtue of a less distracting palette. This is probably up for debate, of course, but I have long admired the subdued ambience for its sheer creepiness and realistic adherence to a damp English gloom.
The image exhibits no print damage to speak of. Grain is there, all right, and though it is slight and totally unobtrusive, it remains consistent. One or two shots are murkier and less distinct than others – primarily an early view of Lucy moving through the graveyard on her way to the foundering ship, which looks blurred – but the image, as a whole, retains a wondrous fluidity and clarity throughout. Digital tinkering is not, however, completely absent. There is some edge enhancement on show – particularly during the sequence when Mina and Van Helsing discuss the fate of Lucy as they sit in the graveyard. Haters of the colour timing here will no doubt point towards the moment, at the end of this scene, when Dracula comes riding up and is seen against what should be a blood-red sunset. Even in this parched picture we can clearly see that this would once have looked demonic and portentous.
The oft-lamented disco inferno of Dracula’s seduction of Mina actually looks well saturated with sexy deep reds all a-swirl and flare effects delightfully trippy. In what is probably the most overtly colourful imagery in this, or possibly any version of the film, there is no smearing or banding going on.
Detail is actually very good, indeed. Some people have remarked about there being little difference between the image here and that seen on the DVD. I believe this to be absolute rubbish. The step-up in clarity and definition is very obvious, and the resulting depth and resolution highly rewarding. Views up and down and all around Dr. Seward’s asylum boast more dimensionality and detail within the set, itself, and those screeching denizens scuttling all around it. Likewise, the immensely gothic and, frankly, unbelievably cool monstrosity of Carfax Abbey. Did Count Dracula actually request an old edifice that had gargoyles and an enormous bat statue within it? All the sets and the props have cleaner definition, both close-up and in the deeper recesses of the frame. Facial detail offers new levels of the finite. The relatively sparse makeup effects – torn throats, puncture wounds, bloodily satanic eyes – yield more to study. We can clearly see the misty breath curling out of the mouth of the “dead” captain lashed to the wheel of the doomed ship. (Well, we always could, but it is even more apparent now.) The glorious matte-paintings of old Whitby and the additional turrets and spires to Carfax Abbey that grand master Albert Whitlock created actually appear more seamlessly blended this time around, their integration altogether smoother.
Contrast could be a bone of contention with this release. Although I didn’t really have much of a problem with it, I can understand some misgivings about how it appears with the muted, downplayed palette. The film is now extremely gloomy and grey, and some pale faces can become all-too-easily absorbed within their surroundings, essentially the ladies. Also in this respect, the retimed colour does, perhaps inevitably, cast something of an artificial aspect over the affair. To put it quite simply, we can tell that it has been altered. Some will take more offense over this than others, though. Greys and insipid browns clearly dominate, but blacks are certainly deep and shuddersome. I fear some crushing may even be happening but, as I have commented many times over, this does not upset me as much as it does many others. Shadow-play is good, though it is compromised by the cadaverous pallor it punctuates, meaning that it may not be quite as emphatic as you would like.
To be honest, even given the retiming, it would be churlish not to appreciate the increased definition and the boost that this gives to dimensionality.
Qualms aside, I will happily view this disc many more times.
Dracula Blu-ray Sound Quality
The children of the night sing loud and clear in this DTS-HD MA 2.0 track and even if the overall audio presentation is hardly as bombastic or as impeccably lavish as the imagery that Badham strove for, it doesn’t present any errors.
Dialogue is clean and clear, even with the occasionally bizarre inflections of Langella, Pleasance and, especially, Olivier, whose voice can sometimes become a frail squeak. The variety of strong regional accents comes over very well, as is showcased early on when the townsfolk descend upon the shipwreck with rich and fertile Northern grunts mingling just fine with the general hubbub of a crowd, of the waves, of the gulls and the sound of a primitive jalopy trundling along the beach.
The effects for the raging sea storm, with its crashing waves, howling wind and crunching timber are hardly going to challenge more modern sound-mixes, but the ensuing cacophony is suitably handled. Windows shattering and gunshots are also crisp and contain some heft and immediacy. The thundering of horses’ hoofs and careering coaches offers plenty of momentum. Detail within such hullabaloo is more than adequate. The howling of the Dracula wolf, and the unseen dogs in the village don’t exactly soar out from the mix, actually sounding a little downplayed within it, but the point is still made and certainly comes over with a degree of keenness. An effect that I always enjoyed and now has a touch more detail and fidelity is the sound of Dracula’s hands scuffling against the wall as he climbs, headfirst, down it.
Far and away the standout element of the entire film and its sound design is the majestic score from John Williams
The prising open of caskets and the swinging of a ship’s hook on its pulley also dredge-up some finer and more subtle elements. And as far as lower levels go, the destruction of an asylum wall as the Count abducts Mina, offers some depth.
Far and away the standout element of the entire film and its sound design is the majestic score from John Williams. This was the golden age of the composer’s output and his music for Dracula is utterly breathtaking, and would leave the movie as stranded as that ship of the dead if removed from it. Long sought after by fans (myself included), the master tapes for the score appear to have gone for good, meaning that a release of the full score is highly unlikely. He delivers all the mystery, the dread and the unhallowed romance of the story with a profoundly full orchestral might. We have storms and killings. We have a chase and numerous archetypal confrontations. He treats all with conviction, flair and the old school sweep of a true epic. Thankfully, the transfer does all of this justice. Separation is good, with the stereo width nice and wide and deep, and instrumentation is clean and precise. This presentation of the score leaves the old MCA recording aeons behind.
There’s nothing especially spectacular about this track, but it does the job with a sound design that was never all that audacious to begin with, and manages to deliver all the necessary shivers down the spine.
Dracula Blu-ray Extras
Blu-ray and Digital HD Ultraviolet versions.
Universal doesn’t have anything new for this release, I’m afraid. Just a couple of regurgitations. Or that should be resuscitations?
John Badham gives us a good deal of background info, insightful and frank, and occasionally amusing opinion on the extravagant production in his Commentary. A solo flight, this is engaging and interesting, offering up a few technical secrets about the FX and the photography, and a few nuggets about his cast. A fine track.
The 39-minute retro documentary The Revamping of Dracula is a terrific look back at the production and how it was treated upon release. With Badham and Langella offering the most frank and considered memories about the enterprise, this becomes quite a candid nostalgia trip. The notorious reflection in the muddy puddle is discussed, as well as many other elements, such as Langella’s steadfast refusal to wear fangs and have Christopher Lee-style blood on his lips. A great little piece that covers a fair bit of ground with its interesting group of participants.
Universal’s disc also offers up some trailers, though none for the film in question.
Dracula Blu-ray Verdict
The Count has never been far from the screen. Two more incarnations have swished their capes lately, Luke Evans’ take on Drac as war-hero in Dracula Untold, and who could forget (no matter how much they may want to) demented Dario’s dunderheaded disaster of Dracula 3D – which can’t even successfully claim to be the worst version ever made! But whilst everyone has their own favourite take on what is surely one of the most-filmed stories, nobody can deny that John Badham’s 1979 interpretation does more things right than it does wrong.
A couple of name-changes, an abbreviated roster of characters and a few intriguing departures from convention notwithstanding, this could well be my own personal favourite. Slow-burn intensity and simmering performances from Langella and Nelligan ensure the passion of the undead makes its dark desires manifest. The infamous wall-crawling from Bram Stoker’s novel finally receives a cinematic unveiling – and it is truly classic in its surreal creepiness. The lack of overt and gratuitous horror is more than compensated for with amazing sets and cinematography, and impressive use of genuinely bleak and windswept English locations. John Williams totally nails the dread, mystery and deadly romance of Dracula’s sensual assault on Victorian social mores. And Badham genuinely appreciates the frightening charisma that this well-worn villain possesses, allowing Langella to take centre-stage in the full knowledge that his star understands this particular Dracula more than anyone else.
Badham genuinely appreciates the frightening charisma that this well-worn villain possesses
Of course, when the film was originally released it suffered from the success of the George Hamilton spoof horror, Love At First Bite, which informed audiences that Dracula was actually a camp figure of fun. Over time, however, lovers of the supernatural fantastique have grown to appreciate the swishing, debonair flair of Langella, and the depravity that simmers in his eyes. And the film certainly stands up well today, with a clever combination of upper-class decorum, lower-class angst and the corruptive influence that the exotic can over either.
Fans have awaited this film’s arrival on Blu-ray with eager expectation, though none will be surprised to find only the director’s preferred colour-tweaked version here. Mixed reactions are, thus, guaranteed. Personally, I quite like the drained aesthetic. It is the version I have known for a long time, so I am not shocked by it at all. There is an artificiality about it that cannot be denied … but, overall, I think it suits the mood of the story and, arguably, even amplifies the spectacularly composed photography. The transfer, sans colour, is fine. Only some edge sharpening letting it down. Audio delivers the marvellous music with might. Extras are slim and already well-known, but still good.
Even if it is possibly my own favourite Dracula, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I regard it as a great film. There are more than a few slip-ups and idiocies, including a famously ludicrous climax, that go out of their way to ensure this could still be termed as little more than a lavish misfire for many genre-buffs.
I love it, though. Universal’s disc won’t please everyone, but I still recommend it.
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