Richly ambitious and truly atmospheric
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 eschews the more conventionally horrific elements that fans expect, barring one or two memorably shocking momentsHowever 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.
The Count’s 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.
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 have over either.
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 along the way, including an 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. Despite an unintentionally hilarious road-chase and a lacklustre finale, Badham’s interpretation is richly ambitious and truly atmospheric.
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