Saturday, April 3, 2010

Grave Reviews #9

DRACULA (1979)

Director: John Badham

Starring: Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasance, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve and Jan Francis.

A few days ago, starved for vampire movies to watch I perused Taliesin's A-Z list of vampire movies and came across this film which I hadn't seen since my twenties.

I had first seen it back in the 80s as a young vampire-obsessed lad, and although there were many vampire movies still unseen on Taliesin's list my fond memory of this film made me choose it over the others, hence I found it first on my to-watch-list.

After watching it again, this time after now seeing 100+ vampire movies, and probably 10+ Dracula adaptations (but back then I believe I'd only seen the Yorga films, Salem's Lot and a Lee Dracula or two) I believe that this film is one of the best Dracula adaptations produced.

The film follows the plot of Stoker's original story close enough, but omits and changes plot points such as omitting Transylvania and the Brides altogether (a pity) as well as swapping the character histories of Lucy and Mina. Here Lucy Seward (Nelligan) is only not of the Westernra family, but the daughter of Dr Seward who runs The Whitby Asylum, from within his mansion no less. She is engaged to Johnathan Harker (Eve), and Mina is the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Olivier) and is also frail and sickly.

Renfield is not a committed madman at the start of the film, but actually a labourer who delivers boxes of Transylvanian earth to Carfax Abbey, and gets more than he bargains for (including a taste for bugs) when he bad mouths Dracula at the abbey for having to shift the soil-filled crates.

Dracula arrives aboard the Demeter during a storm as per the novel, and as it smashes on the rocks, Mina though sickly runs down the cliffs to the wreck and follows a wolf to the nearby cave. There she finds an 'unconscious' Count Dracula in a fur coat to whom he now regards as his saviour. The workers at the abbey lead by Doctor Seward unload the boxes to transport to the Abbey as Harker arrives by motorcar to inquire on the health and wherabouts of Dracula.

The next night the Count attends the home of Seward to meet his new neighbours in a warm Whitby welcome and much to Harker's chagrin, Dracula and Lucy seem smitten with each other. Seeing Mina suffer from one of her fainting spells, Dracula insists on using hypnotism to calm and recouperate her as he believes the laudanam Seward usually administers her will make her blood impure.

Lucy is rather sarcastic to the Count's beliefs and also his choice of lodgings, only for him to remark he prefers his women strongwilled and full of life and blood, and that as he is of an old family a new house will not do. The decrepid Carfax Abbey is just the home from one such as he. Harker grows jealous when Dracula and Lucy dance.

That night while Lucy and Harker have a secret interlude, the Count descends the wall to Mina's bedroom and picking the frame from around the window enters the room to drink of her blood. The next morning Lucy awakes afright and summons her Father only to have both of them watch her die as she struggles for oxygen, not realising that vampiric blood is taking over her body and soul.

Mina is buried, and Seward at a loss with the marks on her neck summons her father Abraham from Paris to tell him of the terrible news. Harker arrives at Carfax to give the Count his deed to the property and he insists Harker file it at his law firm in London at once. When he apologises due to Mina's upcoming funeral, Dracula uses this time to invite Seward and his daughter to dine at his house while Harker is away, and would he be so kind to deliver the message.

As Abraham arrives at Whitby, Lucy is wine, dined and seduced by Dracula and agrees to become his bride. Van Helsing learns the true fate of his daughter after a mother of a murdered baby attests that the now dead Mina was the killer. So they dig her up her coffin and discover a tunnel into the mines were a cadaverous Mina lurks, and after a struggle the grieving father kills his daughter.

Dracula comes to Lucy's bed that night and turns her while making love, and Harker finds her in a similar state with the same puncture wounds that poor Mina sported. After Dracula fails to kill Helsing does the lead hunter learn who they must now destroy to free Lucy.

After a blood transfusion to slow Lucy's vampiric transformation, the men cut out Mina's heart and rebury her with a horrified Lucy watching from the window. She flees to warn her Master only to be stopped by the new vampire hunters. Seward locks Lucy in the Aslyum as Van Helsing and Harker attempt to destroy Dracula at Carfax. Helsing is surprised Dracula is mobile during the day, and they almost destroy him with sunlight but he escapes in bat form.

That night Dracula breaks Lucy out of the Asylum, he commissions a crate full of earth to return to his homeland, and only by a stroke of luck do the hunters' cross paths with the crate. After they are outwitted by the Count do they finally make it to the Scarborough Docks to see Dracula's ship sail off in the distance.

Hiring a boat Van Helsing and Harker manage to board the ship, locate the crate with The Prince of Darkness and his new Vampire Bride encased within. Harker tears a vampiric Lucy from Dracula's grip and the Count struggles with Van Helsing gaining the upper hand by impaling Van Helsing to the side of the ship. Harker misses Dracula with a ship hook, and subsequently getting strangled by Dracula, he is saved by the last ounce of strength from Van Helsing's limbs as he sends the hook into Dracula's back.

Harker desperately pulls on the crank of the rope sending Dracula screaming through the floorboards towards the deadly sunlight. The rays destroy his vampire powers and he dies becoming a decrepid old man. Harker turns away from the now restored Lucy in disgust and pain towards his now dead friend, and Lucy smirks triumphantly as she sees Dracula's cloak break free of the hook and sail in the shape of a bat into the horizon. Does Dracula still live?

One thing this movie has going for it is atmosphere. Any vampire fan will literally drool when they witness the exterior and interior shots of Carfax Abbey as I did. The mix of marble and cobwebs was lush, though I was a bit perturbed that Dracula slept in a crate, surely he could have acquired a lovely coffin or at least stole one from the cemetery.

The Edwardian clothing and furniture were sublime and Langella played a fearsome and seductive Dracula that gives Oldman and Co a run for their money. I find it funny that Coppola stated he tried to do something that wasn't done before with a love story, yet there is a twisted love story in this film, as well Dan Curtis' Dracula with Jack Palance.

The script and acting were good enough though I found Eve as Harker a tad annoying, was a bit confused as to why Van Helsing was French and not Dutch, and as usual Donald Pleasance played Donald Pleasance just like he did in Vampires in Venice, Halloween and Prince of Darkness among other films.

The SFX in this were great. I loved the wall-crawling and shapeshifting - the vampire bat wasn't too hokey as it usually is, and the shifting to wolf shape was done rather well. The fang and demon eye effects were great, and I was surprised that Langella's Dracula did not show fang once.

 Reading up on this film I read it was on Langella's insistence that his monster be more believable (though they kept in the wall-crawling and shapeshifting) I thought Dracula was a tad thick though for a 500-year old vampire as I do now when I watch these Dracula adaptations.

Surely the people of Romania knew his weaknesses such as the cross and garlic, which was part of the reason he moves to England, so he should know what to do when others discover his weaknesses? What happened to sneaking up behind hunters so they can't pull a cross on you, or grabbing some plates from the sideboard and tossing them like frisbies at vampire hunters' heads when they confront you in a dining room?

My Grade is A.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Re-commented due to embarrassing spelling errors!

    Glad to see my obsessive listing is proving useful... I love this version of Dracula and I might have an answer to the why Dracula isn't too bright (though not a satisfactory one)...

    Van Helsing, in the novel, makes pains to say that Dracula has a child's brain that is evolving and growing, almost as though he stagnated whilst in Transylvania and the new life of sophisticated London will quicken his cunning.

    This, of course, was a thinly veiled insult made by Stoker regarding "Johnny foreigner" as Dracula is as much about foreign influences threatening the Empire as anything else (the irony that it is a Dutchman that Stoker uses as his voice is not lost on me).

    Logically, however, whilst the child part of the brain (generically) can be spiteful and cunning it is also unsophisticated and will face its foes straight on.

    If this analysis holds water then the form in the book has carried forth into the films. Of course it could be so much codswallop ;)

  3. Thanks Taliesin,

    I too, delete erroneous blog comments that I post as I did on Everlost's blog last night, and I must say I'm not too fond that the blog program leaves "This post has been removed by the author" as a reminder! Of course I still get emailed the original post so your embarrassing errors are safe with me :)

    I find your knowledge of the Dracula Novel profound. Admittedly I haven't read it in years but you were able to recall the invitation rule between Renfield and Dracula as well. So Kudos. But I agree with what you said, plus I think Dracula underestimates his opponents due to his age and power. This could also be a metaphor for his Royal status in relation to getting challenged by commoners. They are but bugs under his feet.

    I'm not surprised that back then an author would have made subtle jibes at foreigners in their work, in a way Dracula represents the funny new guy with an accent that gets the girl at the local inn because he is more exotic over the locals a lass grew up with, but to be honest even though Stoker lived in London wasn't he really an Irishman?

    Perhaps his distaste for foreigners was his constant fear of them coming to steal his lucky charms!

  4. lol... lucky charms... ;)

    Stoker was an Irishman, but Ireland, at that time, was still under British rule and thus very much part of the Empire.

    Whilst he has a pro-Empire stance, he still had the knowledge of these things held by a dutchman and had a Texan involved with the good guys - so it wasn't as xenophobic as it could have been.