Thursday, June 9, 2011

DRACULA (1979)

1979, John Badham
Starring: Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasance, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve, Jan Francis

This Dracula is, oddly enough, a Universal remake based on the stage play starring Frank Langella, which is, in turn, based on the Hamilton Deane play that inspired the 1931 film. I have to say that a stand-alone Dracula is somewhat rare. There are the two major groups of Dracula films: the 1931 film and its body of sequels and the eight Hammer films. I think what makes this Dracula in particular admirable is that its only goal is to present a new, visually appealing version of of the film, rather than attempting to create a legacy for itself. The most remarkable thing about it is its superb scenery and atmosphere. From the set to the cinematography, every moment drips with Gothic elegance and sensuality. And like the Langella play, the film design is inspired by a series of Edward Gorey drawings, which give it an added element of creepiness, particularly the asylum and Dracula's home in Whitby. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The plot is not really that remarkable. There is the usual swapping of names and characters; Lucy, daughter of Dr. Seward (a very confused Donald Pleasance), is the main character. Her sickly friend Mina, daughter of Professor Van Helsing (a very sick Sir Laurence Olivier), is visiting the Seward home, which is connected to the insane asylum. Jonathan Harker is in love with Lucy and is a regular visitor to their home. Dracula arrives via shipwreck and is "saved" by Mina, who is immediately smitten by him. He, in turn, puts the bite on her. Her father, Van Helsing, is called in for her funeral and he discovers that her death was the result of vampirism, not her life-long illness. As Seward and Van Helsing begin to stamp out the demonic plague, it is clear that Lucy is Dracula's next victim, though he claims to want her because he loves her above all other women. Can they destroy Dracula and save Lucy before the couple flee to Romania and consummate their unholy union?

I'm not sure how I feel about this film. It is well acted by a roster of screen and stage veterans, beautifully shot, and has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. There is plenty of sex, as well as a nicely ambiguous ending. But something about it bugs me. I think I just have trouble appreciating films that try to present Dracula as a romantic figure, which is Dracula primary aim. I like Frank Langella and think he is a talented actor, but I don't want to take my clothes off every time I look at him. The film is, supposedly purposefully, not intent on having a scary Dracula, but Langella is fittingly alien. If you've never seen it before, its worth a look, particularly on some cold, stormy evening when you want to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and an entertaining film.

The DVD I'm reviewing is the Universal studios release. It includes a documentary about the making of the film, "The Revamping of Dracula." It is actually worth watching and gives you some interesting pointers about what the filmmakers and Langella intended when they were making the film. It is pretty honest about Dracula's less than stellar critical reception, its goal to portray Dracula as a sexual/romantic object for a female audience, and so on.

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