There have been many versions of “Dracula” but this 1979 version is probably one of the more romantic versions, if not the only one. Directed by John Badham, it was based on the hit Broadway play. The play’s acclaimed star, Frank Langella, donned Dracula’s cloak (if not the fangs) for the movie version. OK, so he may be the only Count with blow-dried hair but hey, it was 1979! The other major players are a frail looking Laurence Olivier as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Kate Nelligan as the strong-willed Lucy Seward, Trevor Eve as the suspicious barrister Jonathan Harker, and Donald Pleasance as the somewhat nonchalant asylum proprietor Dr. Jack Seward.
In keeping with this Gothic story, there are the usual elements of a foggy landscape, an insane asylum, a tumbledown abbey and (too many) wolves that howl in the night. Even the film’s cinematography is muted, as if the colours have been drained. This “Dracula” plays the count as a seducer though the monster that rips out people’s throats can be glimpsed lurking beneath the charm. We never see fangs or a bloody mouth on this vampire. Only Frank Langella could say that line about wolves and “the children of the night” and not sound like an idiot.
“Dracula” doesn’t follow Bram Stoker’s novel that closely. Mina is the first victim, not Lucy Seward. There are no vampire brides and Jonathan Harker has presumably been to and left Romania without incident. The movie opens with a storm-tossed ship and its crew that has figured out too late that something is very very wrong on board. The Sewards’ guest Mina, unable to sleep, watches the ship run ashore and inexplicably runs down to the beach where she finds the sole survivor, one Count Dracula.
Being the friendly sort, the Sewards invite their new neighbour over for dinner. Nobody notices he doesn’t touch his meal. Dracula takes advantage of the situation to hypnotize Lucy and later that night, pays her a visit after Lucy sneaks out of their room to meet Jonathan. Mina dies the next day, struggling to catch her breath. Meantime the count, attracted by Lucy’s spirit, sets his sights on her next. But unlike her luckless friend who was merely a meal, Lucy will become the new bride of Dracula, making this a love match of sorts. However, the count made a mistake in draining Mina, because her grieving father is Dr. Van Helsing, and he figures out what exactly is living next door in Carfax Abbey. It’s up to Van Helsing, Dr. Seward and Jonathan Harker to save Lucy’s body, as well as her immortal soul.
The movie does feel a little rushed though. At one point Dr. Seward tells Dr. Van Helsing that Mina had been sleepwalking and suffering nightmares before her death but we never see that. Also, Dracula’s stalking of Mina and his courtship of Lucy could have been longer.
There’s very little horror in this version of “Dracula”. The scariest scene (which isn’t very) happens underground when Van Helsing drops his crucifix in a puddle and dead Mina – a nightmarish vision with peeling chalk white skin and red eyeballs – arrives to embrace “papa”.(One thing that has always bothered me about vampire films are the vampire hunters. I know if I were one, I’d be clanking with crosses!)
Not to say there aren’t a few thrills and of course, some romantic moments such as the seduction of Lucy in a blood-red acid-like scene. Other stand-out scenes are the dinner(?) scene with Dracula and Lucy in Carfax Abbey, which is lit with dozens of candles and festooned with silvery cobwebs, and Lucy shrinking before a cross before kissing it. The ambiguous ending lets the viewer make up her own mind as to what happened. Immortal love? You decide.
“Dracula” won the 1980 Saturn award for best film from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. But if you’re looking for a blood and gore scarefest, go rent “Dracula 2000” or the recent “30 Days of Night”. This is not the film for you.