Before there were vampires being interviewed, and well before any of them sparkled, there was John Badham’s Dracula in what must be the earliest truly romantic vampire movie. Now, it’s true that Dracula has always been tied with sexuality but this 1979 version, based on the Broadway play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, the story is geared towards a more female perspective rather than the male-centric cast of Bram Stoker’s novel.
This version of Dracula begins with the wreck of Demeter as the ship is tossed by a storm while some horrible creature kills the crew. So right off the bat snicker we diverge wildly from the novel as this movie skips Transylvania completely, with no poor Jonathon Harker being harassed by the Brides of Dracula and no final showdown between our heroes and Dracula on his home turf.
The other major change is what I call “Character Scrabble” as in this version Mina (Jan Francis) is the first London victim of Dracula and it is Lucy (Kate Nelligan) who becomes the focus of the battle between Dracula and our heroes, a complete opposite of what occurs in the book. This version of Mina is also the daughter of Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) and not engaged to Johnathon Harker (Trevor Eve) while Lucy is now the daughter of Doctor Seward (Donald Pleasence) and is the one engaged to Harker, and these changes seem completely arbitrary and seem made more to separate themselves from the original source material than for any artistic reason I can imagine.
A sickly Mina is the one that finds poor Dracula washed ashore after the wreck of the Demeter she clearly immediately has the hots for him, and can you blame her? Sadly, she is only the Count’s appetizer and it is Lucy that is the film’s main course.
Dracula (Frank Langella) is more your Jane Austen type character than the one found in Bram Stoker’s book, he is a monster as so far as it goes in that he must feed on blood to survive, but he and Lucy do seem to genuinely fall in love throughout the course of the picture. Langella originated this version from the aforementioned stage adaptation and he made it quite clear that he would not be wearing fangs or dripping blood in this movie, so the studio had to make do with vampire Mina and Lucy popping fangs.
Gone in this version of Dracula are Lucy’s suitors as the cast is cut down to just three heroes; Van Helsing, Harker, and Seward, and at no point do these guys ever come across as a threat to Dracula and Harker is so boring that one cannot blame Lucy for picking Dracula over him.
It’s Mina’s death that summons the great Doctor Van Helsing and one can only thank the stars and John Badham for casting the great Laurence Oliver as he is just fantastic in the part, as well as the scene-stealing presence of Donald Pleasence who is always a welcome addition in any movie. With these two great actors you know you’re in for a fun time and they both elevate the material.
Now, as good as Oliver and Pleasence are the star of this film is clearly Frank Langella and his performance here is fantastic and his Dracula is pure sex on toast. With flowing capes and low-cut blouses, this Dracula is designed to get women’s juices flowing and in almost every frame he is on he exudes raw sexuality. His vampire powers are almost unnecessary as what Victorian woman could resist his pure animal magnetism?
It’s the love story between Lucy and Dracula that really makes this version stand out among its peers, this Lucy is a strong and capable woman and even though Dracula attempts a little vampiric mesmerism it is soon clear to all that he needs no such tactics to win Lucy.
The one scene that is a bit of an oddity is when Dracula and Lucy finally do the nasty because, for the most part, the film is a true gothic tale but once our two leads start to get it on we get an abstract laser light show. It is a pretty enough visual, created by the legendary credit sequence designer Marice Binder, but doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie.
The heroes will, of course, try and thwart the evil Count to which they will hunt down his minions and most assuredly figure out his game plan and do whatever it takes to stop his centuries-long reign of terror…and reign of sexiness.
This is a rare Dracula movie that ends with a strangely hopeful ending with the Prince of Darkness, having escaped Carfax Abbey with Lucy, battling Van Helsing and Harker in the hold of a ship bound for Romania. Van Helsing is ironically staked by Dracula during the struggle but with his dying act, he sends a cargo hook into Dracula’s back allowing Harker to haul him up out of the hold and into the sunlight. We see Dracula scream in rage as his skin begins to burn but we don’t get the shot of him turning to ash, as has happened to poor Christopher Lee on so many occasions, what we see is a cape fluttering away on the winds. The music and Lucy staring up at the fluttering cape with a wistful expression makes one believe that she thinks he got away and that maybe someday they will be reunited.
John Badham’s Dracula is an excellent entry in the filmography of the world’s most famous vampire and Frank Langella’s creature is more about charm than it is horror and is vastly entertaining. Another thing I shan’t forget to mention is the score by legendary film composer John Williams which is just hauntingly beautiful and quite memorable.
Sadly the poor box office results showed that maybe the public wasn’t quite ready for a “tragic” vampire love story. At least not quite yet.
John Badham and Frank Langella bring us a true bodice ripper of a vampire tale. Though limited in scope it’s small cast is excellent and Langella’s take on the most famous of all vampires is great as is Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing.