Friday, November 14, 2014

"Dracula" 1979

I've wanted to see this particular version of Dracula for quite a few years now.  In the Angel season one episode "Eternity," Angel mentioned that Frank Langella was the only movie portrayal of a vampire he found believable.

Frank Langella as Dracula.  In case you weren't paying attention.

So of course I then wanted to see Langella's Dracula, to see why Angel found him so realistic.  Except back in 2000 when that ep aired, DVDs weren't really a big thing yet, barely existed, and the local video store didn't have this movie, so I was out of luck.  Filed it away in my "see it someday if I get the opportunity" list and moved on.

And then Charity blogged about it here this fall.  I promptly put the DVD on my Amazon wish list.  I'd been doing a bunch of Christmas shopping right then and couldn't quite justify to myself buying a movie I'd never seen just because Angel thought it was believable.  (I'm so sorry, Angel.  It doesn't mean I don't still love you.)

And then... I had gallbladder surgery.  And Charity, living up to her name in all ways, sent me her spare copy of this movie as a get-well gift!  DO NOT ever let people tell you that "internet friends" are not "real friends."

Sadly, by the time it arrived, I was back on my feet and swamped with catching up with all sorts of things I'd fallen behind on while I was recuperating.  So I saved this to be a special Halloween treat.  And a treat it was indeed!

(Side note:  don't write up a long review the day after you watch a movie and then take two weeks to get the two measly screencaps you want to illustrate the very last paragraph.  It's not very sensible.)

It's been a while since I saw any version of Dracula, as my fascination with vampires has waned over the last few years.  (It doesn't mean I don't still love you, Angel!  My fascination with you has not waned, I promise.)  It's been even longer since I read the book, which I remember being deep and thoughtful and also a bit dry.  But all that just meant I was ready to look at the story afresh, which turned out to be good, since this is not exactly a faithful adaptation.  For one thing, they switched Mina and Lucy around.

Lucy Seward
Lucy (Kate Nelligan, who was Mercedes in my favorite version of The Count of Monte Cristo) is now the fiancee of Jonathon Harker (Trevor Eve), while Mina (Jan Francis) is her best friend who is visiting her because she's been unwell.  Lucy's father, Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance!) runs an asylum, where a lot of the story takes place.  I thought that setting worked really well to accentuate the fact that anyone who harbors romantic feelings for a vampire must be a little bit crazy.  (This includes me, obviously.)  

Jonathon and Dr. Seward are Thoroughly Modern Men, one driving around in a motorcar and wearing ridiculous goggles, while the other puts his faith in modern medicine to help his patients and anyone else who might mysteriously fall ill while under his roof.  Ahem.

Okay, if you don't know the basic story of Dracula, be warned that this is going to be spoily not just for this movie, but for the book as well. 

So anyway, yeah, motorcars.  This is set more in the Edwardian era than the Victorian, obviously.  Still people driving carriages and farm carts, but the times, they are a-changin'.  Into this world of change, this asylum of noise and chaos, steps the mysterious Count Dracula (Frank Langella), the only survivor of a ship wrecked on the rocks outside town.  He'd previously acquired a deserted old castle on the edge of town, where he moves with his crates of Translvanian dirt (he's interested in botany, nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean?  Say no more!) and his decidedly Old World, old-fashioned ways.

Lucy meets Dracula

Dr. Seward invites him to dinner, and Dracula's impeccable manners and innate elegance attract both Lucy and Mina.  And who can blame them?  Compared to Jonathon Harker's earnest, floppy-haired blandness, Dracula is like a dashing hero swooshing cavalierly into their lives.

Jonathon Harker

Of course, he has the strange ability to hypnotize people, his eyes do this crazy darting-back-and-forth thing when he sees or smells blood, and he dances much better than mortal men ought to.  But everybody blithely ignores all that and accepts him into their circle of people to hang out with on a dark and stormy night.

About that thing where his eyes flicker back and forth -- I've been trying to do that since Halloween, and it's really hard.  Makes my eyes hurt.  I mentioned this to Charity, and she says it's a thing Langella just does when he's concentrating, and the director thought it was brilliant for the character and kept it.  I'm going to take a wild guess and say that he does not suffer from astigmatism like I do, because when I try it, my eyes get confused and stop working together like they should.  Anyway, it was a fantastic nuance and I loved it.

This version of Dracula can totally do the shape-shifting thing.  Sometimes he's a wolf, sometimes he's a bat, sometimes he's mist.  So that was pretty faithful to the book.  Also, he can climb up and down walls like a bat, which was completely creepy.  Scariest part of the whole movie was when he climbed down the walls to get to the bedroom Mina and Lucy share, head downward, and appears at the balcony's glass doors that way.  Totally freaky.  Also, they somehow found a wolf that actually moved like Langella, or Langella studied that wolf a lot and learned to move like it, because yeah, the resemblance was splendid.

So anyway, people start dying with puncture marks on their necks, the usual.  No one suggests they fell on a barbecue fork, they just assume that huh, something bit them in their room at night.  Makes me wonder a bit about the security at this asylum, and also what kinds of weird things they're used to finding in their rooms.  Nobody searches for a cause for Mina's death, it's just, "Oh, she lost a lot of blood, isn't that odd now?"  

Until her father, Professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier!!!), arrives.  He's got no faith in modern medicine, modern science, modern anything.  He's old-school, he's Dutch (huzzah!), and he's a Christian.  How quaint, right?  Poor old fool, guess he'll just have to say his farewells to Mina's grave, nothing for such an out-of-touch old fogey to do here.


Professor Van Helsing

Van Helsing totally recognizes Dracula for what he is, from the moment he first sees him.  His eyes aren't clouded by modernity.  With the clear sight of faith, he can tell right from wrong, good from evil.  Alive from undead.  Nobody else wants to believe his claims that their new buddy the Count is a monster, not even Jonathon, who's practically being cuckolded before his own eyes and surely has no reason to defend his rival.  But nooooooo, these modern fellows require proof.

So Van Helsing gives them proof.  And then they all go merrily crusading off to kill Dracula and stop him from turning Lucy into his latest Eternal Bride.  

The ending is a bit ambiguous, actually.  They seem to have killed Dracula, but then his cape goes flapping away across the ocean, and Lucy clearly thinks that means he's not dead.  Is this just wishful thinking on her part?  Is she even imagining it?  I don't know -- I could spend a whole blog post theorizing about that ending, but this is already quite long, so I won't do that here.

Overall, I'm really, really happy I got to see this at long last.  Langella and Olivier are absolutely brilliant, and everyone else fills their roles well.  The sets are terrific, and if some of the effects are dated, well... this movie was made 35 years ago.  It's to be expected.

There's also one set that I think they must have consciously echoed in season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Dracula takes Lucy for a moonlit walk in a lush, over-grown garden by his mansion:

The mansion Angelus shares with Spike and Drusilla has a very similar garden.  You can see it well in "I Only Have Eyes for You," one of my absolute favorite BtVS eps:

James Marsters as Spike

Juliet Landau as Drusilla

Joss being such a filmophile, I'm pretty sure this was a deliberate nod :-)

David Boreanaz as Angel (NOT from that same ep or set, but he seemed lonely because I'd talked about him through this whole post and not included any pictures of him, so, there we go.  Picture of Angel.)
So.  Last of all, I should mention whether or not this is family-friendly.  It's definitely not.  It's rated R, though I think nowadays it would be PG-13, but that rating didn't exist back in 1979.  It's got one scene that psychedelically implies Dracula having his way with Lucy, but it's relatively tasteful and easy to skip.  There's also a good bit of creepiness, especially with Mina.  Not a movie for children.


  1. Someone should make a .gif out of him wiggling his eyes back and forth.

    1. I tried to find one, but didn't. However, if you stare at that first picture of him long enough, it feels like his eyes start to move.

  2. This brings back very vague memories of seeing this, once upon a time. I'd like to catch it again now!

    1. Hee. Definitely worth watching! Especially for Langella and Olivier squaring off.

  3. I really liked reading Dracula, but I was also confused as to how easily he was able to seduce people when the book said he reeked (at least that's how I remember it--I can't quote it exactly). But still a fascinating read. This movie looks great! - Maggie @ macarons & paperbacks

    1. Yeah, I do seem to remember something about the scent of death hanging around him. Guess that's a testament to his powers, that he could convince people to overlook the stench!

  4. Internet friends are most definitely real friends! That's so awesome and nice of Charity to do that for you. I admit that this particular story may be a little too creepy for my tastes, but I'm so glad you finally got the chance to watch it. And that you're doing much better now! :)

    1. I agree :-D I mean, I've met my dearest friend and several other good friends online -- it's a wonderful way to connect with likeminded people and make friends!

      This movie is creepy, but the book as a whole you might dig. Actually, I found the book a bit dull, compared to what I was expecting. But it has some really great moral pondering and themes about good versus evil, the power of faith, and so on.

      And yes, doing really well now. Once in a while, if I'm naughty and eat two slices of bacon instead of one, I'll have a bit of tummy unpleasantness, but for the most part, fine as can be. And it just serves as a reminder not to consume more fat than is healthy!

  5. A tad bit late on this. I remember seeing the movie, but I can't remember exactly when. Early 80's, I'm sure, but I saw it on television. I can't remember really much of it except for Dracula's cape floating away at the end.

    As for Dracula in general, I prefer the book to any of the movie versions I've seen. Something about the epistolary format really brings things alive for me as it were.

    Regarding the issue of how Dracula could seduce people when the book says he reeks of death, well, in the book he wasn't really much of a seducer.

    1. George, it's never too late to leave a blog comment! That's why I have archives, so people can go through them and see what I said about movies they've seen.

      I've only read the book once, back in 2000 while on a college choir tour. I did not love it. But I don't exactly love any movie versions of it either, though I've only seen 3 or 4. And you're right, the book used vampirism as a sort of symbol of seduction, rather than involving actual seduction.

    2. Since I reread the book practically every year, no movie version has a chance with me. :)

      I am very appreciative, though, of Nosferatu. The movie, not the actual creature.

    3. Yeah, Nosferatu is pretty awesome. Have you seen Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalized version of filming it? I quite liked it.

    4. I've only seen bits and pieces of it.


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