Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Dracula (1979)

Who's In It: Frank Langella (Masters of the Universe, Superman Returns, Muppets Most Wanted), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca, Clash of the Titans), Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween, Escape from New York), and Kate Nelligan (Wolf, US Marshals).

What It's About: The Hamilton Deane/John Balderston play gets a gothic update with extra focus on Dracula's (Langella) powers of seduction.

How It Is: Let's get the movie's big problem out of the way first and that's Dracula's costume. He looks like he's wearing a white turtleneck with a vampire cape from the Halloween aisle at Target. But there ain't nothing wrong with Langella's performance and he may just be my favorite Dracula outside of Max Schreck, who possibly doesn't count (pun totally intended). Langella is good-looking, suave, and charming and I believe it when people fall under his spell. (His hair is too poofy to be believable in the nineteenth century, but oh well.)

The rest of the cast is good, too. I've read somewhere that Pleasance was offered the role of Van Helsing, but turned it down because it was too similar to Dr Loomis in Halloween. I agree and I'm extremely happy with him as Dr Seward: a monster hunter, but sort of a reluctant one and certainly not the obsessed pursuer that Loomis and Van Helsing are.

Speaking of Van Helsing, Olivier disappears into that role. He's doing a convincing (to my ears, anyway) Dutch accent and his facial hair threw me off so that I had to actually go and remind myself who was playing him.

Kate Nelligan brings some extra gravity to her role as Lucy. For some reason (that I'll have thoughts about in a second), Mina and Lucy are switched in this version, so that Mina is Dracula's first victim and Lucy is the one whom everyone's trying to save for the rest of the story. Because the movie is playing up the seduction angle, Lucy doesn't try to resist in the same way that Mina does in the novel. Instead, she's intrigued by the gorgeous count and starts to fall for him, even though she suspects that something's not quite right. It's more similar to real-life romantic attraction than the novel or the Lugosi film are with their emphasis on Dracula's supernatural will. In the '79 movie, Dracula exerts power, but Nelligan plays Lucy more or less as a woman who's heart and head are telling her different things. I believed her falling under his spell much more than I do in other adaptations.

About the switching of Lucy with Mina: It annoyed me at first, because I didn't see the point, but as the movie went on, I started to see how it affected the characters of Van Helsing and Dr Seward in a powerful way. Like in other adaptations, Lucy is Dr Seward's daughter, but in this one, Mina is actually Van Helsing's daughter. So when Van Helsing arrives in England too late to save his own girl, it adds a layer of tragedy and motivation to have him trying to save the daughter of his friend. Pleasence adds to this by being pretty helpless in the whole affair, while Olivier is acting the crap out of his failure to protect Mina and his determination to not let the same thing happen to Lucy.

Describing it that way makes it seem like Lucy's story is subservient to Van Helsing and Seward's, but the movie is concerned about them all. I felt the stakes (pun intended again) in a way that's pretty rare for Dracula adaptations.

Rating: 4 out of 5 sessy vampires.


Caffeinated Joe said...

You have made me want to see this again. I watched a long time ago and it somehow didn't leave an effect. Now, it seems interesting to watch with fresh eyes.

Michael May said...

It speaks to a lot of my specific tastes, so I wouldn't recommend it to just anyone, but I feel like you and I share a lot of the same inclinations. I bet you'd at least like it.


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