Monday, October 21, 2019
Dracula Adaptations | Dracula (1979)
Who's in it?: Frank Langella (Masters of the Universe, Superman Returns), Kate Nelligan (Wolf, US Marshals), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Clash of the Titans), and Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween, Escape from New York)
What's it about?: Universal remixes elements from the novel into a lavish, gothic spectacle.
How is it?: 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's nothing wrong with Langella's performance and he's an excellent, good-looking, suave, and charming Dracula. I believe it when characters 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 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 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 plays 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.
And yet it never asks viewers to believe that Lucy is completely consensual in her attraction to the Count. That's a big problem I have with Coppola's version, but this '79 version walks the tightrope nicely. Dracula exerts power, so Lucy isn't just abandoning her commitment to Harker, but Nelligan plays her more or less as a woman who's heart and head are telling her different things and there's a real struggle as she tries to choose between Harker and Dracula. I believed her falling under Dracula's 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 in a way that's pretty rare for Dracula adaptations.
Rating: Four out of five Minas