Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dracula (1979)

          Attractive but not subtle, this big-budget version of the deathless Bram Stoker novel boasts fabulous production values, a rousing score by John Williams, a sexy star turn by Frank Langella, and zesty direction by John Badham. These elements add up to a pulpy romantic thriller that borders on camp when Laurence Olivier shows up to give an overcooked performance as the vampire count’s nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing, so even though this Dracula is an enjoyable rendering of a classic story, it doesn’t exactly aspire to high art.
          Just as a successful Broadway show of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi led Universal Pictures to film the story in 1931, a hit revival of the play starring Langella prompted Universal to revisit the character after years in which England’s Hammer Films laid claim to the world-famous bloodsucker. Langella blends aristocratic carriage, mellifluous line readings, and seductive glares to make Dracula into a sort of supernatural swinger who causes women to fall at his feet; the characterization is broad nearly to the point of self-parody, but nonetheless entertaining.
          Given this strong take on the title character, it’s mildly disappointing that other story elements in this way-too-long flick didn’t receive equally imaginative treatment. Screenwriter W.D. Richter mucks about with the specifics of Stoker’s book in order to streamline the narrative and contrive a big action-movie climax, but he relies on overused shock tactics like comin’-at-ya corpses and the tendency of Dracula’s henchman, Renfield, to snack on cockroaches.
          Similarly, director Badham and his team create a beautiful look with elaborate sets and moody photography that’s almost completely drained of color (a clever metaphor given the subject matter), but visual devices like the giant bat sculpture decorating the foyer of Dracula’s castle are indicative of the film’s sledgehammer approach. A vaguely psychedelic sequence using smoke and lasers to illustrate the dream state following a vampire bite is the picture’s most successful venture into figurative imagery.
          Helping viewers overlook the stylistic hiccups is the fact that the picture doesn’t skimp on meat-and-potatoes vampire thrills. Furthermore, leading lady Kate Nelligan is lovely in a refreshingly grown-up sort of way, even if her character’s quasi-feminism ebbs and flows according to the dramatic needs of any particular scene, and eccentric character actor Donald Pleasence is a welcome presence as the asylum keeper who becomes Van Helsing’s partner in vampire hunting. So even with the dodgy storytelling—and, sad to say, Olivier’s awful hamming—this Dracula is a pleasant diversion, albeit one that comes close to wearing out its welcome as the lengthy running time grinds along.

Dracula: FUNKY


Kevin Mac said...

They made this one for the girls. My teenage GF at the time and her friends loved this Dracula. It released them from admiration of the classic one, as Bela was not really very sexy to 1980 New Wave chicks.

What was happening at the end of the film? It seemed like the good guys were flying Drac's remains from the ship like it was a kite...

Barry Miller said...

All that money could buy for Mr. Badham, in the post-shock Hollywood of his staggering triumph with "Saturday Night Fever", Exhibit A: Journeyman television director comes out of nowhere as a mere handmaiden replacement for a fired Oscar winner (John Avildsen) who wants to smooth out and Capra-up the uglier aspects of renegade screenwriter Norman Wexler's gritty neo-realist treatment of 70's Brooklyn youth. Out of a combination of alchemy, fortune, timing, and extraordinary performances of a sitcom star who cares not for his TV image and a raw, brutal, unforgiving climax acted by another upcoming teen talent who will 2 years later break out with a heavily acclaimed star turn in Alan Parker's "Fame", Badham is suddenly declared a hot new "auteur" of the highest order. Hysteria at the studios ensues in the form of spigots of dollar bills for the next gig. Coming up: anything you want on the menu for a new version of "Dracula", John name it. Olivier, (almost in the grave or not)? Check. Langella from Broadway to repeat the bloodsucker? Check.Lavish production design, epic locations, the guy who shot Polanski's "Macbeth", John Williams, words we can advertise with like "lush", "opulent", radical", "erotic" and "terrifyingly atmospheric" in a whole new (really expensive) way? Check, check, check! You're a genius
John, baby! Were awaiting your second zeitgeist-altering blockbuster!

Result: Lots of shots of lightning, but the kind that had previously just struck in a bottle was only fated to happen once...and Mr. Badham never got the metallurgy quite right again.