Friday, July 24, 2015

Monster Serial: DRACULA (1979)


I like a good horror movie. I even like them when they’re not so good, and make no mistake: John Badham’s 1979 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA is not a good movie.

Every generation gets the DRACULA it deserves, for better or worse. Created during the sexually staid Victorian era, the character is resurrected every few years to represent the sexual hangups of the day. Despite its efforts to create a realistic period piece, the 1979 movie is, in every way, a product of its time. And I don’t just mean actor Frank Langella’s disco pompadour.

Hot off the heels of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, Badham was a hot property for about 15 minutes at the end of the 1970s. Given his choice of movies, the director opted to film a contemporary revival of the “Dracula” stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The movie carried over its leading man but abandoned the Edward Gorey production design, opting for a "realistic" tone that tried to jettison anything resembling artistic commentary.

As Hermann Rorschach would have told you, it’s almost impossible to create anything without making some kind of statement, intentional or otherwise. Langella’s Dracula represents the sexual hangover that was beginning to seep into America’s consciousness at the start of the 1980s. While Bela Lugosi’s Dracula symbolized the threat of the foreign mystique (and whatever unspeakable diseases “they” might carry) there’s no effort to make Langella seem anything more than American. He adopts no accent, speaks Romanian in one scene for no other reason than to impress a lady, and generally dresses like he’s on the way to Studio 54. Langella’s character just wants to get laid, regardless of the consequences.

Pitted against Dracula’s raw sexuality are a collection of father figures, as well as Jonathan Harker, who is as impotent a figure here as in the novel. The characters and their relationships are shuffled around in this movie to stress this battle of generational ideals. Here, Van Helsing is Mina’s father, with Mina being the first of Dracula’s victims. Lucy is the daughter of Dr. Seward and the MacGuffin that drives the rest of the film, with Harker cast as cuckold.

As characters, the women of this movie are almost beside the point. They’re something to be fought over and are never to be trusted. The film seems oblivious to this attitude, and even ends on a shockingly bleak, stupid and misogynistic moment where we’re supposed to believe Dracula has survived based on nothing more than a wry smile from Lucy.

There’s really no reason to get into much detail about the story because it doesn’t venture far from the beaten path in regard to the novel's major plot points. It makes does make a few interesting changes, though, and these changes ultimately subvert Stoker's original subtext. In the novel, Van Helsing leads Lucy’s suitors to destroy her, with her fiancee driving the stake through her heart on their wedding night. It’s pretty clear what the scene in the novel is about, but changing these characters from potential lovers to parents creates a much different effect. Rather than a perverse mockery of a wedding, we get a scene symbolic of parents trying to save a child from a dangerous lifestyle. Sure, the scene ends with the parents killing her, but at least she’s not acting like a slut anymore. Or something.

Men rarely fall under Dracula’s sway, and it’s telling that most of the movie’s action involves saving women from their own decisions. I hope you weren’t too attached to those feminist values because the dawn of the 1980s are breathing down your neck in this film. And it’s breath is kinda stank.

As for the actual production, it’s rather staid. If Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA (1992) went over the top, the 1979 film is cinematic somnambulism. For the DVD, Badham sapped much of the color from the original film to create a print that’s almost black and white. While it makes the movie look a little more timeless, there’s no way to color correct your way around the hairstyles and other vestiges of 1970s fashion on display. Retrofitting your movie to hide its age is about as effective as wearing a toupee to your class reunion: it just looks silly and doesn’t fool anybody.

DRACULA is a hodgepodge of great and terrible moments. Langella is terrific as Dracula, playing him as a sexual predator who knowingly uses his charm to get over on the world. It’s pretty funny that he never tries to hide its rampant douchebaggery from the men in the movie, even taunting them occasionally. Laurence Olivier, who had taken to making a lot of bullshit later in his career (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE JAZZ SINGER) brings a lot of genuine emotion to the role and doesn’t phone it in. Even though Badham was committed to making “entertainment” (i.e. “junk food”) Olivier took his job seriously. The scene where he’s forced to kill his own daughter is heartbreaking, but it’s a shame the character’s sadness is mostly forgotten by the time the next scene rolls around.

The special effects run the gamut, with the smaller camera tricks being the most effective. Dracula escapes his captors in one scene by leaping through a window, emerging on the other side as a wolf. This is accomplished through careful editing, works like gangbusters and will make you hate CGI werewolves even more than you already do. The makeup effects are subtle and work more often than not, but also point to the movie’s habit of failing to clear the really tall hurdles. The makeup for Dracula’s death in the movie’s climax is awful and looks as though someone plastered Langella’s face with Elmer’s Glue and let it dry. His entire death is ridiculously contrived, with a dying Van Helsing impaling Dracula on a cargo hook and hanging him out to dry in the sunlight. It’s the worst vampire death scene until DRACULA 2000 came along.

And then there’s that sex scene. If you’ve never seen this movie, chances are you’ve still heard about the ridiculous sex scene between Langella and Kate Nelligan, which looks like a deleted scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. If a Blue Oyster Cult laser light show wasn’t enough, Badham sprinkles in a few bats during the snogging to remind us we’re watching a vampire movie. It’s a show stopper in the worst possible way. Badham should be grateful to Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS, thanks to its bar-lowering terrible sex scene.

Speaking of Nelligan, I quite liked her in the otherwise thankless role of Lucy. She’s a lot scarier than Dracula and essentially plays two different characters. It’s a credit to her that you can easily tell these two personalities apart, and she should have been given a lot more to do if the film wasn’t intent on painting women as backstabbing whores.

The makers of this film seemed especially proud of their work, even though they were mostly just making a Hammer film with a lot less cleavage. They also seemed to think their interpretation of Dracula as a character was unique.

“I don’t play him as a hair-raising ghoul. He is a nobleman, an elegant man with a very difficult problem... a man with a unique and distinctive social problem: he has to have blood to live and he is immortal.” 

This essay is one of dozens featured in our new
book, "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial."
That’s a quote from Frank Langella, but it was the kind of sentiment that Jonathan Frid grew tired of explaining long before the 1960s came to an end. Langella’s version of Dracula is much closer in conception to guys like Ted Bundy, in that he’s acutely aware that he’s using his charm to get over on people. Barnabas Collins was a fractured, delusional man, which made him a lot easier to relate to. Langella is the high school quarterback who always gets the girl, so those of us who lack that kind of charisma will instinctively hate the guy. About the only character in the movie that will be relatable to younger audience members will be Jonathan Harker, who’s very function is to be useless.

I’ve seen this movie a few times over the years. As a child, it was marketed pretty heavily, with that image of Langella leering over a woman’s throat plastered all over every bookstore, theater and bus terminal on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a dud, though, taking in about $20 million (about 1/4 of ALIEN’s box office take that same year.) DRACULA found a second life on video, mostly because it was released on VHS/Betamax about the same time the format gained a toehold on the market. Until BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA more than a decade later, it was the only big budget Dracula

adaptation to be released by Hollywood during this era. It’s about time for the novel to be revisited, and I’m curious to see what kind of social problem the character will come to represent as he is resurrected in his third century of existence. My prediction: porn addiction.

Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

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