The Principals: Director John Badham, Frank Langella, Trevor Eve, Kate Nelligan, Donald Pleasance, Laurence Olivier, Jan Francis, Tony Haygarth.
The Premise: Hitting once again upon the fruitful mythos of Dracula, this late 1970s version changed things up a bit in terms of the characters, tightened the narrative and sought to bring back the romance to the legend. Frank Langella played the noted Count, who arrives in London and insinuates himself of the Sewards, Van Helsings and Jonathan Harker (Eve). When he sets his undead sights on both Mina Van Helsing (Francis) and ultimately, Lucy Seward (Nelligan), it falls to Harker and Van helsing (Olivier) to stop him before Lucy is lost to them forever.
Is It Good:
John Badham’s version is sort of the the overlooked middle child of the Draculaverse. It’s not as iconic as the original 1931 Bela Lugosi version, nor as stylish as the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola / Gary Oldman version. And Frank Langella’s titular count definitely echoes the ’70s influences apparent in his interpretation: the hair, the gigolo open shirt. Nevertheless, the 1979 Dracula is unique in its production value and does have several things in its favor.
First of all, the storyline is taken from the 1970s stage production rather than straight from Stoker’s original novel. Also taken from that production was Langella himself, who received a Tony nomination for his performance. The narrative in this version is tightened up, with all of the pre- and post-England Transylvania material excised, and the story taking off right from the crash of the Demeter. It’s also set in 1913 rather than the late 1800s and changed things up with the characters, particularly by switching the roles of Lucy and Mina. Along with the omission of all of the Transylvania material, Dracula’s Brides were also absent.
The film also features a score by John Williams that doesn’t get as much recognition as his more notable works, but delivers nonetheless. It was shot by iconic cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, and featured supporting roles by Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance. Badham went with more of a noirish romance than outright horror for this film. A perfect example of this is that Langella’s Dracula never features neither wolfen eyes nor, surprisingly, fangs. So the Count’s mystery and darkness had to be carried solely by Langella himself; for the most part, I think he succeeded. Although his Count is a much bigger prick by far than either Lugosi’s or Oldman’s. The rest of cast was generally solid; and despite the lack of many big “monster moments” in the film, Dracula was sufficiently dark and moody. Although, there was one still effectively disturbing sequence featuring an undead Mina in the mines beneath her tomb. Scared the shit out of me as a kid.
Is It Worth A Look: I’ll take Coppola’s version over this every time, but this is still a pretty good, atmospheric interpretation from a different time. Williams’ score is rousing and eerie at times, the production design added very well to the film’s noir look and the locations served the film well. Plus, there’s laserlightvampiresex.
Also, there’s this whole substory on the look of the film. Apparently, Badham wanted to shoot in black and white, but Universal refused. So it was shot in Technicolor by Taylor, but Badham later desaturated the film’s vibrant colors for a rerelease on laserdisc, which is the version that is usually seen today. If you haven’t seen it, Dracula is definitely worth a look.
1979. A kid of almost seven years of age accompanies his mother and a friend to a nighttime showing of this movie. He thinks it’ll be cool to sit in the front row by himself. He’s quickly disabused of this notion and spends the next two hours watching the movie next to Mom from between the fingers of the hands he’s using to cover his eyes.