Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dracula {1979}- review

Director: John Badham

Release Date: 1979

Contains spoilers

Back in the halcyon days of video, when I was of a tender age, my Granddad (bless his soul) would happily rent any video I wanted to watch – age restrictions be damned. One video he rented for me, a video that was watched and watched until it had to be taken back to the store, was this version of Dracula. Now I most certainly had seen vampire movies before then, but this film sticks in my mind as the film through which I fell in love with the genre.

The film itself was based, like the 1931 Dracula, on the play by Hamilton Deane, yet this film not only skewed the book but also is very different to the ’31 film. Thus I can guarantee that, as this is a movie that has a very special place in my heart and as it is very different to its predecessor this is likely to be a long review that looks at the film blow by blow, so you will have to indulge me.

We begin aboard a ship tossed about in a violent storm. We see a sailor, his throat torn out, a gruesome beginning that, of course, bodes well. The remaining crew have gone to the hold and are trying to haul a crate out. They get it to the deck, as the captain ties himself to the wheel. They try to push the crate overboard, but a hand smashes through it, clawing out the throat of one sailor whilst his mate gets pushed overboard by a wave. The captain is alone as a wolf growls.

It is a dramatic opening and cuts out, completely, any Transylvania scene. This film is set in Whitby for the main, though actually the location shots where in Cornwall.

Next we see the lunatic asylum; it is the very essence of Bedlam. The inmates scream and it almost looks like a riot might occur. Seward (Donald Pleasence) tries to gain some order, wondering where his daughter Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is.

Lucy is in the house with her friend Mina (Jan Francis). Now let us be clear, the roles of Mina and Lucy are reversed here from the normal roles. Mina is the sickly friend who will, very soon, be Dracula’s first core character victim. In a neat bit of plot twisting she is no longer Mina Murray, but Mina Van Helsing. It is Lucy who is engaged to Jonathon Harker (Trevor Eve). Lucy is portrayed as a very strong, intelligent woman, when we meet her she is reading a letter indicating that she has been offered a job with a solicitor’s firm.

She is called to help her father and is in the asylum when a bell is heard and Mr Swales (Teddy Turner), the warden, says that it is ‘sunken bells’. In the book, of course, Swales was the old man befriended by Mina in the graveyard at Whitby. Mina also hears the bell and is drawn out of bed; she sees the ship in trouble. Despite her poor health, she runs out into the storm as the ship runs into rocks. She enters a cave and finds a survivor, though at this point we only see a hand emerging from a coat trimmed with wolf fur, it is Dracula (Frank Langella).

The next day the ship is being salvaged. Harker drives up the beach in his car, to an off screen comment about contraptions, he is a solicitor representing the Count. There is talk that the rights of the ship’s owner are sacrificed as the tiller is in the hands of a dead man, this is lifted from the book and not often quoted. It is revealed that the Count was taken to Carfax the previous night and his possessions are being taken from the ship to his residence by Milo Renfield (Tony Haygarth). This is a very different Renfield to the one we see in the ’31 film. He is gruff and has a grudge against Harker as he sold his house from under him. Seward, who is inspecting the body of the captain, asks Renfield to tell the Count that he is invited to dinner that evening.

Later we see Renfield pulling the final crate up the long stairs inside Carfax when Dracula awakens. He stands at the head of the stairs and transforms into a bat, swooping down towards Renfield and feeding on him. Carfax himself is a gothic vision of outlandish architecture, dust and cobwebs, owing much – I felt – to the interior of Castle Dracula in the ’31 film.

Lucy, Mina, Seward and Harker are discussing the shipwreck when Dracula arrives. It is mentioned that the ships log contains the word Nosferatu, which Mina believes means undead. The Count contradicts this and says it means ‘not dead’. This is an interesting piece of dialogue, perhaps indicating that Dracula is not overtly enamoured with his state. In a nod to the famous Harker/Renfield cutting their finger scene, during this scene Swales cuts his finger as he is carving and the camera lingers on him sucking the blood. There is also the famous “I do not drink… wine” line, but Langella delivers it in a much less obvious way than perhaps Lugosi did.

After dinner the Count is ‘attempting’ to read the log, but says that it is written in a dialect that he cannot understand. Mina falls into a faint, though it is clear to the viewer that it is Dracula’s doing through Langella’s subtle gestures. Seward calls for Laudanum but Dracula opposes the suggestion, saying that they should not pollute her blood and offers to hypnotise Mina to take away the pain she now feels. The hypnosis is successful, though Lucy makes it clear, during the process, that she dislikes the concept as Mina has no will of her own. Later Lucy, obviously interested in the Count just as Mina is, dances with Dracula – much to Harker’s chagrin.

That night Lucy sneaks from her and Mina’s shared bed to be with Jonathon. There is just the smallest amount of angst to underline that Harker has noticed the attraction between Lucy and Dracula, but then they kiss. The camera pulls up to the roof and we see Dracula crawl down the wall towards Mina’s room. Mist appears before the balcony door and a hand starts to claw at the lead around a pane of glass. Mina awakens, terrified as she sees Dracula’s face upside down, the pane falls and he opens the door – however that fallen pane is not mentioned again. Mina’s expression changes from terror to expectation and she opens her nightdress to reveal her throat.

Back at Carfax Renfield awakens. He tries to find water unsuccessfully and then eats a bug. Dracula appears and Renfield panics, trying to run, but there is no escape. Dracula tells him that he expects loyalty.

In the morning Lucy is woken by Mina trying to catch her breath. She calls her father, who, in a fantastic display of modern medicine, resorts to slapping Mina’s face but it is to no avail and Mina dies. They notice the punctures in her neck. Seward telegrams Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier). It must be said that making Mina his daughter causes the calling of Van Helsing to make much more sense than it did in the ‘31 film. That night Harker takes the deeds to Carfax for the Count to sign. Dracula asks him to take them to London immediately but Harker refuses saying he must attend the funeral. Dracula then pens a letter inviting Seward and Lucy to dinner, after the funeral, telling Harker that he would be invited also but obviously he would be on route to London.

Driving back from Carfax, Renfield lunges at Harker from the back seat of the car. It seems like an attack but Renfield does cry out for Harker to save him. Renfield is institutionalised for his trouble.

The next day sees the funeral of Mina. Afterwards Harker tries to get Lucy to go to London with him, but she refuses. Seward mentions that Van Helsing is arriving that night and so they would not be able to dine with the Count. He’s forgotten to mention the invitation to Lucy before then but she quickly insists that she will dine with the Count. We see Lucy arrive at Carfax as Seward meets Van Helsing at the station. Carfax is aglow with candles.

During dinner we see Dracula begin to flirt and then seduce Lucy. During these scenes we hear the famous ‘children of the night’ line, but slightly changed. Now Dracula says “Listen to them - children of the night. What sad music they make.” The line was changed deliberately as part of the attempt to make Dracula seem to dislike his lot in life, envy the sunlight walking mortals and make him a tragic figure.

Interspersed between these scenes we see a figure in white smash through a window and hear cries from Annie (Janine Duvitski), one of the inmates I assume, about her baby. Seward and Van Helsing find the baby, punctured and drained of blood. Annie is hysterical, talking of red eyes and fangs, but manages to say it was Mina.

The next day we see Van Helsing reading a book on vampire bats, he then visits Mina’s grave and places garlic across it. Lucy approaches him and he gives her a crucifix to wear. As they are leaving Dracula arrives, on horseback, to ‘pay his respects’ to Mina. From the house Van Helsing sees the horse rearing at the grave and that gives him an idea. He takes a white horse to the graveyard, along with an incredulous Seward. The horse goes to Mina’s grave and begins to stomp at the soil and then dig at it with its hooves. This is a marvellous moment, to my knowledge not done in other Dracula movies. This is based around folklore, and if we look at Everything You Need to Know About Vampires we see the following ways of finding a vampire’s grave:

· Have a virgin boy ride naked and bareback on a virgin stallion through the graveyard until the horse steps on a grave and goes no further. That marks a vampire’s grave. Or...
· Lead a white stallion through a graveyard and the grave he will not step on is the grave of a vampire.

The film seems to have merged the two concepts, but it is marvellous that such folklore has been added into the movie.

Meanwhile Lucy has removed the cross. Dracula enters the room, he bites her and there is a stylised love scene complete with silhouettes and red glowing graphics, finally he has her feed from him.

Seward and Van Helsing have dug up Mina’s grave and it is empty. Van Helsing sees that the side of the coffin is broken and Seward realises it goes into the mines that run under the town. Van Helsing leaves Seward by the grave as he descends into the mines. A bat flies at him and he drops his crucifix into a puddle of water. As he gropes for it we see, reflected in the water, a grim vision. Many have complained about this scene as vampires cast no reflection (a device used twice later in the film) but it does look good. According to the ‘making of’ featurette, Badham liked the scene and invented the rule that vampires do cast reflections in holy water and, as the cross had fallen into it, the pool had become holy water. A little flimsy perhaps!

It is, of course, Mina. She looks like something from Hell, her face greyed and covered in mud, her mouth stained with blood and her eyes red surrounded by deep black shadows. She stumbles forward repeating the word Papa. Suddenly she is on Van Helsing but is pulled away by Seward who threatens her with a cross. The cross burns her flesh and she turns away, onto Van Helsing’s stake; the distraught father wails.

Harker has returned from London and finds Lucy collapsed on the floor, wounds in her neck. Van Helsing orders garlic rubbed into the windows and doorjambs and then goes downstairs. He is confronted by Dracula, who casts no reflection and so smashes the wall mirror. Van Helsing presents him with garlic, causing him to rear away. Dracula tries to dominate his will but Van Helsing is too strong. Eventually Dracula escapes the room as a wolf.

Next day Mina’s body is in the graveyard. She now looks fresh and beautiful again. Van Helsing shows the incredulous Harker that she has no reflection in the mirror. He then cuts out his daughter’s heart. They return to the house but Lucy has gone.

They chase down her horse and trap in Harker’s car and she is incensed at their interference. Seward takes her home whilst Harker and Van Helsing go to Carfax. They open Dracula’s coffin, but it is empty. Although this film insists on maintaining the inaccuracy that Dracula cannot walk around in daylight, he is not restricted to his coffin - as the mobile Dracula delights in telling his hunters. Harker threatens him with a cross that Dracula grabs causing it to burst into flames. He then turns into a bat and attacks Harker, retreating only when Van Helsing breaks a support to allow sunlight into the crypt.

After placing hosts in the crate they return to the house to discover that Seward has put his daughter into a room of the asylum. Harker goes in to see her alone. She is conniving at first and then seductive. As she holds Harker she vamps out and tries to bite him.

That night Dracula returns, he scales the wall to Renfield’s cell and breaks his neck, then, whilst in the form of mist, he enters Lucy’s cell. There is a crash and, by the time the door is opened, they are gone, a hole smashed into the solid wall. They try to give chase and we have a chase scene car against horse drawn wagon. Eventually they crash, but they have discovered that the wagon was going to Scarborough. They reach there too late, a ship has already set sail with the crate aboard, but Harker and Van Helsing commandeer a boat and give chase. They board the fleeing ship and go to the hold, finding the crate with Lucy and Dracula inside. Van Helsing is about to stake the Count when Lucy awakens and her cry warns Dracula. In quite a turn around Dracula pins Van Helsing (or a body double at least as Olivier was very frail when the film was made) to the hull of the ship with his own stake. Harker tries to shoot Dracula, to no avail. With his dying breath Van Helsing swings a hook on a rope into Dracula’s back and Harker pulls the winch that drags Dracula into sunlight. His death is graphic, filled with screams, his flesh peeling away in the sun.

At the end we see his cape flutter away, or do we? It seems to glide rather than flutter and the camera cuts to Lucy, a smile curling over her lips. Is it because she is free from the Count or, as she went willingly to him, is it because he has escaped?

This film is a visual treat, with a stellar cast who give it their all. The soundtrack is marvellously stirring. Badham strayed from both the source and the ‘31 film/play but what he did really works. He really did try to give this a very romantic edge and I believe that it worked better than Coppola’s version with the clichéd reincarnation of the true love plotline. This, as you probably can tell, is one of my favourite versions of Dracula and so, of course, I will score it highly. When I re-watched it for the review I tried, though I do not know if I succeeded, to be objective about it and settled on 9 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

I have a friend who hates this version of the Dracula story. Whenever he speaks to me of it, he refers to it as the "Disco Dracula."

I, on the other hand, am far less harsh.

Langella isn't the scariest Dracula, but he does have his moments (I love the scene where he crawls down to a window and scratches at the pane.)Of course, as you mention, this is a sympathetic portrayal of the famous vampire.

This version of Dracula is filled with great images and ideas, and it seems to me it is too often overlooked (and often harshly judged) during discussions of the genre. I'm glad to see it reviewed so favorably here. I'm always amazed to see Sir Lawrence Olivier playing Van Helsing in this. Unbelievable.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Mark

It was a difficult one to review as, as I said, it does hold a special place in my heart - but I do agree it is harshly judged often... and where else are you going to get Olivier and Pleasence in the same vampire movie!

That said, the bit of me that's truly evil does like the name "disco dracula" lol

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this underrated film. I, too, first caught it on video at a very young age, and have managed to re-watch it every few years since.

Certainly, Dracula (1979) has its flaws - not the least of which is that it's a bit 'stagey'. That said, though, it's beautiful to look at and (as one critic pointed out) never pretends its more ridiculous and absurd side isn't there.

And that ending ...

Let it be said: This Dracula was the saddest, the kindest of them all.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

And many thanks for the comment

Chick Young said...


Thoroughly loved your write-up. And, we are in total agreement, not even spitting hairs! I'll never, ever, forget seeing Mina in that dark mine shaft for the first time. Unhinged me completely - saw this one in the theater in 79' - I was ten years old and I was unhinged! Also, Nelligan is a DAMN FINE vampiress. All the best, Chick

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers Chick, yes the mine shaft, kind of up there with Danny Glick at the window is 'Salem's Lot and the head from the boat in Jaws... awesome mocie moments for an impressionable young mind! :)

The T said...

I'm not so enthusiastic about this movie as you but I agree it's good. There are some things that detract me from truly enjoying it like you do:

1. No Transylvania journey. One of the best parts in the book (and in several movies, including the flawed 1931 classic) is eliminated.

2. No fangs or any supernatural element in Langella. Other vampires have them, but not the main master. (I saw the making-of that comes with the dvd and Langella says it was partly his idea...)

3. Langella himself. Especially his hair (?!?) Looks too.. un-undead. He doesn't look like a ages-old thing. Curiosuly, NOW Langella has a look that I would approve more of hahaha.

4. The sycodelic love scene. Too much bubbles and shadows.

On the other hand, I love the vampires (like Mina), the story is coherent enough, and Langella, ignoring his hair and his sex-symbol looks (in the movie, I'm not saying he IS a sex-symbol haha), is commanding and imposing.

Olivier's accent, of course, is rather terrible. But it was good to see the legend in one of our films.

The asylum is ugly and depressing. It's also very well done.

Great review anyway. I prefer Coppola's version way over this one, but I can easily see why you love it. It's crystal clear.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T, I know there are flaws in this but I can't help but love the movie, as I explained in the review. Sometimes a movie just gets you...

Unknown said...

I feel like I've been commenting a lot on here lately, but I can't help it. I am just really enjoying your reviews! This one in particular REALLY made me happy.

As I read the beginning of the review, I realized I could have written it! This was for me also the first vampire movie I saw at a very young age that left a strong impression on my mind (followed very shortly thereafter by both Fright Night and The Lost Boys, two of my other favorite vampire films). It is hard to be objective about a favorite film, but not having seen this since I was young and watching it again recently and reviewing it, I still find it to be my favorite. It is true that there are films that stick more closely to the source material, those that stick more closely to the historical mythology, and those that were more groundbreaking, (and they are all excellent films in their own right)but this is the one for me that made Dracula both tragic and terrifying. It is also the only one that even after having seen it so many times as both a child and an adult I can still lose myself completely in. The child in me still cringes at Mina in the mines and the images of the asylum, and the adult in me appreciates the fantastic acting, the sweeping soundtrack, and the beautiful gothic sets and atmosphere. It is, and probably always will be, my favorite Dracula film.

Thanks for giving it respect!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks Margaret, please keep on commenting - the feedback makes it all worthwhile.

It is hard to objective on films from your formative years (I can still rattle off the script for Flash Gordon word for word!!!)

However, as much as there are rose tinted glasses with this film, like yourself I think it stands up in its own right today.

Stephen Phillips said...

I, too, love this version of Dracula. I was maybe five, six years old when it came out and I rediscovered it on home video. I have owned it in one format or another since the late 80's, and I still consider it one of the best adaptations out there. And even the flaws are forgivable, because the atmosphere, the performances and, above all, Langella's Count, are all so great. I really like a lot of the things about this movie others don't: that Drac never shows red eyes or pointy teeth, for example. He doesn't need to! And the musical score is incredible; it's the best Dracula music ever written.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Always good to hear from another fan of this version. Thanks for the comment Stephen

L winters said...

I've never seen this movie in its original form, sadly the director chose to wash the color out of the film. Langella plays a very elegant villain here , it's easy to see how he could win over all the main characters and be liked by them. I've often thought that the young Mr Langella would have made an interesting choice to play the xmen villain magneto.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi L, thanks for stopping by. I guess, in many respects, you have seen the original form as the director's choice with the colour palate forms that but I agree that seeing it with a more sumptuous palate would be good to see :)