“In the past 500 years, Professor, those who have crossed my path have all died, and some not pleasantly.” – Count Dracula
I have a confession.
There we were, recording the latest episode of The Stone Tapes, a radio show I’m a part of, and we were talking about Dracula, and our favourite actors I the role. Naturally, I was busily championing Bela Lugosi and as other names cropped up, Louis Jordan, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman among them. And I realised that I had never seen the 1979 version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella, directed by John Badham. I recall someone saying it was more a gothic romance – something that didn’t really float my boat at age 19, and I never bothered with it. So, that film and I never crossed paths in any of the 40 years of its existence.
But after that Dracula segment, it bothered me that there was a Dracula movie that I had wilfully ignored and then forgotten, so I sought it out on DVD to rectify that situation. So, this instalment of the 13 Screams is a reaction to my first viewing.
The film is striking for several reasons.
1) It has a score by John Williams. I had NO idea of this. I’ve never heard this composition before, but as ever Williams nails the mood with a haunting melody.
2) The photography is absolutely stunning, and the colour has been muted to a degree that you’re often watching what appears to be a black and white film
3) The sets – particularly Carfax Abbey’s interior with its heavy cobwebs and gothic stone carvings are straight out of the classic Universal monster movies of the 30s that I love so much.
The first point was in instant winner for me – but when played over moody sunset shots of the Seward Asylum on a high cliff with an orange sun in the background, it’s an ideal opener – even if I mistakenly thought I was looking at Castle Dracula, temporarily forgetting that Transylvania is land locked. But no, the movie, although credited as being based on the same stage play that the Lugosi film version is based upon, starts at a different point.
We don’t get the visit to Dracula’s castle, the Borgo Pass, or any of the initial introduction and build-up to the character that was certainly the norm on an adaptation (however loosely) of Bram Stoker’s novel. Nope – Dracula is well on his way to English shores aboard a sailing ship, currently gripped in the jaws of a merciless storm, and as the hapless sailors try to dump their cargo to save the ship from sinking, a large crate is thrown overboard and is washed ashore on the beach just below the Seward Asylum, where it’s discovered by Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) a sickly young lady who is visiting her friend Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan).
Meanwhile, at the Asylum, the storm has whipped the inmates into a frenzy which is barely being controlled by Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance).
Our first real look at Frank Langella as Count Dracula has him standing at the top of a stone staircase, halfway into his bat transformation, swooping down to attack a local worker Renfield who becomes his slave. Langella’s portrayal is somewhere between Lugosi’s dapper charm and Lee’s bestial ferocity. As mentioned, he can transform into a bat, and also as described in Stoker’s book is able to scale down the outside wall of his Abbey. All the normal and expected tropes of Hollywood vampire lore are there on display – the only thing we don’t see, thankfully, are fangs. And that’s when it struck me – along with the incredible set designs – that I was watching, literally a remake of the Lugosi feature using the technology that was available fifty or so years later.
The charming and courtly count is invited to dinner at the Seward’s and makes a strong impression on Lucy, much to the irritation of her fiancé Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve). That evening, as Lucy sneaks away with Jonathan, Dracula attacks Mina Van Helsing and drinks her blood. Lucy blames herself for having left the clearly weak and unwell Mina alone. But Dr Seward sees the marks on the victim’s neck and has to call her father to inform him of the sad news – enter Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) and as anybody who’s seen a Dracula film ever knows, Dracula’s extended life is about to take a turn for the worse.
So, is it a gothic romance as I’d heard all those years ago? Um, well, no more than normal, considering that we all know that Dracula will go after Lucy, promising her eternal life. I mean, really, Bram Stoker wrote a gothic romance, didn’t he?
But at its heart (whether it be staked or not), ultimately, this is a glorious remake of a thirties Universal monster film by Universal in the seventies and I really should’ve watched it years ago. For all their attempts to reboot their monsters with different versions of the Mummy over the last few years, this is where they really began and they got it right, right here. They should’ve continued and revisited some more of their ghoulish line-up.
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