Back in 1979, Universal dusted off its back catalogue and made plans to make a feature film featuring Dracula for the first time since 1948. And they didn’t even think to wrap a whole shared universe around it, dark or otherwise. Ah, those were the days!
Shipwrecked off Whitby, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), the apparent sole survivor of his vessel’s voyage, is discovered by the sickly young Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis), who is visiting her friend Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan). Lucy, her fiancé Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and her father Doctor Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum, try to make the Count feel welcome to England. But when Mina suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances and The Count begins to romance Lucy, Mina’s father, Doctor Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), realises that his daughter fell prey to a vampire and suspects the culprit may be none other than Count Dracula himself.
Like Universal’s original Bela Lugosi-starring adaptation, this modern interpretation was in turn based on a stage adaptation, which also starred Langella. Brought to the screen by John Badham, it takes some liberties with the source novel, such as switching the characters and family relationships of Lucy and Mina as well as tightening the focus of the story. Gone is the Transylvanian preamble and Jonathan Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula as the film begins with Dracula shipwrecked on the Whitby coast.
It’s a sumptuous, intoxicating, stylish telling of the time-worn tale, with beautiful cinematography from Gilbert Taylor and a terrific score from John Williams. While it may have found itself crowded out of the box office by a glut (clot?) of Dracula-related outings in 1979 (“Nosferatu The Vampyre” and “Love At First Bite”), it’s as fine a version of Bram Stoker’s novel as has ever been put on screen.
Full of dark shadows, dripping with atmosphere and blood and shrouded in eerie mists, Frank Langella’s Dracula is a Count unlike any we’ve seen before. Overtly Sexy and seductive, yet forcefully dominant, there’s a dark physicality and raw carnality to Langella’s count that gives the character an undeniable allure and a tantalising menace.
Donald Pleasance and Laurence Olivier lend the lush romanticism of the film a sense of gravitas and foreboding lest we, the audience, get swept away by Dracula’s sensual magnetism while Trevor Eve impresses in his feature debut and Sylvester McCoy surprises in a small but important role. Badham keeps the story moving with purpose, blending gothic, horror and romance into a wonderfully enthralling take on the tale. Some of the effects work is superb, especially the shots of Dracula climbing down sheer stone walls with the predatory grace of a panther, and the production values are top-notch.
Frank Langella delivers one of the all-time great performances as Dracula, easily equal to Lee or Lugosi, but tends to be the uncounted Count, unfairly overlooked. This has definitely been the hidden gem of Dractober so far – a film so good, I was completely captivated by it despite having watched 21 variations on the same story within the space of a couple of weeks. This is my new favourite, definitive retelling of the story of Dracula.