Monday, October 24, 2005

Vampire as Valentino: Dracula (1979)


Every generation, it seems, must attempt the definitive Gothic Horror Epic. But no one ever seems to be able to create one that knocks it out of the park.

It's hard to gauge why. With infinite financial resources and all the special effects technology that said resources can buy, you'd think some big studio-backed director would hit the nail on the head (or drive the stake through the heart) and create the penultimate combination of gothic epic and pure shocker. Sadly, it never quite happens.

Stunt-casting even the most inappropriate A-list actors in gothic drag seems to be a primary cause. Keanu Reeves as bitchin' Jonathan Harker in Coppola's Dracula? Tom Cruise AND Brad Pitt as eighteenth-century bloodsuckers in Interview with the Vampire??!? Get thee away from the coke mirror, casting directors.

Such wrongheadedness makes for an easy scapegoat, but the real root cause likely runs deeper. Our jaded modern society looks to be a more likely culprit. In our imagination-depleted, jaded, and technologically-overwhelming world, it's hard for even the most talented filmmaker to muster up the Peter-Pan-like belief necessary to make a gothic horror movie fly. But in 1979, John Badham (the director of Saturday Night Fever) made a game attempt just the same.

Dracula, the seventies-vintage Official Big Attempt at A Gothic Masterpiece, never took off at the box office, despite a solid cast and top-shelf production values. A bit of a shame, considering that in some ways it actually lands much closer to the gothic mark than the aforementioned efforts by Coppola and Neil Jordan.

The plotline follows the familiar pattern laid down by previous Dracula films. A ghost ship (her crew massacred) drifts into English waters, and soon afterwards a mysterious Romanian count, Dracula (played in this go-around by Frank Langella), drifts into the lives of the genteel Brits in the area. Real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), disbelieving Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), and stalwart vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) battle with the vampiric Count for the soul of Lucy (Kate Nelligan), Harker's fiancee.

Badham probably seemed like an odd choice to direct a classic horror film at this stage, but he handles the material well. He wisely keeps the pace brisk, and W.D. Richter's script displays traces of humor largely absent from Coppola's and Jordan's attempts. Most importantly, Badham and Richter strike a quality balance between gothic sweep and lightness of touch, never toppling over into either camp. They obviously believe in what they're doing here.

All of the production's technical elements click with effectiveness. Gil Taylor's widescreen cinematography sets a sublime gothic mood (the location footage of the cloudy English countryside adds immeasurably to the atmosphere), and John Williams' richly romantic (but never gooey) score ranks among his finest.

The actors all hit the proper chords, too. No one devours scenery wholesale the way Anthony Hopkins did in Coppola's Dracula, nor does anyone stumble as oafishly as Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire. Eve's Jon Harker may arguably be the most fleshed-out, smart, and appealing variation on this oft-thankless hero role ever put to screen. Nelligan makes the heroine/victim Lucy a much more full-blooded (pardon the pun) character than usual, a modern (for her time, not anachronistically so) woman whose seduction by Dracula feels more inspired by a desire for psychological/sexual liberation than anything. Olivier plays Van Helsing with focus, intensity, and just the right amount of stentorian power. And Pleasance's muttering, candy-eating Seward quietly steals every scene he's in with a master pickpocket's nimbleness.

The biggest variation on the oft-told tale lies in the interpretation of the Count himself. Langella's Dracula is the ultimate soft-spoken, sexually charismatic continental smoothie--a more subtle, night-owl variation of Rudolf Valentino--and the actor delivers a wryly witty (but never tongue-in-cheek) characterization. It'll never erase the long shadow cast by Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee (the two definitive practitioners of the role from this cramped perspective), but it's a fascinating and mostly valid interpretation in its own right.

Note the word 'mostly'. Langella's fine work misses one important aspect of the character: Dracula's inherent menace. In the informative documentary on the Dracula DVD, director Badham and Langella talk about Langella's steadfast vision of the character with admiration; the actor refused to kowtow to such vampiric stereotypes as fangs and bloodshot contact lenses, and he worked hard to maintain the character's sense of urbane suaveness. But that interpretation, lively and unique as it was, may have robbed the character of his scariness. And that missing piece--more than the simultaneous release of the George Hamilton Dracula spoof, Love at First Bite or any of the other external factors posited by the documentary's interviewees--was most likely the hammer that drove the stake through this Dracula's box-office heart.

2 comments:

JennyB. said...

You do realize this is *my* favorite Dracula...I have an 8x10 glossy of Frank Langella as Dracula somewhere in a box. It's not signed, but it's very pretty. :o)

It struck a chord with me when I first saw it (at Sherri Johnson's house when we were still in high school) because of the psychological and sexual liberation aspects. And being the HUGE romantic that I am, I loved the story for that, too.

It does probably mess with the original story more than any other interpretation, though. Lucy and Mina are flip-flopped in this version (in the book and in the other films that I've seen, it is Lucy Westenra that falls prey to the Fanged One first), Jack Seward is turned into Lucy's uncle instead of a contemporary...there are many diversions from the Stoker novel.

I forgive all of those (and the cheesy bat effect) because of the lush atmosphere, including John Williams gorgeous score, and the fantabulous cast. And Kate Nelligan's alabaster bosom. And Frank Langella's butter-toffee-like voice. And the moment when he bites her ear. *swoon*

To be fair, I have never seen either the Lugosi or Lee versions of the story. I did see the Coppolla film (one of the most over-directed, over-produced pieces of crap I ever hope to see), which was worth seeing for Gary Oldman, whom I adore. The rest of the cast, including Hopkins, could take a flying leap as far as I'm concerned.

You are right, though...Frank's Drac is not scary at all. He's a matinee idol, which is why he sold out performances of Dracula on stage in London (and New York, too, I think) for weeks before this film was made.
He does break out with a couple of raging moments, which work for the most part, but he is a romantic anti-hero more than he is the villain in this film. A tortured, lonely creature who finds someone to love and then loses the fight for her. Or does he? *g*

Of course, now the big question is WHY DO I NOT OWN THIS DVD?!?! That I shall remedy very soon, if not sooner! :o)

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