Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Dracula (1979)

This post was originally published on the Wild Claw Blood Radio blog.

Movie adaptations of Dracula almost never shed the influence of John Balderston and Hamilton Deane's stage play, almost always to their detriment. Virtually alone of Dracula adaptations, the one that I wish had hewed closer to the play than to the book is John Badham's 1979 version. Langella was just coming off a successful, and now legendary production of the play. You may have heard of it. It's the one with the sets and costumes designed by the late Edward Gorey in black, white, and red. The producers of the 1979 movies brought Langella to the screen, but left Gorey on the stage. I can imagine a movie version that includes both as a kind of ur-Tim Burton movie. Or maybe not. The existing photographs suggest a weird kind of silent film. Sadly, it was not to be.

Badham's Dracula takes more liberties with the material than usual. Among the pointless changes made to the story is recasting Mina as Van Helsing's daughter, recasting Lucy as Dr. Seward's daughter and as the heroine of the movie. It omits the prologue in Transylvania, too. This is the result of screenwriter W. D. Richter over-thinking the plot of the story, methinks. Richter is known for screenplays that are complex to the point of goofiness, and this movie is no different. Some of the changes are interesting, though. The decision to begin with the wreck of the Demeter is a post modern flourish that hearkens back to Nosferatu, and the movie stages the wreckage with a delightful level of menace. The scenes of Dracula crawling down walls are from the book. Still other elements are plucked from the vast filmography of Dracula movies. This isn't an adaptation of the story so much as it's a commentary on the screen image of Dracula.

From the opening frames, this is a beautiful, ornate production. No cheap Hammer knock-off, this. It has good actors, too, though I think Langella is a tad to smooth an operator as the Count and Olivier is too in love with doing an accent as Van Helsing. It's odd seeing Olivier feasting on Peter Cushing's leavings, but here it is none the less. Kate Nelligan, on the other hand, pretty much steals every scene she's in. I had a crush on her when I first saw the movie way back when.

The movie has disappointingly few horrifying set-pieces. It tries too hard for most of its running time. The wreck of the Demeter I already mentioned, and it's good. The others, involving the count, have a tendency to skirt towards ridiculousness, though without ever quite crossing the line. It's not generally a scary movie, and that may be partially the fault of an over-familiarity with the Dracula story. But I don't think so. It does manage at least one humdinger of a horror set piece, though: Mina (in the Lucy role) becomes the Bloofer lady during the early going. Our erstwhile vampire hunters break through her grave to the abandoned coal mines that riddle the landscape, where they catch up to her just after sunset. This version of Mina is an apparition that craves a kiss from her father. The scene is ghastly beyond all expectations, but even here, the movie is frustratingly inconsistent, given that the scene is predicated on Mina casting a reflection in a pool of water. Later, the movie goes out of its way to demonstrate that vampires don't cast reflections. Lazy. The rest? The movie ends with a disappointing anticlimax, I think, one in which it seems that the filmmakers aren't quite sure how to end things.

This is a film for which I have a good deal of affection--it's an interesting film even though it's a singularly frustrating one--but I can't defend its flaws. I originally saw it when I was young, and it made an impression. It was one of those movies that I waited until the wee hours of the morning to watch when it was first on cable, often just before sunrise, and that experience casts the film as a kind of dream memory for me. Watching it again now kind of punctures that memory for me, which is too bad, but I expect I'll get over it.


Stacia said...

Olivier is too in love with doing an accent as Van Helsing.

Ah, now it makes sense! I watched this about a year ago and was so puzzled about Olivier, because clearly he was doing SOMETHING weird and off key, yet I couldn't put my finger on what it was.

The reflection business made me actually stop the DVD and try to figure out if I had missed something or if it was a mistake. The film had taken such pains to get other bits of the legend correct -- I recall the Count not coming in the door of the house for dinner until someone specifically said "come in", for example -- so the reflection mistake was disappointing.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Stacia.

I love the depiction of the count as a vampire--particularly his ability to walk around in the daytime, which is from the book--but I sometimes think that they only hewed to the vampire legend if it made for good scenes.

As for Lord Olivier's accent...I usually cringe when Olivier does an accent because he uses them as an excuse to over-play his parts. I was watching Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel over the weekend and, boy howdy, does Olivier ham it up in that movie doing a French Canadian accent. Took me right out of the movie. It says something when Anton Walbrook seems more natural in a movie as a farmer(!)

Andrew said...

I have a special place in my heart for the Hammer Dracula movies....