In an unfortunate coincidence of release dates, John Badham’s take on Dracula hit USA theatres three months after Love at First Bite. The George Hamilton romp, a playful yarn about the Count finding love in modern New York, was a box office hit, grossing more than $43m in 1979 and placing vampire comedies very much in vogue. What the world didn’t demand was a sober adaptation of material from both the book and the Broadway stage show, which starred Frank Langella as Dracula, but that’s what it got when the Badham movie premiered in July 1979. While it didn’t exactly bomb, the film took around half the gross of Love at First Bite and was considered a commercial failure. Dracula gained ground during the following decade, becoming a massive hit in the VHS rentals market. It remained the most recent screen version of Bram Stoker’s novel until Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation, which came out in 1992.
Badham’s edition broke with the tradition of Dracula films by concentrating far more on the Count’s sensual qualities. Up to that point, most releases suggested he had a hold over women, but the emphasis had been on his evil, his ability to draw female victims towards him via an ill-defined supernatural hypnosis. Not here. Langella, reprising his stage role for the film, is a highly sexual being. Charismatic and charming, he steals away with the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), who never stands a chance. Once the Count takes an interest in her, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) doesn’t look back. The virtuous Jonathan has lost any allure. The film spends some time dwelling on their courtship, one where Dracula is established as being in a league above those around him. You understand why he captivates Lucy. Various perfectly intoned ‘Good evening’s from him and she’s lost to Jonathan for good. Even when the Count dies and Harker believes his power over Lucy has ended, it’s clear from the look in her eyes that the truth is quite different. She’s Dracula’s, and not through the process of turning her into a vampire but via sex. In the film’s solitary sex scene, an abstract, suggestive piece of swirling reds and silhouetted lovers that’s dated rather badly, it’s made clear that he has shown her a good time. How can Jonathan, a slightly ridiculous figure in his Toad-esque Hispano-Suiza, possibly compare?
As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a great deal of money was invested in this version, disconnecting it from the TV adaptations and Hammer’s cost-cutting offerings that came earlier. Dracula might have lost its Transylvanian opening, but little expense has been spared in recreating pre-World War One England. The production values are from the top drawer, as is the pedigree cast, and the film is topped off with a lustrous score from John Williams. The composer clearly enjoyed providing the music for Dracula, taking as his inspiration Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and riffing on the theme of everlasting love.
The story is rooted in Whitby, North Yorkshire, though the filming was all done in various locations around Cornwall. St Austell doubled as the coastline where the doomed ship carrying Dracula to England is beached. Camelot Castle in Tintagel serves as the Seward residence and mental hospital. Carfax Abbey is in fact the beautiful St Michael’s Mount. The Count gets to work as soon as he’s set foot in England. First, he bewitches the wan and sickly Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) seemingly because he can, before quickly seeing her off and moving onto Lucy. Poor Mina is little more than starters. In this version, she’s the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier, complete with a thick Dutch accent - Francis’s comes and goes, presumably to give the impression of her settling into English society), who arrives at the scene after her death and is the only one with any real inkling of what really befell her.
In the film’s best scene, and by some distance its scariest, Van Helsing ventures to Mina’s grave to dispatch his daughter, who is now terrorising the community as a vampire. And what a vampire she makes! The Professor comes across an empty coffin, but one that has been ripped apart from within, leading to the labyrinth of mining tunnels below. Van Helsing descends, and in the cramped darkness drops his crucifix in a puddle. As he ferrets for the cross, the waters clear and reveal a nightmare vision of white looking down on him. It’s Mina, returning to her resting place and still wearing the tattered funereal dress she was buried in. He looks up, the full horror of what has become of her dawning on him, and the camera similarly tilts, gradually revealing a putrid, broken skinned demon with black eyes, matted hair, reddened mouth and bloodlust. Between them, Dr Seward (Donald Pleasance) and the Professor put Mina out of her misery, but the pain has told on her father. By all accounts, Olivier was a fan of Peter Cushing’s work in the Hammer Dracula franchise, and the emotional investment his tortured character puts in here gives him the advantage. It’s in his dealings with Langella where the ‘Cushing’ in his performance shines through. These are clever men, natural adversaries, and whilst you get the impression Dracula has some respect for the cross-wielding Professor all he gets in return is academic revulsion.
For audiences, the fate of Mina is proof of Dracula’s evil. He may be a good looking bloke with great hair who wears a cape well, but that’s where his lovemaking gets you, wandering the lonely night as a repellent living corpse. The race is now on to save Lucy from the same end, even as Miss Seward is succumbing to the Count’s seduction. His is a different vampire from the doomed hero played by Gary Oldman. Less openly demonic than Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Langella is nevertheless an empty individual, boasting to Van Helsing and Harker of his power and heritage whilst murdering the unfortunate Renfield (a superb Tony Haygarth) with a contemptuous neck break.
If there is a fault with Dracula, it is that there are few frights to be had. Apart from the scene detailed above (one I could barely watch when I first saw the film as a child), and the moment where he appears at Mina’s window (upside down, eyes glowing, after crawling down the wall outside), the scariest bits are those depicting Seward’s chaotic hospital, a real home for the mentally broken where screams are commonplace and inmates wander the stairways wearing pigs’ heads and wailing pitifully. I read a comment that Langella was just too handsome to make for an effectively creepy Dracula, and in fairness it wasn’t his brief to terrify the viewers. Though he takes Lucy and Mina, this vampire never bares his teeth, instead upping the smoulder value and leaving it to his brides to do the rest.
Is it even supposed to be scary? What we now savour is the brilliant cast, led by Olivier’s pained Van Helsing and the suffering etched on Eve’s face as he appreciates both what he’s up against and what he’s lost. This is an underrated adaptation, even in the colour-saturated version that has been ubiquitous since the film’s release on laserdisc in 1991. Apparently, Badham had initially intended his movie to be in black and white, in honour of the Universal classic from 1931, and it was only here that he had an opportunity to produce an edition that came close to his vision. Those who recall the warm colours of Dracula’s theatrical release and appearances in the 1980s - the studio (Universal again) deliberately overruling Badham in an attempt to showcase the film’s production values - demand a return to its original form, though there are no plans for a restored version and indeed my copy - the R2/4 DVD produced without a lot of love in 2006 - is as desaturated as they come. But does that really matter, as long as I still have visions of the undead Mina approaching, arms outstretched and the words ‘Papa, komme mit mir’ escaping her broken lips in that little, lost girl’s voice..?