Now this is more like it. The 1979 version of Dracula, starring Bayonne-born (REPRESENT! Or something) Frank Langella as the Romanian count, is a more traditional take on the familiar story, though not without several changes. Characters and relationships are remixed so Mina is now the daughter of Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier at the brink of death), Lucy is the object of Drac’s desire and her father is the headmaster of the insane asylum, played by master scene-stealer Donald Pleasence, who also has a much more active role. The setting is entirely London so there’s no gigantic castles or gypsies. That doesn’t mean atmosphere has been sacrificed, far from it. London is as creepy and dark as it should be during the 1920s, and Carfax Abbey does return. Exuberant applause goes to the movie’s look, which is so ashen it almost looks black and white. It doesn’t look like a lame-o color filter like in Bagels From Iwo Jima either, more resembling an old photograph or the work of Edward Gorey. It’s mesmerizing and it adds to the overall theatrical feel. It’s classy. \:3
Like the 1931 original Dracula ’79 relies much more on strong dialogue and interaction to drive the story forward, rather than hyperactive style. The blocking of each scene, the simple sets, the strong booming deliveries make the movie feel more like a stage play, tight and focused with little distractions like baby eating or shadow puppets. And everyone can act. Thank God on high, there’s no slip-shod accenting going on here although Sir Olivier does lay the German on a little thick in his “Nosferatu!!” theorizing and doing the Exorcist thing in Latin is a little far.
Frank Langella is a total stand-out. THIS is Dracula the seducer! He charms everyone off the bat (LOL), often without the need for his trademark hypnosis and the babes are right to fall for him! He’s a handsome dude! And he enunciates. Every. Delicious. Syllable. Like a fine snack. He’s great, totally in control and a lot of fun to watch. All the usual lines are here – “WINE!” – “CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT!” – “MIRRORS”! – and he transforms into a bat and a wolf and climbs along walls more than once. Bad. Ass. Is he the best Dracula since Lugosi? He is certainly up there (better than the Duke from Moulin Rouge that’s for sure) but his appearance may be the only detractor. His late 70s poofy hair is sexalicious and wild but may be more at home with Han Solo or Lando Calrissian than Dracula. The costume, however, is back to the classic black cape. PIMP.
Harker is less of a fuck-up this time around, though still just as insubstantial despite his more active role in Dracula’s climactic demise. I’m struggling to remember what exactly it is he does through most of the movie besides watch Van Helsing and Jack Seward (Donald Pleasence) from the sidelines, so, whatever. Harker is the Butters of the Dracula mythos. Van Helsing fairs much better. It’s a little sad to see Olivier creak about but he manages to make Van Helsing a spry old guy, eager to jump into mysterious subterranean caves dug by she-vamps. He may look like he’s about to croak any second but he’s still shoving crucifixes around and splashing holy water all over. Impressive.
Come for the Langella, stay for the Donald Pleasence! Escape From New York’s president of the free world brings his usual conniving selfishness to the insane asylum director, doling out laudanum to his patients while scoffing at the suggestion of giving it to his own daughter Lucy. Pleasence excels at these shifty-eyed scummy characters, stealing attention away even if he’s in the background twittering his fingers. He’s also constantly eating in each scene, shoving a different morsel into his big head each time he shows up, a gag Brad Pitt would later appropriate for his Ocean’s 11 character. It’s a small detail but it’s a fun one, chewing on a chicken bone as his life is in mortal peril.
There IS an unusual sex scene, if it can be called that, since it’s done in the typical 70s surreal trip-out fashion. Well, typical to anyone who’s familiar with Zardoz or Demon Seed and the “sex” scenes in those movies. If you’ve seen those oddballs you would feel right at home with the psychedelic laser show Dracula ’79 delivers. If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you’d connect the dots quickly. These bizarro interludes were undoubtedly inspired by Kubrick’s starry hallucinations. In this, it’s sort of cheap-looking … okay, it’s kind of really cheap-looking but in that charming John Carpenter sort of way where it makes the most of what it has: red lights, a fog machine, and Frank Langella and whoever plays Lucy on strings, kissing passionately. It’s surreal but has a mystical quality to it that fits right in with the Dracula character. You’d think copulating with the Prince of Darkness would be a transcendent experience instead of a raunchy humpfest with BOOBS AND VAGINAS ZOMG!!
The music by John Williams is one of his lesser soundtracks, based on how I can’t even remember it – that should NEVER happen with John Williams!! – but it does well within the film. If you were to come across the music without knowing it’s from this movie you would immediately recognize it as his. It his unmistakable signature all over it.
Unfairly overshadowed by numerous other Draculas, and released in the same year as Alien, it doesn’t make with any big scares (the subterranean cave is creepy) but Dracula ’79 shouldn’t remain as overlooked as it has (Sorry for the lack of decent screenshots – I watched this on VHS). Overall, it’s a very satisfying package with a climax on a schooner to Transylvania that’s more than a humdrum stake impaling. Characters die, hooks and chains are thrown willy nilly, and babes stare off into the distance wondering if immortality means a return to life is possible. I think it is!