Dracula (1979) Dracula (1979) **

     People just donít fucking thinkó thatís what the problem is. Seriously, even a momentís reflection would have told the folks in charge at Universal that hiring John Badham, the director responsible for Saturday Night Fever, to make a bodice-ripper version of Dracula was not a good idea. Granted, I think the result of this ill-starred decision came out somewhat better than the comatose 1931 Dracula, but frankly, that isnít saying a whole hell of a lot. And when you consider the very real possibility that, by turning the story of Count Dracula into an out-and-out romance, this movie helped pave the way for all the pining, whiny, effete vampires with which we have been saddled during the last decade, the 1979 Dracula starts looking positively blameworthy as well as misguided.

     The movie opens with a small example of that misguidedness. Alone among the serious adaptations of Bram Stokerís novel (by which I mean to disregard the likes of Dracula the Dirty Old Man and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula), this version never sets foot in Transylvania. Instead, it begins with the voyage of the Demeter, the ship which the vampire count has hired to bring him and his coffins from Varna to England. As usual, the ship is wracked by a vicious storm, but though its crewmen are all very busy up on deck, none of them seem to be attending much to their seamanship. Rather, theyíre frantically struggling to dump a man-sized crate marked ďProperty of Count DraculaĒ overboard. It seems like a pretty good idea, too, given that whatever is inside this crate is growling at the sailors as they manhandle it over to the gunwale. The men just arenít fast enough, however, and the thing in the crateó it turns out to be a huge wolf with glowing red eyesó breaks free and makes short work of everyone aboard the ship, which then begins drifting inexorably toward the rocky beach beside the small Yorkshire village of Whitby.

     Meanwhile, at the sanitarium of Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasence, from Circus of Horrors and Escape from New York), all of the crazies are going... well, crazy. Maybe itís the storm or maybe they can sense something in the air that their sane keepers are blind to, but all of Sewardís inmates are raising the most tremendous ruckus, and none of them will stand still long enough for the orderlies to administer the opiates which seem to be the only treatment the doctor knows. Indeed, the situation gets so far out of hand that Seward even has to call on the services of his daughter, Lucy (Wolfís Kate Nelligan), who already had her hands full looking after her ailing friend, Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis). Left alone, Mina gets up out of bed to look out the window of her room, and in so doing, she sees the Demeter riding the angry waves to its doom. Lord knows why, but Mina is struck by a sudden impulse to go to the beach and watch the destruction of the ship at close range. She sneaks out of the asylum amidst the confusion, and makes it down to the shore in time to see the Demeter smash itself to bits on the rocks, but her vantage point also permits her to witness something else. The moment after the wreck finally scrapes to a halt, that red-eyed wolf appears on deck, leaps to the ground, and runs off between the crags of the beach. Mina pursues the wolf (again, lord knows why), but she never does catch up to it. She does, however, find a survivor of the wreck, lying semiconscious in the shelter of the rocks.

     This man proves to be the Transylvanian lord Count Dracula (Frank Langella, from Masters of the Universe and The Ninth Gate, who like Lugosi before him had played the same part on stage any number of times), and by a remarkable coincidence, not only is he the sole survivor of the crash, his belongings are among the very few that were not destroyed. The coincidence by which his ship wrecked itself less than a mile from his destination is even more remarkable. You see, Count Dracula has just purchased Carfax Abbey, an immense old manor perched on a tiny island not far from the site of the wreck, and he had booked passage on the Demeter because he was ready to move in and take possession of the place. The next morning, Draculaís solicitor, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), oversees the recovery of the countís belongings, and has a local handyman named Milo Renfield (Tony Haygarth, who would go on to appear in The Bride, a mid-80ís interpretation of Frankenstein even more maudlin and pretentious than this version of Dracula) haul the stuff out to Carfax. It is this assignment that leads to Renfieldís assumption of his expected role as the countís private bug-eater.

     The next evening, Seward invites his new neighbor (Carfax is just down the road from the asylum) over to his place for dinner. This scene includes most of the elements of Harkerís stay at Castle Dracula in the novel: the countís refusal of food and drink, his barely contained arousal at the sight of blood when one of his companions accidentally cuts his finger on a carving knife, great blocks of Stokerís original dialogue. It also serves to establish Draculaís sexual/romantic/vampiric interest in Lucy and Mina. The count rapidly charms both girls, making Harker (whose presence at the party stems from the fact that heís engaged to Lucy) extremely jealous, and causing a scene between him and Lucy out on the veranda later that night. And while the two lovers are quarrelling, Dracula drops in to pay a visit to Mina in the bedroom she shares with her friend, with the end result that the already sickly girl dies the next morning, the only clue as to the cause of death a pair of small puncture wounds on the left side of her throat.

     In the aftermath of Minaís death, Dracula continues his seduction of Lucy, Jonathan goes off in a huff to who knows where on some business-related mission or other, Renfield is committed to the asylum for attacking Harker, and Seward summons his old friend and Minaís father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier in one of his few forays into the territory of junk food movies), to Whitby for the funeral. No sooner is Mina buried, however, than someone breaks into the asylum, kills the infant son of a female inmate, and drains the child dry of blood; the distraught mother identifies the killer as Mina. The incident reminds Van Helsing of something he read once, and he spends the next several scenes intensively researching the arcane lore of vampirism. The professor is eventually convinced that his daughter is one of ďthe Devilís undead,Ē and he browbeats Dr. Seward into accompanying him to her grave to find out for sure. Mina isnít in the coffin which the two doctors dig up; its side wall has been chopped out, allowing access to one of the mines whose tunnels extend under every inch of the village of Whitby. Van Helsing crawls through the ragged hole in the coffinís side with a crucifix and a wooden stake, and comes face to face with his daughter, whose red eyes, white skin, and blood-smeared fangs testify irrefutably to what she has become. Mina is staked, almost by accident, after a brief struggle, and the two doctors return to the asylum to figure out their next move.

     That ends up being pretty obvious, because while Van Helsing and Seward were facing off against the undead Mina, Lucy and Count Dracula were engrossed in what is easily the most pretentiously filmed love-scene in horror movie history. Itís Harker, just back from his trip, who finds the girl afterwards, in much the same condition as Mina had been just before her death. Seward arranges to transfuse some of Harkerís blood into Lucyís body, just barely saving her life. Meanwhile, Van Helsing encounters Dracula downstairs. The Count pretends to be seeking information regarding Lucyís condition, but he fails to notice the mirror before which Van Helsing is standing until it is too late. The professor does notice the countís lack of a reflection, however, and confronts him with the bundle of garlic cloves he had meant to hang on the asylumís front door. When that proves not quite enough to drive the vampire out, Van Helsing produces a crucifix from his pocket, and that does the trick at last. The next morning, after bringing Seward and Harker up to speed on what he has learned, Van Helsing has Mina dug up again, and cuts out her heart with a scalpel, just to be on the safe side.

     That still leaves two important orders of business to attend to. First, and most obviously, Dracula must be destroyed. But something must also be done about Lucy, who, having tasted the countís blood and enjoyed his company on a number of occasions while her fiance was out of town, now greatly prefers the vampire to Harker. (You would too, I suspect; the solicitor is a prick and a weasel.) Seward is eventually forced to lock her in one of the asylumís cells, but that plan backfires most spectacularly. After creating a diversion by breaking in and murdering Renfield, Dracula lets himself into Lucyís cell, and then lets himself and his half-undead lover out again. Knowing full well that his human foes will find him if he returns to Carfax Abbey, Dracula instead books passage on another ship with the intention of absconding with Lucy to his old stomping ground in Transylvania. But Van Helsing, at least, is craftier than Dracula has given him credit for, and scarcely has the carriage conveying his coffin to the docks set off before Harker and the doctors are in pursuit. The final showdown in the shipís hold leaves the Fearless Vampire Killers in rather worse shape than is customary in a Dracula movie, while the final shot surprisingly prefigures those of the slasher flicks that would start to be made in large numbers the year the year after Draculaís release.

     I still canít figure out what the thinking behind this movie was. I mean, it was only three years before that Hammer had gone bust because nobody wanted to watch gothics anymore. That Universal would sink such an enormous amount of money (and itís obvious that this Dracula cost a hell of a lot) into what surely ought to have seemed like a seriously iffy project is simply baffling. What isnít difficult at all to understand is why the 1979 Dracula never quite comes together. From a technical perspective, John Badham is a decent director, while Langela, Pleasence, and Olivier especially are certainly capable actors. The main problem is that this movie just doesnít know what it wants to be. In many ways, it is an extremely conservative film, especially by the standards of the late 1970ís, but it also includes a couple of half-hearted (and mostly out-of-place) attempts to shake off the appearance of stodginess with explicit gore. Meanwhile, its creators eschewed Hammer-style eroticism in favor of a romance-novel approach that seems to have been calculated to bring women into the theater, but unfortunately overplayed their hand to such an extent that Dracula barely works as a horror movie at all. Simply put, the Langela-Badham Dracula is too nice a guy to take seriously as an embodiment of evil, especially in comparison to the nominal good guys, none of whom ever do anything but earn our contempt for their cowardice, pettiness, or incompetence. The idea of a consensual relationship between a vampire and a human woman was explored much more effectively in Blacula, where the filmmakers remembered that the vampire, in the final assessment, is supposed to be a threatening presence.

     Finally, this version of Dracula suffers from an extreme indecisiveness regarding its vampire lore. What exactly is the point of Dracula having Lucy drink his blood when a simple bite sufficed to turn Mina into a vampire? Why do Lucy and Mina have red eyes and fangs in vampire mode (and peeling, dead-white skin in Minaís case), while Dracula himself is always perfectly human-looking? Why does Mina cast a reflection in the surface of a puddle down in the mine, when her master is clearly portrayed as casting none in a mirror? Why isnít Mina afraid of Sewardís cross, which nevertheless burns her when the doctor touches her with it? For that matter, why does Van Helsing have to kill her twice, once by staking her, and again by cutting out her heart? And last but not least, what the hell is the deal with that ending, in which Dracula, whom we just saw killed by the rays of the sun, turns into a kite and flies away on the wind? Iíve seen plenty of inelegant ways to set up an undeserved sequel, but that takes the cake!

 

 

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