I submit this piece as an early celebration of International Dracula Day “celebrated” by all those with a predilection for the creepy on May 26 – the publication date of Bram Stoker’s immortal original classic.
I met Dracula when I was six years old.
According to Hollywood lore, before shooting began each day for Universal’s Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi, who was playing the Count, would stand in front of a full-length mirror (for a vampire uncharacteristically casting a reflection), throw his cape over his shoulder, and bellow at the mirror: “I AM Dracula” in an effort to hypnotize himself into delivering the perfect performance as the vampire. While co-star David Manners attests to this, the story may very well be apocryphal, though mention of it is made in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Whether it’s true or not, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages. Today, it’s impossible not to imagine a tall, dark, Hungarian man in evening wear when one thinks of Dracula. Or simply vampires for that matter.
And, even if Lugosi did not succeed in casting a spell over himself, then certainly on his audiences. Purportedly when the star took the stage in the late 1920s playing the Count for the first time, women swooned and fainted. Nurses were on call armed with smelling salts to attend to those audience members with nervous dispositions, and in doing so; Dracula became a fixture of Broadway in the early days of the Great Depression. A film version was inevitable. Universal Studios – who had made a profit hand-over-fist in the 1920s with their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – bought the rights to both Bram Stoker’s novel and the successful play with the intent of casting “The Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous vampire. Chaney died before production could begin and Bela Lugosi stepped in front of the film camera to extend his spell over a whole new audience…
…Myself included. At the age of six, my Mother and I went to a screening of the 1931 classic at the local library as the Halloween season swiftly came upon us. Though I cannot remember every detail of that evening, I’m told many years later that I was enraptured by the film. Dracula (1931) may not hold up today as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but its influence cannot be overestimated. Without it – it is easy to argue – the modern horror film would not exist. Dracula proved to Universal that horror films were truly profitable and soon the Count gave way to Frankenstein’s Monster (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and a myriad of others.
Today, 120 years since the initial publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula continues to have a hold on popular culture. In the wake of Bela Lugosi, countless other Draculas have graced the screen both big and small: Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and George Hamilton to name just a few. However, I believe that the finest Dracula film is the oftentimes overlooked 1979 Universal remake starring Frank Langella as Dracula. It is a film version which I believe does not receive the praise it truly deserves, as it may well be the Count’s finest hour on film. I suggest that we take a closer look.
Like Lugosi before him, Frank Langella began the role of Dracula on the stage. The production was a revival of the play from the ‘20s which had been penned by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane’s original, which had opened in England, had enough cheese to fill a French fromagerie - complete with thunder and lightning cues and bats dangling on the ends of fishing poles - but its success was enough to make it cross the pond and, after being polished up by writer and former journalist Balderston, proved to be just as commercially successful in the states.
|Langella's Dracula surrounded by Gothic sets designed by|
illustrator Edward Gorey
Langella’s performance in the revival was lauded widely at the time. His performance was nominated for a Tony and writer Gregory William Mank writes on his website reflecting on the experience of seeing Langella on Broadway in 1978: “It was amazing to watch Langella’s Count, capering before the Edward Gorey sets, skillfully playing Act I for comedy (to bait the audience), Act II as a mix of comedy and drama (to keep the audience guessing), and Act III as raw, red meat melodrama (which had the audience in near-hysteria).”
The success of the Dracula revival was surely enough to spawn a remake – or, perhaps, a reimagining – of the 1931 classic. I use the word reimagining as the 1979 film has little in common with the Bela Lugosi original or the Deane/Balderston play. True, there are scenes which are lifted from both sources (the confrontation between Dracula and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing being the most obvious example and one of the film’s genuine highlights), but for much its run, 1979’s Dracula feels very much like its own entity. Its plot feels original and unpredictable, partially down to the reshuffling of the cast of characters. Lucy is the central figure of this drama. As most ardent Dracula fans now, it was Lucy in the novel and most adaptations who is victimized by Dracula first and turned into a vampire. However, herein it is Mina who befalls that fate. And, to top it all off, Mina is now the daughter of Professor Van Helsing which adds extra gravitas to the vampire hunter’s hunt for the vampire.
To a Dracula purist, one may balk at all these changes. Furthermore, knowing that the plot never sets foot outside of England (Dracula was originally a sweeping novel beginning and ending in continental Europe), is set nearly a decade into the twentieth century, and knowing that the film features a sub-title proclaiming it to be a love story may very well put fans of the Count off of this film. However, for all its cosmetic changes to the plot and characters of the original, Dracula remains a fascinating film to watch. The very nature of its reorganized cast of characters and storyline lends the film an air of unpredictability which even some of the other finest Dracula films cannot avoid. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee may have dispensed with its source material almost from the word go, but throughout the film one never doubts the idea that good will triumph over evil and Dracula will be vanquished. Dracula ’79 casts doubt upon the very essence of the story; something which cannot be said for many adaptations of the generations-old tale.
And, to address that point about the film being a love story, it’s hardly true. Though it’s obvious that Kate Nelligan’s Lucy is slowly falling for Langella’s Dracula, it is hard to sympathize with the Count. He never becomes a pathetic, sad figure in a way which robs him of his inherent scariness and evil. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for all its amazing in-camera special effects, costumes, and occasional bits of inspired acting, is guilty of this for sure; Dracula is supposed to be scary and by turning him into a romantic figure, he is robbed of what makes him so terrifying. Langella’s Dracula is quietly evil and, to be frank, his performance is liable to send a shiver or two up and down your spine.
|Laurence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing|
The supporting cast helps to round out the film in no small measure and support Langella all the way through. Of special note is Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Though I am biased by my admiration for all things even tangentially-related to Peter Cushing, I assert it as a fact that Cushing’s Van Helsing is the finest ever committed to screen. But, Olivier puts his own fascinating spin on the character. His sensitive, sad nature is at times quite brilliant, and the scene in which he is confronted by his vampirized daughter is both heartbreaking and scary all-at-once.
To provide some comic relief is Donald Pleasance as a sweets-chewing Dr. Seward, but Pleasance – the brilliant actor that he is – never allows his comic bits of business to overwhelm his character. As mentioned above, Kate Nelligan shines as Lucy. Her close-up in the film’s final shot is chilling in its ambiguity. (Oh, and eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans will spot Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the asylum attendant, Walter.)
The cast on a whole does a brilliant job of elevating the story from what – at its heart, like the original Deane play, is a rather cheesy story – to being something with some depth and intrigue. As mentioned above, the scene of the vampire Mina is genuinely frightening even today, and the film’s finale is shocking in both its bold plot decisions, but for the open-ended nature of the conclusion. I would be doing anyone who has not seen the film a disservice by speaking about it more.
And, like any film which is scored by John Williams, the film’s score is fantastic. Its central theme is surely one of Williams’ most underrated compositions.
Even today, opinion is still divided on 1979’s Dracula. Roger Ebert spoke to the film’s elegance and how it “restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances,” but many have written the film off for some of its more dated aspects (and it is true – though it objectively looks good, there is little use in defending the “vampire wedding” scene as designed by James Bond title-sequence guru, Maurice Binder), and for Langella’s subtle Dracula.
While I think that the film on a whole is perhaps not the classical milestone of the Hammer Dracula film, or perhaps even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is an underrated gem to be sure. It’s a Dracula film which is interested in more than just fangs, stakes, and garlic wreaths. It’s a Dracula film with a brain and a heart.
It’s a film which proves that Dracula shall continue to be able to cast a spell over me.