Saturday, May 16, 2020

Movie Reviews: Dracula (1979)

directed by John Badham
I am fascinated by how different people can pull wildly varying interpretations from the same material.  

Despite what some originalists would tell you, complex source materials, whether 18th century constitutions or 19th century novels by Bram Stoker can often support very diverse readings. 

Stephen King was famously inspired to write his vampire novel Salem's Lot after teaching Dracula to high school students and wondering what it would be like if Dracula came to 20th century America. 

King's novel has themes of waste, loneliness and decline that certainly would have resonated with people in 1970s America dealing with oil crises, the Vietnam War aftermath and other system shocks. King expands greatly on the horror of the un-dead expressed so strongly in Stoker's novel. I appreciate and respond to that theme of vampire lore and novels.

But there are plenty of other themes. In Stoker's novel, Dracula lives with --well perhaps exists with is a better term-- at least three female vampires. By their descriptions, two may be his daughters. Or he may have a harem. He may have turned his family. Either way it's a perversion of normal family life that likely would have scandalized the Victorian audience who first read Stoker's work.

Dracula's voyage to England could be understood as the threat of the darker, more sexual man to the lighter, decent woman. 

Indeed in the novel the vampire boasts of this threat and power when the heroes find him and one of their women in a compromising position.

So there is textual support in Stoker for imagining the vampire as a tortured romantic Byronic hero. I don't enjoy this sexed up interpretation of vampires but millions of people do. You can see that idea expressed in the Interview with a Vampire books, the Twilight books and film series, Francis Coppolla's 1992 Dracula film, and well, this movie.

Dracula (Frank Langella) is not a snarling monster, well at least not most of the time. He's an urbane son-of-a-gun who hypnotizes women pretty much just by looking at them. At a time when women were pretty much expected to have babies and keep their mouths shut, Dracula actually appears to be interested in what women have to say.  

He's tall, dark, and handsome. And he can move on the dance floor like nobody's business. Yes indeed, if Dracula wants your woman he will have her. And there's nothing you can do about it. 

Having just survived the shipwreck of the Demeter, Dracula shows up for dinner at the household of Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance). Seward's daughter Lucy (Kate Nelligan) and her friend Mina (Jan Francis) are in attendance and are smitten with the Count. Lucy's fiance Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) is not impressed with the courtly foreigner.

Shortly after Dracula's arrival Mina dies unexpectedly. Hmm. Seward sends for Mina's father, Professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier). The good Professor believes that vampires exist. And he intends to prove it. Battle is joined.

I liked the look of this movie a LOT. I wasn't that crazy about the story. The scenes, sets, colors, cinematography all make you think that you were in the period depicted. It was interesting to watch how special effects were done before CGI took over everything. That said, even for 1979, there aren't a lot of special effects in this film. There's not too much violence either. 

Langella carries this film. It was very much directed towards women I think. Fair enough. This film is more of an adaptation of a play (starring Langella) based on the novel than an adaptation of the novel itself. Langella's Dracula is the ultimate Bad Boy who is ready to settle down and fall in love. Forever.
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