31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula (1979)

Dracula (1979)


Director: John Badham

Dracula: Frank Langella

Now this is how to get Dracula wrong. John Badham’s feminist (well, feminist-for-1979) deconstruction of the stage play and Stoker’s novel creates a gothic fantasy in which “Lucy Seward” (Kate Nelligan, actually playing Mina) yearns for the liberating touch of Frank Langella’s catlike, genteel Dracula. And if you were due to marry Trevor Eve’s adenoidal, blustery Jonathan Harker, you too might seek the pleasures of the night even if it means going alone to the most over-the-top cobweb-and-chandelier dinner date outside Anne Rice’s fever dreams. (Peter Murton’s grotesque Carfax is the best Dracula lair since 1931’s Castle.) Never mind that Dracula murdered a zillion Russian sailors in the best Demeter wreck scene ever filmed, or that he also murdered “Mina Van Helsing” (a duly consumptive Jan Francis). Frank Langella makes his Dracula so confident, so comfortable in his own shapeshifting skin, that you almost don’t mind those details any more than Lucy does. The incompetent Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasence as a distractible, absent father) and superstitious Dr. Van Helsing (a tired, broken Laurence Olivier) offer an unappetizing (especially so, given Pleasence’s constant chewing of both food and scenery in every shot) alternative in patriarchal science. Religion comes in for its own hits: Dracula hisses “Sacrilege!” as Van Helsing holds him off with a Host, and Van Helsing nearly dies on his reanimated daughter’s fangs while scrabbling in the mud for his dropped crucifix. No, this is the church of “You go for it, girl” with a vengeance.

In addition to its own fabulist virtues as a film — among which should count John Williams’ brassy score and Albert Whitlock’s phantasmic matte paintings — it also offers plenty to the discerning GM. Langella’s Dracula uses his powers cleverly throughout, from storms to mind control to climbing down (and smashing through) walls. The notion of a hole in Mina’s coffin leading down into mines and tunnels under “Whitby” (actually a wonderfully alien-looking Cornwall) has more scope than the film could use, we get the use of a white horse to find a vampire grave that even Stoker doesn’t include, and the horribly authentic Victorian asylum architecture gives Trail of Cthulhu Keepers a reason to watch. And if things get too sexyweird for you, just drink … wine … whenever Dracula says “Good evening” and you’ll come out toasty and ahead regardless.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. With its shirt open in the fog machine (to invite your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order richly coiffed hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

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