Dracula (1979)

Recently, I saw John Badham’s 1979 version of Dracula. The film’s screenplay is based on an old theatre version of Bram Stoker’s novel, which was moved into the early 20th century and cut all the Transsylvanian scenes.

The latter choice proves to be highly effective and contributes a lot to the agreeable pace and compactness of the film. Likewise, the re-arranging of the novel’s core characters for this film aided that compactness: the number of characters was reduced significantly, by making Mina and Lucy the daughters of van Helsing and Dr Seward respectively; and by making Jonathan Harker the only young gentleman on the scene. With only five major English/Dutch characters (not counting Renfield), the film avoids a lot of the overcrowding that plagues other film versions. And with Dr Seward’s asylum (which is also the family home) and Dracula’s newly bought English castle, the film also has only two major locations, which also aids the feeling of compactness and no doubt simplified the production.

A change that has no particular reason, but rather followed a whim of the director, is the fact that the roles of Mina and Lucy are reversed, and Lucy (not Mina) is Jonathan’s fiancé.

One odd side-effect of all the cutting and re-arranging of characters is that when van Helsing hunts and stakes Mina (i. e. Lucy in the novel), this means that he hunts and stakes his own daughter.

 

Visually, I liked this film a lot. The practical effects were great and the overall look of the film was very much like a period piece (which this film is). It looks a bit more boring, yet overall more pleasant than Coppola’s campy 1992 version of Dracula. Like Coppola, Badham gives vampirism an erotic touch, but not only does it seem more tame here, but Frank Langella is also undoubtedly more suitable to radiate eroticism than Gary Oldman.

There are a lot of nice shots in this film. The camera repeatedly focuses on Dracula’s hands, with Langella giving them an animalistic look. There is also a very nice shot involving Lucy and a spider with a web.

 

The cast is interesting, with many well-known actors: Frank Langella as Dracula, the legendary Laurence Olivier as van Helsing, Donald Pleasence as Dr Seward, and a very young (and unrecognisable) Trevor Eve as Jonathan Harker.

However, it must be said that with the exception of Langella, none of the above did put in a performance that I would call memorable.

 

As I already indicated, I very much like the “streamlining” of the novel for this film. The reason Stoker’s novel had so many characters and several locations spread over Europe was that the novel was a literary experiment with letters, diary entries, recordings, etc. coming together like a puzzle eventually revealing the whole picture. Having a larger number of characters scattered all over the place helps that style.

Since that style is impossible to translate onto the stage or screen, Dracula has to be told in a more conventional manner when turned into a film. And a conventional narrative does not need all these characters, who thus become obstacles rather than auxiliaries. Cutting down the number of characters (and locations) seems not only fair, but almost necessary. It helps to keep the story concise and to focus on the key characters.

It certainly works in this film – it felt at all times more focused and well-paced than the Coppola version – and I believe it is also an approach that should be considered for future re-tellings of Stoker’s story.

 

Overall, although this film is not a masterpiece and possibly not the most exciting version of Dracula out there, I still definitely prefer it to Coppola’s 1992 film. I would rate Badham’s Dracula at 7.0 to 7.5 out of 10, higher than the current imdb average (6.4).

So my ratings for the Badham film and the Coppola film are exactly the reverse of their imdb ratings.

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