Thursday, August 11, 2011
(July 1979, U.S.)
There's somethiing very interesting to note about the year 1979 in that in addition to this version of DRACULA on screen, there was also Werner Herzog's retelling of NOSFERATU and the comic Dracula spoof, LOVE AT FIRST BITE. On television, there was an ABC-TV movie-of-the-week called VAMPIRE and on CBS-TV there a two-part mini-series of Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT. Yes, it's very safe to say that 1979 was, indeed, the year of the vampire!
Ask anyone what their favorite film version of Bram Stoker's legendary novel is and they're likely to either tell you it's the 1931 Bela Lugosi version or F. W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic. Since I'm often in the minority category when it comes to films, I have to be honest and tell you that it's this 1979 version with Frank Langella as the "Count" that always grabs my attention above all others. Perhaps it has to do more with my own personal memories from when I was a kid of just twelve. No, my parents wouldn't let me see this film (or any other horror film, for that matter), but it seemed that I was being surrounded by mentions of Dracula at every end. Even two years prior, I can remember seeing TV commercials about DRACULA on Broadway (also starring Langella). And as mentioned above, by the time Summer of 1979 rolled around, there were vampires coming from all sides of popular culture.
But take a real close look at this version of DRACULA and study Langella's performance. Unlike Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, his portrayel here has a certain degree of style, grace, elegance and smoothness that other actors, in my opinion, have not given the classic character. The film is a triumph of performance, art direction and mood over materials that can lend themselves so easily to overblown self-satire. So many other portrayels of Dracula have somehow managed to lose the tragic origins of the character among the stereotypical gravestones, fangs and all the black cloaks. Langella's Dracula restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances, even before Lugosi. There's even a moment when he's about to "take" Lucy for the first time where he enters her room sporting a large collar and open shirt revealing much of his chest hair. In short, he strongly resembles John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977), which was also directed by John Badham (coincidence??).
While generally faithful to Stoker's original story, this version strays in several directions. Most notable is the fact that the characters of Mina and Lucy have been switched (why, I have no fucking clue!). The film also takes place at the early part of the 20th century when electricity and automobiles were already invented. It's actually strange to be watching a story of Dracula and hear one of it's character's say, "I'll get the car." Dracula's death is also reinvented as he is destroyed by blazing sunlight rather than the tradition wooden stake or beheading. I should also point out that contrary to popular vampire lore, the undead Mina mysteriously casts a reflection in a pool of water. But I suppose that's what a truly good remake is; a film that's not afraid to take some chances and change some things.
Let me end with a rather amusing personal story about this film, though it actually has nothing to do with me. It's about my grandfather when I was kid. One of his leisurely activities was go to a movie theater and take a very long nap, sometimes for as long as two or three screenings a film. The man was Egyptian and had almost no concept of American popular culture so very often he wasn't even aware of what movie he had just paid admission to nap by. So one day he innocently goes to a movie theater completely unaware that he's just bought a ticket for DRACULA. Before he could actually fall asleep, he got a small taste of the gory horror and was, needless to say, horrified and mortified beyond words. The poor man left the theater and never got his afternoon nap that day. I can still remember him telling us this story and the whole family laughing at his misfortune. I can still remember him saying, "Dra-koo-la" in his thick Egyptian accent. Sorry, Grandpa!
So, anyway, now you know...the 1979 Frank Langella version is my favorite film of DRACULA!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Count Dracula: "You fools! Do you think with your crosses and your wafers you can destroy me? Me! You do not know how many men have come against me. I am the king of my kind! You have accomplished nothing, Van Helsing. Time is on my side. In a century, when you are dust, I shall wake and call Lucy, my queen from her grave. I have in my time had many brides, Mr. Harker. But I shall set Lucy above them all."