Until now I’d avoided seeing the 1979 John Badham-directed Dracula, largely because I’d heard so many very negative things about it. In fact it’s rather good. Although it was a fairly big-budget release by a major studio its poor commercial performance at the time and its neglect since then make it a classic example of a mainstream movie that becomes a cult film. It does have some faults, Laurence Olivier’s excruciatingly hammy performance as van Helsing being one of them, but its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. This is very much a film that focuses on the erotic aspects of the story, and it’s very much in the modern tradition of sympathetic portraits of Dracula. Frank Langella as the Count is young, charming, charismatic, sexy and pretty. The best thing about the movie is the portrayal of Lucy. In this version Mina is van Helsing’s daughter and his first victim, while the main focus of the movie is the relationship between Dracula and Lucy. Lucy is no passive victim. She’s a willing and active partner for the Count, and the relationship is more romantic and more erotically charged than anything in Coppola’s 1992 version. The casting of the astonishingly dreary Trevor Eve (who out-Keanus Keanu Reeves in the bad acting stakes) as Jonathan Harker is interesting – it really emphasises the class conflict between the aristocratic vampire lord and his petty, life-denying, dull and unimaginative bourgeois foes. For Lucy Dracula represents her only chance to escape a life of stultifying boredom and oppression. Dracula and Lucy are the hero and heroine of this film, make no mistake about that. Only the most puritanical, stolid and cheerless viewer could possibly see the vampire hunters as the good guys. It’s a movie to enrage those who like their vampires to be simple and unambiguous monsters.
The movie looks quite good. Although at times the production design is a little conventional it does have a few stunning visual moments. The climax is particularly well done. The ending will upset vampire movie traditionalists, but I thought it was original, striking and rather effective. This Dracula tries to do a lot of the things that Coppola’s version tries to do, and I think it does them better. It’s more supernatural love story than horror movie perhaps, but Frank Langella is superb, Kate Nelligan gives Lucy both strength and complexity, Donald Pleasence is outrageously entertaining (as always) as Lucy’s father Dr Seward. Tony Haygarth is a disappointing Renfield though – he must have thought they were making Carry On Dracula. If you like your vampire movies to be traditional exercises in straightforward horror you’ll almost certainly hate this movie. If you prefer the more erotic approach of European directors like Franco and Rollin, and the more romantic vision of Coppola, then you’ll find plenty to like in this one. I loved it.