There was quite a while where I considered John Badham to be the worst director that ever lived. There was a period in the 80s and cultural wasteland of the 90s where he was pumping out all these horribly tepid police thrillers like The Hard Way and Stakeout. And even though he had once directed Saturday Night Fever, I think a little examination would reveal that it’s not the direction of that movie that made it… uh, quite something, it was the frisson of the music and Travolta’s performance and electrifying dancing. So the truth is I rented this movie with the full expectation that it would be laughably awful… and ended up with a new favorite Dracula movie.
Things begin poorly as we hear the sound of a baying wolf before the credits even come on, then have a monstrously fake bat flying in front of a red laser! Wow, we are off to a BAD start, although this is what I was fully expecting.
We then meet the ship Demeter in a storm, where the few remaining guys are doing their best to haul a wooden coffin overboard. Only they don’t quite make it before a hairy hand comes out and rips out their throats. There’s now a big mean dog roaming the decks, and the guy lashed to the wheel doesn’t last long. On shore, Dr. Seward, played by Donald Pleasance, is trying to calm all the lunatics at the asylum, upset by the storm. We also meet Lucy, Seward’s daughter, and the sickly Mina, daughter of Van Helsing, who hasn’t shown up yet. This movie, for no reason I can really discern, switches the places of Lucy and Mina from the book. It doesn’t really change matters, and for that reason I don’t really understand why they did it, but you just have to roll with it.
So Lucy and Mina are hanging out in Mina’s room [she is sickly and needs her rest], where Lucy gives a little speech that clues us in to her being presented as an independent, forward-thinking lady of the 18th Century. She leaves, and Mina sees the ship about to crash on the rocks, so she decides that she needs to go out in the pouring rain and wind while only in her flimsy nightgown, which made me think she is sort of stupid and certainly deserves any chronic illness she may have. She sees the shipwreck [not too bad], but decides not to go in to tell anyone inside, who might alert the local life-saving authorities, but to go down to the shore—in the pouring wind and rain while only in her flimsy nightgown, I reiterate—where she sees a wolf jump off the ship and run into a cave. Mina then apparently thinks “I know! I’ll follow this bloodthirsty wolf into the confined spaces of this cave! That’s a GOOD idea!” She finds Dracula inside, now dressed in a wolf-fur-lined coat. They clearly have some sort of dalliance before she returns home, proof, as if any more were needed, that single ladies need to step outside their normal routine to meet that exciting new man.
Meanwhile we’re introduced to Renfield, who this time is kind of a thug menacing Seward and others at the asylum for money, although this is quickly forgotten as he comes under the thrall of Dracula. He oversees the taking of all Dracula’s stuff to his castle, which is the typical place with massive cobwebs. In here you’ll notice that the color desaturates to the point of being a slightly blue-tinted black-and-white, echoing the look of the famous Legosi film version—and somehow I don’t think this is entirely by accident. Unfortunately the good feeling it provides is soon negated by a really unfortunate effect in which Langella is wearing a cape that approximates bat wings and leaping into the air, at which point he transforms into a monstrously fake-looking bat.
He then pops round to see Lucy and her buds, including her BF Jonathan Harker, who looks like something straight out of the 80s [specifically, my middle school] with his hair parted right down the middle. He has a delivery of the “I never drink… wine” line, which he delivers with just the slightest of pauses. Here we see that this movie is going to do much more with the concept of Dracula exerting mental control over his victims, and a lot of this is going to be handled with by Langella snapping on his intense gaze. By the way, if you’re only familiar with Langella now and can’t really imagine him being a hot sex symbol, just trust me. He throws his hypno spell on Mina and sends her to bed, then dances with Lucy in front of Jonathan, who isn’t that happy about it. Later, he crawls down the side of the castle to Mina’s window, which he scrapes at till he comes in and… they play a spirited round of Parcheesi.
In the morning Mina’s not looking too good and—woah, what a mosquito bite. So they send for her father, who in this version is Van Helsing. The previous night Dracula had invited Lucy and Harker to his humble abode, but Harker can’t make it and Lucy, being all independent and all that, decides to go alone. Place is still all cobwebby—dude, cleaning service, hello—and we see Lucy enter through an overhead shot looking down through a spiderweb, as though to say that SHE is entering his WEB. A subtle touch, no? I think you simply must agree. No, you MUST. They enjoy an intimate candlelight dinner of liver and onions, the candles arranged in little canyons that frame their faces. Then they step out to the veranda where Dracula muses on the sound of the “children of the night,” and this exchange follows: Lucy: “I love the night. It’s so simple.” Dracula: “So deceptive.” Lucy: “So exciting!” For obvious reasons I find that hilarious. Soon after, Drac lays a wet one on Lucy, then apologizes, but she says he wants it and grabs him. This is part of the whole revisionist thing that female movie protagonists in historical periods were right-on feminists responsible for their own orgasms—and desires. Victorian Vixen!
SPOILERS > > >
Meanwhile, Van Helsing comes to town and not only is he Mina’s daddy in this version, he’s… Laurence Olivier! Mina’s been out a’eaten’ babies, and dad has to put a stop to it. It’s a bummer that he has to drive a stake through the heart of his own daughter, but she does look all nasty and is just about to bite him. I don’t mean to be all symbolic and call out dirty nasty sexual elements, but it can be truly said that Mina gets impaled by her father’s pole as she gasps in spasmodic death throes. I’m just sayin’.
But she’s not the only one getting some undead lovin’. Dracula shows up at Lucy’s window and comes in, accompanied by such disco-esque dry ice it looks like he’s entering the stage on Solid Gold. He is soon down between Lucy’s legs eating her out! I guess there IS a lot of blood flow there. Then—and if you watch the “making of” on the disc you’ll see that a lot of people hate this part—Dracula and Lucy have a mad passionate love suite complete with their black, intertwined shadows making it against a red laser. By the way, the doc says that lasers were relatively rare in those days, and this laser was borrowed from The Who, who were touring through at the time. Anyway, Dracula scratches himself and invites Lucy to drink him, which she does, and we all know what that means.
Soon after Dracula shows up and is trying to chat with Van Helsing when the old guy pulls out a bunch of Garlic and Dracula FREAKS! I really liked it—Dracula is unmasked and suddenly turns really vicious against Van Helsing, and it’s a really great hero-and-villain stand-off scene. Dracula is all defiant and pissed off, he pretty much says DO NOT FUCK WITH ME, OLD MAN, and it all just works really well. Later Jonathan and pals discover that Lucy is missing, and discover her in a carriage on her way to Dracula’s castle. You know, how are they going to keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Dracula's castle?
By throwing her in the asylum, that’s how. But Dracula comes in, kills Renfield [who had nothing to do here, anyway], and takes Lucy. They discover she’s missing and we have a long carriage chase to the town, where Dracula and Lucy are on a ship heading back to his place, where she will rule as his bride. I must say that the whole carriage race does go on quite a while and lets the momentum of the film fall precipitously low at the very moment it should be cranking up.
Anyway, they finally get to this Cornish town, where they soon learn that Lucy and Dracula have already sailed! They get a boat out to the departing ship, big fight, blah, blah. Looks like curtains for Van Helsing, but he swings a hook hanging from a chain toward Dracula powerfully enough that it imbeds in his shoulder [that geezer don’t know his own strength!] and Jonathan does something or other with the result that Dracula gets pulled up to into the sails, where he is exposed to the direct sunlight, and we have the familiar thing where they shoot him looking gnarly, cut away, apply more makeup, show him looking still gnarlier, cut away…. At last, just as it seems Dracula is deader than a coffin nail, his cape detaches and seems to fly out across the ocean, like a kite. In fact, it IS a kite. On the “making of” special, they say that this was thrown on just because they couldn’t bear to come out with saying Dracula is dead, and wanted to suggest that he could survive somehow. Lucy, Dracula’s spell now dissipated, looks past the douche Jonathan and gives an enigmatic smile that Dracula is still alive, relieved that there remains at least one person in the world who can give her an orgasm.
< < < SPOILERS END
Both Dracula and Frankenstein are two books that, once you finish, you say “WHY can’t anyone make a decent movie out of either of these? It’s all right there on the page.” And yet both of them seem to be resistant to decent adaptations. Virtually every Dracula movie I’ve ever seen has been pretty awful. The Legosi version is nice, but a lot of that is due to the old-timey movie conventions and nostalgia. Thus, this one emerges as my favorite Dracula film. I like that it pulls the rich B&W look from the Legosi film for its castle sequences, pulls the most compelling elements together into a well-shaped narrative, and keeps some of the best effects from previous versions [like Dracula climbing straight down sheer walls]. But what it does that I really like is rearrange the characters so they are fairly compelling [let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to care about whiny, wimpy Mina in the book], and does more with Dracula’s mind-control than previous versions. His mind-control is always important to his nailing his victims, but it’s hard to capture on film, so most versions give it short shrift. Here they just go for it, and give it the prominence it requires, and it really worked for me. Dracula and Van Helsing also came into sharper focus as characters in this version, more so than they ever had for me.
So for one vacation I spent a week in Cornwall, England, and it was nice: one of those vacations where there’s nothing to really do except drive around and soak up the atmosphere. But it turns out that this film was made there, so St. Michael’s Mount, off Penzance, became Dracula’s castle, and Tintagel, said to be the birthplace of King Arthur, became the asylum. At the end, when they arrive at the village where Dracula’s ship has left from, I was saying “That looks like Mousehole, [pronounced “muzzle”],” which is a shockingly charming small stone fishing village. And I think it is, although the credits only says the thing was shot on location in Cornwall. By the way, in Cornwall [St. Ives] you can also see THE lighthouse Virginia Wolff envisioned in To The Lighthouse.
The “Making of” special on the disc is interesting, and has interviews with all the major players. We get some insight into Langella’s rather strong opinions on how Dracula should come off [no fangs, if you please], as well as amusing gossip such as that Donald Pleasance suggested that his character always be eating something, and would pop something in his mouth at the end of his line—which had the net effect of forcing editors to stay on him longer for continuity, increasing his screen time. We hear the story of the play [the Legosi Dracula film was also based on this same play version], and go into costumes, sets, etc. We also find out that this although this film got decent reviews, it flopped at the time, a fact they attribute to that Love at First Bite had been released a month before and been a huge hit, making Dracula into a funny figure, and harder for audiences to take seriously.
Anyway, a quite good version of Dracula that manages to freshen the story and make the characters compelling once again—no mean feat, after all the different versions we’ve seen. You’ll certainly live if you miss it, but if you want a decent version of the tale—with a few major rearrangements—you could very easily do much worse.
If you want to see a quite good version of the tale that is not the Legosi version.