I guess the role of Dracula is kind of like the role of James Bond. Many people have played the character over the course of cinema history and everyone has their own favorite who truly defines the character for them. For me, Dracula will always be Bela Lugosi. He gave the role the right mix of suave and creepy. His is the iconic image of the character. Christopher Lee has his fans as well, as do Gary Oldman, and even Max Schreck…but somewhat forgotten today, and unfairly so, is the 1979 portrayal by Frank Langella.
This version of Dracula, like the 1931 Lugosi version, is based on a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel by Hamilton Deanne and John L Balderstone. The play started a long run on Broadway beginning in 1977, for which star Frank Langella received a Tony nomination for his performance. The film was directed by John Badham, fresh off the success of Saturday Night Fever.
This is the same basic story we’ve come to know from other versions of Dracula, with a few major changes. The part of the story that takes place in Transylvania has been completely cut. The story begins with Dracula’s arrival in England. Also, the roles of Mina and Lucy have been reversed…with Lucy being the Count’s ultimate conquest rather than Mina. Also, Lucy is now Dr. Seward’s daughter and Mina is Van Helsing’s daugher. A bit confusing for folks familiar with the original story.
Langella is very good as Dracula, but there’s no way around comparing him to Lugosi or Lee. He’s got the suave part of the role down, but there’s very little of the “monster” that I’d like to see in the role. Call me a purist, but the absence of fangs on this Dracula just doesn’t work for me. While I like the performance, there’s a bit too much emphasis on making this vampire a sex symbol and not enough on making him scary.
The other actors are solid as well, but I can’t help but think that Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence accidentally got cast in each others roles. Olivier plays Dr. Van Helsing, a role which seems much better suited for Pleasence. Maybe, the producers felt that his role of Dr. Loomis from Halloween(which he first played the year before this was released) was already very Van Helsing-ish and were trying to avoid comparisons.
From a technical standpoint, the film earns high marks. John Williams provides the score, and you can’t go wrong there. The production design is pretty amazing as well, even if we aren’t quite seeing it in the same way audiences did in 1979. It seems that current prints of the film have had a desaturation process applied, dulling down the colors. The film almost looks black and white, which is apparently the way Badham intended to shoot it, but the studio refused. It would be interesting to see an original print, with the once vibrant colors intact, to see how it affects the mood of the film
Though Lugosi will always be my Dracula…I enjoyed Langella’s take on the role. Oh, and by the way…Roger Moore is my Bond.