Sunday, March 5, 2017

Movie Review: Dracula (1979)

Dracula (1979) - USA/UK - Horror/Romance - R
Directed by John Badham
Starring Frank Langella, Kate Nelligan, Donald Pleasence, Trevor Eve, Lawrence Olivier, Jan Francis, Tony Haygarth

Though at times playing like a Masterpiece Theater production, this is a visually stunning, stylish melodrama crafted with precision.

The guy who gives new meaning to 'you look delicious' comes to England circa 1913. Of course being a count, Dracula travels first class; he looks at booking passage on a ship full of sailors is the same thing as a boat ride with an all you can eat buffet. Unfortunately ships cannot sail without a crew and the one he is on beaches itself, luckily though it happens to be in Whitby where he was headed anyway because he bought an old estate through a solicitor, Jonathan Harker. Found by a young though sickly Mina Van Helsing (don't ...don't get ahead of me) he calls her his savior and is so grateful that in short order he drains her blood and she dies. But just before he kills Mina he meets Lucy Seward and develops a lust for her, even against the jealous, dagger shooting gaze of her intended, Jonathan Harker (stop getting ahead of me), the concern of her father, Dr. Jack Seward, or the murderous conflict with Mina's father, Prof. Abraham Van Helsing.

If the preceding summary is confusing, well it ought to be if you're familiar with the story of Dracula by Bram Stoker. Even if you've seen other Dracula movies, it should still be confusing. Of course all productions of Dracula, stage or screen, differ from the book, most quite considerably. For a movie which follows the basic story of the book, this movie probably has the most severe character changes of any adaptation outside of parodies. The purpose, in my estimation only, for the character changes in this movie is condensing the cast to focus more on the story.

In this movie the only character who is close to their character from the book is Jonathan Harker. Although Dracula sort of counts as being the same character, any portrayal of Dracula as a handsome man is contrary to the book. Renfield takes on the additional role as a workman for Dracula before being committed to the asylum, and his obsession with eating bugs is just more because he likes it. The biggest changes are Lucy and Mina whose roles are flip-flopped; Mina is the young sickly woman and Lucy has the relationship with Jonathan Harker. Now to twist things a bit more, Dr. Jack Seward (not John) is now Lucy's father; you should be so ashamed what you just thought because Lucy is Mina and Mina is Lucy (oh me!). Additionally Alexander Van Helsing is now Mina's father. Got it? No...I'm not going through this again.

This movie takes place entirely in England and the only location where Dracula is encountered is at Carfax Abbey, though the suggestion is made that he has other locations in England. Though Jonathan Harker is the solicitor who handled the estate purchase by Dracula, it was by correspondence so they only first meet face to face at Jack Seward's home. Speaking of Jack Seward's home, it is also the mental asylum where he works.

The focus of this movie is on the relationship between Dracula and Lucy Seward, and the conflict which arises with Jonathan who loves her, her father who wants to protect her, and Van Helsing who wants to save her soul, though one cannot completely deny revenge on Van Helsing's part with what Dracula did to his daughter.

The production of this movie is high. Lavish sets, beautiful period costuming, a wonderful and highly skilled cast, excellent photography, and thick atmosphere. Dracula is threatening even standing still. He can lure you in with his charm, or overcome your psyche with his. Foreboding with his tall, lean stature, his eyes are piercing, yet he is every bit the well mannered gentleman, on the surface. Within his dark soul though is a frightening beast who scales walls as easily as a spider would, and snarls people in a web of deceit as a spider descends on its victim. This point is well illustrated by a top-down shot in Dracula's home as Lucy comes to visit; the shot is through a spider web as the spider crawls along the web toward Lucy just as Dracula enters.

The story is well focused and pieced together without missing a beat. It's neither Masterpiece Theater nor is it a contemporary horror movie, but somewhere between those two. Dialogue is plentiful which provides the actors plenty to work with, and work it they do. Terror is plentiful too from the imposing and powerful Dracula to the horrors of his misdeeds.

Being a period piece the movie loses nothing in the time that has passed since it was made. It may have actually gained something since. Originally, as I have read, the director wanted to shoot the movie in black and white for the atmosphere but the studio backing it wanted it in color. The color has been somewhat desaturated for the DVD release giving it a more austere feel than its vivid color counterpart that played in theaters.

My Rating: 4 Fingers

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Toxic Fletch

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