‘Do you believe in corporeal transfers?’ asks Abraham van Helsing (Sir Laurence Olivier) in one of the more breathless moments of John Badham’s 1979 version of Bram Stoker’s classic tale. Coming in hot of the back of Saturday Night Fever, Dracula was a surprising choice for the director, who had just made an icon from John Travolta; Frank Langella was the next target to sell to the masses, and we know now that Langella was to prove a great actor in everything from Frost/Nixon to Robot and Frank. So this isn’t yo mama’a Dracula, or rather it is; this Dracula dances, is chatty, sexy and anything but the animal automaton featured in most Dracula movies.
Writer WD Richter was also in form, coming in on the back of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and takes a radical view of the text by chopping off the first 100 pages. No estate-agency for Jonathan Harker, no trip to the remote castle, no brides lurking in diaphanous nighties; this Dracula starts with the count at sea, bursting out of his coffin to kill some sailors as his boat crashes into the rocks of the English coastline. The van Helsing family wake up to find that Dracula is their new neighbour, but social politeness goes out the window when the count moves into Carfax Abbey and takes a fancy to Mina (Jan Francis) and she winds up dead. Not quite dead, actually, since she’s now a vampire. Asylum-managed Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance) calls it right and sends for van Helsing, oddly-accented vampire hunter, but will they be in time to save Lucy (Kate Nelligan) from the count’s deadly, amorous advance?
Dracula didn’t find many takers back in 1979, which is a shame since it’s a lush, literate and creative revamp that doesn’t stick to the letter of Stoker’s creation, but certainly offers some fresh takes. There’s genuine suspense scenes here, the best of which sees van Helsing stalked by the vampiric Mina when he uncovers catacombs descending under her grave. For once, time is spent on the location, with horses, vintage cars and cliff-tops creating a very 1913 feel, and it’s a joy seeing performers like Olivier and Pleasance playing off each other. Even the climax packs a punch, with the count strung up in sunlight after being hoisted from a mast of a boat.
This Dracula has been hard to find, ever since I saw it on ITV circa 1982, and really is worth resurrecting from the cinematic grave on streaming. With a top-notch cast including Trevor Eve, Sylvester McCoy and Tony Haygarth as Renfield, plus a sumptuous John Williams score, it’s got the kind of sky-high production values of the same year’s game-changer Alien, complete with some comparably gory moments too. Written off by many as a failure, it’s arguably the best cinematic version of the Stoker story, and worth seeking out for those who love a classy literary take.