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Dracula

****
1979

‘…arguably the best cinematic version of the Stoker story…’

‘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.

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  1. I have never seen this take on Dracula. I’ve always loved Bella Lugosi’s version. But after reading your review, I’ll have to give this one a shot this Halloween season.

    • This is much more of a modern movie that the 1931 version, and if you can handle a denonair count, I think you’ll dig this neglected take on the old story. Good to hear from you!

  2. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a “Dracula” movie. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen movies with a dracula in it, but never an actual Dracula movie itself.

    I do love the book a lot and a lot of the movies I’ve seen previewed have looked awful, so I suspect it would take something special to get me to watch one. More than Abbot and Costello OR the 3 Stooges.

  3. Every October we watch all kinds of old Spooky Horror and Gore – why is that? The rest of the year I might but October has us in the grips! (p.s. I just finished watching the netflix series MindHunter) I think the plague has affected my brain.

    • Mind Hunter is pretty intense stuff. I guess there’s a tradition of spooky stories as the long nights draw in…but then again, maybe the plague is affecting us all…a hoot horror should cheer us up…

  4. “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” Loved that sentence😀😀 Also nice to see you mentioning Frost/Nixon, that really was an amazing film, with a great role by Langella😊
    This sounds pretty good! Liked some of the scenes you described, especially the catacombs scene! As always, terrific review!😊

    • Thanks! I had a laugh writing that line! And I’d commend this underrated films to genre fans for sure, some proper old-school horror!

    • A matter of taste to be sure, and he does play this in a juicy way, but one that chimes with the book. But I can see why it wouldn’t work for everyone…

  5. I could never take this film seriously after I saw the stage production in London. Terence Stamp had taken over from Frank Langella and it should have been a slam dunk. But from where we were sitting you could see how all the effects were being done. The “highlight” of the evening was the clockwork mouse racing onto the stage.

  6. I caught this when it came out but haven’t seen it since. I went looking for it when I did a series of Dracula reviews a while back but couldn’t find it. Is it out on DVD?

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