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October 3rd: Dracula (1979)

This post is the third in my 31 Days of Vampires! series for October 2014.

Dracula (1979) - poster

1979’s Dracula should have done well commercially. Director John Badham had scored a resounding success two years previous with Saturday Night Fever, and this follow-up effort certainly boasted star power, a rollicking score, and grandiose production design. But perhaps audiences had grown weary of fanged films: that same year Werner Hertzog offered up Nosteratu the Vampyre and George Hamilton starred in a comedic turn as the Count in Love At First Bite.

The film picks at the bones of Bram Stoker’s novel – we have Carfax Abbey, we have Harker as the real estate broker, we have a Van Helsing, a Seward, a Renfield, a Lucy, and a Mina. But the rest is kind of a jumble: Lucy and Mina’s relationship to the Count are more or less reversed. Lucy and Mina are not free agents but rather the daughters of old-fart heroes Seward and Van Helsing (two clinicians as played by Donald Pleasance and Lawrence Olivier, resp) – and Lucy, not Mina, is Harker’s intended.

Dracula (1979) - still

Cobwebs, fog – a great John Williams score – graveyards. Et cetera.

The Count himself holds the work together well (a good vampire always will!) – and it’s important to note Frank Langella had been performing the role onstage before this film adaptation. I feel like addressing Langella and asking, in dog-owner voice – “Whoooo’s a sexy vampire? Who is it? There’s a good boy!”  Because basically, this Count is a ladykiller, which seems to be the main point the film wants to make – not so much that other stuff about him being an undead monster. He’s got the charisma, the sultry voice, the magnetic gaze (really!) – and he’s bored and lonely. Looking to find meaning during his stint of eternity he first makes a snack of Mina then sets his sights on yet another “bride” – Lucy Seward.

But of course! Because the film’s secondary agenda, or perhaps the primary one, is to issue a firm and rather shrill referendum on feminism. Besides the clear patriarchal ownerships the male characters hold on the women in the film (including the young, tragic mother interred in Seward’s asylum – the only other female role of note), these women’s very corporeal selves are offered up on a chopping block: This Is What Happens, Ladies. Mina is too weak and full of feminine frailty to be allowed to survive – no fewer than four character’s state this, including the Count, to Mina, himself – and her dispatch-as-vampire is particularly incestual and vile. As for Lucy, her women’s lib streak must be squashed. Employing the lovely and stately Kate Nelligan, the film establishes Lucy as an opinionated, sexually-progressive woman – and then she is then seduced, bitten, held in thrall, and pushed around by the heroes in the film, who are themselves cuckolded by the Count’s uber-virile masculinity.

As for spookiness, there’s a little here or there. The most effective scene is that of the Count in the dead of night crawling upside down to Mina’s window, looking coldly in at his intended meal, and scraping away the glazing in a sickly, sneaky manner.

Because as handsome and charming as the Count is, he is still a bottom-feeder: urbane manners can only go so far when you’ve got to prowl around doing small murders for a living.

(Note to filmmakers: bat POV camera – never a good idea.)

Rating? A must-see for fans of Stoker’s novel or the vampire genre in general.

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