Monday, February 23, 2009

Dracula '79

Night Fever: Frank Langella oozes an oily charm as Dracula. His seductions are aided by the smoke machine that follows him around.

This movie came up in my Tivo's fortnightly scan for Laurence Olivier. Though this is a dangerous period for his films since he was in the habit of acting for anyone who paid him to help abate personal debt, I thought it would give it shot since it also stars Frank Langella who is in the news these days because of Frost/Nixon. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dracula (1979) wasn't as cheaply made or poorly acted as I expected. To the contrary, the whole cast is excellent, the script, though not true to Bram Stoker, is at least intelligent and the production values are first-rate.

Director John Badaham (Saturday Night Fever) has a leaden touch when it comes to creating a gothic atmosphere with a gloomy washed out color pallet, acres of spiderwebs, bug eating coffin bearers and an elaborate insane asylumn set. Sometimes his effects connect with the viewer to produce genuine horror, such as the scenes of the madhouse in an electrical storm or Dracula crawling up and down buildings, but other times it all just a bit much. The most successful aspect of the movie is the relationship between Dracula and his intended victim/bride Lucy (Kate Nelligan). The pair have genuine chemistry and when she arrives at his run-down abbey for an ill-advised dinner the mood shifts from spooky to romantic.

The script moves the setting from Victorian era forward twenty or thirty years to the the early twentieth century to give more a leeway to turn Lucy into a headstrong, modern heroine. Trevor Eve gives a subtle performance as Lucy's fiancee, Jonathan Harker, who can't quite wrap his Edwardian man-brain around the fact that his girl would prefer to sleep in a coffin with the undead than wait out their long engagement.

As I watching the movie I got the feeling that I had seen it before. The love scene with Dracula in Lucy's room with its cheesy effects sequence seemed familiar. After a bit of research, I think I was remembering Love at First Bite (1979) which had a comic version of this scene. The spoof film had an inspired piece of ironic casting with supernaturally tan George Hamilton as the Count.

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