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Dracula (John Badham, 1979)


Director John Badham, following up Saturday Night Fever, the biggest hit of his career, went in an entirely different direction with his less than faithful adaptation of Bram Stokerís classic horror novel Dracula. This big-budget 1979 film veers from its source material most significantly in that its gothic setting has been updated to the 1920s. Cars are present throughout the movie and Lucy has been recast as a feminist law student, her role from the novel swapped with Minaís. In practice, this allows the film to function slightly more effectively as a romance, with the infamous Count (here played with no small amount of camp appeal by Frank Langella) looking at his prey as something more than a snack. Unfortunately, despite Badhamís attempts to increase the storyís emotional impact through a greater emphasis on Lucy, his conflicting impulses about what the story should be about dilute both the filmís central plot line and its overall effectiveness.


This heavily stylized film is rather hysterical at times and somewhat staid at others. Throughout, the showy cinematography makes the film appear to be black and white, even though it was shot in color. Laurence Olivier (playing Van Helsing!) and Langella each deliver vivid characterizations, but each performance seems tonally at odds with Badhamís somewhat strained seriousness. Indeed, from one scene to the next, this Dracula seems to flounder about in search of tonal consistency. Moments of courtly romance give way to overheated sex scenes which give way to extended car chases. Perhaps only John Williamsí appropriately overcooked score manages to lend the proceedings any sense of coherence.


Still, this Dracula has its moments, even if those moments tend to only work in isolation. Donald Pleasenceís presence in a horror film is always a welcome surprise, and he manages to lend credibility here. The overall look of the film is detailed and striking, even if it seems somewhat disconnected with the updated time frame that the director has chosen. Several horror scenes, notably those not involving Dracula himself, are genuinely creepy. If Badhamís Dracula is something less than the sum of its disparate parts, it must be acknowledged that many of the elements for a superior adaptation are present here. As such, however, Terence Fisherís 1958 Horror of Dracula stands as the most faithful screen adaptation of Stokerís novel to date, while Murnauís classic Nosferatu remains unchallenged as the very best.



Jeremy Heilman