One stormy night, the crew of the cargo ship, the Demeter, which is being ravaged by the violently churning ocean, attempts to dump a crate that's meant to be delivered to Whitby, England overboard, when a savage, wolf-like creature bursts out and massacres all those aboard. At the Seward Sanitarium in Whitby, the storm has the inmates out of control and the facility's administrator, Dr. Jack Seward, asks his daughter, Lucy, to help. Lucy, who's spending time with her friend, Mina Van Helsing, who's been frail and sickly ever since she was a child, reluctantly leaves her to do so. Mina then sees the floundering ship and runs out to the shore just as it crashes onto the beach. The wolf jumps off and heads into a small cave, where Mina follows it and comes across a man who appears to be injured, lying on the ground. The next day, at the site of the wreck, solicitor Jonathan Harker, whose firm handled the sale of the rundown Carfax Abbey to Count Dracula, the man whom Mina found, arrives and meets up with Seward to inspect and deliver the count's luggage. Milo Renfield, a rather seedy little man, is tasked with delivering the luggage to the Abbey, and Seward tells him to ask Dracula if he would join them for dinner at their home at the sanitarium that night. While bringing the bags in later that evening, Renfield is attacked by Dracula and bitten by him while in bat form. At the sanitarium, as Harker and the others discuss what could've left such hideous wounds on the bodies found aboard the ship, and learn of a dead dog that was found with its throat torn out in the same manner, Dracula arrives and charms everyone there, particularly the two girls. He also displays his considerable willpower by using hypnosis to help Mina get over a bout of her sickness when it flares up after dinner. Late that night, while Lucy has a romantic tryst with Harker, her fiance, Dracula pays Mina a visit in her bedroom after crawling down the side of the house, and back at the Abbey, he promises Renfield, who's suddenly developed a taste for insects, a long and fruitful life in exchange for his loyalty. The next morning, Mina unexpectedly dies from apparent asphyxiation, with two small puncture wounds found on her neck, and Seward then contacts her father and his friend, Prof. Abraham Van Helsing. After Harker visits the Abbey to have Dracula sign the deed, he's jumped in his car by a hysterical Renfield, whom Seward has committed to the sanitarium. Following Mina's funeral, Seward meets with Van Helsing when he arrives, while Lucy dines with Dracula that night, becoming further enamored with the charming count. At the sanitarium, a mysterious, ravenous woman kills one of the inmates' baby, and Van Helsing is told that the mother recognized her as Mina. After doing some research, Van Helsing begins to believe that his daughter has been turned into a vampire and, when he is proven right, it isn't long before he learns that Dracula is the cause. Now, he, Seward, and Harker must stop him before he makes Lucy his latest in a long line of brides.
As you can tell from that plot synopsis, this version of the Dracula story is markedly different from the usual one in regards to character names and relationships, there being no scenes in Transylvania, and, most significantly, the portrayal of the count himself, but one thing is does have in common with many renditions, including the 1931 film, is that it's based more on a Broadway play than Bram Stoker's original novel. In developing the screenplay, W.D. Richter based it on a revival of the original play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, which had really caught director John Badham's attention when he'd seen it at the time (he claims to have gone bad four times). Exactly how much of it came from the play and how much was created by Richter specifically for the film I'm not sure (I'm sure they changed quite a bit to make it more cinematic), but I do know that the switching of Mina and Lucy's roles in the story comes from the play, as does Frank Langella's characterization of Dracula, as he insisted upon it when making the movie. Whatever the source, the biggest change that this adaptation makes to the familiar story is it makes it much more romantic, with the very tagline being, "A Love Story," and that does make it stand out amongst the other adaptations of Dracula that have been made through the years but I also feel it kind of hinders the story and the strength of the character, as we'll get into.
Another thing this film has in common with the 1931 version is that they both star the actor who was currently playing Dracula in the stage adaptation they were based on. In this case, it's Frank Langella, who, when I first saw an image of him on the poster and in footage from the movie, my reaction was, "Really? This guy is Dracula?" With his silly-looking, poofy hair and odd face, he didn't look the part at all, so I was curious to see what his performance was like. And, truth be told, I don't think he's that bad. I definitely wouldn't put him among my favorite Draculas but his subdued, melancholy performance does fit with this telling of the story. That's the crux of Langella's portrayal: rather than play him as seductive but creepy, like Bela Lugosi, or downright terrifying, like Christopher Lee, his Dracula has a sad, lonely quality to him, in that he's the last of his family and is doomed to live eternally, feeding on the blood of others because he must. His lines often articulate this mindset of his, such as when he says, "I too have buried many friends, and I am weary," and, most notably, when he adds to the famous observation of wolves being "the children of night" by noting, "What 'sad' music they make," describing it as being lonely and akin to crying. Also, Lucy talks about how much she loves the night, Dracula comments, "You take the dawn for granted... and the warm, hot sunlight," giving off a hint of self-loathing, although he does agree with her that the night was meant to be enjoyed. This lonely quality is what draws him to Lucy, as she piques his interest when she comments that she likes to be scared, immediately coming across as very different from Mina, whom he seemed to see as little more sustenance, and she shows interest him as well when she asks him to dance with her after their first dinner together. When they start to become very close after they have dinner together privately at Carfax Abbey, Dracula does give her the chance to go, at one point apologizing for intruding into her life, but when she lets him know that she doesn't regret it at all, he becomes determined to make him his latest bride, and after he "mates" with her in the film's most surreal scene, he'll stop at nothing to take her back to Transylvania in order to truly make her a vampire like him.
Like most portrayals, Langella's Dracula is a very charming, polite nobleman, one whose company everybody around him seems to enjoy during social gatherings (although Jonathan Harker isn't too keen on his strange methods of helping Mina get over a bout of her illness and when he and Lucy enjoy a nice, sweeping dance), but he's also unlike other portrayals in that he's not particularly cruel towards Renfield, promising him eternal life for obedience and only kills him when he tries to warn others of him. That's another thing: as charming as he is, and despite his more sympathetic portrayal here, this Dracula is still somebody who doesn't like being crossed and has dealt with many others who have done so in the past, warning Prof. Van Helsing, "In the past 500 years, Professor, those who have crossed my path have all died, and some not pleasantly," and later telling him and Harker when they break into the Abbey, "Do you think with your crosses and your wafers, you can destroy me? Me! You do not know how many men have come against me. I am the king of my kind! You have accomplished nothing... In a century, when you are dust, I shall wake and call Lucy, my queen, from her grave." However, this is where Langella's performance is at its weakest, as I never find him particularly scary or creepy (save for the expression on his face when looks in on Mina while hanging upside down outside her window), and he doesn't come across as much of a threat either. Yeah, when he grabs the cross that Harker tries to repel him with, it bursts into flames, and he does almost put Van Helsing under his control at one point, but it's not until the climax when it's shown how difficult he is to kill and even then, it's nothing special: bullets don't hurt him (even though they are hitting him, the effect makes it look like they're bouncing off of him, as if he's Superman), he impales Van Helsing against the wall, and he nearly kills Harker in his grip. And when he gets a cargo winch in his back and is hoisted up into the sunlight, his crazed flailing and snarling, as he tries to get free and avoid the sun, feels out of character, like he's doing a bad impression of Christopher Lee (Langella himself isn't fond of that, either).
Another thing is that I don't find Langella to be that seductive or believable as a romantic leading man. As amazing as that shot of him in Lucy's bedroom is, with all that fog behind him, I don't care how much he opens up his frock, showing off his chest, or how how passionately he tells her, "You will be flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. You will cross land and sea to do my bidding," I'm not sold on him because of just how strange he looks. This will probably sound very shallow and narrow-minded, and believe me, I'm no catch either, but when I look at Langella's hairstyle and his odd-looking face and eyes (I'm well aware he has a disorder that causes them to move against his will and he has to strain to keep them still), I find myself wondering if any woman would fall for him. I find Lugosi and even Gary Oldman, whose Dracula I'm also not too keen on, to be far more believable in that regard. And that leads me into my biggest problem with this portrayal: I don't like it when they try to humanize Dracula and make him a more sympathetic character. I understand the romantic, sexual quality of the vampire in general and this melancholic, longing aspect of the character has been under the surface in most portrayals, like in the original film when Lugosi comments, "To die. To be truly dead. That must be glorious... There are far worse things awaiting man than death," but whenever they bring it straight to the surface, I feel that it takes away from the character and diminishes his frightening potential, not just here but also when they did it later on in Bram Stoker's Dracula, despite Oldman's being far more effectively creepy than Langella (it also doesn't help that I found his actual performance to be really hammy but you can look up my past review for more on that). And as I've said, Langella's performance is so set on this characterization that, when it does call for him to be threatening, it not only doesn't work but it also doesn't feel right, especially when he's going all rabid at the end.
Dracula's abilities and weaknesses are played with a little bit here. As usual, he can turn into a bat, as well as a wolf (he takes that form more often than he does the bat), materialize out of a moving wisp of mist, appear out of complete nothingness, climb along the sides of buildings, as in the original Stoker novel, and has hypnotic powers, but, in regards to his weaknesses, he has trouble controlling those with strong wills, and while he doesn't like garlic, mirrors, or crosses, the latter seem to work only if the user has true faith, given how Dracula is able to set aflame the wooden one Harker tries to use against him at one point (Fright Night later made this much more concrete). Plus, while Van Helsing attempts to stake him at the end of the movie, it seems that only works for him; in order to free Mina from the misery of being a vampire, he has to actually cut out her heart. While animals are able to detect a vampire's presence, Dracula himself has a black horse that he rides that seems to be as unholy as he is, as it's also repulsed by the garlic Van Helsing left on Lucy's grave. And, most notably, once he's well-rested from sleeping in his coffin, Dracula can move about in the daytime, needing only to avoid direct sunlight, which is not hard to do since the weather in this place is often gray and overcast. Truth be told, this isn't the first vampire movie to do that, but it is the first to make that rule perfectly clear.
Early on, when I read up on the movie and learned that Prof. Van Helsing is played by Laurence Olivier, I thought to myself, "That's a good choice," and it would've been... had this been done back in his prime. At the time of filming, Olivier was around 71 years old, was extremely ill, stricken with a condition that caused him to bleed profusely from the slightest injury, and looks and sounds like he's going to keel over any minute (although, he lived for another decade after the movie). His performance isn't the problem, as he could still do it even at this stage; it's just that he's so frail and his voice is so strained, which isn't helped by the accent that he puts on, that it's hard for me to buy him as a real threat Dracula. He may know all of the vampire's weaknesses and what to do to impede him in his desire to take Lucy but, I feel that, if you take away the crosses, the garlic, and the strong will that makes him immune to Dracula's hypnotic influence, he wouldn't stand a chance against him, as proven at the end when he gets impaled to the wall and only manages to stop Dracula through luck before he expires. That's a shame, too, because as I said, Olivier's performance is good. He plays the added emotion of having lost his daughter and discovering what she's become really well (the way he cries when he impales her with a rod when she attacks him and Dr. Seward down in the catacombs is quite affecting) and he also comes across as somebody who's wise enough to believe in what everyone else around him doesn't from the evidence he gathers. Exactly why the circumstances of Mina's death and the attack on the one inmate's child would lead him to do some research into vampires is never made clear, as it's never mentioned that he's ever heard of them or has had any interest in the subject before this, but regardless, once he realizes that it's the case, he'll stop at nothing to both save his daughter's soul and to keep his best friend's daughter from suffering the same fate by destroying Dracula. His hatred and abhorrence of the count for what he is and what he did to Mina is summed up very well in the line, "If I could send his soul to everlasting, burning hell, I would!", which Olivier delivers very well and which puts him at odds with the utterly seduced Lucy, and while he's initially ready to give up when it seems as though Dracula has gotten away with her, when Jonathan Harker insists they keep after him, he keeps going along with it and doesn't stop until the final confrontation. All of this good stuff makes me wish all the more that they'd done this movie when Olivier was younger and healthier, which would've helped the character come across all the better.
I can't tell you how many times throughout this review I've almost called Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan) Mina, as that's usually who this character is but here, for whatever reason, they decided to switch them around (I guess it's not as confusing as in Horror of Dracula, where the character of Arthur Holmwood, who's not in this film at all, is married to Mina and Lucy is his sister). In any case, Lucy has a bit more to her in this version than this role typically does, especially in the 1931 film, where her purpose is to be little more than Dracula's main target. She's shown as a rather fun-loving, carefree woman with a zest for life, one who helps her father in dealing with the patients at the sanitarium whenever they're getting out of hand, as she's able to soothe some of them with her kind nature, and she's very close to Mina Van Helsing, becoming depressed and distraught when she dies, blaming herself for leaving her alone while she had a romantic rendezvous with Jonathan Harker and not wanting to do anything that would cheer her up. Speaking of which, in spite of her engagement to Harker (which he himself admits early on is a bit shaky since he can't ever get her to agree to a wedding date), she's immediately taken with Dracula, having him dance with her after their dinner together at her home, and her interest in the usual, which includes things most people find frightening, draws him to her. After Mina's funeral, Lucy decides to take up Dracula's invitation to her and Dr. Seward to have dinner with him at Carfax Abbey, saying that it's merely a courtesy while Seward goes to meet with Van Helsing when he arrives in Whitby, but, in reality, it's just so she can see him again. Following their dinner, as Lucy tells him of her love for the night and the sounds of the wolves, she truly falls for Dracula, staying with him, despite his giving her every opportunity to leave, and the next night, the two of them consummate their relationship in a very psychedelic, surreal fashion.
From then on, even though Seward and Van Helsing manage to slow her vampirism somewhat with a blood transfusion, her devotion to him and his personal plight is unwavering, in spite of what the others around her think, as she tells her father, Van Helsing, and Harker, "You dare try to confuse me?! Tormenting him who is the saddest, the kindest of all?!", and when Van Helsing tells her that he wishes to condemn Dracula to hell, she says that she hates them all. They end up having to put her in the sanitarium, where she struggles a bit with her two halves, at one point attempting to seduce Harker so she can bite him, only to slink away and cry helplessly when Van Helsing puts a cross in her face, taking it for her own protection. Ultimately, Dracula breaks into the sanitarium and fetches her so the two of them can escape to Transylvania, as she looks forward to becoming his most coveted bride, and she fights back against Harker and Van Helsing during the final confrontation in the ship's hold. When Dracula is destroyed by the sun, Lucy appears to regain her senses, but during the ambiguous last moments where his cape is seen flying away in the wind, suggesting that he may not be dead, the last shot of her is a smile that's just as enigmatic.
With a budget of a little over $12 million, Dracula was a fairly decent-sized movie for the time and it shows in the film's scope and art direction. The production design, courtesy of Peter Murton, is truly excellent, ranging from elegant and lavish, such as the interior of the Seward household during the dinner party they have with Dracula, to atmospherically Gothic when it comes to the interior of Carfax Abbey, particularly during the scene between Dracula and Lucy where it's filled to the brim with lit candles (if you look closely at some of the structures, you'll see that they're carved in the form of enormous, gaping mouths), and darkly-lit, uncomfortable, and creepy, like the mines beneath Whitby, the interior of the sanitarium and the cells, and the dark hold of both the Demeter and the ship where the climax takes place. The film also makes good use of location work shot throughout England, which adds even more to the atmosphere, with the creepy woods of Black Park, Buckinghamshire, the expansive, fog-shrouded, overcast fields of Cornwall, which double for Whitby, and the exteriors of the Camelot Castle Hotel in Tintagel and the Castle of St. Michael at St. Michael's Mount for Seward Sanitarium and Carfax Abbey respectively. One of the most impressive mixes of art direction and location work comes in the form of the wide shots of the wrecked Demeter on the shore, which are amazing in their scope and the number of people they have milling around it, and the shots on its deck also look pretty good. I'm pretty sure that was all practical location work and sets; if there was any matte photography, I didn't notice it (but then again, Albert Whitlock worked on the film, so you never know). The costumes are also top notch and feel of the period, with nice suits for the main male cast members, lovely, elegant dresses for the women, and poor-looking rags for the more destitute characters and the inmates of the asylum. And finally, the movie just has the air of a classic, Gothic horror film, with the classic-looking cemeteries, the crucifixes, the cobwebs, the old-fashioned lanterns, the lack of any real sunlight until the end, and all of the fog, particularly in the scenes where Dracula comes through the bedroom windows and there's fog everywhere behind him for no real reason other than it looks cool, which it does.
Unfortunately, as high as the production values are, they can't salvage a major problem with the movie: its look. By this point, you've seen that there's such a lack of color in the visuals that the movie might as well have been shot in black and white altogether, and, in fact, that was John Badham's original intent, in order to make it feel more akin to the 1931 film, as well as the stark look of the stage play. But, Universal not only vetoed this idea but they also had Badham and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shoot the movie in a very warm color palette in order to really show off the production design. As he was never happy with this, Badham decided, when the film was released on laserdisc in 1991, to alter the color timing and drain the color out of the picture in order to get it as close to black-and-white as possible, which is the look the film has retained in all of its subsequent home media releases. Unfortunately, this resulted in a movie that has a very murky, lifeless, and unpleasant look to it, one that, for me personally, hurts the enjoyment factor because of the drabness. While this look works well for the creepy, atmospheric scenes, when you have moments between Dracula and Lucy that are meant to be sensual and romantic or scenes set inside the much more elegant interiors, such as the fancy Seward household and the candlelit Carfax Abbey, it severely hurts their effectiveness, especially since I've seen how lovely they looked originally thanks to some screen captures I found (seriously, look at the bottom image here, which is from the original theatrical trailer, and then every other image in this review and tell me which one looks better). Not only that but, because of the desaturation, there are scenes that were darkly lit to begin with but now, it's sometimes hard to tell exactly what's going on. I may not be a fan of Bram Stoker's Dracula but one thing that movie definitely has over this one is it's very appealing to the eye. It's just a shame that this movie looks the way it does now, including on its Blu-Ray release, so who knows if it'll ever be restored to its former glory in high-definition? (I have read, though, that, by playing with the color controls on your TV, you can sort of get it to look the way it originally did.)
Effects-wise, the movie isn't exactly a tour-de-force but it does have some nicely done examples of both optical and physical effects. In terms of the latter, the most impressive is the matte painting of Carfax Abbey on the cliff overlooking the sea, courtesy of Albert Whitlock (as mentioned before, it's so good that I can't tell which are the optical shots and which are shots of the real location), and that's to say nothing of a shot early on where you very quickly see Dracula taking off into the air, halfway between bat and human form, when he attacks Renfield; his appearing suddenly out of nothingness; and a nice-looking moment where, when Van Helsing drives him away with the image of a cross, Dracula jumps out the window and, in a wide-shot outside the building, you see him disappear behind the wall in his human form and exit out the window as a wolf. The only optical effect that leaves something to be desired for is when Dracula is being shot by Jonathan Harker during the climax, which looks really bad and, as I mentioned earlier, makes it come across like the bullets are bouncing off of him. On the physical side, nothing beats the shot of Dracula hanging upside down outside the bedroom window like a huge bat, with his upside down hands clawing at the glass the way one would, and which they shot simply by turning the camera upside down. The same goes for the shots of him climbing up and down the sides of buildings (which they shot in a similar fashion), the water and wind effects of the storm during the opening, and a moment that I like where Harker tries to fend him off with a wooden cross, only for Dracula to grab it and instantly set aflame. And thankfully, rather than use chintzy fake bats, they used real ones, as well as real wolves for the scenes where he's in those forms.
Even though it's rated R, the movie has no strong language or graphic nudity and sexual content, so I can guess the only real reason why it didn't get a PG-rating back in 1979 was because of the violence and even then, this is hardly a gorefest. During the film's opening aboard the storm-ravaged Demeter, where Dracula bursts out of the crate before they can dump it overboard, you see his hand burst out and tear open a guy's throat and, when they're investigating the shipwreck the next day, you see that the captain suffered a similar fate but, while definitely something that would make those not used to it wince, it's nothing compared to the gore effects you'd see in a lot of the other horror films made around that time. As Langella played Dracula in a more sympathetic, romantic light, you don't ever see him with blood-dripping fangs, nor do you see any grisly close-ups of the aftermaths of his biting people, and the impaling of the vampires is also not as gruesome as what you saw in the Hammer films, nor is it when Van Helsing himself is impaled to the wall at the end or when Dracula breaks Renfield's neck by turning his head completely around (the dummy used there looks a little funky). You may expect there to be a lot of blood when Van Helsing is forced to cut Mina's heart out in order to completely free her soul but, actually, all you see of it is him making a slight cut with a scalpel and it then cuts away, and the aftermath of Mina's attack on the one inmate's baby isn't much either (although, I'm rather glad when it comes to the latter). In fact, the most actual blood you see in the movie is when Dracula makes the cut on his chest to fuse his blood with Lucy's and even that's not much. Besides blood and fake wounds, the film also has some notable makeups for the vampires themselves. While Dracula looks the same until his "death" at the end, Lucy and Mina become deathly pale, with completely black eyes and fangs, when in their vampire forms, and Mina, because she's truly undead, looks more decayed (however, in some shots, she looks like she's wearing clown makeup, especially in that bottom image). The burns that the crosses leave on their skins are also fair, as is the burnt, boiling makeup used to show the effects of the direct sunlight when Dracula is exposed to it at the end.
In spite of Frank Langella's performance, the "wedding night" sequence, the nice production design, and the okay makeup effects, the biggest strike this movie has against it for me is that it's so forgettable. After my first viewing, I didn't watch it again for seven years because I felt no compulsion to, as there was nothing about it that stood out to me enough to warrant a revisiting, and even when I watched it a third time for this review, I'd forgotten so much of what happens, despite it not having been nearly as long. I hate to keep bringing this movie up but, for better or worse, I can remember a good deal of Bram Stoker's Dracula thanks to its crazy visual style, over-the-top performances, and insane, grisly scenes; with this film, I'd forgotten a number of the scenes, including the big ones like the confrontation with Mina down in the mines, her attacking and killing an inmate's baby, or even that the character of Renfield is in this film! That leads me into something else: because it's based on the same stage play, it often reminds me of the original 1931 film, right down to certain scenes and lines of dialogue, like Dracula's mingling with high society at the Seward Sanitarium and the shots of him within the old, rundown interiors of Carfax Abbey which are the substitute for Castle Dracula here, "I never drink wine," "The children of the night," and the confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing in the drawing room, with Dracula explaining that he doesn't like mirrors after smashing one, trying to take control of Van Helsing's mind, and telling the doctor that he's wise for someone who hasn't lived a single lifetime. It's a good thing that Langella didn't try for a Romanian accent, because then I'd really reminded of Bela Lugosi's movie and even still, that's what this feels like to me: a much longer (it's 108 minutes), less memorable, muddy-looking version of a film that I and countless other people feel is superior in every way in terms of atmosphere, performance, and sheer classic-standing.
Another thing is that the movie has very few truly memorable scenes and sequences of its own, aside from that aforementioned surreal scene. If I were hard-pressed to come up with some others, I guess I could point to the moment where Mina finds him in the cave and his hand slowly reaches out and touches hers, the investigation of the shipwreck because of how impressive the scope of that scene is, the image where Dracula hangs upside down outside the bedroom window, Lucy watching Van Helsing and the other men Mina's heart out from her bedroom window (I'm really grabbing at straws there), and the ending where, after his apparent destruction thanks to the sunlight, his cape is seen floating off into the sky, making you question whether or not he really is gone. Other than that, few scenes in this movie stand out: the opening on the ship is okay but it doesn't have the creep factor of the 30's film, the scenes with the vampiric Mina leave no impression at all, and their chasing the carriage carrying Dracula's coffin and the little climactic struggle between him and Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing in the ship's hold is stuff I've seen done better in the Hammer films.
Think of this: John Williams doing the score for a Dracula movie. Sounds like it would be nothing short of awe-inspiring, doesn't it? Well, sadly, there's a reason why Williams' score here is one of his least mentioned works, because there's very little to write home about. By far, the most memorable part of it is Dracula's leitmotif, which you hear throughout the film but doesn't reach its true zenith until the "wedding night" scene and the ending credits, and it has a distinctive melody it and manages to sound both eerie and erotic at the same time, which fits with this portrayal of the count. Other than that, though, I cannot, for the life of me, remember any other distinctive pieces of the score. Even when I was watching the movie, the music wasn't leaving much of an impression other than it was often very erotic and only useful for the moment. Definitely not one of Williams' best and by this point, he'd already proven himself with his legendary scores for Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman, so I'm guessing he just didn't have very much to work with, even if he was doing it with the London Symphony Orchestra again.