A Reassessment of DRACULA (1979)

Bram Stoker’s character has become Shakespearean in scope.  Each characterization fits a mood or time in society when the work or the production is done.   I approached this picture with some doubt as I had initially poor memories of it in the cinema.  Viewing it again on DVD was a very pleasant surprise.

The Dracula film story is so well known it is not worth repeating here. What is important to note is that this version is a new look at the Broadway play by John L Balderson and Hamilton Deane. Frank Langella appeared in the lead role in New York.  Bela Lugosi did the same play in the late twenties and Langella duplicated Lugosi’s journey to Universal Studios to appear in the film.  The intriguing thing about this version is the difference and how effective they were.

The picture opens with stirring sequences on the Demeter ship bound for England instead of Dracula’s castle.  The storm features crashes and lighting pulled right from Universal Studios’ classic Horror vault.  Horrid goings on are a foot as the ship lands.


Lucy Westenra is introduced, as portrayed by Canadian actor Kate Nelligan, and Mina Harker (Jan Francis). One instantly sees the relationship between the two women and its similarity to the book.  Like the Lugosi film, the roles are reversed as Lucy is the daring one in the book and Mina is the pragmatic.  It’s Mina that ventures out into the storm while Lucy stays inside.

Renfield is not onboard the ship when Dracula comes ashore in the form of a wolf as in the Stoker book. He is found by Mina Harker (Jan Francis) in a cave. A very gothic sequence in the rain, with the cliff side graves, climaxed with a clutching hand reaching for salvation. A homage to Universal Studios FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943), when the Frankenstein monster is found in an ice cave. Many moments echo that now classic series, particularly Dracula’s hand movements.

Frank Langella gives a strong romantic interpretation to his Dracula. Langella wanted to be different then Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and he achieved that quite well.  His Dracula is a romantic ruthless figure, very precise in his movements and his expressions.  Langella’s Dracula glides through scenes like the spirit he is, flowingly takes off his cape, and rides a horse with style.

Langella’s expression rarely changes and the diction doesn’t lose its silky venom tone, but his eyes tell the story.  The eyes are wide open all the time, much like a bat’s, taking in everything he sees with vast intelligence. When his gaze locks on someone like Mina in a brief, hypnotic scene to relieve her headache, it is powerful in its effect.   Lucy notes that Mina’s headache may be cured but she has lost her will.  Dracula shifts his gaze to her and something passes between them, setting up the events to come.

The surrounding characters (like in the book) are acted upon with great relish.  Donald Pleasance as Doctor Jack Seward, who runs the asylum near Carfax Abby, is steadfast and true to his beliefs no matter how ignorant they are of the reality.  Pleasance is eating something in most every scene he is in; be it  candies in the graveyard stalking scene to slurping a plate of runny eggs the morning of  Mina’s funeral.  He even exclaims “Food!” to Dracula and heads off to the dining room when the Count is visiting him for the first time.



Canadian born Kate Nelligan shines in the role as Lucy Westenra.  Nelligan give her Lucy a strong moral backbone yet indulges in a romantic tryst with Jonathon Harker while Mina is visited for the last time by Dracula. Reminds me of how Barbara Shelly as Helen Kent changed in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966). Helen is stand offish, demanding they follow their prescribed route for vacation, even doubting Father Sandor when he tells them to avoid a Castle that is not listed in the guide book. Helen becomes rampantly sexualized in her dress and movements when she comes under Dracula’s influence.


Kate Nelligan does much the same except she is more physical, as in the moment when she has to be held down by several men who are preventing her from going to warn Dracula.  When the curse of vampirism takes hold in the cells she is confided to in the asylum, Nelligan is a seductive beast who appeals to Jonathon. She is only stopped by the intervention of the cross.  I suggest that Kate Nelligan is one of the best of the stylish vampire victims in cinema.

Laurence Olivier is a strong figure as Van Helsing, who, in this version, is the father of Mina.  He speaks with an accent of age and has a hint of mysticism about him.  He know arcane facts and how to deal with what is at hand, yet he is slow to convince others. Van Helsing gets a white mare to walk upon the graves at night and as legend has it, will stamp its hoofs in to the resting pace of the vampire.  Gothic  moment  lovingly  photographed in fog and  dark with a white horse pacing, then shifting,  finally reacting violently on a particular  grave  confirming what is  known,   Van Helsing gave the picture one of its best moments when he descends into the mining tunnels below the graveyard  to confront Lucy, who he first sees in a  brief reflection in water.


DRACULA (1979) is photographed stylishly in Cornwall U.K. and Shepperton Studios.  The music is one of John Williams’s most underrated scores, featuring horns and lush strings with flowing melodies in the grand style of the romantic era. Less bombastic than the early Hammer Dracula score, leaning to TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970) in tone. The score can also be subtle, particularly the last notes of the end credits. The audience is sent off with a warm feeling.

The picture also features sequences of the Count crawling bat like down a wall. Unfortunately, one of those sequences has an unintentionally funny shot of Langella upside down, looking in a window.

The picture introduced some new elements such as Jonathan Harker driving an automobile, the use of mysticism in sequences and subtle humor.  Dr Seward asks Renfield to invite the Count to dinner “when he rises.”   There are plenty of homages to Universal and Hammer studios with Dracula’s spider like hand movements, similar to Lugosi’s.  Kate Nelligan’s Lucy gets to race a cart along the roads a la Peter Cushing in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964).

I would have enjoyed a brief Castle sequence in Transylvania. The three vampire brides are missing as well.  Renfield could stand more development; he is a somewhat pivotal figure in the book.

The sets are well done, especially Dr Seward’s sanitarium with much period detail in the actions of the patients. Dracula’s Carfax Abby is not a desolate ruin with cobwebs but a dark, dank place lit by huge phallic candles when Mina visits.

DRACULA (1979) works right up to the end moments of which I leave that to your discretion to make of it what your will along with Mina’s utterly delicious smile.

The version is an update of the Lugosi film and stands for me above that which will not be named by Francis Coppola.  The picture has stylish wit, love, sex and death and yes, there is blood.   Dracula’s blood will flow through her veins.

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