Cult Movie: Frank Langella's 1979 take on Count Dracula isn't quite on the money

Frank Langella in the 1979 version of Dracula, directed by John Badman
Ralph McLean

Dracula (1979)

DRACULA has risen on our cinema screens more than most literary creations. From Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee, we've had classic movie representations of the Count and, thanks to the likes of Gary Oldman, who added several layers of thickly cut and badly over-cooked ham to the character in Francis Ford Copolla's 1993 adaptation, some slightly less impressive stabs at Bram Stoker's blood-sucking aristocrat.

Frank Langella's take from 1979 falls somewhere in between the two. Director John Badman's Dracula was based on the hugely successful Broadway stage version of the story that Langella had starred in to great acclaim. Transferring the gothic thrills of the theatre production on to the big screen wasn't as easy as it probably seemed at the time.

Attempting a wildly romantic take on Stoker's novel with all the windswept overplaying that entails was a brave move but one that doesn't really, in hindsight at least, work. Langella is charm personified as Dracula here, all swoony eyes and sweeping romantic gestures, but he lacks the slightly edgy, animalistic attraction that made Lee and, to a much lesser extent, Lugosi so effective in the role.

While Langella has trouble convincing on the horror front, Laurence Olivier is just plain wrong as the vampire's arch enemy Van Helsing. Fey, stilted and bored, quite frankly, he comes across as positively anaemic in a role that Peter Cushing had made his own for Hammer in the 50s and later.

There is much to enjoy here, though, and the big budget that's been thrown at Badman's vision does mean it's a sumptuous film to look at. The set design screams gothic opulence and John Williams provides an epic, surging score that perfectly mirrors the deep romantic swells on the very traditional storyline.

That storyline is slow and involved but often that's part of the great Dracula tradition. The recent wildly disappointing BBC adaption from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat clearly showed that messing about with the tradition too much is a recipe for disaster. But, that said, this 1979 take remains a little too faithful to Stoker's writing to really set it apart from the crowd.

There's a fine heavyweight cast to savour here, with the likes of Donald Pleasence, Jan Francis and Trevor Eve (who would have been enjoying huge success as Shoestring on our telly screens at around this time) all fighting for screen time alongside the enigmatic Langella and the frankly bewildered Olivier.

The freshly issued Blu-ray from Shout Factory certainly delivers though with a brace of versions of the film offered, which means the full colour one that made it on to cinema screens in 79 sits proudly side by side with the director's preferred desaturated edition which gives the movie a darker and much moodier look.

Plush, extravagant and overblown as this production is, it can't really hold a candle to the truly great Dracula adaptations from several decades earlier. Despite the money thrown at it, it all feels a little underwhelming and while Lagella is good, it's safe to say Christopher Lee can rest easy in his coffin for now.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access