Vitaortus Character Guest Blogger ‘Lord Alexander Gregory’ muses upon ‘Dracula’ – the 1979 Stage-to-Screen version

By Lord Alexander Gregory (Scots/British; 35 y.o. old when turned in 1235) Sophisticate, business adept, ex-Templar and boss blood-imbiber.

1977 Theatre Poster and artist, Gorey

1977 Theatre Poster and artist, Gorey

When requested to pen my opinion upon a cinematic form of entertainment in the vampiric genre, I reluctantly agreed. However, I insisted it should be a film worthy of my attentions—I therefore chose a very special version of the iconic tale of Dracula. It is a strong contender for my favorite of all the options . . . thus far.

Actor Frank Langella photographed November 3, 1977 in costume as 'Dracula' on Broadway. CREDIT: JACK MITCHELL

Actor Frank Langella photographed November 3, 1977 in costume as ‘Dracula’ on Broadway.

In the latter 1970s, Frank Langella was performing on stage an adaptation of the Bram Stoker story and the like had never quite been seen—a vampire as a desirable, sympathetic character? Don’t misunderstand; I feel a certain personal satisfaction at such a prospect. But the perspective was somewhat new. After all, mankind had definite ideas about what a vampire was, and romantic hero was not part of the curriculum vitae, even in the ‘anti’-sense (Bela Lugosi was looking for lovely minions; Christopher Lee was all monster).

I believe one owes thanks to the inimitable Edward Gorey, (and Hamilton Deane’s excellent script). Gorey designed the costumes and sets—which, if faithfully rendered to film today, would likely be an instant success. By what means do I make such a claim? Well, I have been a theatre patron for rather a long while, which lends an advantage in prognostication of such things. But returning to my point, audiences were so taken with the production and Langella’s subtle and mesmerizing performance, that a film version simply had to be made.

Gorey's set design

Gorey’s set design

Here I shall make small mention of the divergence taken from Mr. Stoker’s book. The tale is significantly shrunken-down and simplified. Mina and Lucy switch names, for reasons not entirely clear. All the heroic young men of the novel are congealed into the now healthy, courageous, and sniping Jonathon Harker, who only assists Dracula from British shores. There is no action in Transylvania whatsoever. Also, in the book, Dracula’s ability to shapeshift into a wolf is barely hinted at, though he certainly controls them. I was quite gratified that in this film adaptation he chooses the lupine form more than once. By the by, it has irked me slightly to see the myth of the ‘werewolf’ diverge from its origins as vampiric. Regardless, the sections of the story that were chosen or changed work beautifully so that it may fit the silver screen without compromising Stoker’s vision. The sets and especially the costumes are exquisite in their detail. And while they are not those which Gorey designed for the stage production, the care taken with them is no less special.

Van Helsing jokes with Lucy at Mina's fresh gravesite

Van Helsing jokes with Lucy at Mina’s fresh gravesite

So, while the directing was all well and good, mostly, the acting was superb. Olivier may not have had an appropriate Dutch accent (though his daughter Mina—played adorably by Jan Francis—did when speaking to him), but his take on a slightly barmy and fragile Van Helsing was wonderful—particularly when considering how ill he really was during the filming. Donald Pleasence is perfection as guileless Dr. Seward. Renfield is played with treacly repulsiveness by Tony Haygarth—quite an excellent performance. Another notable was the brief, but brilliant portrayal by Janine Duvitski of the insane Annie. I quite enjoyed her. Even the beautiful white horse which tramples the vampire’s grave acts brilliantly.

Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, and Jonathon Harker prepare to undo Dracula's Handiwork

Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, and Jonathon Harker prepare to undo Dracula’s Handiwork

My only quibble would be the casting of Trevor Eve, who appeared as though he’d stepped from the latter 20th century into the latter 19th. It seemed an ill-fitting role for him and made it almost too easy to expect, nay—cheer-on a lively, intense young Lucy to choose the outrageously handsome, intelligent, seductive Count. And of the lovely Lucy (who really should be called ‘Mina’), one sees the nod at her feminism, capability, and brains that actually make her the hero of the original work. However I imagine there shall be some today that bristle at this Lucy easily dropping her virtue—and existence—into the Count’s lap, so to speak. It is of an old romance—the kind where man and woman waltz into their love, him leading as she demurely follows with sensual anticipation. But, lest they kill the romance with gender-role or abuse critique, look again with a discerning eye. It is Lucy who chooses Dracula. He already had Mina, but in this version, Lucy makes the choices each time. This Dracula never ‘mesmers’ or forces. He does with Mina, but not Lucy, who is able to recognise the loving, lonely man that resides side by side with the monster. He is a lover and a blood-drinker.drac3

And to the modern men who scoff at this version—those who find its romance silly or cannot comprehend why their women will watch it over and over, I say this: You’ve no sense of what a gentleman is or what women desire. You’ll likely never have this exchange:

Dracula: “I will see you again.” Lucy: “Oh please.”

Dracula--in a form many women (and some men) want!

Dracula–in a form many women (and some men) want!

Other favorite lines:

Dracula: “No drugs! You must not pollute her blood.”

Renfield: “I’ve been bit by a bat.” Dracula, as he puts his arm round Renfield’s shoulders: “Yes. I see.”

After violently smashing a mirror, Dracula says to Van Helsing: “I detest mirrors. They are the playthings of man’s vanity.”

Lastly, I will say that the bats chosen to represent the count in that particular morph—they were unfortunate. But then, one must realize this was well before CGI technology. Clearly, by the surfeit of poorly characterized bats through the decades, one must allow that it is difficult to simulate a vampire bat. Only the living article would do before the magic of computers and one suspects they are difficult to train. And speaking of technology, I have acquired this film in all it’s possible formats—VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, DVD, Blueray—and I’ll continue to upgrade as new options arise.

So, on the Vampire hair scale (Really, must I do this?) 5 stars. Langella’s hair was magnificent. On the vampire tale scale, 5 stars. It is, after all, Dracula. And on the vampire tale importance scale, well, highest marks. The Count is the King, is he not? This version helped open the door for the vampire to walk through as more than monster.goreydracbat

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