The work that prepared John Badham for his horror directorial debut and to direct one of the oldest and time honored plots in all of film history was… Saturday Night Fever. To say more about this particular obstacle would probably turn the reader into a laughing madman who eats insects. After Dracula John Badham goes on to direct War Games and Short Circuit. Not really a bunch of horror movies on this man’s resume, right? No doubt Saturday Night Fever, War Games and Short Circuit are excellent complements to Dracula in a body of work, but I’m afraid we don’t get a genre favorite out of John Badham. What the audience does get is some pretty groovy effects (and by groovy I mean far out dude), an amazing score by man about talent John Williams and a great performance by none other than Frank “the Tank” Langella.
The story begins with a ship rocking about in a vicious storm trying to make it to land. The crew of the ship is desperately trying to unload cargo including a large crate with the name “Count Dracula” on it. When they do not succeed and the entire crew is dismembered, Dracula makes land fall and bewitches several young maidens. From there it watches like any couple trying to start a life together. The Count buys a fixer upper. Makes a few friends and comes out to dinner under the scrutiny of his neighbors. The Count bites a few folks; Drinks some blood. Hypnotizes Mina Van Helsing and makes her his blood bag (wait… Mina who?). The families of the victims come after the count in an attempt to free their loved one of the curse of Count Dracula. Etcetera. Etcetera.
I am fully aware that the numbers of liberties taken with Bram Stoker’s original tale are many. Look at what dear old Hammer did to it. Look what F.W. Murnau made of it. Tod Browning too. And then there was Francis Ford Coppola, doesn’t follow the book either. Why should a movie by a guy who did Saturday Night Fever be any different? Mina Van Helsing was once Mina Harker, but now is the daughter of the famed, much lauded vampire killer; she’s moving up in the world. She is no longer engaged to poor Jonathan Harker, but Jonathan is having a bit of a fling with Lucy Westenra… oh excuse me, Lucy Seward. That would be the daughter of Donald Pleasance playing the good Dr. Seward. So I’m sure you’re like, “who cares about who bones who?” You’re absolutely right. I really shouldn’t care, but it’s not the first time an adaptation has put Jonathan and Lucy together. Mina has B.O.? How about we never even see a single shot of Transylvania? How about there are fucking cars in the movie and the whole plot has shifted years into the future. There are more subtle inaccuracies like Frank Langella is missing fangs. How about the kill scene? I guess since we don’t see Transylvania in this picture we might as well just kill the bad guy on the boat back to Transylvania.
Beyond the inconsistencies with the original story and even previous screen adaptations this films is shot beautifully. It’s dark with a layer of fog over every scene. Even the interiors seem to have a washed over, dark luminescence about them. I don’t think they were shot with soft focus intentionally but the dim lighting seemed to give that effect. During sequences of utter passion the audience is privy to the film equivalent of lava lamp animation with silhouettes in the background. It’s very much a Bed Knobs and Broomsticks rendition of Dracula. Some of the effects are clearly laughable. Take for instance Dracula turning into a bat. I don’t think I ever actually saw the ropes that were controlling the bat, but I’m fairly certain that my mind actually filled in the ropes because the transformation and flight of said bat were so poorly done. Even in 1979 we were able to do some pretty great animatronics guys. The friggin’ thing attacks Harker’s face and it’s the monster equivalent of Bela Lugosi flailing about with an octopus in the manmade pond in Bride of the Monster. Harker’s doing everything but making the wings flap. Some of the throat tears or puncture wounds hold up, but not overly well. And what’s with the the Salem’s Lot rip off? Scratching at the window. Let me in. Endless fog. I guess that shows where my loyalties lie. Universal must have given Badham a strict allowance.
I guess it’s important to remember that the subtitle of this Dracula picture is “A Love Story”. There’s no real lovin’ per say (no one’s getting’ it on) unless the trippy hippie animation is used to disguise some real nookie. At least Badham didn’t use the Beegees for the score as he did in his previous work. This time we get John Fucking Williams in a very memorable score. Is that a French horn? Haunting my friends. Most likely less danceable than either Saturday Night or even Short Circuit (remember Johnny 5 dancing with Ally Sheedy?... exactly).
You know what else really works for this film? Frank Langella must have his father’s eyes and his father must be Satan. He may sport a late 70’s semi-Afro (Frank refers to it as his half-fro), but when that guy stares at you, you can do little to become his blood slave. Good casting all around. Donald Pleasance is perfect as always even though you can tell they scripted him lightly and gave Lawrence Olivier all the good words. That may have just been a type-o in the script that no one recognized. Nothing against Olivier he just isn’t my choice for Van Helsing.
As a kid the cover of this VHS box had me riveted. My mother was adamant about not letting me pick it up because of the “love story” reference on the cover. Who knows… I might see boobies, right? You really don’t see anything good (read no nudity… really), and in a couple of years she let me rent it. I hadn’t seen it in twenty something years, but it still holds up. The boat scenes are creepy and despite the cheese of some of the effects and story twists we have a very convincing creature of the night in Langella.
This is a great starter film for young horror enthusiasts (get over the one ALMOST booby seen parents). Watch this one and then go visit the spook house at the Jersey shore and then show your kids the Jersey Shore and they’ll be truly terrified.
-Dr. Terror in perpetual state of nostalgia.