A Dracula for the Disco Era
This essay on John Badham's 1979 version of Dracula was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dracula will screen as part of our "Music By John Williams" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, April 30 at 2 p.m. Admission to the screening is free.
The immortal bloodsucker Dracula has had many incarnations on film, from the grotesque (Nosferatu) to the to the grotesquely seductive (Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version), and from the urbane (Bela Lugosi's definitive characterization) to the menacing (Christopher Lee). Frank Langella's interpretation might be categorized as urbanely seductive, and this 1979 film was one of the first Dracula films to cast the undead creature as more of a romantic hero than ghoulish villain. If Frank Langella's billowing white shirt and feathered hair weren't big enough clues, the tagline to the film was simply, "A Love Story."
The film started out as a revival of the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Langella played the role on Broadway, earning a Tony-nomination in the process. Producer Walter Mirisch and his wife attended a performance of the play, and during intermission she turned to him and insisted that he try to bring the play to the big screen. Once Langella was on board, Mirisch recruited John Badham, hot off directing Saturday Night Fever (1977), and they set out to research Bram Stoker's novel to find a fresh approach to the material. Screenwriter W.D. Richter came up with the idea that Dracula would have been descended from an ancient Hungarian bloodline, and Langella sells this with his air of pedigreed grace. Rounding out the cast were Donald Pleasance, a veteran scene stealer, as Dr. Jack Seward and Laurence Olivier as Professor Van Helsing. Olivier, giving a campy, heavily-accented late-in-life performance, was so frail at the time of production that a body double had to be used for many of his wide shots and stunts.
The film was helped tremendously in its endeavor to make Dracula a gothic hero by production designer Peter Murton and by John Williams' lush orchestral score. Their work allows Badham to execute some truly bravura moments of filmmaking, especially in the scene where Lucy visits Dracula's castle for the first time. Her movement through the great hall is shot from a bird's eye view, and a silver spider's web is interposed between her and the camera. Another impressive scene is Dracula's nighttime crawl along the walls of Carfax Abbey into the bedchamber of Mina Van Helsing (changed from Mina Harker in the novel). Williams' music plays up the romantic aspects of the story, drawing inspiration from the operatic score to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and imbuing the scenes between Dracula and the two female leads (Lucy and Mina) with erotic bombast.
While the finished film carries off the moody tone just right, the making of the film was certainly not without challenges. Badham and the producers often fought with Langella over his portrayal of Dracula, in particular Langella's refusal to wear fangs or to be seen covered in blood. Langella despised many of Badham's directorial choices, especially the smoke-filled sequence filmed in silhouette when Dracula and Lucy make love for the first time. Badham bathed the scene in crimson light and superimposed flying bats to produce something that would not be out of place in a James Bond movie. The film also ran into trouble upon being released the same year as a parody vampire film called Love at First Bite, which undercut the serious drama of Badham's Dracula.
Despite its failure at the box office, the 1979 Dracula seems strangely prescient to a modern filmgoer, especially in the aftermath of the decade-long obsession with sexy vampires that plagued the early aughts. Langella and the Dracula filmmakers tapped into the primal fear of unchecked sexuality that inspired Bram Stoker to pen the novel in the late 19th century, and over a hundred years later, vampires still have the power to seduce audiences.