So largely and sadly flawed, Dracula is still a protean and beautiful achievement. From the moment
that John Williams’ eerie five-note horn theme rises above the sound of a ship’s hull being torn apart in a storm and Dracula, leaving the throat-gashed crew, is washed up on the Yorkshire coast, the movie holds you in thrall. Visually, it’s everything you could want: the shadow play is as delicate as the inside of a rose petal after rain—suggestive, sensual and, strangely, unsettling. And Frank Langella as Dracula is
incandescent, his eyes burning coals of desire, his sonorous stage voice mesmeric. He sounds like a young James Mason and in his piercing look is the arrogant agony of the vampire. In his decaying palace of cobwebs and candles, he confesses to Kate Nelligan over dinner that he’s the last of his kind. It’s one of the most wonderful scenes in movie history: the candles flicker, her moist lips part, the promise of blood about to flow is palpable—a moment of erotic splendor.
John Badham has the makings of a great director. He’s a master of atmosphere and his crosscutting narrative techniques as Dracula is being hunted down by Van Heising (Lawrence Olivier), whose daughter he turned into one of the undead, are peerless. He handles his camera like a master: there’s one magnificent shot where the camera rises from the ground behind a coffin to reveal a tableau of mourners out of an illustration by Edward Gorey, who did the sets for the Broadway play. But when Langella first bites into Nelligan’s neck, it’s as though Badham remembered he directed Saturday Night Fever and the screen turns into psychedelic nightmare. There are outrageous anachronisms: Langella scaling a wall to get into a window when all he needs to do is fly; Van Helsing’s vampire daughter’s reflection showing in a muddy puddle (vampires don’t have reflections); and Dracula’s demise where, hoisted from the hold of a ship into the fatal, glaring sun, he decomposes but still manages to fly away as a bat!
The jokey script by W.D. Richter (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) works against the grain of the genre, the contemporary, tongue-in-cheek humor more suited to San Francisco than Yorkshire. As Dracula’s nemesis, Olivier trots out yet another accent: only the recognition scene with his undead daughter (who by this time looks remarkably like Linda Blair) is moving— but then one can’t cry in an accent. As Nelligan’s father who is the head of a loony bin, Donald Pleasence still plays Donald Pleasence better than anyone else.
Dracula is a magnificent failure—a great folly. If only Badham had made the movie he should have made, without lapsing occasionally and trying to make Teeth. Lawrence O’Toole
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