The following article was intended as the start of a series of articles, each of which was to be written by a different author and devoted to a different actor who played Dracula in a movie. It was originally published on a (now defunct) site in 2013. “In defense of Frank Langella” presents my contribution.
The audience can consider itself lucky to have witnessed a lot of great Dracula impersonations over the last 100 years of movie history. Still, if I had to pick a favourite, I’d choose Frank Langella’s turn in the movie Dracula from 1979. To defend my case, I will first take a look at the movie itself.
Over the course of film history, the story of Dracula and its eponymous main character have been interpreted and tweaked in many different ways. Even the versions that are closest to Bram Stoker’s novel still take a lot of liberties with the material. Dracula (aka Dracula ’79) by John Badham, ain’t no different for that matter. All the 150 year old “Dracula” purists who still wait for the ultimate adaptation, beware – this movie is not for you. It doesn’t just slightly alter the story; it turns it upside down: First, this version of “Dracula” is no Victorian period piece anymore. It got transferred into the Edwardian era, namely the year 1913. That the section of the book that takes place in Transylvania was completely omitted is another big change. Here, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) never left England and kept contact with the Count through correspondence. The most head-scratching decision is the name swap of Mina and Lucy. So Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is now Harker’s wife, and her best friend is now Mina (Jan Francis), who is the daughter of Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier)! I actually don’t mind latter change at all, as it adds to the drama and symbolism of the movie (more on that later). The three vampire ladies that serve Dracula have been omitted too. Sorry guys, you have to stick to Monica Bellucci. I guess most of the changes can be traced back to the roots of Dracula ’79, namely a successful Broadway stage play by John L. Balderston that starred – Frank Langella!
That explains why the whole plot is mainly restricted to about four different locations: On board the Demeter that crashes the shores of England in an eerie sequence at the beginning, the lush Victorian villa of the Sewards (Lucy’s family), the naturally ever-foggy cemetery and Dracula’s new home Carfax Abbey, which is now some kind of castle on top a mountain, whose interiors are a baroque conglomeration of gargoyles and other grotesque monstrous stone statues.
In stark contrast to that is the sobering and depressive atmosphere of the more functionally designed insane asylum where Lucy’s father, Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance, in a stunt casting as a psychiatrist who is chasing an anthropomorphic monster to protect a young woman) is working. That are actually five locations now, but you did not notice because I clouded your mind with my vampire powers. To prevent the movie from assuming the static nature of its stage play source, the makers inserted two car (!) chases. The set design is top notch and adds an extra layer of meaning to each scene. Overall, there is no lack of style and atmosphere to be witnessed. The score is orchestrated by the master John Williams and is a Gothic masterpiece that ranks as the second best Dracula soundtrack, only bested by Wojciech Kilar’s work).
The cinematography is positively stunning and makes every frame look like a (soft-focus) painting. The direction by John Badham, a versatile and somewhat underrated director, is just as sovereign and smooth as Langella’s vampire Count. Audiences back then sure wouldn’t have expected such a movie by a director who had just made Saturday Night Fever. Okay, maybe that one frame gives it away a little…
He brings an undeniable elegance to the film and sovereignly uses some well placed moments of playful visual trickery, like the scene where Dracula jumps through a window only to seamlessly turn into a wolf on the other side, owed to the wonders of split-screen.
In another scene, Dracula climbs down a wall head-downwards, and I am sure Francis Ford Coppola took some notes for his own adaptation.
There is barely a false note throughout the whole movie, apart from a few very obvious uses of the fog machine and a ridiculous (albeit delightfully hilarious) attack by a fake bat, which turns up in the movie from time to time.
The time has come to talk about the man, or should I say the monster: Frank Langella. What makes his performance different from all the other Dracula interpretations? Let’s start with the obvious differences: Langella insisted that he did not have to wear fangs, and you never see blood dripping from his mouth. I don’t remember if there ever was a Dracula before him riding a horse. Some of the vampire lore has been left intact. He still wears a cape and shuns garlic, sunlight and crosses. The vampires show no reflection in the mirror, strangely enough they are still reflected in the water, though.
So how does Langella differ from the others in terms of character and acting? First, the emphasis on the romantic and erotic nature of the story is bigger than ever. Make no mistake, eroticism has always been an important element of “Dracula”. While Bram Stoker portrayed the count as a cold and soulless monster, the novel itself bore an almost feverish note of eroticism by Victorian standards, which sure was contributing to its success. The movies transferred that subtext onto the character of Dracula himself: He became the object of desire. Each of the most famous movie Draculas mastered that task in a different manner. Bela Lugosi convinced with his wide-eyed overacting and his thick accent, just right to make your grandma swoon. Christopher Lee was maybe the closest to the cold killer of the book, but he still exuded the desirability of a powerful and determined man. Gary Oldman excites the girls with his elegant but torn Dandy-Dracula, who is not afraid to show his feelings and still manages to keep an aura of mystery about him. Gerard Butler? He had great hair. I am sure there are people out there who think Max Schreck is desirable, although I am not sure if I want to meet them though.
What makes Langella so special then? He is maybe the smoothest seducer of them all. Yes, “Smooth” is probably the keyword to describe his performance. While all his predecessors and successors still showed off some of the underlying aggression, he remains the one who is best with the ladies. Take notes, guys. There is still an underlying sense of menace about him to make him interesting, but his feral nature never intervenes with his gentleman persona. Both aspects of his personality are on par with each other; he is the most self-assured and least conflicted vampire count to grace the screen. He does not need mind tricks to seduce a woman: A short impromptu Waltz routine and a few suave gestures will do. The fact that Langella played the role many times before proves to be no impediment. He does not fall back into a routine; if anything, his experience works in his favour as it makes him look even more self-assured. Lucy immediately falls for him, and who could blame her?
Let’s take a look at the other men of that movie: The bumbling Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) is the typical example of a repressed male of that era in British history. In a very revealing scene, he expresses his jealousy towards Dracula, tracing Lucy’s attraction to the count back to him being of a higher social class just like Lucy, as opposed to him. Harker is just a poor lad who is unable to escape the rigid class system of that era, always feeling inadequate beside his wealthy spouse.
Dr. Seward and Van Helsing are both elderly father figures, whose last remains of virility were drained over the course of the years. Seward is practically living for his job and worn down to a nervous wreck, but is not willing to show any weakness in front of his daughter or Harker. Van Helsing, played by Sir Laurence Olivier sporting a hilarious over the top Dutch accent, is not a fully fledged vampire hunter yet in this version, but has to get into the subject matter first. He bears no resemblance to the determined, virile Van Helsing interpretations of Anthony Hopkins or Peter Cushing. The only forces that are driving him is the grief for his daughter, who obviously made his miserable life a little more bearable and an unnerving underlying propensity for religious fanaticism, that crops to the surface during the vampire hunt. When he and the initially hesitant Seward start out to track down the Undead, they resemble a slapstick comedy couple from the silent film era and they barely manage to succeed. The last remaining notable man would be Renfield, but he is like the Groundskeeper Willie of Carfax Abbey and sticks to his trademarks: Being insane and eating bugs. No marriage material here.
So Dracula has an easy game with those two exquisite British beauties, but his means of wooing are always gentleman-like, unobtrusive and come over as effortless. The ladies are not his victims, as they are more than willing. This also marks the first case where a sexual act between a human and a vampire is depicted, at least in mainstream cinema. Said scene is filmed like a dream sequence, with black silhouettes moving in front of red light that is cutting through thick smoke. Not surprising, as Maurice Binder, designer of many Bond intros, is credited as a “visual consultant”!
When Dracula is finally defeated (Spoiler?), we feel a little for Lucy, who openly mourns for him. But is this his final demise? An ominous sequence playing during the end credits begs to differ…
Frank Langella is the most self-assured and smooth, yet a little introverted and melancholic Dracula to appear on screen. Dracula ’79 is an underrated gem and Langella is a brilliant count. If you are in need of a sincerely romantic movie for Valentine’s Day, take this as my recommendation.