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It's not easy to make a Dracula film. Ever since Tod Browning's 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi, at least, filmmakers wanting to create a version Bram Stoker's story--one of the defining tales of the horror genre--have had to deal with masterful precursors deeply ingrained in the public's consciousness. Even Browning had to compete with F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, the silent German version, and Murnau had to compete with popular imagination fueled by the novel itself.
Given a climate where nearly identical subject matter sparked many filmmaker's best work, it's amazing that so many later 20th Century versions of Dracula achieved such excellence. At least by the dawn of the 1960's, creating fresh, engaging, well-made cinematic interpretations of Dracula should have been next to impossible. Yet it's been done a number of times, and director John Badham's 1979 version is one of the better instantiations.
I won't bother to recount the story here, since most of you probably know it backwards and forwards. Badham's version, scripted by W. D. Richter, has a few notable differences, mainly that opening in Transylvania is scrapped in favor of the ship taking the Count to England. This seemed problematic to me initially, probably because I'm so used to seeing Transylvania first, but the script does make a few missteps in the opening 10 minutes, making the story a bit muddled.
Badham recovers with flying colors, though, and from the time we first see Carfax Abbey up close, Dracula becomes progressively more tense and increasingly wraps you into the story.
One of the highlights of many Dracula films is the Count's Transylvanian castle. Obviously, if the opening is excised, the castle's going to go, too. Badham solves this problem in a novel manner by effectively making Carfax Abbey the castle, and for my money, this castle is as good, if not better, than all the other Dracula castles, including Browning's. It's creepier because it's dingier, but it's also the most elegant, and has the most incredible architecture, from doorways that are the maws of menacing Green Men, to incredible gargoyles adorning the stairway railings, porticos, etc.
There are similarities between Badham's Dracula and Coppola's 1992 version, which would mean that Coppola was somewhat influenced by this film, but even though this is favorable to Badham, and Dracula would have seemed more remarkable in its day (in fact, I saw it at the theater on its opening, but can't remember my first impression that well beyond the fact that I liked it, as I was only 12 years old and my horror background, for context, wasn't as expansive), but from our modern perspective, Badham's version suffers a bit for the comparison since Coppola's masterpiece has trumped it.
But it's worth noting that the great, complex, poetic images aren't only Coppola's. Badham's film is filled with the same. From Carfax Abbey looming on a large hill over the ocean, to the ship carrying Dracula to England, to Badham's beautiful use of fog, to the graveyard and especially the scene beneath it, to the lovemaking scene between Lucy and Dracula against a background of red (for obvious reasons. Also note the end of this scene where their entwined bodies form a bat against the light), to Carfax Abbey itself and many broad vistas with surreal skies, etc. Dracula is a consistent joy to look at. Add to that the excellent, tight script (after the first 10 minutes), great performances, and direction that builds tension, and you've got an excellent film.
However, not one without criticisms from others. One criticism that has been leveled against Dracula is that Langella is too good looking to play the Count. I don't think that's necessarily a sound criticism, though, as much of the story's effectiveness comes from the romantic tensions between Dracula, Mina and Lucy. Arguably, this can work no matter what the Count looks like, as his mind control abilities could override homeliness, but making Dracula attractive is more convincing to me in this respect, and makes his attempts at mind control more subtle and suggestive-maybe he really can't hypnotize and instead he's just so charismatic it almost seems as if he can. Besides, Langella plays the role well, and his darker side emerges smoothly, the contrast making the transition a bit more effective as well.
Usually I don't peek at reviews before publishing mine, but while trying to look up credit information for Dracula, I couldn't help but notice someone saying it is unintentionally funny. I suppose you could think that in isolation, with the combination of slightly affected speech/dialogue in conjunction with the bizarre occurrences such as Dracula's wall climbing, turning into a bat, etc. but for me the film works beautifully in isolation. I can better see claims of unintentional humor more in light of Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It (in my opinion a passable and sometimes funny Brooks film, but nowhere near his masterpieces like Young Frankenstein), which works, when it does, because he so subtlely exaggerates many elements of the various Dracula films, just tweaking their over-the-top scenes one or two notches higher. Badham's Dracula is the direct source of a few of Brooks' funnier scenes.
For most of us, it will be almost impossible to not do a bit of comparison and contrast while watching Dracula. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but it's also worthwhile to attempt viewing the film as if no other Draculas exist, as that's the best way to see the merits of this version, which is loaded with them.