At last! I’ve had a right old dearth of decent horror films to watch of late. Someone was asking me the other day if I even like horror films, as I seem to be negative about all of them. Finally though I’ve found a good one, and from an unexpected corner of the horror genre: the big budget studio gothic horror romance.
Okay, let’s get one thing straight, I like my vampires like I like my spiders, creepy, living in dark spaces and as far away from me as possible. As a young whipper snapper I was terrified by the floating vampire boys scratching at the window in Salem’s Lot and can you blame me? What doesn’t frighten me is the vampire as the tragic romantic lover. From Twilight to Angel to Francis Copplella’s Dracula, vampires are swanning around like midnight lotharios, all misty eyed about their great immortal loves. It gets right on my nerves. I want my blood suckers to hideous undead fiends of the night with weird contact lenses and terrible breath.
This big budget studio effort from 1979 is probably the origin of the vampire as sexy bastard, and yet despite that I kind of had a good time with the old rascal. Frank Langella stars as the aforementioned count, giving his best come-to-bed eyes to anyone who’ll look at him. The film plays fast and loose with the original story, starting aboard the Russian ship, The Demeter, we skip out the whole Transylvanian fun, as The Count, mysteriously only survivor of the voyage, washes up on the shores of Yorkshire and proceeds to get jugular with Lucy and Mina, plus a dirty old man for some weird reason. Okay, so its Renfield who’s in the original book, but I never understood what Dracula saw him. He’s useless as a right hand man, and in this sexy take on Dracula, ain’t much of a lay, so to speak. Jonathan Harker (played by the great Trevor Eve, in his first screen role) is still as massive a drip as he’s always been. However, this time you genuinely feel his jealous hatred towards the count, once he works out that Dracula is taking away his girl. In fact this angle on the story, of loosing the person you love to an overwhelming power, be it to love or addiction or both, gives the story a nice extra layer: Harker and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy, not just because the monster has kidnapped the girl, but because the girl wants to be kidnapped.
The film looks absolutely fantastic. The sets, from the mental asylum where Lucy lives with her father (an always welcome Donald Pleasence) with it’s twisting metal staircases and filthy walls, to the castle Dracula shacks up in, have a macabre gothic theatricality that are brilliantly shot. The colour hues are desaturated to almost black and white (apparently tweaked for the DVD release but still) with only the odd splash of blood red at pivotal moments to set the tone. There is one mad, incredibly dated moment when Dracula and Lucy first make out in front of a red disco laser and smoke machine that looks like its stumbled out of a James Bond titles sequence, but even that has a weird, beautiful charm. It also has some great dark imagery: when Van Helsing unearths his (SPOLIERS) dead daughter’s grave only to find she’s dug her way out into the mines below, he finds her horrible undead corpse waiting for him, blood red eyes and rotten teeth ready to bite her old man. (By the way Jan Francis is great in her role as the wide eyed innocent corrupted and transformed into a hideous baby-eating monster). Also, there are some truly beautiful old-school matte paintings of the castle and its surroundings giving the film some excellent, epic scope.
Then there’s the music. Written by John Williams just before his work on The Empire Strikes Back, it’s all suitably cinematic, although you do occasionally expect Darth Vader to come round the corner. But hey, we’ve got another villain in a black cloak. And Frank Langella is bloody brilliant in the role. It’s funny that, despite this version being based on a Broadway production, Langella plays it pretty low key for much the time. Unlike poor old Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing, who despite being one of the greatest stage actors of all time, can’t seem to tone it down for the silver screen. He’s all rolling eyes, hand grasping and an outrageous high pitched German accent. You got to kind of love him for it though.
There is a problem though, and it’s a big one. In fact its huge. It’s Frank Langella’s hair. Its an absolutely giant back blown quiff making him look more like an insane cross between David Copperfiled and Neil Diamond. It looks completely late seventies, not in the slightest bit from the Edwardian period the film is set in. Whenever Dracula turns up, for all of Langella’s steely-eyed intensity you keep on expecting him to burst into song or for some old ladies to throw their nickers at him. I mean, I’m not exaggerating here, it’s really, really big. And really, really blown dried with a lot of hairspray. And its really, really stupid.
But on the other hand, fuck it. Dracula is also a lavish, entertainingly epic, grand studio spectacular. It is pretty dated, but a lot of fun for it, and I haven’t had enough fun watching horror movies of late. So while Bram Stoker’s story may have been told a hundred times, and this version has been quite forgotten, maybe it’s worth remembering. Not just for the look and sound of it, but also for the big, big hair.