Dracula 1979: Celebrating Frank Langella’s Rock Star Count
The 1979 version of Dracula with Frank Langella didn't get the names right, but it nailed the cobwebs.
We love Dracula. Every year at Halloween we go down on The Count in rapturously horrific odes. The most romantic horror icon is based on a historical one, the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, the son of the dragon who fought the Islamic Turks as they tried to conquer Transylvania and Wallachia. The military genius and source of nationalistic pride for modern-day Romania died in 1476, 200 years before the Declaration of Independence.
But the polar opposite of the warrior count is Frank Langella in the 1979 version of Dracula. Langella was a sex symbol. The first rock star Count Dracula, he was fabulously glam. Like Bela Lugosi, Langella made women swoon during his late ’70s run in the Broadway play Dracula. As an easy shortcut, I will reference the versions of the film as the Lugosi Dracula and the Langella Dracula because both actors owned their films more than the director. I’ll probably still call the ’90s version Coppola’s Dracula, though Gary Oldman is by no means a bloodless slack.
Written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, the Broadway Dracula was staged against black-and-white sets designed by the appropriately named cartoonist Edward Gorey. The film was originally supposed to be shot in glorious black and white. Shadows lose their menace in the orange glow that seems to permeate it. The music is by John Williams, who in the battle between romance and horror, always errs on the side of romance, especially during the scary scenes. Actually, he doesn’t. That would be wish-fulfillment on my part. I believe a lot of movies would benefit from the forced perception of inappropriate sound. Williams was appropriate…big but appropriate. He diminished the minor chords to fit in all the scary bits, but simple harpsichord and strings would have given it a more intimate horrific seduction.
Langella was joined by stage veterans Lord Laurence Olivier and horror and Hammer icon Donald Pleasance, who’s helpless desperation as Van Helsing’s daughter chokes away from life is palplable. Olivier’s Doctor Van Helsing is the most evil of all Van Helsings in all the Dracula movies. Let me first say that all Van Helsings are villains to me. Here is a creature, man, beast or devil, that has survived 500 years and the first thing the scholarly physicians want to do is cut off his head and stuff it with garlic, or as in all film versions that couldn’t afford a decapitation scene, stake him through the heart. They say Dracula is heartless, but Olivier’s Van Helsing is a petulant crank, intent on some archaic scholarly revenge and the hell with history and legend.
Langella always said that his Dracula was a sexual creature who did not want to un-die alone. Langella told Us magazine at the time “To my Dracula, the bite on the neck is an orgasm.” Ticket sales soared, Van Helsing waited in the wings for his chance to neuter this bat once and for all on celluloid.
Langella went on to call Dracula “a dominant, aggressive force. He must have Miss Lucy or he dies. He wants what he wants and he doesn’t analyze it. Dracula as a character is very erotic. … A woman can be totally passive with Dracula: ‘he made me drink, I couldn’t help it.’ … Dracula seems to represent a kind of doorway to sexual abandonment not possible with a mere mortal. Besides, he’s offering immortality. Actually, I can’t think of a woman who wouldn’t like to be taken if it’s with love. If you take a woman by force and at the same time gently, you can’t fail.”
Van Helsing was the ultimate cockblocker. He withered on a vine of dedication and education, why should a member of the entitled class get to keep their hair until they’re well into their 500s? When Olivier goes up against Frank Langella, no one was rooting for the good doctor who lost an already displaced daughter. Women from Transylvania to Whitby, Yorkshire, England, cursed Olivier. His logic is flawed throughout and dimmed by something less than grief, judgement.
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Dracula is nothing more than some rich euro trash lothario to the shriveled former Romeo. Even as he gives his blessing to the count to pay respects to his dead, garlic-encrusted daughter, he’s lets his disdain trickle down his bottom lip like old man spittle. Van Helsing and Harker loathe Dracula before he ever shows his fangs. It might be alright if Olivier, just once, asked “is it safe” instead of going on about corporeal transference.
Dracula (1979) opens with what I always thought was a nod to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the bat flying in front of the camera. There have been many bats in the Dracula celluloid archives, but the bat in the Universal horror takeoff is the one that stands out most in my mind. The bat in Dark Shadows is also memorable and looks like it gets a cameo here. Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein also had the best transformation sequences up to that point. Dracula changing into the bat and Larry Talbot turning into the Wolfman were far more detailed than any horror film had been before. The bat-to-Dracula transformation in the Langella Dracula is no improvement. It’s Abbott and Costello’s in muted color. The wolf transformation through the window is better. It has a magic.
The opening continues on the boat carrying Dracula to England, skipping the whole Renfield/Jonathan Harker visit Dracula’s Castle sequence, which is a shame, that means no brides of Dracula. The Grand Guignol wrenching of the throat and the hatches battened by rats promise great things. Langella’s Dracula has not lost his common touch. Most people in his position would only travel first class. They might deign to go business class, but aristocracy does not travel coach. Dracula travels cargo. Pets travel better than him. You wouldn’t see the hearse-chasing high priced mouthpiece Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) busing his own tray at Arby’s much less helping with the bags.
Director John Badham based the movie on the play, which was based on the book, which a lot of people couldn’t get through. Like a weird game of telephone, Lucy and Mina’s names get mixed up. How this wasn’t caught during read-throughs, filming, editing, and dubbing escapes me. A printing error that wasn’t even caught after thousands of performances on stage. Maybe it goes back to some curse from Nosferatu, the silent Dracula that never got the rights to say the word Dracula. Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcomb, got screwed out of any money and the repercussions persist to this day.
Badham doesn’t mind updating classic images from the original Lugosi Dracula, though. He has a lot of respect for the movie versions. When Dracula emerges from the crypt, the first thing we see in both films is his hands. Lugosi eats spiders and Langella sucks seamen. Lugosi’s shadow caresses the sweet throat of his love, while Langella’s cold fingers reach out in a cold cave for a sexual conquest. You see his fingers claim Mina, the same fingers that will later claw painfully at the wood of a window after scaling a castle wall. I felt that in my fingernails.
Langella commands every scene with the offhanded swoosh of a cape. Even Olivier leers at him. He’d reportedly seen Langella in all his glory when they had connecting suites at their hotel in Tintagel, Cornwall, during filming. Streaking was very popular at the time. Dracula is, of course, the center of attention, all eyes are on him as he looks the women down and up, occasionally deciding down is the better choice. Mina’s lips may say “no no,” but there’s putrefaction in her eyes. Mina’s death scene always reminded me of Riff’s death scene in West Side Story. Watch them back to back, even the look she gives her father is precicely the surprised entreaty that Russ Tamblyn gives Richard Beymer’s Tony as he hands off the switchblade.
I like Langella’s reading of the “I never drink wine” line, but it doesn’t have the wit and menace of Lugosi’s reading. Langella puts in a dotted sixteenth note between drink and wine, but Lugosi’s languid pause was daring Renfield outright to figure out what was under that cape. There is not a lot of humor in Langella’s Dracula, besides the wolf call we hear every time the Count gets laid. Also, a little detail that always make me giggle. When Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is going to visit dusty old Whitby Castle, Dracula scrubs and polishes the place like you could eat mămăligă off the floor, but he leaves the cobwebs. While Lugosi hears the wolves, the “children of the night” making joyful music, Langella hears sadness. I admit I felt sad when I heard the bat cry in pain after Van Helsing hit its wings with the light.
Renfield is very important to Dracula. Renfield should almost usurp the movie from the Prince of Darkness. Dwight Frye is as memorable as Lugosi. His breathless maniacal laugh is part of our collective unconscious. You don’t have to have seen Dracula to recognize that laugh. It’s mimicked on the same scale as Dracula himself. Tom Waits’ Renfield in the Coppola film, while not an iconic portrayal, stays with you as long after the film as the image of Gary Oldman licking the blood off the straight razor. But in this one, Milo Renfield as played by Tony Haygarth, barely registers while he’s even onscreen. He starts out as a troll and ends up as a troll. I do like how he munches roaches off his cell bars though. The man makes it look so tasty. Too bad he can’t even get through the whole “Rats. Rats. Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red blood! All these will I give you if you will obey me” line without weeping in his spider porridge.
I do very much like the twist of Dracula staking Van Helsing. The old quack not only had it coming, but it was long overdue. You would think Hammer might have thought of it. I could see Christopher Lee doing it in broad moonlight. The cross also has limited power in this film, which I like, and it does double duty as a cigarette lighter, which I love.
One thing that always defied reality to me was that a feeble throw from an old man can hook the Count and carry him to daylight. Olivier could barely muster the force to rip Dracula’s clothes, much less lodge in his back. Take off the damn cape, Drac.
Lucy looks like she could be Christopher Lee’s Dracula’s daughter. When she goes after Harker’s neck, Nelligan transforms into a Hammer goddess. Nelligan lets her eyes do a lot of work, they beckon Dracula before he calls out to her. When Dracula dies and Lucy puts her hands on Jonathan Harker, you can see her thinking, oh well, I guess he’ll have to do. And as Dracula’s cape goes floating off into the distance, her eyes speak of sequels that would never come.
read more: Unearthing the Lost Version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula
After Dracula, the stage trained Langella put as much distance as he could from the character, doing song and dance routines for Those Lips, Those Eyes. Though Langella would channel some of the count’s energy for his magnificent turn in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, he worried at the time about the cape’s long memory. How it dogged Bela Lugosi until he died in 1956 at 73. Lugosi’s last words were “I blame it all on Dracula.”
Me? I blame Van Helsing.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.