Dracula (1979) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 5

by Jovial Jay

It’s been 48 years since the original Dracula but he looks younger every day!

The updated and modern adaptation of the Dracula story pays homage to the mythology and characters of the original while still delivering new frights and surprises.

Before Viewing

The trailer of the 1979 version of Dracula appears to be very similar to the 1931 counterpart, except updated and in color. It also plays up the sensuality of the character, with a more sultry looking “attack” scene. Plus there’s some sense of the new special effects, such as Dracula turning into a bat, or leaping through a window and becoming a wolf. Featuring Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, this appears to be a scarier version of the story.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Dracula (1979)

Dracula (1979) title card.

After Viewing

On a ship set for England, a group of sailors attempts to throw a coffin overboard but something comes out of it, killing them all. The ship crashes onto the rocks during a storm and is observed by Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis). She races to the wreck and sees a man on the shore who she makes sure is okay. The next morning the folks of Whitby England are cleaning up the wreckage. Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), a solicitor, inquires of Count Dracula (Frank Langella)–his client–to Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasence) as Milo Renfield (Tony Haygarth) collects the non-damaged boxes of Dracula’s to deliver to his property. Renfield is attacked by Dracula when he arrives at Carfax Abbey.

Dracula joins Dr. Seward, his daughter Lucy (Kate Nelligan), her fiancé Jonathan, and family friend Mina for dinner at the Seward house, which adjoins Carfax Abbey and the asylum that is run by Seward. Mina is taken in by Dracula’s charms and soon swoons. The Romanian Count attends to her and hypnotizes her. While Mina rests, Lucy dances sensually with Dracula as Jonathan looks on jealously. Later that evening Lucy sneaks out of her room to rendezvous with Jonathan when Dracula comes for Mina. She gladly opens her collar for him to feast.

The next morning Lucy is awakened by Mina’s difficulty breathing, and her friend soon dies of loss of blood. Dr. Seward notes two puncture marks on her neck, but downplays them. Jonathan has Dracula sign some papers for the purchase of the Abbey. As he leaves in his car, Renfield pops out of the back seat pleading to be taken from this place. They commit Renfield to the asylum where he spends his days eating bugs and speaking of being given other life by Dracula. Lucy attends a dinner at Dracula’s castle while Dr. Seward contacts Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) about his daughter’s death.

Dracula (1979)

Jonathan Harker looks visibly upset as his fiancee dances with this dapper and charming foreign nobleman.

A funeral is held for Mina, but when Van Helsing and Dr. Seward exhume the body, they see she has clawed her way out of the coffin into the mines under the asylum. They find her, pale and alive, and Van Helsing knows his daughter has become a vampire and stakes her. Van Helsing gives Lucy a crucifix to protect her but she soon is compelled to take it off. Dracula comes to her in the night and they make erotic love, as he feeds on her blood, and she on his. Jonathan finds Lucy, cold, the next morning (also with two marks on her neck) and they provide a transfusion in an attempt to save her. She attempts to flee to Dracula’s castle, but the men stop her and commit her to the asylum.

Dracula visits Van Helsing at Seward’s knowing he is dangerous. But Van Helsing’s will is too great and Dracula flees, turning into a wolf as he jumps through a window. Jonathan and Van Helsing go to the castle to stop Dracula, but are attacked by him even during the day. Dracula is still powerful if he stays out of the sunlight. That night Dracula breaks into the asylum and kills Renfield, and steals Lucy away. The men chase the carriage carrying the coffin with Lucy and Dracula, but Dracula spooks the horses to run faster and the car Jonathan is driving wrecks.

They make their way to the port many hours later and discover that the coffin has been put on a ship bound for Romania. Jonathan and Van Helsing manage to board the ship and find the coffin below decks but Dracula awakens and attacks them, stabbing Van Helsing with his own stake. As Dracula is about to snap Jonathan’s neck, Van Helsing throws a hook into Dracula’s back. Jonathan hits the controls of the hoist, and the vampire is pulled above decks into the sunlight and dies. Lucy has returned to her normal self. Dracula’s cape blows away like a kite as Lucy looks after it wistfully.

You do not know how many men have come against me. I am the king of my kind! You have accomplished nothing, Van Helsing. Time is on my side.” – Count Dracula

Dracula (1979)

The best use of color in the film. Bright red depicts the union of sex and death as Dracula takes blood from Lucy and she takes some from him.

There have been many modern sequels to Dracula (1931) that I could have been chosen to look at as a remake, and follow-up to yesterday’s review of the original. This particular version of Dracula was picked for two reasons: primarily due to the fact that it was also released by Universal Pictures, the production studio of the 1931 version (the others were not), and also because I had never seen this one. I have high praise for this version after seeing these two films back-to-back..

The Frank Langella version of Dracula takes the plot and beats of the 1931 film and enhances everything. It starts the action already on the way to the new world and continues the story at the end with the Count almost escaping with his new Bride. It also takes the tropes of the vampire film and uses them all to great effect. Forty-eight years after the original, no doubt audiences were intimately familiar with all of the horror elements for vampires so Director John Badham takes these elements and uses them to chilling effect or twists them slightly to make the horror greater–especially the mirror scene with Van Helsing.

As with the original, Van Helsing notices that Dracula does not cast a reflection in a mirror. But instead of a small cigar case mirror, this is a gigantic mirror above the fireplace. Seeing the reflection of Sir Laurence Olivier in the mirror, but with no one else in the background, makes it seems as if Dracula will just appear behind him with no warning. Chilling! Badham is also able to utilize more techniques to create the special effects that the 1931 version was unable to do. The mirror scene features a nice use of a dual set, one with Frank Langella in it interacting with the double doors, and the other–a mirror copy–has doors that move by themselves helping to sell his lack of reflection. Dracula also climbs on the side of the house, hugging the wall like a bat crawling on a rock. The 1931 film only intimated that Dracula could turn into a bat or a wolf, but this version is very explicit about it.

After the mirror sequence above, when Van Helsing has proved that his will is strong enough to stop Dracula from controlling him, Dracula flees the house–as he had done in the 1931 edition. In that version, he ran out the door, and true to its stage play roots, Harker looks off-screen and asks if that isn’t a wolf running over the lawn. Here we get to see the transformation in a very cool effect. You can watch the trailer to see the shot, but just as Dracula is about to jump out the window, the camera cuts outside, where the vampire can be seen through a side window. As he leaps at the large plate glass window, it shatters and a wolf emerges, while Dracula’s legs can still be seen inside. A very creative and simple use of special effects to sell a transformation that could have looked bad if shown full frame.

Dracula (1979)

Van Helsing once again confront the Prince of Darkness in a battle of wills.

31 Days of Horror has looked at only one other Dracula film, the 1966 Hammer Films Dracula Prince of Darkness, which is not a retelling of the Bram Stoker novel but a wholly new film. Stoker’s work has only been told a dozen or so times on screen, with the most faithful and lauded adaptation being the 1994 Francis Ford Coppola version starring Gary Oldman as Dracula, and Winona Ryder as Mina. But what sets this 1979 version apart from the original and the others is its sensuousness and romantic atmosphere. Langella plays Dracula as a strong and imposing individual, but also one that is handsome and lusty. It’s very easy to see why these women would be attracted to him.

If you have a chance to watch the original Bela Lugosi version back-to-back with the Frank Langella version I recommend it. Other than the change of the love interest from Mina to Lucy, this film enhances the elements of the original story without bogging itself down in unnecessary moments. It also pays homage to the original by having Dracula say some of his most iconic lines from that film. Stay tuned for further back-to-back viewings of a classic horror film and a modern day remake, as the H-Origins continue over the next few weeks.

Dracula (1979)

A new power first shown in this version of the film is Dracula causing the crucifix to burst into flames when he grabs a hold of it.

Assorted Musings

  • The film was intended to be shot in black and white as an homage to the original 1931 film. But Universal decided that would not be lucrative (even though other filmmakers had made black and white horror films in the 70s). The film instead has a desaturated look to it, giving it a dreamlike quality.
  • Donald Pleasence followed up his successful role in the classic 1978 film Halloween with this role.
  • While many Universal Monster films have been remade or rebooted between 1979 and the present (with The Mummy getting the most films), this is the only Universal Pictures version of Dracula since the films of the 30s and 40s. A new version, part of Universal’s “Dark Universe” is supposedly in the works.

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