Thursday, January 28, 2021 12:00

Revisiting Much Maligned Draculas

With all the film versions of Stoker’s eponymous novel Dracula out there, it goes without saying that some versions are going to be better-received than others. Even those that do very well, like the classic Hammer spins on the story, are always going to have their detractors. That said, some versions have received more knocks than others and not always fairly, in this blogger’s humble opinion. Two of my favourite Dracula films – namely, Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) and John Badham’s Dracula (also 1979) – did poorly upon their respective releases, and their reputations have only very slowly recovered since then. I’d like to spend a few moments joining in with their defenders, as I believe that each have masses to recommend them and, ultimately, I rate them highly amongst the huge number of Draculas I’ve seen to date.

Nosferatu (1979)

An obvious criticism of the 70s remake is, of course, that as such a seminal classic of cinema Nosferatu didn’t really need to be reworked. You could still make an argument for that, although of course Murnau’s ‘exhaustive borrowing’ from the Stoker novel landed him in hot water with Stoker’s then still-living widow, very nearly leading to all copies of the film being destroyed for copyright violation. I think the remake’s biggest genuine stumbling block has always been that it falls between two fairly divergent genres: too arthouse for the horror buffs, too grisly for the arthaus crowd. It has that sort of dreamy, ponderous pace that as a horror fan you’re most likely to be able to tolerate if you like French contemporaries such as Jean Rollin, and probably not at all if you’re a gorehound, as the film has very little blood. I am a Rollin fan (in amuse-bouche sized doses) and I can live without masses of the ol’ scarlet stuff in my films and so, having seen Herzog’s film for the first time recently, I really loved it…

The first reason is incredibly shallow I know, but I thought that Isabelle Adjani (as the amalgamated figure of Lucy Harker, wife of Jonathan) was just spellbinding. She has just the sort of monochrome good looks that Pola Negri and Theda Bara made popular in the old silent films, and yet she looks somehow enduringly 70s as well. All wrapped up in turn-of-the-century clothes, another weakness of mine!

She’s not just gorgeous though – I like the fact that, as in Badham’s Dracula, here we have a Lucy character who actively engages with what’s going on around her.  Of course, in the novel Lucy Westenra has to go all Bloofer Lady before she can make her way in the world, but I like the fact that, as there has yet to be a direct adaptation of the novel, one of the changes made here has been to show Lucy being more than a two-dimensional being. She moves from being a very pliant Victorian lady to actively trying to combat ‘die Peste’ which is taking over her homeland.

Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula is great and also deserves a mention, as here we have an underrated (and delightfully eccentric) actor playing Dracula as a purposeful yet lovelorn (and Kinski-stylee sexually menacing!) character. The only shame is that Kinski definitely doesn’t need to be made up as a ghoul to achieve all of that, but this ties in nicely with the film’s overarching overblown style.

Herzog’s cinematography here is stunning. In the ‘Making Of’ documentary provided on my DVD version (from the Anchor Bay Box of Blood) he explains that as a German filmmaker he really wanted to get a feel of continuity between his film and the greats of Expressionist film, and I think he achieves that with this heavily-stylised piece of cinema. Lots of shots have almost no movement in them at all, being held long, like tableaux , and the use of symbolism is made beautifully – such as when Lucy is whirled through the town square by a procession of coffins…

The bleakness of this imagery is of course mirrored by the theme – of an undead nobleman spreading illness and discord through a new land – but most versions of Dracula have this in spades, before Van Helsing arrives to stake the offender and get everything back to normal. Where Herzog’s film differs is that the bleakness is never vanquished. No one saves the day, and despite Lucy’s sacrifice, the plague is still spreading at the end – with Harker as its new missionary.

So, a very artistic, arthouse spin on a classic horror tale with some archetypal performances and heaps of atmosphere; I really enjoyed the stylish gloom present in this film.

Dracula (1979)

What was it about the year of my birth, I wonder, that saw two very different Draculas both struggling, at least initially, to get a critical toehold? One possibility in the case of John Badham’s Dracula could be that the film just looked too anachronistic in one important way. Not to put to fine a point on it, Count Dracula’s (Frank Langella’s) wardrobe might have been a mistake. Lest we forget, this version was directed by the man who brought Saturday Night Fever (1977) to the world – and it shows here, where an otherwise engaging and sensual Dracula seems to be wearing disco-style white satin and wide collars.

It’s a style faux pas in what is otherwise a very stylish Gothic fable, full of stunning locations (Carfax Abbey here is awesome) and boasting an unrivalled, atmospheric musical score.

Frank Langella originally cut his teeth (pun very much intended) on the Dracula role on the stage. Success on the stage doesn’t always automatically translate into prowess on film however, and so it’s a real credit to both Langella’s acting and to Badham’s direction that it transfers so well here, with Langella easily able to work with the camera and none of the awkwardness which is possible.You quickly forget the outfit and see instead a three-dimensional vampire; Langella’s Dracula is someone who simultaneously displays charm and poise, acts as the perfect host, and yet carelessly vampirises Lucy’s friend Mina Van Helsing with a distinct lack of concern for her humanity. He seems to fall in love with Lucy (Kate Nelligan) though – and he admires her atypical strength, leading to a heady romantic interplay between them.

As mentioned above, Lucy (Seward here, rather than Westenra) is no wilting English rose. Seond to Dracula himself she is the film’s strongest character and she is never made into a mere stooge here. She can’t help but feel attracted to her exotic new neighbour and she chooses to spend time with him, using Victorian ideas of neighbourly decorum (such as accepting dinner invitations) for her own, rather less prim reasons…at least at first, Lucy is a willing vamp, and unlike her friend Mina, she never succumbs to the sort of mindless bloodlust which many Lucys portray.

Mina’s resurrection does provide us with one of the most creepy vampire scenes ever shot though, so we’ll forgive her for working to rule…

Click here for the clip on Youtube…

You’ll notice, if you watch the above, that this version’s Van Helsing is none other than Sir Lawrence Olivier – looking genuinely fragile here, as during filming he was not a well man. If Lucy is preternaturally resilient, Olivier’s Van Helsing is unusually hesitant and flawed – something which helps this version strike out on its own and contrasts favourably with the strength of Langella’s Undead character. The humans around him do struggle to contain him – as you’d expect, really – and this makes their final battle feel a lot more humanised.

So, the gradual resurgence of the Badham film is deserved – a film with enough recognisable elements to feel like a part of the Gothic tradition with interesting touches, not least of all a feeling of brooding atmosphere, brought to the screen by the skilled use of confident performances and smart visuals – collars notwithstanding…

3 Responses to “Revisiting Much Maligned Draculas”

  1. dfordoom says:

    I’ve seen Herzog’s Nosferatu several times, and loved it. I should pickj up the Region 2 DVD which is ridiculously cheap.

  2. Keri says:

    Yes, the fact that it’s included in a box set like Box of Blood speaks volumes!

    I thought it’d be your cup of tea actually…

  3. Rippermatt says:

    The original is my favourite film of all time, but I adore the Herzog’s take of Nosferatu as well. It’s wonderfully chilling and touching, humanising The Count without taking the darkness away or hamming it up like the Coppola version did years later when they tried the same thing.

    I love how the ending is incredibly bleak, too, and I’ve often wondered what a genuine Nosferatu sequel would have been like, following Harker on his post-Nosferatu journey (probably not as good as this film, but interesting none the less, especially if it was moved ahead in time to WWI or II, given that Ganz ended up playing Hitler).

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