Color, 1979, 109 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by John Badham
Starring Frank Langella, Kate Nelligan, Laurence Olivier, Trevor Eve, Donald Pleasence, Jan Francis
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Universal, Image Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

In Draculathe very crowded vampire movie Draculayear of 1979, the biggest studio production of them all was this lavish adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula as filtered through the same stage production by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston that gave birth to Bela Lugosi's legendary portrayal. In this case the title role of Dracula was played by Frank Langella, who had made a tremendous impression on Broadway in a revival of the play featuring striking black-and-white sets designed by the great Edward Gorey. The resulting film from Universal proved to be divisive due to its significant changes from the familiar story ended up underperforming at the box office despite a major publicity push (along with its other big horror release soon after, The Legacy); however, it deservedly earned a number of admirers and made a strong impression among younger horror fans at the time. Now easier to appreciate when it isn't lost in the tide of other vampire films around the same time (like Love at First Bite, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Salem's Lot, etc.), this visually stunning and still underappreciated gem stands as a fine example of big budget classic horror done well.

On a dark and stormy night, a ship crashes on the English coast with no survivors apart from a wolf creature seen tearing in the rain at the Draculathroats Draculaof the crew. In a beach cave the wolf transforms into Dracula (Langella) and is discovered by Mina van Helsing (Francis), who is staying nearby with her best friend, Lucy (Nelligan). The following day, the gruesome wreckage is investigated by Lucy's father, Dr. Seward (Pleasence), who runs the local asylum, and her fiancé, Jonathan Harker (Eve). That evening all of them welcome a new arrival, Dracula himself, who has just purchased the dilapidated and cobweb-filled Carfax Abbey nearby. Soon Mina becomes deathly ill due to lack of blood, and her father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Olivier), is called in for help when it becomes clear that something unearthly poses a threat to them all.

Much was made at the time of the then novel approach of turning Dracula into a romantic figure with heavy emphasis on his seduction of Lucy (complete with a blood-red laser show love scene designed by Maurice Binder, but hey, this was the year of Moonraker), though aspects of that approach can be traced all the way back to Lugosi's exotic and rather eroticized portrayal as well. In fact, many of the "changes" here (focusing on the English location, switching around the main female character names, etc.) are inherent in the play, and contrary to a now common complaints, this really doesn't adopt the tired trope of a lost reincarnated love fueling the monster a la Karloff's The Mummy. (On the other hand, the Francis Ford Coppola and Dan Curtis versions absolutely do.) What's more novel is the avoidance of the more ghoulish aspects of Langella's character; though he's seen dispatching more than a few cast members and transforming into animals (complete with nifty in-camera wolf and bat transformation effects), his lust for blood is largely downplayed right down to the lack of fangs (at the actor's insistence). Rather effectively, the film instead shifts the real horror to the devastating consequences of Dracula's activities including one of the most Draculanightmarish sequences in all of vampire cinema with Van Helsing going underground to find his daughter in a terrifying state. The film's Draculacredentials couldn't be better, with director John Badham making this only his third feature film right on the heels of the massively popular Saturday Night Fever and screenplay duties going to W.D. Richter in the wake of his classic 1978 redo of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The performances are all committed and offer interesting takes on their well-worn characters, with Nelligan making for a more substantial and headstrong interpretation than usual and even Eve making for one of the better Jonathan Harkers out there. Though her screen time is more limited, Francis also brings a striking physicality to her performance that really pays off in her final moments. It also doesn't hurt that the film has one of John Williams' very best scores, a majestic work that captures the morbid romanticism of the story perfectly from the swirling opening credits.

Unfortunately it was difficult for many viewers to assess Badham's film for decades when the director decided to radically overhaul the color timing of the film for its initial widescreen laserdisc release back in the '90s. Prior pan and scan VHS and laserdisc versions had been brutally cropped but at least featured the original theatrical color scheme, which features robust flesh tones, vivid splashes of blue lighting, and potent red highlights during moments of horror. However, Badham decided to jettison all of that and go back to his original pitched idea of sapping nearly all of the color away to mimic the monochromatic look of those Gorey sets (and, he later stated, to capture more of a noir feeling). That meant that almost the entire film suddenly had a distracting sepia-ish tone with vague little hints of red or gold popping up at times, while colors like blue and green were completely obliterated. The Draculaintention behind the transformation may have been interesting but the execution just ended up diminishing the film since the lighting Draculaand production design choices don't even remotely look like they were intended to shot without full color. That same doctored color scheme was carried over when the film hit DVD, first bare bones in 1998 from Image Entertainment and then in 2004 as a special edition from Universal. That edition featured the theatrical trailer, a very good audio commentary with Badham, and a featurette, "The Revamping of Dracula" (39m11s) with Langella, Badham and Richter talking about the transition from stage to screen, some interesting anecdotes about Olivier (who was ailing at the time) and Pleasence (who deftly avoided having his part cut down), and the different conception of a vampire they wanted to convey.

Finally in 2019, Scream Factory delivered a big pleasant shock for fans of the film by announcing a double-disc Blu-ray edition featuring both the Badham-preferred, color-drained version as well as the original theatrical color one, finally widescreen for the very first time. (Also, it features very cool new packaging artwork by Mark Maddox.) It's a real joy to finally see that rich color scheme back again as it makes a huge difference, greatly increasing the impact of many sequences including the asylum sequences and interiors of Carfax Abbey, which pack much more of a punch here. Note that on either one, the use of heavy opticals in the opening credits and a handful of second unit shots result in some obvious debris and minor image degradation, so don't be worried when the film first starts. Note that frame grabs seen in the body of this review are from the theatrical color transfer (which is listed as a 4K scan of the best available elements) while comparison ones can be seen below. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo track sounds great on either version with great channel separation and a very robust presentation for Williams' score, which really roars out of your speakers throughout the film. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

DraculaThe first Draculadisc ports over the Badham commentary and "Revamping" featurette while adding a nice batch of new featurettes kicking off with a new Badham intro (1m10s) about the two color options and "King of My Kind" (32m18s), a new Badham interview about the film's genesis, his background in horror (including Night Gallery), the visual aesthetic of the "campy" Gorey designs versus the film, the adaptation process integrating some of the novel and rewriting most of the play's dialogue, Walter Mirisch's recruiting of John Williams, the trust he instilled in his actors, and the invaluable contributions of cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (The Omen). In "What Sad Music" (33m26s), Richter recalls getting the gig writing the screenplay, the interpretation of the character with a more tragic spin, the importance of Langella in getting the project off the ground, the switch to Edwardian England versus the usual Victorian era, the reason for omitting Transylvania as a location, and the prior cinematic vampires he and Badham used for reference. Then editor John Bloom (21m13s) goes into his own initial exposure to the material, his working process with Badham, the occasional "spirited" creative clashes on the set, and the challenges of editing at the time with frequent geographic issues to surmount. Assistant director Anthony Waye (15m54s) shares his own stories as well about the freezing cold sets, the execution of the memorable wall-crawling scene, and the occasional reshoots that had to be done. The logistical aspects of the shoot get covered by production manager Hugh Harlow (21m36s), who explains how Nelligan had to get speedily moved back and forth for a few weeks between the film and a West End production she was performing in at the time, as well as the friendly respect accorded to "Larry" Olivier due to his stature at the time. In "Dracula's Guest" (6m17s), first camera assistant Jim Alloway briefly talks about working with Taylor and his own Draculaencounters with the cast including his own grappling with how to refer to Olivier and determining how much film to have ready for Draculasome of the more daunting scenes. Makeup artist Peter Robb-King (25m18s) also handles the technical stories here about coming up with the proper look for Langella diverging from the usual vampire approach and the rationale for changing the looks for the hair and makeup for some of the actors. Likewise, hair stylist Colin Jamison (4m36s) covers the hairpieces on the film including Nelligan, Olivier, and Langella's much-noted, Dirk Bogarde-inspired hairdo. On disc two you can find the theatrical trailer, an image gallery (8m27s), radio spots (1m33s), and a carryover of the same Badham intro, but the real keeper here (apart from the invaluable presentation of the full-color version itself) is a new audio commentary by Constantine Nasr, who's been on a serious tear with this coming on the heels of a string of exceptional Hammer and Universal horror supplements for Scream Factory. It's a terrific track that really lays out the circumstances behind the film (even touching lightly on some cast members who had a less pleasant time than others), the aspects of the Stoker novel and the play integrated here, the advantages of having a luxurious budget bestowed on a vampire film, the visual inspiration of Bavaria's King Ludwig, the value of Langella's performance, the much-noted acting tricks by Pleasence, the differences in some earlier drafts of the script, the rationale behind the color scheme(s), the history of the cast (including Langella vs. Raul Julia), Olivier's unique Dutch accent, the significance of that "sad music" line change, the fantasy approach that proves to be a stumbling block for some critics, and tons more. In addition to being a fine companion piece to his extensive look at the film for Little Shoppe of Horrors, it's a very persuasive argument for the film's importance and a perfect capper for a much-needed release that will hopefully restore the reputation of one of the finest American vampire films around.

SCREAM FACTORY (Blu-ray) (Desaturated)

Dracula Dracula Dracula Dracula Dracula

SCREAM FACTORY (Blu-ray) (Theatrical Color)

Dracula Dracula Dracula Dracula Dracula


Reviewed on November 16, 2019.