Dracula (1979)

Discussion in 'High Def' started by Chunkblower, Oct 7, 2014.

  1. Chunkblower

    Chunkblower Member

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    [​IMG]


    [​IMG] Reviewer: Chunkblower
    Review Date: October 7, 2014

    Format: Blu-ray
    Released by: Universal
    Release date: September 2, 2014
    MSRP: $22.99
    Region A
    Progressive Scan
    Codec: AVC, 1080p
    Widescreen 2.35 | 16x9: Yes
    1979


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    Although it’s considered the quintessential vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t exactly well received and successful on its initial publication in 1888. Stoker even tried his hand at adapting it to the stage, an effort which was met with dismal failure. It wasn’t until the stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane in 1924 that the story really gained traction and interest in the novel was reignited. In retrospect it’s not hard to see why Dracula might not have gained popularity with Victorian readers; the novel is plot and character heavy, the epistolary structure is a bit clunky, as is Stoker’s prose at times and there’s no romantic lead. While Dracula’s designs for Lucy have a sexual undertone, there’s little romance there and Jonathan’s marriage to Lucy seems more like a protective measure than a longing fulfilled. A romantic element was something Deane added and that director John Badham, screenwriter W.D. Richter and, especially, actor Frank Langella in the title role really push to the forefront in this version. The result: a sumptuous, elaborate production of a classic story that has more life at its centre despite its title characters being undead. This is simply one of the best films to feature the Count.


    The Story

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    The Dracula story is perhaps one of the most well-known in the canon of English literature, that a plot summary seems almost redundant. When adapting the novel for the stage, Hamilton Deane deleted and combined characters to make the novel’s unwieldy cast of characters a bit more manageable (I’m sure financial considerations also played a part, fewer actors to pay and all that).

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    Eschewing the Transylvanian prologue of the novel, Badham’s Dracula literally begins with blood and thunder as the sailing ship Demeter is tossed about by a violent storm. The crew frantically hurries about the deck, trying to cast large boxes of earth destined for England overboard. They are stopped by a wolf, or a man-sized, wolf-like creature that bursts from one of the boxes. As his crew is slaughtered the captain lashes himself to steering wheel. The Demeter runs aground and much of the ship is destroyed.

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    Roused from her slumber by the storm and seeing the wreck of the Demeter, Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan) ventures out into the storm to find the lone survivor of the wreck in a nearby tidal cave, alive but barely conscious and dressed in a wolf skin trimmed cloak. His name? One Count Dracula (Frank Langella), late of Transylvania newly arrived in England to take possession of Carfax Abbey. It’s a loud, operatic start to a film that is going to pay homage to classic, gothic style while offering a take on the story that’s noticeably filtered through modern sensibilities.

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    While the novel spent the immediate aftermath of the arrival of the Demeter setting up the second half of the book, this movie streamlines the story considerably. Within minutes (of screen time, at least) of his arrival in England, Dracula is wining and dining Lucy in the house of her father, asylum administrator Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance). Accompanied by ostensible fiancée and all-round boor Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) as well as Lucy’s frail houseguest, Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis). When Mina falls ill with a mysterious disease and promptly dies, Jack summons her father and his long-time friend, Professor Van Helsing (screen legend Laurence Olivier). Needless to say their investigation into Mina’s death leads to the revelation that Dracula is a vampire. This reveal is handled in one of the movie’s best scenes: Seward and Van Helsing dig up Mina’s grave and instead of finding her interred corpse, they find and empty casket with a hole in the bottom, leading into dark catacombs below. The two men steel themselves and slowly crawl down into the darkness where horrible things await.

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    In this age of religiously faithful film adaptations it’s refreshing to see a film that’s willing to take liberties with its source material in an attempt to make it more cinematic. The epistolary structure of Stoker’s original novel does not lend itself well to performed adaptations (though Coppola did an admirable job in his 1992 adaptation…for one act of the film, at least), so a certain amount of rejiggering is always necessary to really bring the story to the stage or screen. What’s remarkable about Richter’s screenplay (based on Deane’s adaptation) is how it takes such great liberties with the story yet still manages to stay relatively faithful to the spirit of the novel.

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    Updating the story a couple of decades (from the Victorian era to the Edwardian) in one way changes the sexual subtext a bit, but the change actually helps reinforce the added emphasis love story. The subtext of the novel was very much a product of its time: sexual repression practically drips from every page of the novel. While Dracula is ostensibly out for Mina’s blood, we all know what he really wants. The relationship in the novel is predator and prey; Mina is cast primarily as victim, a damsel in distress who exists to be saved or as a tool to be used, as later in the novel she has a psychic bond with the fleeing vampire.

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    In contrast, the Edwardian era was a time of plenty, where indulgence in all things was the order of the day. While it wasn’t an era as sexually open as our modern times, it’s still a more relatable time in history to modern audiences. Societal mores were relaxed and trysting with someone else’s spouse was not as frowned upon, provided you were both discreet about it. In this time of relative sexual liberation, the predator/prey aspect might not play as well as the relationship of dashing foreign nobility waltzing in and romancing an unsuspecting English girl away from her stiff and uninteresting fiancée. In this iteration of the story Lucy is a modern woman in charge of her own sexuality and a willing participant in her affair with Dracula. Dracula’s seduction is less supernatural and more raw machismo; he can offer her what dreary solicitor Jonathan can’t (i.e. orgasms). Though it’s taken for granted as part of the story now, the idea that Dracula had romantic designs for his English victim is a fairly new addition to the story. Dracula 1979 may not be the first film to introduce this element but it, along with Dracula 1992, helped codify this element as part of the canon.

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    It was a smart move to cast Frank Langella, fresh off his successful Broadway revival of Dracula in the title role. In a lot of roles you really want that feeling of spontaneity that comes from an actor just recently acquainted with the material. I’d argue, though that for an effective portrayal of the character of Dracula, it’s best to take a bit of a different approach. Langella inhabits the role with a quiet assurances that can only really be born of experience. He’s calm, yet forceful in a way that only actors intimately familiar with a character can be. When he mocks Van Helsing, "You are a wise man, Professor, for someone who has not yet lived even a single lifetime,” you get the feeling that he really has lived a multitude of lifetimes as Dracula. He doesn’t supplant Lugosi’s icon, character-defining portrayal of Dracula, but his work in this film is top-tier stuff. He’s one of the few actor’s who’s taken the role and been able to truly make it his own.

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    All this occurs amid sumptuous production design by illustrator Edward Gorey as its backdrop. Gorey’s darkly comedic, gothic-inspired children’s books made him an excellent choice to design the stage sets for the Broadway production of Dracula, but his vision is writ on an impressive scale for the screen. The great hall of Carfax consists of a double stairway that crests over the gaping mouth of a bat or demon creature. The catacombs under Mina’s grave are filled with dark menace, and the locations and sets are shot for maximum gothic effect. The filmmakers recognize the underlying strength of gothic atmosphere and are able to milk it for maximum effect without too often falling into cliché.

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    There’s another star of the film that also deserves mention: composer John Williams. He’s primarily known for his scores to Spielberg and Lucas films now, but back in the late 70-s composer Williams had a really good run scoring smaller genre flicks. In 1978 he wrote exceptional music for Jaws 2 and Brian DePalma’s The Fury (incidentally, two of my favorite scores of his). His score for Dracula is equally good, bombastic and broad in all the right ways, perfectly matching and enhancing the operatic tone of the movie. There are even a few cues that would be echoed again later in more famous scores like E.T. Check out the Count’s entrance to the picture and tell me that it doesn’t echo Darth Vader’s first appearance at Bepsin in The Empire Strikes Back.

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    For all its exceptional qualities, though, this Dracula is not without its flaws. While I don’t think she’s a bad actress Kate Nelligan, as Lucy, is out of her depth in this cast. It must have been daunting for her to share the screen with a scene stealing hambone like Donald Pleasance and an acting legend Laurence Olivier. And then you have Frank Langella, brooding and practically oozing raw sexual energy on the screen. She gives it a good try, but she simply can’t compete with these titans. And as modern as this 35 year old film feels, it has its share of late 70s cheese dating it, most prominently is a silly laser light show that backlights the love scene between Dracula and Lucy. Still, these are relatively trivial flaws that do little to diminish the film’s impressive strengths. Badham’s Dracula is a top flight production that still holds up phenomenally well and deserves a large scale rediscovery as much as any movie I’ve seen.


    Image Quality

    There was a bit controversy among fans of Dracula when director John Badham re-coloured the film in 1991 for its first widescreen laserdisc release. The new colouring was highly de-saturated, bordering on monochromatic. According to Badham this represents his true vision for the film, a vision he wasn’t able to realize in 1979 since none of the equipment required to drain the color from the stock existed in the western world at the time of the films post production. The 2004 DVD transfer featured Badham’s preferred colouring, as does this Blu-ray release.

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    While the Blu-ray features the same de-saturated color scheme, the tinting is shifted ever so slightly towards green. This is most visible during the opening credits but most of the time it’s not really noticeable. Though the coloring is not very different the Blu-ray is a huge improvement in picture quality. The pixelated edges are gone from angular lines in the image, as is the compression issues in the foggier scenes. Most noticeably, the love scene that’s back lit with red lasers now has clearly discernible silhouettes. On the downside, optical shots still display tell-tale scratches and dirt and there’s some stock footage of solar flares inserted in the climax that really looks out of place amid the fine-looking footage of the film proper. Minor quibbles aside, this is a great looking disc. For a movie that depends so much on haze, fog and the interplay between light and shadow for its atmosphere, Dracula really benefits from the HD upgrade.

    Sound

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    I wish I had the same sort of superlatives to offer about the English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. It’s certainly a fine, serviceable track: dialogue is crisp and always easy to understand, the music is well presented and sound effects register well. There’s just nothing much more to say about it. I really wish Dracula had been given the 5.1 remix treatment along with its original stereo track; a movie with this much atmosphere really deserves to have a soundtrack that matches. I can just imagine the echoing of the caverns below Carfax and can’t help but feel that this track, while a perfectly fine stereo track, represents a missed opportunity.


    Supplemental Material

    The still gallery that was on the previous DVD release is absent here, but the rest of the supplements are ported over. It’s not the most comprehensive collection of extras ever assembled, but what is here is of high quality.

    Director John Badham provides a solo commentary track and it’s pretty good. He takes a bit of time to get going but once he’s rolling, he offers a wealth of behind the scenes information, including some especially funny anecdotes about how Donald Pleasance would drive his fellow actors crazy and hog screen time by constantly eating while delivering dialogue. One minor annoyance is that he has a habit of stopping his commentary in anticipation of an upcoming moment, going off on a tangent related to the anticipated moment before doubling back to his original line of thought.

    Any questions you may have after listening to the commentary will likely be answered in the making-of featurette “The Revamping of Dracula.” Produced by film documentary vet Laurent Bouzereau and running just shy of forty minutes “Revamping” features interviews with Badham, screenwriter W.D. Richter, Producer Walter Mirisch, star Frank Langella and composer John Williams. It’s a bit stodgy in its construction; there’s no behind the scenes footage, just stills and the interviews are pretty uniformly shot and cut together. What it lacks in pizazz it makes up for in substance, though. Commentaries are great but it’s always nice to get a perspective on the film from other participants.

    My only gripe is that there are no trailers included. It’s always interesting to see how a film was marketed to the public. Hell, you can watch the trailer for Dracula on the iTunes marketplace, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to watch it on the Blu-ray, even if it’s only in standard definition.


    Final Thoughts

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    The shelf life of Badham’s Dracula is an odd story indeed. Largely ignored upon its release in 1979 in favor of the more comedic Love at First Bite, Dracula found its audience on home video and cable, but then lost it when it went out of print (I’m sure the popularity of Francis Ford Coppola’s version in 1992 probably had something to do with it, too). Too bad, because this is a really fine adaptation of the story; the cast is second to none, the direction is stylish, the sets and cinematography are dripping with atmosphere, featuring a melancholy love story and anchored by Frank Langella’s powerfully understated central performance, this is a top tier adaptation of the classic story. If you’ve never seen it before, there’s no better time than the present to get yourself acquainted with the Count. Highly recommended.

    Rating

    [​IMG] Movie - A-

    Image Quality - A-

    Sound - B

    Supplements - B


    Technical Info.
    • Colour
    • Running time - 1 hour and 49 minutes
    • Rated R, 14A
    • 1 Disc
    • Chapter Stops
    • English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
    • English subtitles
    • French subtitles
    Supplemental Material
    • Commentary with director John Badham
    • “The Revamping of Dracula” Making-of Featurette
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 7, 2015
  2. Anaestheus

    Anaestheus Well-Known Member

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    So nice to see this film get some love. This has always been one of my favorite versions of Dracula
     
  3. Zillamon51

    Zillamon51 Member

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    Perhaps my mother's favorite version. I haven't seen it in a long time, and I don't know if my GF ever has, so I may pick this up for October viewing.
     

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