Monday, January 17, 2011

Wendigo Meets DRACULA (1979)

Lightning has not struck thrice. Hamilton Deane and John R. Balderston's stage version of Dracula was revived Off-Broadway last month, with Italian actor Michael Altieri as the Count and such name performers as Thora Birch and George Hearn in support. The reviews have been like garlic. It may be the production's fault, or the actors', but maybe time has finally passed by the great old vampire play. Twice in the past it had been a star-maker, most famously with Bela Lugosi in the title role in the 1920s, then, perhaps more improbably, in the 1970s with Frank Langella. The Langella production so captivated the nation that Universal called for a remake of Tod Browning's genre-defining talkie, with Langella starring and Saturday Night Fever director John Badham at the helm. This just happened to be the movie on top of my friend Wendigo's to-do pile this weekend.

I'd first seen the Badham a few years after its first run, as a Halloween midnight movie at my town's dismal excuse for a multiplex in its dismal excuse for a downtown shopping mall. It was an underwhelming, drab experience that discolored my opinion of the movie. Wendigo also missed the initial July 1979 release and saw it on HBO instead. He liked it better than I would and he still thinks highly of it.

The Wreck of the Demeter: You probably forgot all about that, didn't you?

In one respect, W. D. Richter's screenplay takes us closer to the play, if not the novel, because the play opens very deep into Stoker's story, with "Lucy Western" already dying of her strange blood disease. Richter and Badham's Dracula is unique among movie adaptations in never taking us to Castle Dracula. The film opens with the Count's purchase of Carfax Abbey a done deal, neither Jonathan Harker or Renfield having met him prior, and with the Demeter making an un-novelistic crash landing on the Whitby coast. It was the Seventies, so I suppose there had to be some sort of disaster scene in the picture, and it is a dramatic cinematic opening. In the aftermath, we're treated to what Wendigo says is cinema's most effective evocation of the actual Whitby locations of the novel. Production design throughout is impressive, indoors and out. While the time is about a decade later than Stoker's publication date, you have a stronger sense of periods than in many other Dracula films, with almost gratuitous digressions into social realism. Wendigo perceives a stronger sense of class as well, Renfield here being rendered as working-class trash, but also as having been (presumably) unfairly evicted from his home by Harker before the story starts. The filmmakers are laying the groundwork for the repressive milieu of which its boorish Harker is a product, and against which its Mina -- we mean Lucy, rebels.

"You scared me." Frank Langella (center) drily welcomes a visitor to Carfax Abbey.

Ah, Hollywood! What focus group told you that you should switch the names of Dracula's female victims? Why is Mina "Lucy" and Lucy "Mina?" The way Wendigo heard it, the reason was that "Mina" sounded more foreign than "Lucy," so as long as they were going to turn the heroine's friend, the vampire's first victim, into Van Helsing's daughter and therefore a Dutch woman, she should be "Mina." As a rule, Wendigo finds Hollywood's arbitrary name changes annoying and baffling, but so long as he grasps this reed of reason he can stand it this time. As for making "Mina" a Van Helsing, that seems to be a unique gambit of this version, but it's consistent with Deane and Balderston making Mi--er, "Lucy" a Seward and Jack Seward her father. I suppose it helps maintain the unities of the drama and all that.

Lu-- I mean Mina (Jan Francis) shows the dangers of vampirism when the vampire doesn't really love you.

As for the Count himself, Langella tells us in a DVD interview that he had to fight tooth and claw to maintain his stage interpretation of the role. He refused to wear fangs. He refused to have blood on his face. He resisted, in vain, having to wear disintegration makeup at the end. So far, so like Lugosi, who never submitted to appliances either. Also like his predecessor, Langella does a lot of stuff with his hands. Unlike Lugosi, who had a stronger wrist action, Langella does most of his pantomime work with his fingers, often crooking two together in a manner he considered evocative of bats. He was, of course, in no other way batlike, since that would defeat the purpose of the play and the film.

Frank Langella was afraid that audiences would laugh at him upside down (above), but more people may have chuckled at the volume of fog that announces his arrival at Lucy's bedchamber.

Wendigo finds Langella well modulated, both as a physical and vocal performer. The actor rarely makes a wasted movement and underplays as often as possible, as if to express his absolute confidence in his own expertise. Badham, an unshowy, impersonal director, is wise to simply set up his camera and let Langella work, allowing the audience to grow attentive to his subtle menacings.

Liberated from the Deane-Balderston text by Richter's screenplay (which still includes many of the key scenes and famous lines), Langella develops a tragic, romantic aspect of Dracula that many people consider implicit in the play, if not the novel. A lot of the romantic Dracula archetype is founded on one line uttered by Lugosi in the Browning film, "to be truly dead...that would be glorious." Elaborating on that, Richter and Langella give us a Dracula driven by longing as much as by hunger or survival instinct -- a lonely guy looking for love as well as blood. In this version, he's drawn to Mi-- I mean Lucy by love at first sight. He's the only man around who recognizes her superiority, as the film sees it, and acknowledges it.

Isn't it every girl's dream to share a coffin with her lover?

The 1979 filmmakers were out consciously to distill the inferential romanticism of the vampire story, the element that turned Lugosi and Langella into sex-symbols before they put their performances on film, into a self-conscious woman-oriented romantic fantasy. Wendigo sees the Badham film as a synthesis of the now-traditional Dracula text and Stoker's presumed inspiration, Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. It turns Dracula himself into a heterosexual Carmilla, a demon lover with the emphasis on lover, a menace because of the rebellious passions he awakens in M-m-Lucy as well as the crimes he commits against others. Lucy Seward is a menace before she gets vamped because she questions authority and denies father (a dim, gluttonous Donald Pleasance) and fiancee the deference they expect. Her rebellion may seem modest, but her brush with vampirism symbolizes how much such rebellion must have seemed like the devil's work to the patriarchs of her time. Badham and Richter push this rebellious angle to the edge of outright egotistical amorality. We never get a moment when she might have expressed some outrage or disapproval of what her new boyfriend did to her old girlfriend, which was pretty damn shitty and far from romantic. Instead, she is pure rebellion, pure female if not feminist fantasy, albeit one that comes with a Get Out Of Hell Free card as long as the master vampire is destroyed. Kate Nelligan gives a sort of self-contained performance that Wendigo admires because it expresses the theme of the film, but I wouldn't have mourned if she'd been staked alongside Dracula. That's an ending that'd indict the patriarchy!

Maurice Binder proves that Dracula was the James Bond of his time; that's why chicks dug him.
Badham and Richter worked up what they hoped would be regarded as a classic final image for the film. Dracula has been impaled on a cargo hook and hauled up the mast of the Tsarina Ekaterina to be cooked by the sun. His cape finally flutters loose to be carried by the wind. Lucy, the curse presumably lifted, gazes at the cape and smiles, misty-eyed. The most conventional interpretation of this would be that she's happy because she's free of the vampire curse, but I get a feeling that most viewers don't buy it. Because you hear a wolf howl on the soundtrack, you can also see the cape as a sign that Dracula has miraculously escaped the deathtrap and that Lucy looks forward to an eventual reunion, unredeemed.

Since Badham tells us its supposed to be ambiguous, I'll offer another interpretation. The ending reminds me most of the end of High Sierra, after Bogart has been shot down on the mountain. Ida Lupino asks someone what Bogart's pet phrase "crashed out" means and is told that it means to escape and be free. Lupino gazes toward the mountain, misty-eyed, and mutters, "free..." If we're ultimately meant to sympathize with both Dracula and Lucy as lonely, misunderstood souls, this interpretation of the ending may be the one in which they come off best.

Let's wrap up with some technical notes. Wendigo admires most of the cast, including Laurence Olivier in spite of his dubious "Dutch" accent, which is just his "little old European/Jewish man" voice as heard in The Boys From Brazil, The Jazz Singer, etc. The great man is also phycially limited by recent grave ailments, so that his death blow against Dracula looks physically impossible. Badham gently indicts Donald Pleasance as a "handkerchief actor," and that made us aware of every little thing he does to steal scenes. Jonathan Harker, as usual, is a hopeless role, and Trevor Eve gives little cause for hope, while Tony Haygarth can't help but disappoint as a relatively nondescript Renfield. Technically, I'm more impressed now than when I saw it nearly thirty years ago by the cinematography of Gilbert Taylor and the production design of Peter Murton, which Wendigo admired all along. Its virtually monochrome gothicism anticipates Tim Burton without really looking campy; the visuals fit well with the moody music of John Williams, the signifier of how big the film was meant to be. While I find the score relatively lackluster and definitely unmemorable compared to the great work he was doing for Lucas, Spielberg and Richard Donner, Wendigo likes it because it's right for the film, and I can't dispute that point. As for the special effects, producer Walter Mirisch explains paradoxically that, because movies are a more realistic medium than the stage, a film Dracula requires more "magic" than a stage version. Wendigo likes the frankly magical, pre-fleshpump transformations and materializations, and the bat effects throughout, excepting one puppet used for close-ups, are above average.

"Renfield, you disappoint me." Can't argue with that.

Wendigo has one major peeve about the soundtrack: the wolf howls are canned, he insists, and sound no better than what you might hear on a Halloween party record. He has more of an ear for such things than I do, so I'll defer to his feeling. On the other hand, Wendigo has no problem with the film's infamous Maurice Binder crimson laserlight "vampire wedding" sequence, the love scene between Lucy and Dracula. For him, keeping John Williams in mind, it's Dracula's equivalent of the "Can You Read My Mind?" flying sequence from Superman -- another much-hated moment of late-Seventies cinema. Wendigo says it's just a subjective rendering of the intense romantic experience from Lucy's point of view, and as symbolic sex in a genre film it's really preferable to a shoulder-and-sheets moment. If it looks weird, so what? Deal with it.

Frank Langella first played Dracula on stage not long after Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire was published. While reinterpreting an old role, he was a harbinger of the transformation of the vampire archetype from monster to antihero to romantic icon. The public may not have been ready for it in 1979 -- producer Walter Mirisch complains that Love at First Bite may have ruined people's appetite for a straight vampire story -- but time and our culture may have caught up with the Badham version. Wendigo says that people who've disparaged it or ignored it in the past owe it a fresh look now.

Try to take a fresh look at this beat-up trailer for "the story of the greatest lover who ever lived, died and lived again," as uploaded to YouTube by DIOTD2008.


J.D. said...

Excellent look at what I always felt was an underrated take on DRACULA. So many people champion Coppola's version, which I do really like, but this one is much more low-key in terms of style and camerawork as Badham goes for the less-is-more approach as you wisely observe.

This film has indeed aged well and I find myself watching this more and more as opposed to Coppola's take which maybe I have finally tired of. Anyways, you really got me wanting to watch this film again. Time to pull out the DVD.

dfordoom said...

One of my favourite Dracula adaptations. The romantic Dracula is something you either like or loathe but I quite like it, and I think this version does it better than Coppola's. It also has the advantage over Coppola's version of not having Keanu Reeves.