Thursday, October 13, 2011

Culture Shock 10.13.11: An unexpected nomination for best 'Dracula'

Few literary characters, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes, have been adapted to the screen as often as Dracula.

The creation of Irish novelist Bram Stoker, Dracula has appeared on film since the earliest days of the medium. Not counting a lost Hungarian film from 1921 titled "Dracula's Death," about which little is known, the cinematic Dracula first appeared in 1922 — with name changed and serial numbers filed off — as the horrifying, rat-toothed Count Orlok of F.W. Murnau's German expressionist masterpiece, "Nosferatu."

Dracula is again set to take to the screen next year in "Dracula 3D," directed by Dario Argento ("Suspiria," "Deep Red") and starring Dario's daughter Asia Argento ("The Last Mistress").

But of all the Dracula films both famous and obscure, one in particular is underrated and too often overlooked. Yet director John Badham's 1979 version of "Dracula" is arguably one of the best.

Take nothing away from Bela Lugosi's performance in the 1931 edition, and all due respect to Hammer's bold, energetic 1958 retelling, "Horror of Dracula" starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but Badham's "Dracula" is a complete package. It's a gothic fairytale with beautiful sets, imaginative set pieces and moments of truly inspired horror.

And it's just ambiguous, and ambitious, enough to be analyzed a couple of different ways. If you're into that sort of thing.

Like most of the better Dracula films, Badham's diverges significantly from Stoker's book. Don't get me started on Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." That garish, parody-inviting misstep may be largely faithful to Stoker — apart from the addition of a standard-issue love story — but it looks increasingly ridiculous with age, done in mostly by bad acting (Winona Ryder, how could you?), non-acting (I'm looking at you, Keanu Reeves) and overacting (paging Anthony Hopkins).

In Badham's film, the characters of Mina and Lucy are essentially reversed, and Mina (Jan Francis) is the daughter of professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), while Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is the daughter of an older-than-usual Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasence). Also, the setting is shifted forward from the Victoria era to the end of the Edwardian era.

Dracula himself also differs from Stoker's original. Played brilliantly by Frank Langella, who, like Lugosi, had first portrayed the role on stage, this Dracula is the seductive Dracula of popular culture, a romance-novel figure with feathered hair and open collars, who, in one scene, rides a horse through the evening fog, looking every bit like a Jane Austen hero. He owes as much to John Polidori's suave Lord Ruthven — a product of the same stormy night that gave the world "Frankenstein" — as to Stoker.

Yet he's still a brutal, bloody figure, and Langella gives his lines real menace, as when he says to Van Helsing, "In the past 500 years, Professor, those who have crossed my path have all died, and some not pleasantly." And, more importantly, this vampire doesn't sparkle.

Weaving through these proceedings is a grand, sweeping score by John Williams, fresh off his Oscar-winning "Star Wars" triumph and at the peak of his talents. It's one of his best film scores, and like the 1979 "Dracula" itself, it's unjustly neglected.

Badham's "Dracula" is available on DVD and Netflix streaming. The DVD includes a director's commentary.

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